We are sitting with our bellies pressed to the bar at one of the world’s great taverns, the Billy Goat in Chicago, so named because Billy Sianis, the Greek immigrant who founded the place in 1934 (or 1937), supposedly brought his pet goat to Game 4 of the 1945 World Series. Though Sianis supposedly bought a ticket for the goat, Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley supposedly told him the goat couldn’t stay, because it smelled.
And then Sianis supposedly placed a curse on the Cubs, who haven’t been to the World Series since, and haven’t won one since 1908.
The word “supposedly” is used routinely in conjunction with the Billy Goat Tavern, which in 1964 moved to its current location, near the neo-Gothic Tribune Tower and Wrigley Building, at 430 N. Michigan Ave. Only it is under Michigan Avenue, adjacent to Lower Wacker Drive, where the Blues Brothers wrecked all those police cars.
This is important, because it’s always dark under Michigan Avenue, even in the middle of the afternoon. And this darkness attracts newspapermen from the Tribune and the Sun-Times, and newspapermen like to tell stories and drink booze that is moderately priced, which it still is at the Billy Goat.
A souvenir T-shirt, on the other hand, costs $15, which is probably close to what they cost at the Field Museum of Natural History or the Shedd Aquarium or the Adler Planetarium, though I didn’t check.
(We did, however, check on Regina Miller, the former UNLV women’s basketball coach, who lives in a South Loop high-rise one block from Michigan Avenue overlooking the Field Museum and Soldier Field and Lake Michigan. I noticed that her DVD collection consists of “The King’s Speech” and a bunch of Tom Izzo instructional videos, which might explain why Miller coached the women at Illinois-Chicago to 18 wins in her first season.)
So we’re on our second or third Old Style at the Billy Goat, and the Greek guy behind the lunch counter isn’t shouting “Cheezborger! Cheezborger! Cheezborger! No Pepsi, Coke!” But you can almost hear him shout it, because it was the Billy Goat lunch counter that inspired the famous “Saturday Night Live” skit.
On the wall are pictures of Greek baseball gods such as Milt Pappas, who came within one strike of pitching a perfect game against the Padres in 1972 – and damn that Bruce Froemming anyway. But there are a lot more pictures of Mike Royko, the esteemed Chicago newspaperman. And lots of his old columns that have been preserved with lacquer, though if you grew up here, you’d remember them even without the lacquer.
The bartender – a well-groomed fellow wearing a pressed shirt and sweater vest named Jeff Magill – has me eating out of his hand, because he says years ago he used to serve Jameson Irish Whiskey to Mike Royko at the same bar where we are now sitting before Royko switched to vodka, mostly because his editors and the cops couldn’t smell it.
And when Jeff Magill asks where I’m from, and I tell him Las Vegas and Whiting, Ind., he seems doubly impressed, because last year he went to the annual Pierogi Festival, where they close down the main drag in Whiting and serve these Polish dumplings that are to die for. Along with moderately priced beer.
And this is where I start to get homesick.
So the next day, on the way to Indianapolis for the 500-mile race, we stop in my little hometown, where my high school ballpark – the one where if you hit a home run to right field the ball landed in Lake Michigan – was gone.
A lot of the windows on Main Street are whitewashed, like Bruce Springsteen said they would be. Vacant stores. Closed down textile mills across the railroad tracks.
But there is a new brew pub, called the Bulldog Brewery, and it looks just like the brew pubs in Fort Collins, Colo., and those other college towns – there is hustling, bustling and fully krausened copper-colored ale. And souvenir T-shirts that cost $20.
And not more than three blocks down the street – past City Hall, where Bobby Kennedy spoke from the veranda during the Indiana primary a month before he was assassinated – there is a beautiful new ballpark made of brick and wrought iron, a mini Camden Yards. In a few nights its primary tenant, the Northwest Indiana Oilmen – co-owned by Ron Kittle, the former White Sox slugger from nearby Gary – will make their debut in the Midwest Collegiate League.
The Oilmen roster consists of college kids from Purdue and Ball State and Valparaiso and Macalester and Kishwaukee College – college kids who are going to love playing baseball at this new ballpark, not to mention the fully krausened copper-colored ale at the new brew pub after the game.
Beyond the center-field fence, smokestacks from the refineries and the steel mills belch thick plumes of acrid white smoke into the light blue sky, turning it gray. Or at least a paler shade of light blue.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.