What it was like visiting the White House with the Cubs
In my first 19 years on the Chicago Cubs beat, I've been to a few places and seen a few things.
The Tokyo trip in 2000 was exhilarating, exhausting and exotic.
I witnessed Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout game, Sammy Sosa's home run chase and, oh yes, a Cubs World Series victory.
But nothing quite compares with Monday's visit to the White House.
These types of gatherings can be routine, scripted and a little stilted. If you're part of the local media covering the sports team being honored, you never get close to the president or see much of the behind-the-scenes activity.
While that last part was true of Monday, it took nothing away from a fabulous, once-in-a-lifetime experience. (Yes, the Cubs may do this again, but there's nothing like the first visit to the White House after winning a World Series.)
Getting into the White House was daunting, what with the armed Secret Service presence. But going through the airport-like security was a breeze, and the agents at the gate could not have been more friendly or professional, as firm and serious about their jobs as they were.
Walking toward the White House briefing room -- which is much smaller and cramped than it looks on television -- I saw TV outlet after TV outlet, both national and local, set up and doing standup reports.
Those of us in the Chicago media had a good time in the briefing room, having our photos taken next to the podium where the president or his press secretary speaks. And those of us who value our Baseball Writers Association of America cards were also thrilled to receive official White House press passes. Alas, we did not get to keep them.
On the flip side, the jaded Washington press corps, which normally couldn't give a hoot about another sports team visiting the White House, were especially curious about this merry band of Cubs, and their presence swelled the media throng.
Speaking of bands, a part of the grandeur of walking into the White House from the briefing room was seeing the military band playing outside of the East Room, where the main event took place.
Putting all politics aside, President Obama hit a home run with his speech, and Cubs team president Theo Epstein equaled it with remarks he had prepared only the day before.
Among my favorites from the president:
• "There was something about his particular Cubs team that people felt good about. For example, David Ross and I have something in common: We've both been on a yearlong retirement party."
• "(Epstein's) job is to quench droughts. Eighty-six years in Boston, 108 in Chicago. He takes the reins of an organization that's wandered in the wilderness and delivers them to the promised land. I've talked to him about being DNC (Democratic National Committee) chair. He decided wisely to stick to baseball."
• "Throughout our history, sports has had this power to bring us together even when the country is divided. Sports has changed attitudes and culture in ways that seem subtle but that ultimately made us think differently about ourselves and who we are. It is a game and a celebration, but there is a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me standing here. There is a direct line between people loving Ernie Banks and the city being able to come together and work together in one spirit."
The day also had an impact on the Cubs, who brought a big turnout, including Hall of Famers Fergie Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg and Billy Williams.
"It's a very humbling moment to be a part of this segment of Cubs history, to be here for my second year as manager of the team and to accomplish what we did in such a short period of time; it's pretty magnificent, actually," said manager Joe Maddon. "To do it on Martin Luther King Day, to be brought here is pretty special. I've always been a big Jackie Robinson fan. I've always had his pictures in my office, wherever I've worked. All those things combined, to be here today, is very special for all of us."
First baseman Anthony Rizzo talked about meeting President Obama and wife Michelle before the ceremony.
"You just got a room that's all chatter, chatter, chatter," Rizzo said. "The president and the first lady walk in, and it's complete silence. You could hear a pin drop. It was amazing. You just get chills running through your body. Who knows when that will ever happen again?"
If it does, here's hoping nobody acts like they've been there before. It's that special.