I was getting ready for work Friday morning by pulling on my fresh-to-def #EmbraceTheTarget¹ shirt when I realized that my kids needed to support the team as well. My son threw on a Cubs hoodie and my daughter buttoned up a jersey she’d gotten from her Clark’s Crew membership. Upon determining that it was too long, however, she became somewhat distraught and went to her room to change. She came back out wearing a a new jersey (the only time those two words are acceptable when paired), this one white with pink pinstripes, a white Cubs walking bear logo on the front, and custom lettering on the back. Definitely a blast from the past and one that I forgot she had. You see, it wasn’t originally hers.
Back in the Fall of 2004, I was a 25-year-old kid who was madly in love and determined to ask his girlfriend to marry him. This despite the fact that she was raised in Sox fandom by parents who both held undergrad and pharmacy degrees from Purdue. You can only imagine the amount of cognitive recalibration I’ve had to perform — just kidding, it wasn’t really that difficult. My wife will tell you that I’m not much of a romantic, but circumstances had conspired to make me one in this case. I was even further from being wealthy at that time than I am now and my wife’s never been one for worldly things, so there was no need to buy a big ring. Besides, we’re both kind of sentimental, particularly when it comes to family, and my aunt had provided me a option that would satisfy both my depth of emotion and shallowness of cash.
A couple years before, my dad’s only sister — the oldest of four kids born to my grandparents — had told me that she was in possession of a pair of earrings my Grandpap had given my Grandma Altman for their 25th wedding anniversary. A relatively small-time farmer with simple tastes, Grandpap was not a rich man in terms of material things. That said, the rock in question (I got one, my brother the other), was quite small. But it meant so much more to me than anything measured by the 5 C’s, largely because it reminded me of my grandmother. Stricken with Alzheimer’s at far too young an age, she spent nearly the last decade of her life in nursing facilities as her mental state deteriorated. I’m the only one of my siblings who actually remembers her for who she once was, though my grasp on that claim is tenuous at best.
My one clear memory of my grandma was of watching Through the Looking-Glass on TV with her and climbing into her lap because I was scared of the Jabberwocky. In the years that would follow, I would spend countless hours in that same room in front of that same TV watching Cubs games with my brother and Grandpap. So in that little diamond, I saw a way to tie together the love I witnessed and shared with my grandparents to that I shared with my girlfriend. There was just one problem: I wouldn’t be able to get the rock in time for my planned proposal date.
I know it’s trite, but I wanted to propose on Christmas morning at my parents’ house. When I called my aunt, who lives in Hawaii, to ask her for the earring, she explained that she wasn’t comfortable just dropping it in the mail. Instead, she preferred to have my sister play the role of courier when she went out to visit in January. So that left me struggling for an alternative, which is where my childhood affinity for The A-Team finally came in handy. I gathered everything at my disposal and found a solution.
I’ve always been a fan of jerseys, never mattered what sport. My brother and I collected all sorts of replica basketball jerseys as kids: Reggie Miller, Alonzo Mourning, Arvydas Sabonis, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and many more. One of my prized possessions in high school was a Steve McNair Oilers jersey, something I wish I still had. The first baseball jersey I remember owning was a Ryne Sandberg I purchased at Wrigley during a double-header that saw Greg Maddux and the Braves shut the home team out in a game that lasted only two hours or so. I recall having a very real internal struggle over whether to opt for my hero or the up-and-coming slugger out in right field, but in the end, the Sosa jersey stayed on the rack. Unlike that crisp white #9 with the baby blue numbers and trim, I still have the blue button-up with #23. But despite the $120 of lawn-mowing money I shelled out, it still wasn’t authentic.
Oh, how I longed for a jersey like the ones the players actually wore on the field. Contrary to most, though, I really loved the gray roadies. Still do. They were just so clean and I dug the way the blue letters and red numbers stood out against that light slate background. Understanding my love of the Cubs and desire for said jersey, my now-wife made sure that a certain gift was opened last one Christmas, actually the year before we got engaged. To this day, it’s easily my favorite gift of all time, and this is coming from an kid who got an NES during that gaming system’s domination of the late 80’s. I know it seems like I’m following rabbit trails here, but I swear it’s building to something.
