A hearty stew of offbeat sports and pop culture.

Recently in Chicago Cubs Category

Years ago, I remember sitting in the bleachers and seeing a pretty young woman throw a ball to Cubs center fielder Jerry Martin before the game. Attached to the ball was a pen and a small piece of paper held together with a rubberband.  What an ingenious way to get an autograph, I thought.


Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

For all the hype, all the promise and all the potential of Mark Prior, his career in baseball may be officially over.

Yes, for those of you wondering at that statement, his career was only mostly over after his last injury-filled flameout with his hometown San Diego Padres in 2009. But according to a report in the Trib, he was injured yet again in his latest quest, a desperate grasp at the glory days that ended far too soon.

"Mark has been through so many timelines, at this point I'm almost allergic to the word," Prior's agent John Boggs said in January. "But he's out there. He's getting himself ready. And when he's ready, I'm sure you'll hear a lot about him. Then we'll invite teams to come watch him throw. And hopefully, he'll be the next Ben Sheets."

Prior, it seems, was nailed with a comebacker in the pitching shoulder in what may be the final divine message that it's time for him to take his Cubs signing bonus - a then-record $10.5 million in 2001 - and hang 'em up in style. For that matter, the $15,00 a month the Padres were paying him to rehab without ever pitching an inning for them would make for a decent start at retirement.

The injury was not reported as serious, but he's apparently been shut down for three weeks as a precautionary measure.

As baseball fans watch Joe Mauer and Mark Teixeira, the two names most notable as Cubs draft considerations in 2001, win MVP awards with the Minnesota Twins and help slug the Yankees back to championships in New York, it's hard not to think about how Prior is synonymous with broken hopes in Cubdom.

It's a story of a career made even more sad when you consider Prior hasn't turned 30 yet and has already had multiple shoulder reconstructions.

"If I can get back to 80 percent or 90 percent of what I used to be, then that's still pretty good. I look back to those three, four years in the big leagues, and I pitched pretty well and did the things I had to do to help us win games," Prior said during Spring Training with the Padres in 2009. "I don't know if those memories haunt me, but they motivate me."

The fact that he still feels the competitive impulse to try to drag his battered arm through the violent process of major league pitching again does say something about his fire, but maybe it's better for him at this point to just put the tattered dream on ice for good.

The Chicago Cubs are a team built on more than 100 years of "nexts." Next game. Next year. Next beer. Next rookie phenom.

Enter the latest in a long line of can't-miss prospects - shortstop Starlin Castro. It was only a matter of time until the 20-year-old - .376 with one homer, 14 extra-base hits and 20 RBIs in 26 games at double-A Tennessee - hit the bigs, and there's no time like the present for a team desperate to find a spark.

Castro, according to ESPNDeportes reporter Enrique Rojas, will start at shortstop tonight in Cincinnati. Ryan Theriot will move to second base defensively and the seldom-used Chad Tracy will be packing for the minors according to reports.

As usual, the team is bringing up the rookie on the road to keep as much pressure off as possible. He'll also be hitting in the eight hole so he can adjust - though he should expect a steady diet of breaking pitches with the pitcher up next, not something you see a lot of in the minors.

Cubs PR folks haven't made an official announcement yet - and no moves have been announced. But ook for a fresh face in the infield at the Great American Ballpark.

The big question, of course: Is Castro the real deal? We'll start to find out tonight.


Milton Bradley works on his birding skills. (Photo courtesy SeattleDawg18)

Milton Bradley, maybe you vaguely remember him bringing his unique skill set to the North Side Nine last season, is playing his part to perfection once again.

Just a few weeks ago, the explosive former Cubs outfielder equated himself with the likes of Kanye West and Ron Artest as baseball's bad boy:

"If I was a musician, I'd be Kanye West. If I was in the NBA, I'd be Ron Artest. In baseball, they've got Milton Bradley. I'm that guy. You need people like me, so you can point your finger and go, 'There goes the bad guy."

OK, Milton. What finger were you talking about pointing again?

Bradley, now blessing the Seattle Mariners with his talents, didn't waste any time getting into the controversy column this season. During a game Friday night at the Texas Rangers, also a former home for the hot-headed one, Bradley was caught on camera answering fans' taunts with a bird flip. The Dallas Morning News' Rangers Blog reports on the incident, which apparently was scrubbed from the tape-delayed broadcast.

Milton was unavailable for comment after the game and Mariner's manager Don Wakamatsu could only muster what will be the first of many "no comments" this season.

So, if you're keeping track, Bradley now has one finger flipped on the season, matching his hits through Friday night. Serendipitous.

Cubs fans, you're gonna miss the big lug this season, aren't you?

4-8-03 Hein Cubs 4.jpg

Mr. Cub is doing his best Papa Bear impersonation - advising one of the kids to tell the truth.

Ernie Banks tells the Trib's Fred Mitchell that he wants to see Sammy Sosa pull a Mark McGwire: fess up, come clean and move on:

"I would say just what Mark McGwire did," Banks said. "Come clean with it. Explain it to them. ... Just say: 'This is what happened.' It is hard to do, to admit this. Just admit it and live with it and understand it. I am sure a lot of people will forgive him."

Sammy has always denied using anything heavier than Flintstones vitamins, but with the Cardinals' slugging first baseman admitting to juicing during the two stars' historic homer battle in 1998, the pressure continues to mount on Sosa to say he cheated, too.

But when you have Banks on your back, it takes the movement to a whole new level. The Hall-of-Famer is easily one of the iconic faces of the organization. If Sammy has something to tell the world, having Banks in his corner to help him through the media maelstrom is about as good a guardian angel as you can get.

