One of my earliest memories of arriving in Chicago as a rookie involves being locked in a bathroom.
Yep. Locked in a bathroom.
But those four words don’t do the experience justice. You really need the full context in order to understand why I’ve never forgotten it.
Back when I broke in with the Sox, we used to do karaoke on our team bus rides to airports and hotels. But it wasn’t really about singing at all.
James Baldwin was the ringleader. Here’s how it would go down:
There was a mic, and a speaker, and after the bus would pull out of the parking lot the vets would start yelling out names.
When your name was called, you’d stand up, grab the mic and try to sing whatever song came up. You never knew what it was going to be, but it’s not like the song made a difference. Because if you were a rookie, almost immediately after you started in, everyone on that bus was going to be booing you.
They showed no mercy.
And then it was always….
“To the bathroom!”
The guys would yell that in unison and point to the rear of the bus.
So I’d always just drop my head and trudge back to the john.
But here’s the thing: When I got there and opened the door to that tiny little bathroom, there were almost always a couple of other guys in there who had been booed to the back before me.
I’d just have to pile in.
And then all of us smushed in there together would hear some other poor soul have his name called, and then the booing, and then we’d scrunch to the side to make some room, or contort our bodies, or sit in that little sink to free up space.
There’d be five or six guys in there for the rest of the trip. And those bus rides would usually be 20 or 30 minutes.
I can remember being a 21-year-old rookie, all jammed up in that bathroom, sweating my butt off and being so annoyed and uncomfortable — but also, at the same time, kind of smiling to myself, because nothing like that had ever happened to me in the minors.
I knew that what I was experiencing wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill-style hazing. It was major league hazing!
And that meant that I must have somehow become a real big league ballplayer.
I’ll be the first to admit that six guys cramming into a bathroom on a bus is pretty ridiculous. But the more time I spent in the bigs, the more I realized that it’s also kind of par for the course. When you pitch in the majors for 16 seasons, you’re going to see and do some crazy stuff every now and again.
You just are.
It’s inevitable. Unavoidable. And it’s also a big part of what makes being a professional baseball player so much fun.
World Series rings and no-hitters are great. Don’t get me wrong. But I’ve always felt like some of the most memorable moments I experienced during my career were ones that hardly anyone got to see — things like those godforsaken bus karaoke sessions, or clubhouse pranks, or other stuff that never got on TV. So with that in mind, I thought it might be cool to share a few of those stories with you all before the White Sox retire my number this weekend.
For starters, I’m happy to say that the South Side of Chicago and White Sox fans gave me a far better welcome to the bigs than James Baldwin did. But when I arrived to the city from Double A Birmingham, I was definitely a fish out of water.
The first problem I ran into was that to travel with the big league club, I needed to wear a suit. But I was a country boy from Missouri. My wardrobe was pretty much all jeans, and T-shirts, and hunting gear. I had never owned a suit in my life.
I didn’t really know where one would buy a suit, or how getting one would even work.
So that night my agent and I went walking around downtown Chicago looking for places that sold suits. We had absolutely no clue what we were doing. We’d stop people on the street and be like, “Do you know of any suit stores around here?”
Everyone just kind of looked at us like we were crazy.
At the same time, all the people I met that night were friendly and happy to help. I’ll never forget that. It really showed me, right off the bat, what this town was all about.
What I loved so much about Chicago back then — and what I still love about it — is that it allowed me to connect with so many great people each and every day. I got to meet and become friends with people from all walks of life while I was playing for the White Sox.
And I always loved interacting with everyone at the stadium. Whether it was our maintenance crew, or the vendors around the ballpark, or talking with the fans who had arrived early, I just really enjoyed those interactions.
The maintenance guys, especially, were the best. I’d always run down to their work shed and bang on the door as loud as I could. Then they’d come out and yell at me for it, and tell me that my last start sucked, or that they didn’t understand why the team was even keeping me around.
I’d bust their balls, and they’d give it right back.
Every time I saw them changing a lightbulb, or fixing something in the clubhouse, I’d mosey over, stand real close, cross my arms, and say, “It’s about time you guys did some work around here.”
Then they’d tell me it was “about time” I won a game for a change. Or hit the weight room.
It was pure, 100% Chicago-type stuff, day in and day out, and I loved every second of it.
I miss those interactions so much now that I’m no longer playing. That might sound stupid, and I never would’ve thought that would be true, but I think about them all the time now.
Those guys became like family to me.
In a lot of ways, I always felt like the whole South Side of Chicago had become part of my family. We experienced so many ups and downs together. We have this incredible shared history.
Out of all those experiences, the two things that come up most often these days when I run into fans are that perfect game I threw eight years ago and the 2005 World Series.
The one thing that not a ton of people know about that perfect game against the Rays in 2009 involves how everything went down off the field — in the dugout and back in the clubhouse.
What I remember most is not being able to keep my mouth shut between innings during that one. I talked guys’ ears off. I basically did the opposite of everything you always hear about when no-hitters and perfect games are discussed.
By the fifth, I was going up to anyone who would listen and just putting it out there.
“Are you kidding me, right now? What’s happening out there? How do I have a perfect game going?”
