That Time I Had a Beer With Wally Pipp

Define surreal: watching a baseball game and cheering for the team’s hot new uber-prospect to get a game winning hit while you’re sitting next to the guy whose job he took. Weird, huh? Well, that was my evening last night. It was like a bad joke: “So a guy walks into a bar…”

I should have known something cool was going to happen from the moment I got up. Have you ever had one of those days where everything seemed to go right? You know, the ones when you wake up and there’s no barkin’ from the dog, no smog, mama cooked a breakfast with no hog? My breakfast on this particular day consisted of a large bowl of Frosted Mini Wheats, but I didn’t have to deal with either barking or atmospheric issues either.

I even had a painless trip to and through Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, which in and of itself would make for a story to brag about. So I hopped a flight to Phoenix with a plan to visit Sloan Park and then belly up somewhere to watch what was left of the Cubs game. I should have known things were going to go well when the National car rental fleet included a beautiful black Dodge Challenger. Once I got the Cubs on the radio, I was ready to roll.

The Cubs complex in Mesa is absolutely immaculate, but there’s something eerily depressing about an empty ballpark that I just can’t put my finger on. Ghost towns and abandoned buildings bear signs of misuse and disuse, but Sloan Park was simply devoid of any activity. Aside from a sole groundskeeper, I was the only soul on the property.

It’d be wrong to say that fear shortened my visit, but it did feel as though I was trespassing on some sort of posh estate while the owners were out of town. Besides, the game was already in the 6th inning and I had beer to drink. With that thought in mind, I made my way to a local watering hole and surveyed the bar to see whether the Cubs were on. The seats in front of the lone TV showing the game were full, so I posted up at the corner. Seconds later, the couple next to me took off and I moved to a better vantage point.

While I’ve got no problem sharing my thoughts online for all to read, I’m really a very quiet person it public. Some people find me stand-offish or even intimidating, but I’m really just laying back in the cut and being observant. One of the things I had observed about the guy next to me was that he and his two compatriots looked a bit like an athlete; I also saw that he was wearing a sweet Autobot t-shirt identical to one I’ve got hanging in my closet at home.

Something about him was very familiar, but I couldn’t really tell what right at first. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found that part of recognition is context. For instance, if you’re in a far-off place, you aren’t looking to see a former high school classmate, so you might not notice them as easily. Similarly, if you run into a member of your favorite baseball team when they’re out of uniform, you might have to search for other clues.

So I looked over and saw the blue cast on my neighbor’s right forearm that bore a Sharpied note beginning with “Mike.” Wait a minute…was I actually sitting next to Mike Olt? Yes, yes I was. And the two men next to him were Tommy La Stella and Logan Watkins. I found out later that Cubs players often congregated there, but my motivation had been predicated solely on its proximity to my hotel. I’d love to fancy myself some kind of veteran media member who should be unfazed by such a chance encounter, but I think the sheer randomness of it served to turn me into just another fan.

I’m also an admitted Olt honk, so that added a bit to the surreality of it. I’m a firm believer in the fact that, media or not, you don’t just go intruding on someone’s free time with a flat-out interview request. That didn’t stop me from striking up a conversation with him over the course of the final few innings. I certainly didn’t record it, so it’d be really unfair to Olt for me to pass any of our conversation in quote form, but I’ll say that it was really interesting to hear his thoughts on the same topics I write about and discuss every day with fellow fans.

We’ve been writing a lot about how this team is more fun, how the vibe is different, and Olt agreed whole-heartedly with that. When he came up with the Rangers, he was joining a team that knew how to win and was hungry to do so every day. While the minors are all about growing as an individual player, he explained, the MLB level is about getting on base, getting guys over, doing what you have to do to win. You can imagine the shift he felt coming to Chicago at a time where that focus was not so clear.

Now, however, that mentality has shifted and the players are more than aware of it. They’ve been saying as much to the media, but it was cool to hear it from the horse’s mouth in a situation in which a mic and camera weren’t in his face. I asked him about the injury too, remarking that I had thought everything was fine when he had played the very next game. Olt said that it was a stupid choice, that he had been being too macho and had tried to push through it. In the end, though, he’s looking to grow from this.

He doesn’t really know how it’ll work out, but said that it may be a blessing in disguise. This is the point at which I shared my own story of breaking my foot playing work-league softball and taking my next AB anyway because maybe it was just a sprain. Wow, that sounds so much nerdier when I actually write it out.

We ended up talking about the game at hand and the team in general for a while, trying to will balls to drop fair and discussing the absurdity of Joe West’s strike zone. I know I had said earlier that I didn’t feel comfortable quoting the injured Cub, but I will make one exception. When Miggy Montero lofted a little RBI floater to left, I happily said, “We are good.” “Yes we are,” came the immediate response.

It was weird enough to be sitting at a bar in Phoenix watching the Cubs with the man who had been the team’s Opening Day third baseman each of the past two seasons. But to be doing so while watching Kris Bryant, the man whose call-up was hurried due to Olt’s injury, playing third — and center — and taking an AB with the game on the line was truly a situation I’d never have dreamed. Here I was having a beer with Wally Pipp while Lou Gehrig took his hacks on the big screen in front of us. Woah.

The fact that Bryant struck out to end the game was strange though, not because of my seating arrangement but because we’ve already grown used to the Cubs finding ways to win. And it’s not just the fans either; the players themselves really do feel the same. That’s probably my biggest takeaway from the conversation, the fact that the vibe really is different around this team.

The other takeaway is that Olt seems like a really good dude. He had every right to simply blow me off or just limit any conversation to generic, monosyllabic responses. I think you can tell a lot about someone by how they act when the cameras aren’t rolling or when there’s no angle, and I learned a lot about Olt from that hour or so. Soon after the game had ended, Olt got up to leave and extended his left hand to me. I didn’t ask for an autograph or anything, though I did request a picture; this was just such a random occurrence that I had to record it for posterity. Pictures or it didn’t happen, amirite?

If it felt weird swapping stories of playing with broken bones, it was even weirder to snap a selfie with the guy (mostly because I’m really awful at it, as the look on my face plainly confesses). In the vast plans and machinations of all that goes on in the world, this will be but one small forgotten event, though I still can’t help but ascribe some sort of bigger meaning to it anyway. After all, my day sort of mimicked the Cubs’ season thus far; it wasn’t perfect, but things just seemed to be breaking the right way (well, except for Olt; his break went the wrong way).

It wasn’t until hours later that I saw it, but maybe this was some sort of metaphysical confluence, a signal of bigger and even more unexpected things to come. Either that, or this Cubs fan/blogger just happened to thrust his hand into a haystack and pull out a needle without even trying. I’d rather it be the former, but the latter was still pretty cool.

Again, as an admitted Olt honk, I had really been hoping for big things for him and now I’m looking forward to seeing how he’s able to come back from the injury. But where my motivations were strictly Cubs-related in the past, they’re now personal as well. I wrote a short while back that Javier Baez sort of defines the “new” Cubs, but I think Olt does too.

Here’s to hoping both can get back to defining this team in a more active role in the very near future.

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