CHICAGO — Fran McCaffery’s youngest son Jack tried to scuff a baseball for his dad 10 minutes before the Iowa men’s basketball coach approached the mound Friday afternoon.
Iowa basketball players Eric May, Zach McCabe and Josh Oglesby crowded into the fifth row behind home plate holding iPhones and ready to take pictures of their third-year coach throwing out the first pitch on “Hawkeye Day with the Cubs.”
McCaffery’s oldest son, Connor, gave his father one last piece of advice. “Don’t bounce it.”
Well, at least there’s that.
McCaffery joked about his control as a youth pitcher saying, “I never threw a strike when I was pitching. Why should I throw a strike today? I’ll get it somewhere near the plate.”
Clad in a specially made Cubs jersey with his last name and No. 24 on the back, McCaffery’s pitch sailed wide right of home plate but smack into the glove of Cubs pitcher Blake Parker.
McCaffery then laughed as he walked off the mound and pointed at a reporter and said, “I was aiming for you.”
The coach’s first pitch was the kickoff to a promotion-filled weekend in Chicago for Iowa fans. More than 2,000 Iowa fans sprinkled throughout Wrigley Field for the Cubs’ game against the San Francisco Giants. Iowa’s football team opens its season Saturday against Northern Illinois at Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears.
Among the fans attending Friday’s game were Gary Smallwood and his girlfriend, Calynda Argo, of Ottumwa. They crowded for pictures next to the Harry Caray statue beyond the center field bleachers. Smallwood sports a tattoo of Tiger-Hawk inside a flame on his right calf and another Hawkeye tattoo on his left shoulder. It’s been nearly 40 years since the 44-year-old Smallwood attended a Cubs game. He picked this weekend to rekindle his love of the Cubs to coincide with Saturday’s football game.
“This is on my bucket list,” Smallwood said. “It’s a real thrill.”
Iowa men’s basketball radio analyst and former Chicago Bulls guard Bobby Hansen led the crowd in the traditional rendition of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch.
Hansen said he rehearsed the song several times on his 5 1/2-hour drive from Des Moines. He said his goal wasn’t to butcher the song like heavy-metal vocalist Ozzy Osbourne or refer to the playing field as “Wrigley Stadium” like NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon.
“It’s an honor when they ask you to be a part of this, Hawkeye day at Wrigley Field,” Hansen said. “At first I said, ‘Nah, I don’t think so. Let’s find somebody else.’ Then my wife and my daughter gave me a hard time. ‘Oh, you’ve got to do it, dad. You’ve got to do it. It’s a once in a lifetime chance.’”
Hansen’s 24-year-old daughter, Bailey, accompanied him into the television booth to sing. Hansen said he was nervous that he’d get a dull reception. He didn’t, and he tossed his hat that read “7th Inning Stretch Singer” into the stands after his performance.
“You don’t know that are people are going to respond,” Hansen said. “There’s all these Hawkeyes out there and hopefully they’ll stand up and be ready to sing along with you. It’s an incredible feeling to be honest with you and don’t stumble over your words.
“My heart’s still going 100 miles an hour,” he said about 20 minutes later.
A few anecdotes:
MCCAFFERY SEES PHILLIES CLINCH 1980 WORLD SERIES
McCaffery has a baseball past, beginning with his days as a youth in Philadelphia. He grew up attending Philadelphia Phillies games at old Connie Mack Stadium and cheered Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton. He then found his way into Veterans Stadium for Game 6 of the 1980 World Series between the Phillies and Kansas City Royals.
“I was on campus as a student at the University of Pennsylvania and I was eating dinner with a buddy of mine and I said, ‘We ought to go down to that game,’” McCaffery said. “‘Carlton’s pitching, we’re going to win it tonight.’ So he said, ‘How are we going to do that?’ I said, ‘We’ll jump on the subway.’ So we jumped on the subway, we went down and a buddy of mine used to work the media gate. So we just kept walking, right through the media gate, right out into the concourse. Of course we didn’t have seats. We just stood and watched the game.”
McCaffery also got into the Phillies’ postgame locker room for the celebration. He had a friend that worked at Converse and hooked him up with passes. He was not bathed in champagne, however.
“They were already drenched so it wasn’t actually as they were celebrating,” McCaffery said.
McCaffery also attended two games of the 2008 World Series between the Phillies and Tampa Bay Rays. McCaffery took his two oldest sons Connor and Patrick and one of their friends to the games.
“Both times they won it, I was at the World Series,” McCaffery said.
McCaffery also served as an usher at Veterans Stadium during Eagles games when Dick Vermeil coached the club in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The notoriously rowdy Vet wasn’t so bad back then, at least from McCaffery’s perspective.
“I never had to break up any fights,” he said.
HANSEN RELENTS UNDER PRESSURE TO SING
Bobby Hansen was not interested in singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” during the Cubs’ seventh-inning stretch. One of the people that nudged him toward accepting the role was Hawkeye Sports Properties General Manager Chuck Schroeder.
“Chuck said, ‘Hey think of this for Iowa basketball and marketing of hoops and Fran’s doing the first pitch,’” Hansen said. “I went home and threw it around with the family and they were like, ‘You’ve got to do it.’ So I’m glad I accepted.
“This has been a little bit of a blast, a little nerve-wracking leading up to it. I’ve got a ton of advice. People coming out of the woodwork and how to sing it, or what to say, do this or don’t do this …”
Hansen was a four-year letterman at Iowa, playing on the Hawkeyes’ 1980 Final Four team and earning team MVP honors in 1983. He played nine seasons in the NBA, including seven in Utah, one in Sacramento and one in Chicago.
In Game 6 of the 1992 NBA Finals, Hansen drilled a 3-pointer to spark a fourth-quarter rally and pace the Bulls to their second straight NBA title. Hansen replaced Michael Jordan when the Bulls trailed by 15 points, and he left the court for Jordan when the deficit was only three points.
“It was 20 years ago when I played here, and I still feel a little part of Chicago,” Hansen said. “When you’re on a championship team, even though I was on just one of them, there’s a special bond between guys. I’m sure we’ll hear from a few of them.”