SCOTTSDALE, Az.---A couple weeks before spring training the generous Don Carson, owner of Don & Charlie's Steakhouse opened his restaurant for lunch so I could talk baseball with Cubs Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins. The place was empty. We could have sat anywhere.
We were seated in front of a hand-painted mural of the 1969 Cubs.
That team is mostly responsible for my personality.
I was 14 years old and already going to a few games at Wrigley Field when the '69 Cubs faded down the stretch. At such a young, tender age, that team taught me that life won't always play out as you think. Your heart will be broken. You may become cynical. I kept scrapbooks of that season. Why? Even two of the newspapers I clipped (Daily News and Chicago American) are gone.
And there they were, all staring at me: the sad eyes of center fielder Don Young. The quiet dignity of Billy Williams. The heartbreak of should-be Hall of Famer Ron Santo. The coast-to-coast smile of Ernie Banks. I was in a rewind Alcatraz, they were the hope washed ashore........
"There's Glenn Beckert (second baseman), he was my best man," Jenkins says looking over his shoulder. "Ernie was my roommate the last two years he played. All the coaches have passed on. So have (catcher) Gene Oliver and (relief pitchers) Ted Abernathy and Dick Selma. (Utility infielder) Nate Oliver is still singing--he tries. Of course I see Billy and Ronnie all the time. Don Young was living out here for a while and working for a country club."
Several of those beloved Cubs will appear in Jenkins' 3rd Annual Fergie and Friends celebrity baseball game, slated for 7:10 p.m. March 17 at HoHo Kam Stadium, 1235 N. Center in Mesa (490-491-2255, fergieandfriends.com). Also slated to appear are former Oakland A's speed merchant Bert Campaneris, pitchers Al Downing and Vida Blue and underrated Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Tommy Davis (who like so many great hitters such as Rico Carty spent the twilight of his career as a Cub.).
General admission ticket is $10 which includes a souvenir program, a $25 VIP ticket includes the program, pre-game meet and greet and seating in a VIP section. Proceeds benefit the Ferguson Jenkins and the Mesa HoHo Kam Foundations.
"Fergie and Friends" is becoming the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast of Spring Training.
"Our first game we had 3,300 people," Jenkins says. "Last year 4,500. Now on St. Patrick's Day they're hoping between 8,000-10,000 people."
Jenkins has a lot of friends.
"A lot were teammates," he says. "Bill Buckner is a little younger than me. Lee Smith. Ryno. Some of these guys were on my second tour with the Cubs ('82-'83). Even if they can't play, like (Milt) Pappas. They'll put on the uniform and wave. Juan Marichal is out here with the Giants. Amos Otis and Frank White are out here with Kansas City."
Then there's Harlem Globetrotters legend George "Meadowlark" Lemon.
Jenkins, 67, and Lemon, 77 were Globetrotters teammates for two years.
"It was my off-season job," Jenkins says. "Great story: in 1967 I won 20 games for the first time. I'm at the ballpark and this guy motions to me from the stands to come over. We were taking batting practice. I didn't know who it was. He was in a sport coat. He was the marketing guru for the Globetrotters. He says, 'We want you to play about a dozen games. Do you go back to Canada in the off-season? I go, 'Sure.' He says, 'You can play in Montreal, Toronto, the big cities there.' Then he says, 'Do you have any basketball background?' I say, 'Yes, I played basketball.' So the team came to Chicago at the end of September and I met Meadowlark, Curly Neal and we worked out some routines."
Could you see that today---a 20 game winner taking time at the end of the season to work out with the Globetrotters?
Today's over the top sports talk would have a slam dunk with that.
Jenkins wound up in four Globetrotters skits: "Round the World," "Figure 8," "Out of Bounds" and "The Referee Skit."
He continues, "And I was the pitcher in the baseball skit, giving up a home run every night to Meadowlark Lemon. I played 55 games the first year and 85 the second year. We went all over the place. Actually, the Globetrotters are now based in Phoenix. Here's how baseball has changed. When I got traded to the Cubs in 1966 I made $7,000. The winter of '67 I toured with the Globetrotters and made $10,000. And I only played three months. I made more money with the Globetrotters than my first two years in baseball. There was just no money in baseball. Rookie salaries started at $6,000. Now its $480,000. That's a great summer job."
