Catching up: Wrigley ballhawks return for Series reunion

CHICAGO (AP) Rich Buhrke has been chasing down baseballs outside Wrigley Field since 1959. He used to tell the rest of us ballhawks when we left for jobs far from Chicago that one day we'd find our way back to the corner of Waveland and Kenmore.

In my case, he was absolutely right.

The first World Series home game for the Cubs in 71 years turned into a mini-reunion, with my old pals returning from all around the country to the famous intersection in Wrigleyville.

And I was among them, making the trip from Tampa, Florida, and getting to the ''Friendly Confines'' six hours before the first pitch of Game 3 on Friday night.

Moments later I was joined by Andy Mielke, now of Louisville, Kentucky.

''I didn't know what to expect,'' Buhrke said. ''They're all back.''

We shared stories of long-ago games and long home runs, enjoyed in lawn chairs under a shade tree now void of its leaves. Overgrown kids on summer afternoons, waiting for souvenirs to fall from the sky.

It all started for me when I was 13 and I caught a Bill Madlock batting practice home run in 1974 while standing behind the bleachers in left field.

I was hooked.

In the 1980s, the Cubs would even let us inside to shag balls for the likes of Bill Buckner, Leon Durham and Larry Bowa on off-day workouts.

Once, I got to pitch BP to fellow ballhawks from the mound. That was a few years after my days playing at Lane Tech, the same high school that produced Phil Cavarretta, a Cubs star in the 1945 World Series.

Fast forward to Friday, and it was time to get down to the business at hand, competing for batting practice balls before going for the ''Gold.'' That's the gold in the ink used on the World Series game balls.

''That's what it's all about,'' said Gary ''Moe'' Mullins, who has caught 245 game homers that have flown out of Wrigley since 1958.

With the flags of 1969 Cubs stars Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Fergie Jenkins flapping straight out from the top of the left field foul pole, a sometimes-bruising batting practice ensued.

The usual gathering of a dozen swelled into the hundreds. With each of the 12 balls that sailed out of the yard in our direction, the mixture of fans waiting to get in and those without tickets just wanting to be part of the atmosphere collided on the closed-off street.

''That was crazy,'' Buhrke said.

Mullins and Buhrke came up empty, but Mielke made a sure-handed grab of a ball that bounced off the bleachers and shot across the pavement.

''It's my closure,'' said Mielke, who last was a regular in 2005. ''It's like a boxer coming back for one more fight, and winning.''

Mielke texted a photo of the prize to his wife.

I hadn't been to Wrigley Field since I saw two games against the now-defunct Montreal Expos about a dozen years ago.

So, I borrowed a glove from Mullins, and it turned out be a special one. It was signed by Banks.

I never got a chance to use it, though. Mostly, I preferred to watch the show and talk with the guys.

Space got even tighter as more fans set up shop right before and after the first pitch. They sat on the curb, laid on blankets or just stood in small groups.

A vendor sold Gatorade, with prices listed as $2 for Cubs fans, $3 for Indians fans and no sales for Chicago White Sox fans. Around a half-dozen members of Mullins' family came for the game, supplied with pizza slices.

''Cool,'' Moe said.

It was a street carnival just outside a World Series game we could only hear on a booming radio set up in the middle of Kenmore Avenue, just a long toss from Waveland.

Still, all those long balls we were expecting in Game 3 never materialized. Even with a strong wind blowing out of Wrigley, the Cubs lost 1-0 to Cleveland.

''Bizarre,'' said Buhrke, who is hoping to catch his 180th game homer this weekend.

There was a collective groan when the Cubs made the final out. The long-awaited celebration quickly faded as disappointed fans swiftly headed for home with Chicago down 2-1 in the Series.

They say the Cubs have been cursed since their last World Series appearance in 1945. As we all know, they haven't won the thing since 1908.

I never put much stock in all that talk about curses.

But growing up a Cubs fan, maybe it's poetic that the biggest home run ball I ever caught was one that broke hearts. It was the grand slam Will Clark hit for the Giants off Greg Maddux in Game 1 of the 1989 NL Championship Series.

I wish I could've convinced Major League Baseball to take the four runs off the scoreboard because I would have thrown it back.

After keeping the ball for 15 years, I auctioned it for charity.

A fitting end to a previous World Series hope dashed.

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