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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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A few things about Steve Stone: He obsesses over properly barbecued ribs and chili, but most meals are an excuse to eat sorbet. He almost relocated to the Deep South only because of the apple caramel sorbet at The Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta. He watches Entourage, mourns the cancellation of Deadwood, and was appalled by the Sopranos’ finale. He has golfed with Alice Cooper. A Cleveland native, he earned a teaching degree from nearby Kent State University in 1970, the year Ohio National Guardsmen fired on campus war protesters. His baseball card says he stands five feet ten inches tall—a three-quarter-inch exaggeration in his favor. He fancies cowboy boots and Armani sunglasses. In conversation, he tends toward filibuster. Most baseball questions he poses are rhetorical. (He already knows the answers.) He listens to Rush Limbaugh, but has dined with the former Democratic vice presidential candidate Senator Joe Lieberman. Jerry Reinsdorf and George Will promptly return his phone calls. He played for the Cubs and White Sox (twice) in the 1970s but won the American League Cy Young Award with the Baltimore Orioles in 1980. He wears a ring on his pitching hand signifying this accomplishment. Of the Jewish pitchers in major league history (a small but distinguished group), he has won the third most games—behind Sandy Koufax and Ken Holtzman. He pitched the way he broadcasts—thoughtfully. As a broadcaster, he is uncomfortable only when the booth gets too hot.

“He’s brilliant, but at the same time I think he’s very sensitive,” says McDonough. “He’s got a healthy ego, but he’s somewhat vulnerable. One of the things that I’ve said about being a very good friend of Steve’s for nearly 25 years is that my listening skills have improved dramatically. We’ve had conversations about that, and I think he’s become a very good listener.”

“Steve is very opinionated, and I don’t mean that in a bad way,” adds Chip Caray, who replaced his grandfather in the Cubs broadcast booth when Harry died in 1998. “He definitely has his ideas of the way things should be or the way things could go. I’ve told him, ‘Your biggest weapon is also your biggest obstacle, and that’s that you’re smart. You’ve got to tell everybody how smart you are. You say stuff in a way that pisses people off because they think you’re condescending.’” But what is interpreted as condescension, says Caray, is really conviction—strident and steadfast. “If he doesn’t believe it, he’s not going to say it.”

Stone’s physical home is in Scottsdale, Arizona. (The two-year blip in his epic Cubs service was caused in part by health problems, including an Arizona lung disease called valley fever.) He shares the house with his wife of three years, Lisa—a family law attorney—and his two dogs, Tex, a greyhound, and Larry, a Rhodesian ridgeback. Friends say it’s a happy existence. He attends games in the Arizona Fall League, a developmental league for professional baseball prospects, and frequents his favorite restaurants with Lisa. “My wife is much smarter than I am,” he says. “When she puts on her legal hat and distances herself from the emotional aspect of me being her husband, she’s very bright.”

But in mid-January, his subconscious places him back on the mound and he begins to dream baseball again, which signals the nearness of spring training, which equals a new Cubs and White Sox season, which means his return to Chicago is imminent. So, at the end of March, he packs clothes and golf clubs into his black Mercedes CL55 (a vehicular embodiment of his dual localities, with its Illinois license plates and clock radio set to Mountain Time) and drives (sans Lisa, Tex, and Larry) the 1,825 miles northeast to Chicago. “This city has treated him so well,” says Caray. “I think he’s found a home. As a baseball broadcaster, you’re a vagabond, living out of a suitcase for half of the year. To be able to put down roots and call a place home is a wonderfully rewarding and comforting feeling.”

Stone’s River North apartment sits almost equidistant between Wrigley Field (4.74 miles) and U.S. Cellular Field (5.04 miles). Since it comes furnished, he adds only a stack of 2007 major league baseball team media guides, which line the bottom shelf of the side table nearest the phone, and a mishmash of his daily reading (the sports pages of USA Today and both Chicago dailies). A small den contains a computer that he claims he can barely use. Nonetheless, he is now interactive, complete with a blog, “Steve’s Pitch,” the sum of his single-spaced, handwritten musings as dictated to his agent’s assistant and then unleashed upon cyberspace at stevestone.com.

The kitchen remains unsullied, as he eats his meals out (some combination of breakfast and dinner or lunch and dinner, never all three). Restaurants are of great interest to him, and he’s staked ownership in many of them over the years. An early investor in Lettuce Entertain You, he still holds a piece of Joe’s Stone Crab and Shaw’s Crab House, among others, and counts Rich Melman as a confidant.

Of dining, as with all else, his preferences are rooted and exact: “I don’t drink, so when I go into a restaurant, I don’t want to wait; I want to eat. As soon as I get done with the appetizer, I would like the salad. When I get done with that, I would love the entrée. Then I would love to get home and watch whatever baseball is on television. I try to get in before dark.”

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As for that nadir, 2004: The battle began in late July, when Cubs left fielder Moises Alou told the Chicago Sun-Times that Stone and Caray didn’t praise the team’s hitters enough. It intensified that August when relief pitcher Kent Mercker angrily confronted Stone on the team plane two days after Mercker had called the press box midgame accusing Stone and Caray of complimenting the opposition. (The offending observation: Despite giving up six runs, the Houston Astros’ starting pitcher, Roy Oswalt, had pitched well considering the late August heat.) The discord culminated in the final week of the season when Stone upset manager Dusty Baker and general manager Jim Hendry with pointed comments about the team on Kaplan’s radio show. “[The Cubs are] an extremely talented bunch of guys who want to look at all directions except where they should really look, and kind of make excuses for what happened,” Stone said. On the final day of the season, the fans at Wrigley, sensing that he might not be back for the 2005 season (by his and/or the team’s choosing), chanted “Stoney! Stoney! Stoney!” toward the broadcast booth during the seventh-inning stretch.

But after meeting with team officials, Stone left for Arizona with the option on his contract picked up, an understanding that the dispute was over, and the intention of returning. That changed when Baker and Hendry held separate teleconferences with beat reporters a couple of days later and once again mentioned Stone. “Baker, Hendry reheat ‘feud,’” said the Chicago Tribune headline. “For me, this is over,” Stone told reporter Paul Sullivan in the accompanying story. “Someone has to stop talking, so I’m going to stop talking about it.” Three weeks later, he resigned.

“I think it could have been handled better on both ends,” McDonough says. “It’s extremely unfortunate that it ended the way it did. In my career, it’s one of the most regrettable situations I’ve been a part of because the culmination was his departure. I wish he wouldn’t have resigned; I asked that he not. He and I spent the better part of the Saturday prior to his resignation on the phone, with me discouraging him because of what he meant to our fans.”

Says Stone in retrospect: “I felt then as I feel now—no winners came out of 2004. I left something I loved, and the Cubs lost a chance to go to the playoffs and maybe the World Series. Many of the guys who were there—both in uniform and in the front office—are gone. I just don’t think anybody benefited from that particular situation. That’s the saddest part of 2004." 

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