CHICAGO – It was just minutes before the Cubs and Milwaukee were to launch a big series in the National League Central on Friday night when one of the strangest sounds ever heard in old Wrigley Field erupted.
“U-G-A. U-G-A. U-G-A.” Very loud, as only a chorus of hundreds could manage.
They were belting out a never-before-sung hymn in this sporting cathedral. Their inspiration was the introduction of one of their own – Vince Dooley – as he awaited his call to throw out a ceremonial first pitch before the game.
As the fans reveled, the 85-year-old former coach and athletic director at UGA, more than three decades removed from winning a national championship, wind-milled his right arm in an attempt to shake the cobwebs from it.
“I thought I’d get a chance to warm up,” he said on the field, just a little bit worried.
Surveying up close for the first time the 60 feet, 6 inches between the mound and the plate, Dooley, speaking to anyone in earshot – but mostly himself – said, “that doesn’t look that far.”
The octogenarian Georgia legend remains a competitor, even if unbeatable time was the only opponent now. He had practiced in Athens for this one throw, playing catch with a former team manager from back in the day. And as he had promised himself, Dooley went right to the crest of the mound at Wrigley to launch his pitch. No shortcuts. He’d negotiate the whole distance.
The windup (well, sort of a windup).
And the pitch.
It traveled 58 feet well and true, skipping just in front of the plate into the mitt of Cubs reliever Justin Grimm, a Bulldog himself. Not quite a strike by the purest definition, but considering the source, the pro was impressed. “Awesome,” Grimm said.
“You know, everybody has excuses,” Dooley said. “I never got a chance to warm up. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t have bounced it in there. But it went over the plate.”
The ovation he received was unequivocal. Dooley was among plentiful friends.
Bulldogs fans, who never seem to travel anonymously, made themselves quite conspicuous all through this town Friday. Red and black tend to stand out among the more conservative big-city workday wear. “Go Dawgs” and general woofing are not exactly sounds common to Rush Street.
For that night’s game against Milwaukee, Wrigley Field broke out in a widespread Bulldogs red rash. A three-day sporting pilgrimage – visiting Wrigley, then on to Georgia for its game at nearby Notre Dame and, finally, the Falcons opener at the Bears on Sunday – had officially begun. Not even the Cubs decision to move their game from Friday afternoon to night could throw off these southern visitors seeking to take in Wrigley’s charms. Take that, all you Cubs fans who clutter up the seats in Atlanta when the Chicagoans come to call.
Nor could the time switch stop Dooley, who still had to get to South Bend on Friday night before some rather pressing Bulldogs business the next evening. He’d rest later. There was a pitch to throw.
“There’s been an incredible (Georgia) contingent everywhere I’ve gone today. When I flew in Thursday it was all Georgia people. They love to travel. And this is a great place to travel for them,” Dooley said.
The start of this ultimate sports weekend began well enough for one Georgia legend.
Dooley got to take in a classic ballpark that, somehow, he’d never visited before (telling no one that he used to be a St. Louis Cardinals fan).
He got to meet with Cubs Hall of Famer Billy Williams, who like Dooley, hails from Mobile, Ala.
And he was there the day the Bulldogs temporarily took over the Cubs’ stronghold.
If only Dooley had gotten to warm up, then it all would have been perfect.