Craig Lynch's alter ego will forever be stuck in the bleachers, but Lynch has found a better seat at Wrigley Field.
Lynch is the inspiration for Greg, the blind, radio-toting Cubs fan whose enthusiastic running commentary and put-downs of enemy players help drive the action of the popular stage play Bleacher Bums.
Lynch remembers several young actors from the Organic Theater Company joining the bleacher regulars during the '77 season. "They sat with some of the gamblers and some of my friends and I out there in right center field," Lynch says. "I didn't really know who they were, but I talked to them and they were all real nice. I never knew what they were doing."
Though the latest version of Bleacher Bums, which is now running at the Royal George, updates the dialogue, the 54-year-old Lynch thinks of the show as an anachronism. The camaraderie of those days is long gone, he says.
"The guys that were out there, they knew the game, or at least they thought they did, and they bet on everything. It would get somewhat heated. It was a bit coarser out there than it is today, but it was more about baseball." Everyone watched the game closely, because whatever the situation on the field there'd be money riding on it, though Lynch says he didn't bet much.
"To me, sitting in the bleachers is really boring now," he says, "because nobody watches the game."
Blind since birth, Lynch still attends about 60 games a season, a battered portable radio pressed to his ear so he can follow the action--just like Greg in Bleacher Bums. But his perch these days is in the press box, from which he phones in reports to WLPO, a radio station in downstate La Salle. Lynch works full-time as a customer service representative for the Social Security Administration, but he's moonlighted as a radio reporter for the last ten years.
"I have to be honest--I really enjoy sitting up here," he says from his customary seat in the highest row of the press box. "I find out things ahead of everybody else, and it's just kind of nice."
Lynch has been a Cubs fan for nearly his entire life. Growing up near Diversey and Oak Park avenues on the northwest side, he began listening to the games on television at age five alongside his father. "I heard the crowd noise on TV, and I used to wonder what each of the people were saying to make that one big noise," he says.
Lynch vividly remembers May 15, 1955, the day he first set foot in Wrigley Field. The Cubs were playing two against the New York Giants. "I went with my older brother and an aunt," he says. "The Cubs won the first game 4-2 and lost the second 9-4. We left in the fifth inning of the second game and I was disappointed. I could have stayed longer."
As a kid he'd pretend to broadcast games with his friends, each taking turns doing the play-by-play. "When it was my turn to do an inning, I used to have the Cubs getting hits. My friends would say, 'That can't be true.'"
He remains a total fan, unabashed and superstitious. If the Cubs begin a rally while he's in the bathroom at the back of the press box, he won't return to his seat until the inning's over.
His longtime friend Joe Stancato, who often attends games with him, helping him navigate from the field to the clubhouse to the press box, recalls the time that first baseman Eric Karros hit a home run to beat the White Sox. The next day, making the rounds with the rest of the press before the game, Lynch approached Karros in the locker room.
"Craig said, 'I've never wanted to hug a man before, but I'd like to hug you.' Karros said, 'Let's just settle for a handshake.'"
Lynch's impossible childhood dream was to become a play-by-play announcer. He graduated from Foreman High School, then the only public school on the north side that taught in braille, and earned a degree in teaching secondary English from Trinity College in Deerfield.
"When I was in college, I didn't know if the Lord wanted me to be a sportswriter, but that's what I really wanted to do," he says. He got his start covering high school games for suburban newspapers, and in 1975 began freelancing for the Sun-Times. He still covers prep sports for them, taking public transportation to the games if there's no friend to give him a ride. He sits in the press box or at the scorer's table, takes notes in braille with a stylus, sometimes brings a friend to do play-by-play for him, and checks with the team statisticians after the game to make sure his reports are accurate.
"He handles it just like any veteran," says former prep sports editor Taylor Bell, who hired Lynch. "As an editor or reader you would never know that he's blind. It's amazing when you think about it how he does it."
Unlike Greg, who wins the girl at the end of Bleacher Bums, Lynch didn't find true love at Wrigley Field. He met his wife, Ann, at church. "But I did take her to a game in the bleachers for one of our first dates," he says.
The bleachers were a very different experience in those days. Tickets only cost a dollar or two but crowds were sparse. Often Cubs personnel would let people in for free through a side gate. The same people showed up day after day and sat together.
That was the atmosphere that the young Organic actors, among them Joe Mantegna and Dennis Franz, appropriated. When Bleacher Bums opened at the Organic in the summer of 1977, they invited Lynch to a performance.
"When [outfielder] Bobby Murcer came up to bat I used to say, 'Have mercy on the infidels,'" Lynch recalls. "I was sitting in the theater, and all of a sudden I heard that being parroted back from the stage. I thought, OK. I was surprised, and it was flattering to a certain extent."
According to Lynch, the character of Decker was based on a man named Leonard Becker who ran a clothing store. Ritchie has similarities to "a guy named Howard who was this sort of nerdy guy out there who later worked as a vendor selling Frosty Malts." Zig was based on someone just as short-tempered known as Za--though Za didn't spend the games arguing with his wife.
"Za wasn't married, at least as far as I know," Lynch says. "But he did threaten to throw people over the [outfield] wall."
Lynch's last contact with the Wrigley regulars was at his wedding in 1982. "They couldn't believe I actually wore a tuxedo," he says. "They were used to seeing me wear a T-shirt and shorts. I think many of them have left this world, because they were in their 60s and 70s at that time." One place Bleacher Bums took some artistic license was in making the characters somewhat younger than the right field regulars actually were. Lynch figures the actors had no choice, being so young themselves.
Lynch crossed paths with Mantegna earlier this summer when the actor stopped by the WGN radio booth to talk with Pat Hughes and Ron Santo. "They were talking about Bleacher Bums, and [Mantegna] mentioned me and my connection to the play," Lynch says. "Afterwards I went over to talk to him, and he was very friendly."
Unable to get press credentials to last year's playoff series against the Florida Marlins, Lynch managed to acquire bleacher tickets to the games. "People were into the game, but there was still a lot of extraneous talk. I missed being up in the press box."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.