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Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
Paul Sullivan

Paul Sullivan: Fergie Jenkins soaks up the adoration as Cubs unveil his statue outside Wrigley Field

CHICAGO — When Fergie Jenkins attended the statue dedication ceremonies for his former Chicago Cubs teammates at Wrigley Field, the thought had to cross his mind.

Will the Cubs one day honor me?

It took longer than necessary, but that day finally arrived Friday at Gallagher Way.

The sculpture of Jenkins in his windup brought back memories of his duels with Bob Gibson at Wrigley Field during an era when starters took the ball and wouldn’t give it up until it was pried from their hands. Standing in front of his statue after the ceremony Friday afternoon, Jenkins turned around to take a long look, then smiled at the familiar pose.

“It’s me,” he said. “It looks like me. I think that was (from) an afternoon ballgame, a (TV) ‘Game of the Week.’ They used it on a Sports Illustrated cover. That was the pose because they wanted to show the Cubs logo on the chest and the cap.”

When you think of Jenkins in a Cubs uniform, you think about the 284 career wins, the 3,192 strikeouts, the 267 complete games, and, of course, that fateful 1969 season. He waited a long time to join Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ron Santo as statue-worthy Cubs, but it was worth the wait.

“Fergie deserved this a long time ago,” Williams said. “But better late than never.”

Jenkins never grumbled over the wait, even as he admitted Friday he “had the numbers” to merit the honor.

“But the organization has to do it,” Jenkins said. “Just like retiring my number (31). They waited for (Greg) Maddux to retire, and we retired (the number) together (in 2009).

“I was here for Ernie’s (ceremony). I was here for Billy’s and Ronnie’s. Believe me, it was an honor to see them being humble, because the fact was they were Chicago Cubs players. To me, my career was in Chicago. My second home was playing right here in Wrigley Field.”

Jenkins’ speech was short and sweet, and just like his pitching days at Wrigley, he was forced to battle a 25-mph wind to keep his notes from blowing away. He thanked everyone from the Rickettses to former Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley, from manager Leo Durocher to the Bleacher Bums. Jenkins told a humorous story of the day Durocher let Frank Sinatra manage a couple of innings of a spring training game in Palm Springs, Calif., in 1968.

But it was Banks, Jenkins said, who “taught me to respect the game and be professional all the time.” That was a lesson Jenkins never forgot.

“Fergie is very unassuming, and you wondered whether he’d be able to get the accolades that he really deserves,” former Cubs batterymate Randy Hundley said. “He’s beginning to get it, and I’m glad for him.”

Williams, Hundley and the rest of Jenkins’ friends seemed as happy for him as he was for himself. The Cubs community turned out for the ceremony, including Jenkins’ former teammates Williams, Hundley, Byron Browne, Lee Smith and Steve Trout and former players including Ryan Dempster and Kerry Wood.

Former Blackhawks goaltender Ed Belfour also was among the guests on a warm day with the kind of wind blowing out to right that forced Jenkins to hit his spots or watch the ball fly, as it did for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who hit seven home runs Friday in a 10-6 win.

“He didn’t worry about no danged wind,” Williams said of Jenkins. “If the wind was blowing at him, it was in his favor because he had a good slider, and he knew that.”

The statues of Jenkins, Banks, Williams and Santo serve as reminders of a season that lives in infamy — that epic 1969 collapse to the New York Mets. That those players, and that team, remain beloved in Chicago despite the tragic ending is a testament to the joy they brought Cubs fans year in and year out.

“It’s too bad the Mets — I hate to say it — the Mets won,” Williams said. “But I was here in 2016.”

History tends to celebrate the winners, and Cubs fans finally got that chance in 2016. But Chicagoans also have celebrated athletes with character and a strong work ethic, whether they had won a ring or not.

Jenkins was what we all aspire to be — someone who worked at his craft and never wanted to leave a job unfinished. Someone who was confident in his ability but never too cocky. Someone who hated losing and did everything he could to help his team win.

“As a pitcher, I learned to win,” he said in his speech. “Losing never entered my mind.”

Williams reminded writers that Jenkins went out to the mound every four games in an era of the four-man rotation.

“Now you’ve got pitchers going out there every five days,” Williams said.

Or every six days, Williams was reminded.

Williams then listed the names of Jenkins, Gibson, Don Drysdale and Juan Marichal, old-school starters who didn’t believe they did their jobs unless the catcher handed them the ball at the end of a complete game. Last season the only teams with more than three complete games were the Philadelphia Phillies (five) and Chicago White Sox (four). During his Cy Young-winning season with the Cubs in 1971, Jenkins had six complete games in both May and July and a league-leading 30 overall.

Jenkins laughed Friday when asked about modern-day starters throwing five innings or less.

“That’s way too bad,” he said. “They don’t give them the opportunity to show what their ability is all about. These guys train to do a certain thing. To pitch 2 2/3 innings, you haven’t even touched a part of their ability. You don’t really get into a ballgame until the fifth or the sixth”

Cubs starter Drew Smyly lasted 4 1/3 innings Wednesday, while Marcus Stroman threw five innings Thursday. Both were satisfied with their outings afterward. The baseball axiom “five and dive” was once an insult thrown at starters who couldn’t pitch past the fifth. Now starters are rewarded with high-fives for going five innings.

Jenkins can only be thankful he pitched in a differnt era.

“I ran a lot, I stayed in shape,” Jenkins said. “My dad was a chef. He told me what to eat, what not to eat. But the biggest thing is what you put in your body that’s going to make you perform well. I tried to understand that being out there playing, I had to have stamina. I never had a sore arm. I pitched 21 seasons and never had a sore arm. That’s probably genetics.”

The journey from growing up in Chatham, Ontario, to the Baseball Hall of Fame to Friday’s statue dedication was a long and hard one. When Jenkins was 14, his father, who had played in the Negro Leagues, took him to his first game at old Tigers Stadium in Detroit. After watching Larry Doby hit two home runs, Fergie told his dad he wanted to be a ballplayer.

“Little did I know it was going to work out so good,” he said.

The day was complete, just the way we remembered whenever Jenkins took the mound.

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