Fast-forward a few months and I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to propose in a way that’s creative and that brings together some of the stuff from our relationship. So then it dawns on me. I’ve always liked Wrigleyville Sports, the store just across from Wrigley on the corner of Addison and Sheffield, and that’s where I recommended my girlfriend/wife purchase my jersey. A thought had begun to germinate in my mind, but was unable to really bloom because the tools required to put it in place didn’t exist. Nowadays, you can find 15 different styles of jersey in men’s, women’s, and kids’ sizes, but that wasn’t necessarily the case 12 years ago.
The Wrigleyville Sports website offered customization at a markup of $50 over the price of a blank jersey, but that only applied to specific versions. And as far as women’s options, they really only offered the pink-pinstriped deals, but my wife likes pink and I figured that would be fine. But again, those jerseys were not eligible for alterations. Unwilling to accept that, I put in a call to the store to have a one-off creation put together. I explained to the rep on the phone exactly what I was looking for and he was happy to oblige. My wife’s favorite number is 10 — she was a big BJ Armstrong fan — so I requested that, along with ALTMAN, in white lettering. Absent a ring, I wanted to present her with something that signified our future together, hence her new last name.
Sarah’s reaction was pretty much as I had expected: a tearful yes. I have wondered many times in the years since whether those tears were actually of joy and whether she’s regretted the answer, but we’re still doing okay so I’m going to assume she’s happy with everything. The adrenaline had my heart playing a staccato beat in my ears in the moments following her opening the gift, so I can’t remember my exact words, but I know I explained about the diamond² and why I didn’t have a ring. I remember her hugging me and then turning around to congratulations from my parents — did I mention this was in their living room on Christmas morning, so we were all hanging out in our PJ’s? I do distinctly remember my dad saying “It’s about time” as he hugged me, so that was cool.
Lost in the whole to-do of the proposal was the fact that the jersey was not, in fact, sized for a woman. I apparently hadn’t paid attention to the tag (Not the first time a guy’s done that, amirite?) and so had not noticed that it was actually a youth large. Yeah, about that. I mean, it’s not as though my wife was, is, or will be a jersey-wearer, but it’s the principle of the matter. Basically, it means it’s something she can hold over my head, but I kinda deserve it. So, long story short, the jersey had been relegated to a dresser drawer for much of the course of our wedded bliss. Until, that is, Addison discovered it and decided to hang it in her closet.
Despite the sizing snafu, I’ve always been grateful to the folks at Wrigleyville Sports for their willingness to work with me on something that was kinda-sorta important to me and my family. I get the whole “customer is always right” thing, but they easily could have said that they only customized given jerseys or that they wanted no part of sullying George Altman’s name by slapping it on a pink kid’s jersey. But they came through, and for that they have earned our eternal loyalty. It’s the first store we visit when we make the trek to Wrigley, and I shop there every year for Cubby Claus (yes, I don a wig and beard and deliver Cubs-themed items to my children at Christmas) gifts for the kids.
This isn’t a commercial, though I wouldn’t be mad if the fine folks at Wrigleyville Sports wanted to, you know, hook me up. Seriously though, this isn’t about pimping a store. It’s about a little thing that meant something big, a pink jersey that was too small for my wife but was big enough to cover four generations of Altmans. Looking back know with the wisdom of time, my romantic gesture contained no small measure of cheese, but I’d not have it any other way.
I love it when a plan comes together.
¹This ended up being quite prescient, as Joe Maddon announced that “Embrace the Target” will be the official team slogan for 2016, at least as far as Spring Training is concerned. This news was somewhat bittersweet for me, however, as it increases the possibility that I’ll have to discontinue the shirt. Sure, I’ll probably be able to leverage the notoriety to sell a couple more in the next few days, but I’m guessing the Cubs will file a trademark for it, if they haven’t already. I had considered doing so myself, but it’s not exactly worth the $300+ dollar filing fee when there’s no way I’d ever see that investment pay off. Maybe I’ll be able to go the 2 Live Crew or Nike route if I get some kind of cease and desist order though.
²Wrigleyville Sports wasn’t the only store to which we’ve exhibited loyalty. We knew that Grandpap had purchased the earrings from Roth Jewelers in Monticello, IN, so we actually took the diamond back to there to have it set and to purchase our wedding bands. My ring was actually the most expensive item on the receipt, and I don’t think it was more than $400. In a nice twist, the band they had on display fit me perfectly and didn’t need to be resized a bit. As they were tallying up our charges, the owner explained that he was giving us a 25% discount for being returning customers. That savings meant a lot to a young couple, and it said even more about the Roth family. We weren’t dropping much money in their store, and the diamond we were having them set wasn’t much to speak of. But they treated us like family just the same.