CHICAGO — Craig Sager carried around a picture from his childhood with Billy Williams, and he showed it to the Hall of Fame slugger in the home dugout at Wrigley Field. He introduced his family to Cubs manager Joe Maddon and posed for a group picture with the iconic outfield serving as a backdrop.
This was no ordinary night, even for the beloved TNT broadcaster.
The 64-year-old Sager, who is being treated for a recurrence of leukemia, threw out a ceremonial first pitch before his hometown Cubs beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, 2-1, Wednesday on ‘Conquer Cancer Day’. Dressed in a white suit with a blue shirt and a red and blue tie, Sager swapped out his jacket for a home Cubs jersey with No. 14 and his name on the back before throwing to first baseman Anthony Rizzo, also a cancer survivor.
“I’ve done World Cup soccer. I’ve done the Olympics, the Super Bowls, the World Series and the NBA Finals, PGA Championships, I’ve done everything,” Sager said. “So when they called and asked if I wanted to throw out the first pitch, I was thinking, not only have I never done it, but I never even thought about it. I never even thought about it being possible. So when they called I said, ‘Heck, yes!’ ... It’s a very big thrill for me.”
Sager, who just finished with NBA’s Western Conference finals Monday night in California, got a warm ovation from the late-arriving crowd on a beautiful evening in Chicago. He heard more cheers when he led the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch, throwing a Cubs hat into the stands after he belted out the final notes.
“What he’s doing and how he’s doing it, it’s just hard to imagine,” said Maddon, who presented Sager with his jersey before the first pitch, “and we’re with him, man, we’re just with him.”
Sager was first diagnosed with leukemia in 2014 and announced in March that he was no longer in remission. He is scheduled for eight days of chemotherapy in Houston starting on Monday. He undergoes the treatment once every three weeks.
The sixth cycle is scheduled for July, and then he plans to head to Rio de Janeiro to cover basketball at the Olympics for NBC.
“You’ve got to keep a positive attitude,” Sager said. “Your family has to go through so many hardships. If you sit there and mope and feel sorry for yourself, you bring burdens on to them. I always thought that anybody who came to the hospital with me, I’m going to put on my best face. I’m going to be smiling, I’m going to be laughing. I don’t want anybody to walk and say, ‘It’s so sad to see Sager like that.’ I want them to say, ‘Man, he looks good. You wouldn’t even know he’s sick.’”
Sager grew up in nearby Batavia, Illinois, where he played on the same Little League team as former NFL quarterback Kenny Anderson. He also went to college at Northwestern and said he bought 31 tickets for family and friends for Wednesday night’s game.
He fondly recalled going to Wrigley on his birthday as a kid and acknowledged his hatred of the New York Mets, who rallied past the Cubs to win the NL East in 1969 and swept them in the NL Championship Series last year. With the Cubs off to a fast start this year, he also waxed hopefully about his favorite baseball team ending its long championship drought.
“The most important thing is to win the World Series,” Sager said. “It didn’t happen in my father’s lifetime and he was a lifelong Cubs fan. It hasn’t happened in mine. It hasn’t happened in my kids’. ... We need the World Series and we need it here this year.”