Jenkins then throws a trivia question at me.
"Four baseball hall of famers have toured with the Globetrotters," he says.
Well, Jenkins is one. I knew of Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson (1957, 58).
Jenkins smiles and says, "Its documented, but he didn't play: (pitcher) Satchel Paige. He toured with them one winter. And in 1968 the Detroit Tigers played the Cardinals in the World Series. In 1968 the Globetrotters were going to play in the Checkerdome in St. Louis. They called Gibson, but he didn't want to do it. So (future Hall of Famer) Lou Brock agreed to do it. He put the uniform on and we ran the line. He made an appearance on the floor and was considered one of the Globetrotters. They tried to get (Tigers outfielder) Willie Horton to play in Detroit, but he had on a suit. He never put the uniform on. When you suit up you're considered a player."
Now here's a trivia question from me:
Jenkins' first wife was related to the character in an iconic American book. Which one?
Kathy Jenkins was the great-great-great-grandaughter of Rev. Lyman, one of the characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
The still-lanky Fergie Jenkins now lives year round in a Del Webb gated community, about 50 miles north of Scottsdale towards Prescott, Az. He sees the impact of the Cubs spring training in the valley.
"They bring in a lot of money in the hotels, restaurants and the ballparks," he says. "Now, with popular teams like the White Sox, Dodgers and Cleveland here, whenever they play in Mesa, they sell out. The Dodgers (because of Los Angeles proximity) draw 14,000. And its incredible how popular the Cubs are."
In the spring of 1967 the Cubs spent their last year in Scottsdale before moving to Mesa.
"We stayed at the Rodeway Inn," Jenkins says with a laugh. "The first couple years we weren't allowed to bring our vehicles so guys walked to the ballpark or we caught a van. Billy and I used to go to Orange Julius after a game or workout. It was a small community. There were dirt roads. There's a ton of people here now.
"We used to have to be at the ballpark at 8 and didn't leave until 3. (Manager Leo) Durocher was a stickler on being on time. No exceptions. He had some long workouts. Anything to do with fundamentals, especially pitching drills: covering first base, backing up third, pickoff plays. Backup plays behind the plate. One spring, I don't want to exaggerate, but I pitched 45 innings. My last two or three starts I would pitch nine innings to start the season. These guys today pitch 10, 12 innings then they open the season."
Few people recall that in 1966 Jenkins' first Cubs pitching coach was Hall of Famer/player's union rep Robin Roberts, who was a player-coach with the '66 Cubs. In 1967 he was replaced by Joe Becker.
"What Robin tried to do more than anything else was to get your pitchers down to where you like them when you start the season," Jenkins explains. "If you have fastball, slider, change-up, you have to throw strikes. You can't wait until the last week of spring training to try to get those pitches in shape. Guys have to get in a routine. But if you don't pitch but 10 innings in the spring and you're a starter, how are you going to have your act together?"
Durocher's pitching coach Becker was an advocate of a strict running regime. "We always had to run, left field line to right field line," Jenkins says. "We did 20 every day. It took about ten days to get your legs in condition. Now they come at 9 and they're done at noon. Guys have tee times at one o'clock. Everyone plays golf."
Today's ballplayers are flying high, but not as high as Fergie Jenkins:
A few weeks after I left the valley the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport (near one of two proposed sites for the Cubs future Spring Training camp) named their grassy courtyard "Fergie and Feller" after Jenkins and fellow Hall of Famer Bob Feller. The airport serves Allegiant Air, which flies out of Rockford and Peoria and avoids the high car rental tax in Phoenix.
The two pitchers were on hand earlier this week to dedicate the field that passengers pass by on their way to boarding planes. "I've had baseball parks and streets named after me, but this is the first time I've had an airport field named after me," Jenkins said.