Jimmy Buffett ‘pinch-hit’ in Wrigley and was a hit with me

“This is for Steve Goodman,” Jimmy Buffett announced to 36,282 fans at Wrigley Field before delivering an a cappella version of the national anthem.

The occasion was the opening game of the 1984 National League Championship Series between the Cubs and the San Diego Padres, the home team’s first post-season appearance since 1945.

Buffett was pinch-hitting. The original plan called for Goodman, a local singer-songwriter and serious Cubs fan, to do the honors. But he died of leukemia 12 days earlier, so Buffett, his friend and collaborator, stepped up to the plate, literally.

Jimmy Buffett had a history with Wrigley Field

Buffett, who died Friday at age 76, had already recorded several noteworthy albums and had built a substantial following by 1984, but his popularity would soar in the ensuing years. His army of partying fans who filled outdoor venues on Buffett’s annual summer tours would come to be known as Parrotheads.

But an hour or so before he stepped up to the microphone on that beautiful October afternoon in 1984, Buffett stood alone on the field during batting practice. No one seemed to pay any attention to the curly-haired, mustachioed guy in sunglasses.

I was a reporter covering the game for the Warsaw Times-Union. As a fan of Buffett’s music, I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to talk to him. So as a herd of reporters crowded around the hitting cage, I went the other way, tucked my notebook in a back pocket, approached Buffett and introduced myself. 

“Warsaw? Where’s that?” he asked me with a chuckle. To no surprise, the affable Buffett was more than willing to talk to a reporter from a small town, so I pulled out my notebook and began scribbling.

Those notes are long-gone, but one thing I clearly remember from our five-minute chat was that he wanted to talk more about Goodman than himself. He considered it an honor to sit in for his dear friend. The two had co-written a few songs and Buffett covered Goodman’s “Banana Republics” on his “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” album.

Younger Cub fans might not be familiar with Goodman, who was only 36 when he died. He was a talented musician and clever songwriter who, having suffered through some miserable Cubs seasons, wrote the song “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.” After Cubs General Manager Dallas Green supposedly complained that the song was too depressing, Goodman, perhaps as a tongue-in-cheek response, wrote “Go Cubs Go,” which has become the team’s anthem.

Buffett sings the national anthem at the 1984 NLCS.

Buffett pointed out that it wasn’t his first visit to Wrigley Field; Goodman had taken him to a game there, where they sat in the bleachers. Buffett had sort of adopted the team.

Likewise, the Cubs adopted Buffett. When the team returned to the NLCS in 1989, the Cubs, remembering their 13-0 win after Buffett’s first visit,  invited him to sing the anthem again at their series opener with the San Francisco Giants. That game didn’t turn out as well. The Cubs lost 11-3 and fans don’t have to be reminded that, like five years earlier, they lost the series as well.

When the Cubs hosted the Florida Marlins in Game 1 of the 2003 NLCS, Buffett donned comical Harry Caray-size glasses to lead the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh inning stretch.

Buffett would return to Wrigley Field in 2005 with The Coral Reefer Band to perform the first ever concert at Wrigley Field. He followed up with more shows at Clark and Addison over the years as his “Margaritaville” mega-tours kept growing.

Estimated by Forbes to be worth $1 billion, Buffett not only played to sellout audiences with what he once called “drunken Caribbean rock n’ roll,” but he also was a shrewd businessman. His ventures included restaurants, retirement communities, a Broadway musical and best-selling books.

He released more than 30 albums, many of which were live shows. His best known songs include “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” “Fins”  and “Come Monday” but there also were poignant ballads such as “He Went to Paris,” “Tin Cup Chalice” and “Tides,” among others.

His beach-themed concerts were singalong affairs, four or five of which I attended in the ‘80s. Once, we drove two hours to a show only to learn it was canceled because a union representing backstage workers was striking and Buffett refused to cross the picket line. Good for him.

That might have been my final Buffett concert — or would-be concert — as I drifted away from the Parrothead scene. But I do have one regret. During our little chat at Wrigley Field back in 1984, Buffett told me he planned to quietly show up and play at a little club in Chicago that night.

Now that would have been fun. But another reporter who rode with me to Chicago that day insisted we get home early that night so he could do whatever. I relented and likely missed a memorable evening.

But, hey, I’ve got those few minutes alone with Buffett stashed away in my memory bank. 

RIP, Jimmy.