"I will just explain it to him and how the people are," Banks said. "I don't think he really understood that. People are for you; they want to see you do well. They are forgiving people. We haven't won in over 100 years, so this audience here is pretty special."

Cubs Jenkins Maddux basebal.jpg

Greg Maddux is a Cub again. No, he won't be pitching, but he will be helping general manager Jim Hendry figure out what to do with his pitchers.

Maddux is about to be announced as a special assistant to Hendry, helping the embattled GM with player development. Maddux will be a season-long presence for player evaluation.

Maddux's will help Spring Training instruction for, as well as scouting during the season.

Maddux will reportedly be available anytime to Hendry during the season to evaluate minor-leagues and give the GM input on trades, free agent signeings and other player moves.

Maddux has always been touted as one of the smartest players in the game and his impact on young pitchers is second-to-none. But does he have enough mojo to turn the Cubs system around?


A Chicago Cub takes some batting practice at Fitch Park in Mesa, Ariz., in 2003.

Mesa has heard the Cubs silence on watch the team's Spring Training plans entail - and where they will eventually end up. And the Arizona home of the team is holding onto plans for batting cage upgrades until the future becomes a bit more clear.

Mesa is refusing to upgrade batting cages at a ballpark used by the Chicago Cubs unless the team enters more serious negotiations to keep spring training in the city. Mesa was about to sign off on about $684,000 for semi-enclosed batting cages at Fitch Park, but decided Thursday to hold off until top city officials meet with Cubs executives Friday in Chicago.

Mesa Mayor Scott Smith said he expected the Cubs would welcome improvements,, according to the East Valley Tribune, especially since the team has proclaimed Fitch and HoHoKam Park to be inadequate and outdated facilities.

"The silence that came out of Chicago and the Cubs was deafening," Smith said.

Smith says Mesa wants to know where it stands as the team considers leaving Arizona in light of a bid from Naples, Fla., to take the Cubs away.

The Cubs, for their part, are scheduled to make a decision on location in January.

Rich Harden's career post-Cubs is going South. All the way to Texas, that is.

ESPN's Buster Olney has the Canadian right-hander signing a one-year deal - pending a physical, which is no slam dunk here - for smewhere in the $7 to $8 million range.

Harden was one of those Cubs moves that was easy to get excited about when he came over in 2008 from Oakland one day after the Milwaukee Brewers added C.C. Sabathia. Great fastball. Ridiculous changeup - one of the filthiest in baseball. And a strikeout pitcher mentality that fit in with the staff of a team riding pitching to the postseason.

But. (Isn't there always a but with big Cubs moves?

But he just couldn't stay healthy, especially for a guy you look to to be a workhorse, staff ace-type.

On and healthy? Unhittable at times. But seldom on and healthy.

But now he looks to get a fresh start in a warm climate, perhaps just what a tender arm needs to goose a career.


Norman Rockwell's "The Dugout," courtesy Christie's Images Ltd., 2009

Finally, a sleepy scene from the Cubs dugout ends with a positive. Sadly, this is not a reference to the current batch of North Siders and their aging caretaker, Lou Piniella.

New York auction house Christie's spun off the Norman Rockwell painting "The Dugout" Wednesday in an auction worth a nifty $662,500 - plus some fees that are hardly worth mentioning on top of that pile of dough.

Here's what Christie's had to say on the work:

The Dugout is exemplary of Rockwell's ability to imbue his work with narrative and capture the essence and character of the people that he depicted. In the present work he adeptly captures the anxiety tinged focus of the player who is next at bat, while his teammates' glum facial expressions and body positions reveal that the game is not going in their favor. Rockwell masterfully captures the energy of the crowd behind the players, as the highly developed individuals cheer fervently.

In discussing his career, Rockwell commented, "I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed. And perhaps, therefore, this is one function of the illustrator. He can show what has become so familiar that it is no longer noticed. The illustrator thus becomes a chronicler of his time." (as quoted in Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalogue, p. xii) With The Dugout Rockwell succeeds not only in chronicling his time, but also in capturing the nostalgia associated with baseball. This masterwork brought a national pastime home to houses across America and continues to do so for today's viewer.

Though much like the actual Cubs, this was a bit of a disappointment. The piece was expected to fetch $700,000 - $1,000,000. Art imitating life yet again.

Cubs Banks Statue Baseball.jpg

Sure, Mr. Cub has a statue at Wrigley Field, but that's not enough to make Ernie Banks happy. (AP)

Ernie Banks is the Cubs. As any fan knows, he's an icon of the team perhaps equaled only in popularity and legend by Ron Santo.

    "Let's play two!"
    Back-to-back MVP awards despite his team.
    512 homeruns.
    The Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.

There's little the great slugger and ambassador of the game didn't accomplish. Yet in this interview with Boston Public Radio station WBUR, the face of one of the most-storied franchises in baseball says he hasn't accomplished anything as a person.

"I haven't done anything yet. ... Nothing."

While Banks fans may scoff at that notion coming from the beloved Cub, he makes it clear he's talking about his shortcomings as a member of the human race and his desire to achieve one more award for excellence - the Nobel Peace Prize. Sure, he got edged out this year by President Obama - maybe that was art of the controversy? - but it remains Banks' largest unfulfilled dream, he tells the interviewer.

"I always had a bigger goal when I was 15, and that was to win the Nobel Peace Prize. I see myself in Stockholm. That has been my journey. I've been chasing the footsteps of my life to do something worthwhile."

Maybe the 79-year-old Banks can get closer to his dream by brokering peace between the North and South Side baseball fans in a city fractured by cross-loathing?

For now, though, the 79-year-old legend is surely plenty busy raising the 1-year-old daughter, Alyna Olivia Banks, he adopted with his wife, Liz. And, of course, still waiting for that championship parade riot in Wrigleyville.