One thing about being a rookie relief pitcher on a team overflowing with All-Stars is that you don’t get noticed a ton around town during the regular season. You can kind of blend in and go about your day-to-day business like anyone else.
But if your team advances to the playoffs, and that team happens to be the Chicago Cubs, and you keep winning and winning, and then you ultimately make baseball history and win it all … things change. People start to recognize you on the street more often. They say hello and wish you well and give you high fives.
They also ask you questions sometimes, and that’s when you really start talking.
Last season during our playoff run, there were a few questions I was asked more than others by Cubs fans.
I’d hear about how young I looked and get asked about my age a lot, for instance. Other times it would be something about my weight, or “how on earth” someone as thin as me could throw a baseball so hard.
But probably the question I got most as we moved through the playoffs — and one that makes me smile every single time — is: Hey, what’s the deal with you and the W flag?
I kind of got a reputation for my victory-flag celebrations last season. When we won the division, I danced around with it in the locker room. After we clinched the pennant, I grabbed the flag with two hands, held it high over my head and waved it up and down as if it were going to help me fly away. On the field during our World Series celebration, I grabbed it and ran around like a crazy person.
That last one was, without a doubt, one of the most amazing feelings of my entire life, and I think the emotion I felt at that moment came through to people who were watching.
So, yeah, after a while people just started to be like, you know, What’s up with the flag, man?
Well, here’s the scoop….
First off, it’s important to say that the W flag is all about Chicago and the Cubs and our fans and the history of this amazing franchise. The joy I show when I have it in my hands is rooted in my love for our team, and this city, and everything this organization has done for me.
So that’s the short version of it.
But to answer that question in full — I mean to really, really answer it — I need to take you way back and tell you about my best friend, Will.
I first met Will Bedenbaugh when we were kids.
He was a few years older than me, but we played Little League together in Prosperity, South Carolina. Will was on the Georgia Pacific team, and I played for International Paper. When I made the All-Star team during my second year, we became teammates, and from that point on we were inseparable. It was sleepovers on the weekends, daylong Xbox battles, the whole nine.
We also played against each other in rec league basketball as little kids — the two of us, along with Alex, Will’s twin brother. Because we all knew each other so well, we’d talk so much junk to one another. Before the games, during the games, after games … we’d just be cracking on each other constantly. If Will missed a layup, I’d say something like, “You know, if you use the top of the square up there, and bounce it off that, the ball is more likely to go in.” Or I’d drive it to the hoop and Will would stop me, or knock the ball out of my hands, and he’d do the whole Dikembe Mutombo finger-wag, no-no-no thing … just typical kids stuff like that.
By the time we were old enough to play for Mid-Carolina High, our families had become super close. I called his mom, Sherry, “white momma.” And Will’s dad, Charlie, treated me like one of his own sons. I was over at their house constantly. Will always gave me grief for raiding their refrigerator on the sly and drinking all the chocolate milk.
On the baseball diamond, my freshman year (Will’s junior season) was when things really started to come together for us. It was my first season of varsity ball, and Will was my catcher from Day One.
Right from the beginning, everything just clicked. He always knew exactly what pitch I wanted to throw. I remember the first game I ever started was against the Emerald High Vikings — this high school over in Greenwood, South Carolina. In the very first inning, I gave up a smash down the rightfield line, a double. As soon as the guy reached second, Will immediately called for time. He walked out to the mound and tried to calm my nerves by speaking with me some and giving me a little pep talk. He just said to relax and not to worry about it, because everybody gives up hits.
“You can do this,” he told me. “I believe in you.”
After that, it was on. I was locked in. Emerald ended up scoring one run that inning, but we won the game like 11–1, something crazy like that. And things snowballed from there for us during the next two seasons. We just had a brother-to-brother type connection. We didn’t really even need to say anything to each other most games. When I pitched, it was basically like us playing catch — as if he could read my mind. Then, as a hitter, Will was just deadly. Many times when I’d pitch we’d win 1–0 or 2–0, and he would have driven in the winning run.
On game days, Will would pick me up in his truck, and as soon as I got in, he’d blast “Chicken Fried,” by Zac Brown Band.
Never failed. He did it … every … single … time. I’d open the door, and bam….
You know I like my chicken fried
Cold beer on a Friday night
A pair of jeans that fit just right
And the radio up
Just blasting out of the speakers.
At first he did it because he’s a clown, and he knew I didn’t like country music. So it was kind of an updated version of that Mutombo finger-wag thing.
But then I started actually liking that song. I had to hear it so many times that it grew on me. I ended up memorizing the words.
That made Will so happy. He couldn’t believe it, and, much to his surprise, it became kind of like my theme song.
We’d pull up to the ball field and Will would hit “Chicken Fried” on full blast right as I stepped out of the truck.
I’d yell, “Cold beer on a Friday night!” at the top my lungs, and we’d just look at each other and nod like, Let’s go to work, man.
There’d always be a couple of guys out there unpacking their stuff and getting ready for the game. Those dudes always knew when me and Will had arrived. We’d just be walking down to the field singing “Chicken Fried” together.
We listened to that song so much that I ended up making it my walkout song. So whenever I took the field, we’d play “Chicken Fried” super loud. It would have me all pumped, and with each game I got better and better. The wins piled up.
When Will got recruited to play at Charleston Southern and went off to college, it was tough on me. That was my partner. We were a one-two punch. But a year later, I was the one being scouted by colleges, and my decision wasn’t really all that difficult.
I decided to commit to Charleston Southern to be with Will.
