How baseball connects us: A one-man show
Dan Nelson is the sole star of a play that celebrates simple joy of the game
One night in the dead of winter two writers were talking baseball.
“Some of what you see on the field is beautiful and that is part of my love for the game,” said Billy Lombardo. “I wasn’t much of a player as a kid, played mostly softball, but my love for the game deepened by having two sons who played and being at their games. I remember their first game, they were still little, and I was standing with some other dads and one of them leans over and says to me, ‘I got half a hundo on this game.’ There are so many characters in baseball, too.”
“My wife and I, before she was my wife, fell in love going to Cubs games,” said Dan Nelson. “We would get burritos and bring them to games and have picnics in the bleachers. That’s the thing. We care about baseball because of the connections it gives us to family and friends. A win can be almost meaningless if you don’t have someone to celebrate with.”
All of this and more talking reaffirmed for me, once again, that baseball has long held an allure for most people, especially for writers.
It goes way back. When baseball was still in its infancy, the poet Walt Whitman wrote, “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game — the American game.” Though that may no longer be true, it was the case for generations.
Listening to Nelson and Lombardo talk I was transported back to a June afternoon in 2006. I was on the fifth floor of City Hall showing then-Mayor Richard M. Daley a photo of himself as a child. It was taken at Comiskey Park in 1955, shortly after his father, Richard J., had been sworn in as mayor. His father was in the photo, as were his brothers, William, Michael and John, along with White Sox manager Marty Marion and Cubs skipper Stan Hack. Daley looked closely at the photo and said, “Oh, yeah … Oh, boy … I was in 7th grade. I played baseball all the time. Spring, summer and fall, we were always playing, baseball and some softball, pickup games. Also, I played catch with my dad. I was the pitcher, he was the catcher, or sometimes it was the other way around. I was 4 or 5 and we were always in the backyard throwing the ball. That’s how everybody learned. And then, going to see the games. It was better than going to see the movies. You knew all the players, all the averages and statistics. Baseball was king.”
That may no longer be true, even in the wake of the frenzy of the recent Cubs Convention. Football, with the Super Bowl but a week away, likely has overtaken baseball in American heads and hearts. But for those of a certain age, baseball will ever hold a special place.
It certainly does for Lombardo, a longtime educator and the author of four terrific books. His most recent is “Morning Will Come” handsomely published by Tortoise Books. Republished is more accurate because the book first arrived in 2009 under the title “How to Hold a Woman.” It is a gathering of nine connected stories, all focused on the ways in which one suburban family copes with death. And with life.
In 2010 he published “The Man with Two Arms” (Harry N. Abrams). On one level it is a powerful baseball book, the story of a father who begins teaching his son from infancy to pitch effectively with either arm, enabling him to make it to the major leagues. Reviewing it for the Tribune, Alan Cheuse called it “a lovely homage to the game, and to what is undoubtedly modern America’s finest literary tribute to the baseball since Bernard Malamud’s novel ‘The Natural.’ ” But it courses on deeper levels too, as does all of Lombardo’s work, into the nature of relationships and the dark side of dreams.
Nelson grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, with a father who was a devoted St. Louis Cardinals fan.
“I always believed my blood to be Cardinal red but when I moved to Chicago, I lived a block away from Wrigley and slowly fell in love with the Cubs,” said Nelson. “When I later learned that my (Irish immigrant) great-grandmother, who was born in Chicago, had a favorite team in the 1908 Cubs, that was it.”
Nelson’s passion for the game will be manifest on Sunday when he premieres his one man play, “Night the Cubs Won” at 7 p.m. at the Prop Theater. It will also play on the following three Sundays, same time and place, as part of this year’s estimable and exciting Rhinofest.
He is, understandably, reluctant to share many details about the show but will say that he and his wife and sister watched the game at bygone Bin 36 restaurant downtown, that his wife went home during the rain delay and that he made it home at, ahem, 6 a.m.
I first, and last, saw Nelson perform in a one-man show about baseball called “Caps” at the Stage Left Theatre in 1996. I called him “a young and obviously talented writer/performer,” going on to write that the show offered “the sort of joy-of-the-game chatter that peppers, less articulately and inventively, conversations between all fans, though the piece in which Ryne Sandberg tears the head off a pigeon is downright surreal.”
He then stopped performing as he and his wife Michelle began to build their now very successful real estate-rehabbing business. But a few years ago, at the prompting of some friends who always enjoyed his informal storytelling, he entered and won a Moth competition. He performed in his basement for about 50 friends and then three years ago dove into Rhinofest with a show about his first job and the next year another about the poker games he played with little pals, all of them using money earned delivering newspapers.
Much of the action in “Night the Cubs Won” takes place on that November night/very early morning, when the Cubs won the rain-delayed seventh game and their first World Series since 1908. Nelson will be wearing a suit and there will be a screen on the otherwise bare stage showing photos, many of his great-grandmother, mother and wife.
“It’s my story of falling in love with the game and with Michele and discovering how the game connects families through generations,” said Nelson. “It’s also how for me the wheels really came off that night.”
At the end of their meaning-of-baseball conversation, Nelson said he was eager to read Lombardo’s books and Lombardo said he was eager to see Nelson’s show. It went without saying, of course, that the Cubs open on March 26 in Milwaukee against the Brewers and the White Sox open that same day, playing the Kansas City Royals at home.
Dan Nelson, who will perform his one man show called “Night The Cubs Won” four Sunday nights during Rhinofest, stands outside of Wrigley Field on a cold winter day.