It’s safe to say that Cubs fans are the longest suffering bunch of humans on the face of the planet.
They haven’t won a World Series since 1908 and haven’t played in one since 1945. Then, there’s that black cat incident in 1969, the annual “June Swoon” and, of course, Steve Bartman.
Now…imagine it’s your profession to follow the “Loveable Losers” for a living. That’s what self-proclaimed “media junkie” George Castle has been doing for more than 30 years. Castle is the host of the syndicated radio show “Diamond Gems”, has authored ten books and, most recently, can be found spreading the word over at True/Slant.
Recently, I had the honor to catch up with Castle and talk some Windy City baseball.
HOVG: I’ve read where you’ve called yourself a “media junkie”…when did your fascination with the media begin and, ultimately, how did “Diamond Gems” come about?
CASTLE: My mom, Vera Castle, used to bring home the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Daily News when I was young. I started reading them, then added the other two papers, the Tribune and Chicago’s American. I was really popular with girls in high school, I had a copy of the Sun-Times, which ran Ann Landers, and they liked to borrow the copy to read Ann’s “good girls don’t” advice. I loved pulling in out-of-town radio and TV stations. I knew all the call letters. So, yeah, I was self-inundated by media at a time long before cable and the internet. Moving into the media, I was taught to come up with fresh angles and do something different. The Chicago sports-talk radio stations seemed to be Bears-oriented and treated baseball like a stepchild in the early 1990s, so I began Diamond Gems in 1994 on a local FM station. Someone had to do baseball talk and nostalgia.
HOVG: And how about your book ideas? I mean, there are plenty of writers out there banging away…writing pretty much the same thing, but your tomes seem to have a different slant to them.
CASTLE: Again, it’s my training to go away from the crowd. Everyone does Cubs history books with the same vignettes on the same players and games. I looked at management’s failings and other aspects of history that were not covered. Remember the “Wizard of Oz?,” where the Wizard says “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” Well, that’s exactly my style, to look at the men behind the curtain and why they do what they do.
HOVG: Obviously you’re a Chicago guy and most of your life has been consumed by the Cubs. As with any franchise, they’ve been defined by the players that have worn the pinstripes and the various trials and tribulations that have gone on on and off the field. Let’s talk legacy and two of the (statistically) greatest players that have set foot in Wrigley Field in the last 20 years…Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa. How will Sammy Sosa be remembered in Chicago by future generations of Cubs fans?
CASTLE: Time cools all bad feelings. Sammy is still too raw for Cubs fans. Worse than alleged steroid use, he walked out on the team on the last day of the 2004 season. However, I don’t feel Sammy will be regarded in the same breath as Banks, Williams, Santo, Jenkins, Sandberg. His ego exploded as he got successful, and that will stain him forever.
HOVG: Later this year, the BBWAA will be sending in their ballots for the 2011 Hall of Fame and one name will prove to be, with all apologies to Mark McGwire, the true litmus test for how Cooperstown handles steroids. What kind of chance does Rafael Palmeiro have to make his way into the Hall of Fame?
CASTLE: Not much. Before steroids he had a chance. But even under normal circumstances, Raffy wasn’t considered a dominant hitter.
HOVG: And speaking of the Hall of Fame…let me throw some names at you and you tell me the first thing that pops into your head. Let’s start with 2010 Hall of Fame inductee Andre Dawson.
CASTLE: Absolute class, a man of his word and laser intensity. I wrote about Dawson being a future Hall of Famer 20 years ago while he was still playing.
HOVG: How do you feel about Dawson going in as an Expo rather than a Cub?
CASTLE: It’s no big deal. He’s in the Hall, period, after waiting a bit too long. Any way you get in, in any hat, is fine. But he ID’s as a Cub, those were the best years of his life. The Hall probably played a little politics, yet recognizing a dead franchise is a little strange.
HOVG: Baseball’s former all-time saves leader and the all-time leader in saves for the Cubs, Lee Smith.
CASTLE: Lee Arthur deserves enshrinement due to durability and production. I think he lost out not appearing in a World Series and starring for the New York teams, where there is a big concentration of Hall voters.
HOVG: White Sox legend and one of the game’s best designated hitters, Harold Baines.
CASTLE: Hall of the Very Good indeed with Harold. Consistent hitter, but not a superstar.
HOVG: Current Cubs broadcaster Ron Santo.
CASTLE: Flat-out deserves enshrinement. Better hitter than Brooks Robinson and 90 percent of the fielder. Some petty politics involved in not getting Ronnie the 75 percent of the vote, which is a tough threshold to reach.
HOVG: In 2005, Ryne Sandberg made his way through the doors of the Hall of Fame. However, he doesn’t seem to get the respect that he probably deserves. Where do you think he ranks all-time among Cubs greats?
CASTLE: Probably in the Top 5 or 6. Great all-around player, fundamentally sound and totally dedicated.
HOVG: Is there a chance we see him as the successor to Lou Pinella in the Cubs dugout? If not, why?
CASTLE: Decent chance if the Ricketts family wants to craft a popular move. Ryno has worked hard at developing his manager’s skills. He has a tight schedule pre-game to get his work in with players. His experience would be the only reason why they don’t name him manager. A good bench coach would help if he gets the job. Would be very motivated managing his old team.
HOVG: Lastly, I want to talk Steve Bartman since I brought him up earlier. Let’s cut to the chase…is he to blame for the Cubs not advancing to the World Series in 2003?
CASTLE: No, no, forever no. There wasn’t even fan interference argued on that play. That was the last of a series of falling dominoes started by Jim Hendry not improving his bullpen in mid-season 2003.
HOVG: Have you ever had the chance to talk to Moises Alou about “The Bartman Incident”? If so…what did he have to say?
CASTLE: Only the next day. Moises was pissed the Sun-Times rushed to “out” Bartman to boost newsstand sales.
HOVG: How long until Cubs fans forget the name and face of Steve Bartman? Is it even possible?
CASTLE: When the Cubs win the World Series, Bartman will be relegated to trivia. But at that point, he should be in the victory parade to be exonerated.
George Castle is a lifelong Chicagoan and has been following the Cubs since he began drawing breath. Since 1980, he’s been covering baseball for a variety of newspapers and magazines. In 1994, Castle began “Diamond Gems” and four years later, he penned his first book.
Castle lives in the northern Chicago suburbs with wife, Nina, their two dogs and an African grey parrot that mimics him perfectly.