I just felt like we had something special, you know? I wanted to keep a good thing going. And, as weird as it sounds, I wanted to keep singing that song with him.
I was playing Madden at my uncle’s house when I got the news.
Actually, that’s not completely accurate. I had been playing Madden … before I fell asleep with the game on. The ringing phone is what woke me up.
I remember it like it was yesterday. This was during my senior year of high school. The call was from one of my teammates.
“Did you hear about what happened to Will?”
I was still kind of groggy at that point, so I was a little confused.
“What are you talking about? What happened? What’s going on?”
That’s when he told me about the car crash.
I remember I just kept asking, “Are you serious?” I kept saying that again and again.
“Yeah, man. They said he died when his car ran off the road.”
And right when my friend said that, just as I heard those words, I got another call.
So I clicked over.
This one was from one of my teammate’s parents. Before she could even really say anything, I broke in….
“Is it true? I just got a call. Is it true about Will?”
She told me it was. And that Will’s mom wanted to see me as soon as possible.
“Don’t drive there, though. She said that she doesn’t want you driving.”
It was like I couldn’t breathe at that point.
I ended up calling my mom to come pick me up at my uncle’s house, and we went straight over to Will’s place. Before I could get out of the car there were all these people coming up to me and telling me that I needed to get in there.
“C.J., she doesn’t want to talk to nobody else but you.”
When I went in, that was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever experienced. Will’s mom was distraught, and everyone in that house was overcome with grief. For me, it was as if a close family member had just passed away. I have a little brother who I love, and who no one will ever take the place of. But I always viewed Will like he was my second brother.
I talked to his mom for a long time that night — just doing whatever I could to console her, while at the same time trying to come to grips with the fact that my best friend was gone forever. It got so late that I spent the night there.
Before I fell asleep, I found myself walking into Will’s room again and again. I couldn’t stop doing that. I would walk into his room, look around, and just shake my head and cry. I couldn’t believe he was gone.
I ended up staying with Will’s family all the way through the funeral, and then I went back home to get ready for school following our Christmas break. It didn’t matter where I was, though. I thought about Will every day. Not a day went by that I didn’t think about my friend.
And the more I thought about everything, the more I realized that there was no way I was going to be able to play at Charleston Southern without him. It would’ve been impossible for me to pitch to another catcher on that team knowing that I went there to be with Will.
So when I got drafted near the end of my senior year, I decided I was going to take my shot at pro ball … and that I was going to do everything I could to make Will proud of me.
I started out with the Rangers. They took me in the 48th round.
Let me say that again: I got drafted in the 48th round.
I wasn’t exactly a can’t-miss prospect. But I always felt like I had a secret weapon when I was coming up in the minors.
Especially playing A ball in Spokane, and during the Arizona Fall League, I really tried to visualize Will behind the plate when I was delivering pitches.
I struck out a lot of guys in the minors — 11 or 12 batters per nine innings most years. And to this day, I credit much of that success to Will. I would always just think about our one-two connection. I knew I’d never be able to match what we had, but I tried to do everything I could to replicate it. I honestly think that’s what got me to where I’m at today — just visualizing and remembering the things that we did together, and not trying to change too much even though it was a different level of competition.
One night that always stands out for me during that time was this game I pitched for Hickory in 2013. This was down in the South Atlantic League, early in the season, and we were playing the Charleston RiverDogs. Sherry and Alex were in the stands for that one, and I ended up striking out eight guys to put my strikeout total for the young season at exactly 39.
That was Will’s number.
After the game ended, I grabbed a baseball I had used during the game and sprinted down the rightfield line to tell Will’s family. I signed it, put a big 39 on there for my friend, and gave the ball to Sherry and Alex. That was a wonderful night.
And when I got traded to the Cubs later that summer, and learned about Chicago’s tradition with the W flag, I couldn’t help but think of Will. It almost seemed like it was meant to be — like Will had intervened to help bring me to Chicago or something.
It was pretty special, no doubt. But I wouldn’t fully understand how special until this past autumn.
Ever since Will passed away, I’ve worn a rubber bracelet with his name on it. If I’m not pitching, it’s on my wrist. When I’m on the hill, I put it in my back pocket.
It helps me remember my friend, and that connection we had. It reminds me of the impact Will had on my life.
And each time I took the field during the World Series, I’d do the same thing. I’d walk up to the mound, take a second to breathe and then I’d say a few words to myself, basically talking to Will.
“Alright bro, let’s go, Will, man. It’s me and you, one-two punch. Let’s go man.”
That was my way of knowing he was there looking out for me. And after I said it, I’d lock in … just like old times.
When anyone mentions ‘flying the W,’ I think about Will. Every time. Carl Edwards Jr.
Looking back on the whole playoff run, the weird thing is that I barely even remember pitching in those games. People will be like, You were awesome in Game 3 of the World Series. Or, How crazy was it to be pitching in extra innings during Game 7, with everything on the line? And I can’t really even call up those specific memories in detail.
What I remember most is celebrating with my teammates and running around with that W flag.
When I see that big W, or when anyone mentions “flying the W,” I think about Will. Every time.
During those moments of celebration with the flag, I’m showing love to Chicago, and to Wrigley, and to Cubs fans all around the world. But I’m also shouting out Will Bedenbaugh. If it weren’t for him, and for his guidance and friendship, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
And I know for a fact he’s been there with me every step of the way. I know that he was jammin’ to “Chicken Fried” with the volume turned to 10 when I was out there on the hill against the Indians in October and early November.
I just hope I made Will proud of me out there, and that he’s looking down on me with a big ol’ grin on his face every time I run around like a wild man with that W flag held high.