How base­ball con­nects us: A one-man show

Dan Nel­son is the sole star of a play that cel­e­brates sim­ple joy of the game

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - BOOKS - Rick Ko­gan rko­[email protected] tri­bune.com

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.

JOSE M. OSO­RIO/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

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.

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