I was just having fun and enjoying the moment. But no one knew what to make of it.
Between the eighth and ninth, I randomly decided to head up into the clubhouse and see what was going on back there.
The first guy I saw was A.J. Pierzynski.
I could tell he wasn’t looking to talk to me. But I don’t believe in jinxes, so I was having none of it. I sat right down next to him.
“Are you kidding me, dude? There’s no way I have a perfect game right now. Is this for real?”
He just shook his head and laughed.
I kept going.
“Three outs from a perfect game? This is insane? Only three more outs?”
A.J. could tell I wasn’t going to stop until he said something to me.
“Quit talking about it, man,” he finally said. “Just go out there and finish it up.”
So, you know, that’s what I did.
And then, less than an hour later, I was talking on the phone with Obama.
The president joked around with me some, and I remember laughing a bit and just grinning from ear to ear. But I didn’t really talk much. Basically I was just telling myself: Don’t say anything stupid, Mark. Please, dude, don’t be dumb. Don’t mess this up.
I was just telling myself: Don’t say anything stupid, Mark. Please, dude, don’t be dumb. Don’t mess this up.
Four years before the president called me from Air Force One, I experienced a very different kind of memorable moment when we swept the Astros and brought the South Side its first World Series title since 1917.
The thing a lot of people talk about with that one is this rumor that I drank a few beers before I got the save in our Game 3 victory.
There’s been some stuff that’s come out on that topic, but I feel like you all should really hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. So, here goes….
In short: Yeah, sure, O.K. fine, so I had a few. I can admit to that.
But you gotta let me explain.
First off, no one on the planet would’ve ever guessed that I was going to see the field in Game 3. I had started the previous game of the series and threw 100 pitches in that one. I would’ve bet my house that I wasn’t going to pitch a day and a half later. Anyone would have.
So, that being the case, you better believe that I was gonna do what came natural to me — grab a few beers during the early innings, kick back and enjoy the game like everyone else.
And it was just like one or two beers.
Every time I grabbed one, I’d go over and check in with the coaches.
“Hey, you guys are sure you’re not going to need me, right?”
“No, Mark. You are not pitching today. You just went.”
So I’d hear that and grab a beer.
It was only like three beers….
Definitely no more than three, though.
Anyway, of course the game had to go 14 innings, right?
By the 11th, I began to get the feeling that something strange might be taking place. At that point, I started to bear down and prepare. And I was ready to pitch when my name was called.
When it was all said and done, I got the save. We got the win. And we won the whole thing the next day.
No one gives me any grief about it … because, first and foremost, sports fans in Chicago care about winning. And we brought home the trophy.
But also, I think part of it has to do with the fact that the people there really love their beer.
For 12 amazing seasons, every time I drove up to the stadium on the South Side for a start, I had two things on my mind:
1) Win the game.
2) Be nice to everybody.
That’s what I told myself. Without fail. Those were my goals.
Nothing too complicated or over the top — just do your best on the field and treat people right.
I didn’t win every game, and sometimes I kind of sucked, but I always worked as hard as I could to get us those W’s. And I hope that on at least a few occasions I made Sox fans proud, because I can tell you for sure that I was extremely proud to put on that uniform and represent for the South Side of Chicago.
I saw it as a privilege. And, to be honest, I always felt like I was very fortunate to even be playing in the major leagues at all. So it’s been really hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that my number is going to be hung up alongside those of Frank Thomas and Carlton Fisk and Harold Baines and Konerko and Aparicio and Fox, and the rest of the all-time greats who have played for this franchise.
It still kind of feels to me like maybe someone made a mistake or something. Like they sent the invite for the ceremony to the wrong person.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Everything about being honored like this seems unbelievable to me. But, in a lot of ways, that’s kind of fitting, because almost every success I experienced during my career came as a surprise to me. If you had somehow squeezed yourself into that stupid bathroom on the team bus in 2000 to ask me how I thought my career would play out, there’s no way I would’ve predicted any of this. If you had told me back then that I was going to pitch multiple no-hitters and win a World Series, I would’ve looked at you like you were nuts.
And, even now, I still can’t believe I pulled off a whole ton of different cool things I accomplished on the baseball field. I really have no idea how it all happened.
To this day, people still ask me how I did that flip between the legs thing against the Indians in 2010.
And you know what I tell them?
“I have no clue.”
You got me.
There’s no way I should’ve been able to do that. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I wasn’t a superstar athlete or pitching phenom. I was just a normal guy trying to do his job out there. And even when I was at my very best, I was still just a regular dude who just happened to be pitching in the majors — a soft-tossing lefty who liked to joke around with his friends in the clubhouse and do belly flops onto the tarp during rain delays.
And now, somehow, this guy….
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
is going to have his number retired by the Chicago White Sox.
But, you know, if this honor actually was a mistake, I’m praying that the White Sox people don’t find out. Please don’t tell them.
Because having my number retired by this team, and getting to come back and show my appreciation to the fans who showed me so much love over the years, is going to be one of the greatest honors of my life.
I’m going to soak it all in, and enjoy every second of it.
And then, afterward, I may even grab a few beers to celebrate.