I'm on my way to buy the latest designer football from Charles O. Finley, baseball legend.
Can't find the new "Double Grip" football at Chicagoland sporting-goods stores, so I have to go buy it from the man himself. I track him down at his office atop North Michigan Avenue.
As I step off the elevator I see Charlie and an assistant at the end of the hallway rummaging through a large cardboard box full of prototype footballs. The maverick baseball owner of the 1970s hopes to be the football inventor of the 1990s.
Finley has invested $100,000 of his closely guarded cash into redesigning footballs. One features neon stripes along the seams, the better for fans and players to see the ball during night games on poorly lighted high school gridirons. The other is the Double Grip, which is supposed to be easier to catch and hold than a conventional football.
"You the guy called wanting to buy a football?" Charlie asks.
"Yeah. I also thought I'd write about it."
"You can buy a ball for $40 but I won't give you any story," Charlie barks my way. "Grab the ball you want out of the box and I'll talk to you for a minute in my office."
I find a ball that feels right as Charlie moves slowly back to his office. I join him. The tan yellow walls are covered with framed Finleys on the cover of the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated. There are also glossy photos of some of his great players--Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter, Joe Rudi--from his three World Series champion teams of the early 1970s.
"So what do you want to know about my football?" Charlie asks. His bushy eyebrows look like white caterpillars at a standoff.
"The Double Grip football. How does it work?"
"The dimples, instead of going out, they go in," he explains.
"I get it. Suction. Easier to catch. Does it work?"
"Of course it works. Read this."
Charlie reaches across his huge desk and hands me a press release from the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company. "The Football of the Future...Get the Grip." I read about the benefits of the "inverted pebbles"...a firmer grip for quarterbacks...greater accuracy...more completions...reduced chance of fumble on snaps and handoffs...during the 1991 season Michigan's Desmond Howard, Heisman Trophy winner, caught 19 touchdown passes using the Double Grip...Northwestern defeated Illinois 17-11 in a rain-drenched game using the ball.
I was in Dyche Stadium for that game, and sure enough, Northwestern was completing long bombs in a downpour while the Illini's vaunted aerial attack was grounded.
"It's the little things that win or lose a game," the PR piece quotes Finley at its end. Rawlings must believe in the ball, because it recently bought exclusive rights from Charlie to manufacture and distribute it.
"Impressive. So that's how Desmond Howard won the Heisman," I crack.
"The ball had nothing to do with it," Finley snaps, unamused.
"I just got back from watching Michigan play in the Rose Bowl," he says. "I handed out 385 sample Double Grip footballs to the media. They loved them."
"But Mr. Finley. I thought journalists weren't supposed to accept payola."
"It's not payola!" he insists. "They're souvenirs."
I avoid his ferocious stare by admiring his baseball memorabilia.
"So what do you think of today's baseball owners?" I ask after a tense silence.
Charlie's assistant brings in a large sack filled with the day's mail. Charlie grabs a foot-long butcher knife from his desk, I presume to open the mail.
I sense it is time to leave. With the Double Grip ball under one arm, I peel two crisp $20 bills from my wallet. I place them on the desk in front of Finley.
"I stopped by a Cash Station on the way over," I say. "I thought you'd want cash."
Peering down at the money, he responds: "You were right."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.