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Steve Stone in Exile

Three years ago, after a simmering feud with Cubs players and management, the popular broadcaster Steve Stone resigned from the Cubs, though his affection for the team and for Chicago never wavered. Now, with new ownership likely to take over he waits—often at the bar at Harry Caray’s—hoping for a summons to the front office.

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Cincinnati, circa 1988, outside the Hilton hotel: The Cubs’ team bus idles, waiting to shuttle players, coaches, and broadcasters four blocks to the ballpark for that day’s game against the hometown Reds. While boarding, Steve Stone, the team’s television color analyst, passes a woman holding her daughter, a toddler, not much older than 2.

After Stone disappears, the child becomes upset. Boldly, the woman, daughter in hand, boards the bus and approaches Stone. “My daughter doesn’t understand why you didn’t recognize her,” she explains. “She sees you every day.”

This is his footprint. For 20 summers (from 1983 to 2000 and again from 2003 to 2004), he appeared before Cubs fans almost daily on WGN or the team’s assorted cable outlets—often for a full afternoon or evening. And because he was there every day and because so much of what he said made such good sense (a mix of candor, sardonicism, and clairvoyance), he became a piece of the Chicago summer, as constant as June, July, and August, and a source of rare comfort to Cubs fans. “People often ask me about the uniqueness, the mystique, the phenomenon of the Cubs,” says John McDonough, the team’s president. “It’s the continuity: We’ve had the same logo for 85 years; we’ve been on the same radio station for 75 years; and we’ve been on the same television station for 60 years. Our fans become accustomed to things. Once they accept and embrace you, which they did Steve, they don’t want change.”

Then, in late October 2004, Stone resigned, following a disappointing season and a lingering conflict with certain Cubs players and officials. But Stoney (his nom de hardball) left the Cubs; he did not leave Chicago. Each season since, he has returned from his home in Arizona, taking a one-bedroom apartment in River North and dispensing baseball wisdom three times a week on The Score (WSCR 670 AM), the local sports talk station. “Chicago is the place that means just about everything to me,” he says. “Because I’ve been intricately involved with the baseball teams on both sides of town, they are so much a part of my baseball life that it wouldn’t seem the same being out of this place.”

This year, the Cubs are managing to cling to contention even under the knowledge that the team is likely to be sold after the season by its parent, Tribune Company (also the owner of this magazine). Would Stone, now 60, like to be part of a new management group? “If somebody said to me, ‘You’ll be granted one wish, and it involves your employment next season, what would that wish be?’” he says. “It would be helping direct the Chicago Cubs in a front-office capacity." 

* * *

Twice a week or thereabouts, Steve Stone walks the two blocks from his apartment to lunch at Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse on West Kinzie Street—the namesake restaurant of his late broadcast partner. Sometimes Stone eats alone, but usually he meets David Kaplan, a good friend and host of WGN 720 AM’s Sports Central. Although Stone drinks only water, he sits in the back third of the bar at a table against the wall, amid a constellation of the restaurant’s ubiquitous Harry silhouettes and caricatures. The bar offers him a vital accommodation—baseball. Twelve television sets surround his seat, the smallest ones featuring games of tangential importance, the larger screens reserved for the Cubs. He watches them all, but (unable to help it) he syncs himself to the Cubs broadcast.

“Better not pitch him low,” Stone warns when Corey Hart (leadoff hitter, Milwaukee Brewers, the Cubs’ opponent on this day) takes to the batter’s box against Rich Hill (starting pitcher, Cubs). “He hits the snot out of the ball.”

“A quick oh-two start,” says Kaplan (de facto play-by-play guy), after Hill throws Hart a second consecutive strike to start the game.

“I wouldn’t even set him up,” Stone counsels. “I’d throw a curve ball on the outside corner and strike him out.”

After Hart has fouled off a few pitches: “He better throw a curve ball here, because [Hart has] been on the last two fastballs. Just keep it away, throw the curve ball, make sure it’s a strike, and he either gets a ground ball to the left side or strikes him out.” One pitch later, Hart swings and misses—a curve ball.

That voice! The necks of those at nearby tables crane. In this case, their eyes are unimportant. It’s the cadence they recognize. The news moves around the bar quickly: “Stoney is here!” Many of them approach, more sentimental than awestruck. Once, the questions concerned only Harry. “It was never ‘Hi, Steve, how are you?’ or ‘How are the Cubs going to finish this year?’ or ‘Are you ever going to get married again?’ Nope. ‘Where’s Harry?’” Stone wrote in his 1999 memoir of Caray, naturally titled Where’s Harry? But now, even in the place where Harry once drank Budweiser after Budweiser, they want nothing more than to talk baseball with Steve Stone. He happily obliges, often absorbing them into his commentary, an at-home audience now a barstool away.

When watching the game, he shows few signs of partisanship. He views the sport more clinically. Individual plays matter little to him; it’s why they happen and how they fit into the tapestry of that particular game and season that seem to interest him. (“The guy has a Pentium chip,” says his Score afternoon drive cohost, Dan Bernstein.) When someone talking about the Cubs makes a “we” or “us” reference, Stone often asks, “Is there a mouse in your pocket?” And yet, from time to time, he catches himself: “We acquired—well, ‘we,’ I use the ‘we’ still.”

“I think he bleeds Cubs blue,” Kaplan says. “I think it kills him that he’s not a part of this team.”

* * *

 

Photograph: Anna Knott

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