Fans of the New York Yankees or St. Louis Cardinals can show you their vast collections of the same old tired baseball souvenirs from this World Series or that World Series. Fans of the Chicago Cubs need to be inventive.
"Oh, my god!" Sue Kren remembers thinking the instant she saw one unique item up for bid during the silent auction at the 2012 Cubs fan convention. "That's my Holy Grail."
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Armed with a pen, Kren inked the winning bid of $500.
"I'd been trying to get a piece of the scoreboard for decades," says Kren, who never thought she'd be able to buy one of the numbers panels from Wrigley Field's historic manual scoreboard. "I won the scoreboard piece not knowing what number it was."
White Sox fans might smirk that Kren's souvenir represents the number of World Series championships the Cubs have won in the last 104 years -- a big, fat zero. But Kren says she chose the white zero on the green, metal plate simply because zero is the most common number to see on the scoreboard.
The crown jewel of Kelley Neal's Cubs collection is hanging nearby among dozens of old uniforms.
"My premier jersey is my Bill Buckner jersey," Neal says, holding the light blue Cubs jersey with Buckner's name and No. 22 on the back. "He was a gamer."
Always limping a bit and usually dirty from some hustling play, Buckner wore that Cubs jersey during the 1980 season, when he led the National League in hitting with a .324 average for a last-place team that lost 98 games. Of course, Buckner went on to infamy as the Boston Red Sox first baseman who made a World Series error that still holds a place in baseball lore.
"I almost cried when Boston happened for him," Neal says sympathetically.
Neal and Kren will bring some of their treasures Monday as participants in "A Piece of the Game," a new reality TV show created by executive producer Don DuPree, who describes it as "Antiques Roadshow meets Chicago sports memorabilia -- on Red Bull." The public is invited to the first tapings at 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. Monday at Harry Caray's Tavern at Navy Pier in Chicago. DuPree invites fans of any Chicago sports team to appear on the show and have their sports memorabilia appraised for free. For details or to register, visit the website apieceofthegame.tv.
"I always wanted to do a sports show," says DuPree, a veteran and innovative TV leader best known for his successful stint as director of the "Siskel & Ebert" movie review show and the shows that followed that franchise. DuPree says he wants fans with unique items and the tales of why they have them.
"It's not always the best stuff -- it's the most interesting," DuPree notes. "The best stories aren't always about the most expensive stuff."
The half-hour show, sponsored by Allstate, debuts March 16 on WGN-TV before a Cubs preseason game broadcast, and will be repeated before other games. In addition to fans and souvenirs, the show will feature some surprise celebrity guests, DuPree says.
As a kid, Neal collected baseball cards. Kren didn't start her collection until college, when she bought a Cubs lapel pin. Together, the DuPage County couple have amassed an eclectic and fun collection that features a little bit of everything related to the Cubs.
"It's a nice remembrance of the ballpark," Kren, 53, says as she sits in one of the two connected Wrigley Field seats she bought after a renovation in the 1990s. "In 2003, we had a party during the playoffs, and people took turns sitting in the chairs and pretending they were at the ballpark watching."
A catcher for her softball team in high school and for North Central College in Naperville, Neal has a door in the basement adorned with former Cubs catcher Geovany Soto's chest protector and shin guards. The 46-year-old fan has game-worn uniforms from many current Cubs, including All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro's dirt-smudged jersey.
A bat featuring the autograph of Hall-of-Famer Billy Williams, a DuPage County neighbor, now boasts dozens of signatures of legendary Cubs such as Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Fergie Jenkins.
"We just dragged it everywhere we knew players would be. We're on bat two now," Neal says, showing off the autographs of Mark Grace and Ryne Sandberg as well as those of current players such as Castro, Anthony Rizzo and Darwin Barney.
A shrine to former third-baseman Aramis Ramirez, one of Kren's all-time favorite Cubs, features his trademark hat with the flaps to warm his ears, and his metal cleats sporting flag patches from his native Dominican Republic.
"We've got belts, shoes, socks. If they wear it, we've probably got it," says Neal, a software project manager for a telecommunications company. "It just grows. It's an addiction."
But they stay within their budget, says Kren, a manager at an executive search firm. She recently took a pass on a 1948 Cubs Yearbook when the bidding hit 70 bucks. One of the items special to her is a poster of the first night game at Wrigley Field, which she bought for $2 and spent far more to have framed.
One of her rarest items might be the giant blue L flag that flies above the Wrigley Field scoreboard after a loss. The team sells myriad miniature white W win flags, but not the loser versions.
"I prefer more of the offbeat stuff," Kren says, as she grabs an empty bottle of Francois Montand champagne, which probably cost less than $10 when it was full. "A lot of people bought bottles, but I also bought the cork. It's not worth anything. It's just something unique."
That bottle was part of the Cubs locker room celebration in 2003 when they clinched the National League Division Series with a 5-1 win over the Atlanta Braves to move one step closer to the World Series. The rest of that postseason went flat quicker than the champagne.
But Kren and Neal do have a few genuine Cubs World Series souvenirs, including a well-preserved program and score card from the 1945 World Series featuring the Detroit Tigers and the Chicago Cubs. It originally sold for 25 cents. As lifelong Cubs fans and recent season-ticket holders, Kren and Neal would love to add new World Series souvenirs to their Cubs collections.
"We need to win," Kren says, modifying her proclamation as she ponders last year's 101-loss season and what is expected to be another rebuilding effort this summer. "We need to win -- eventually."