I became a baseball fan at the back end of the bar of the Deadwood, in Iowa City, Iowa. It was 1985, the Cubs had just missed getting into the World Series the year before, and a quasi-boyfriend from Chicago initiated me, teaching me the basics of stats and keeping score. With a bunch of us huddled up, drinking Old Style, making jokes, and occasionally cheering, it was kinda like being a bleacher bum—we just had our necks craned up at a TV.
WGN was the transmitter of that particular bug, broadcasting Cubs games nationally, and Harry Caray was its ever-more-famous cheerleader, with his upswept white hair and goggles, crying "Holy cow!" at a home run, wagging his finger as he counted out "Ah-one, ah-two" before belting "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," and dancing alongside pert girls with fluffy 80s 'dos while proclaiming himself a "Cub fan, Bud man" during commercials.
And then there was his sidekick, color commentator Steve Stone, in his first job as a broadcaster. A Cy Young winner with the Baltimore Orioles in 1980, Stone had pitched for the Sox and the Cubs, then the Sox again in the late 70s. Perhaps that was the source of their connection. Caray too—a legendary Cards announcer to begin with—had spent time on both sides of town, and in fact developed his whole shtick, down to the shirtless sunning in the bleachers and the seventh-inning-stretch sing-along, with the White Sox under Bill Veeck. Whatever it was, the duo made it work, the smooth brainiac Stone working alongside the seeming clown Caray without ever coming off as a stiff. He even played along with Caray's digs at his cigars, a running joke that Caray once told him was "one of our best bits." Hey, it's showbiz—at least that was Caray's view.
Not so for Stone. After Caray's death in 1998, he did duty with Harry's grandson Chip and battled illness himself before returning for one of his finest hours. It was 2004, the year after the Bartman debacle, and the Cubs were once again blowing it under manager Dusty Baker. In a moment that Sun-Times sports columnist Rick Morrissey earlier this month recalled made him "misty-eyed," Stone criticized Baker's strategy, then the team's collapse, saying, among other things, "At the end of the day, boys, don't tell me how rough the water is; you bring in the ship.'' Crusty Baker (as I once heard him called by an irate fan) and the Cubs thought he had been too critical, Stone refused a contract extension, and that losing season ended with fans cheering, not for the team, but for the veteran in the broadcast booth, chanting "Stoney! Stoney!"
Thankfully for Chicago baseball, Stone eventually crossed the street again—even if it was at the cost of being christened "Stone Pony" by one of the homiest and hokiest of all announcers. Since 2008, he's been providing counterballast to White Sox TV play-by-play man Hawk Harrelson. You know, the guy who says "He gone."
Or maybe you don't know, because the CUBS FUCKING WON THE WORLD SERIES and who cares? Never mind that in 2005 the White Sox won it too. Now more than ever, it's a Cubs town.
Stone, like so many before him, never came to possess one of those gaudy rings. He's more valuable than that: the these-days rare broadcaster who calls it like it is. v
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