When Jeffrey R. Bultemeier had his tombstone installed in Concordia Cemetery Gardens on Lake Avenue four years ago, the engraving and photo above his name left little doubt as to his passion and, possibly, the one thing he most hoped to see before being laid to rest there.
“If heaven is anything like Wrigley Field on a Saturday afternoon,” read the inscription accompanying the likeness of his beloved Chicago Cubs' ballpark, “then death isn't such a bad thing.”
One can only hope Bultemeier was right in the wake of Monday's announcement by the Allen County coroner's office that he had died of drowning sometime before being pulled from the St. Joseph River on Sunday morning. By the time he was born in April 1955, it had been 47 years since the Cubs had last won the World Series, and he had spent most of his 58 years on Earth waiting, hoping and perhaps even praying for another championship he will never see.
The authorities have said they suspect no foul play, and perhaps they may eventually shed light on why and how Bultemeier's body was in the river. His obituary will perhaps reveal a well-rounded portrait of the man I had never met before writing about his unique resting place in 2009, and never met again.
But because of our mutual love for a baseball team that for more than a century has repaid its fans' devotion with indifference, disappointment or worse, I felt a certain kinship with Bultemeier, just as I regret the fact that yet another Cub fan has been born, lived and died without a chance to savor the ultimate baseball prize.
In hindsight, it is perhaps fitting that in Bultemeier's first season as a Cubs fan – 1969 – the team blew a late-season lead and finished far behind the New York Mets. But that infamous choke, and others since, never dampened the enthusiasm of the man whose tombstone will forever identify him as “Cubbie” Bultemeier.
“I read that (description of heaven and Wrigley Field) in a magazine article about the Cubs 15 years ago, and I knew I wanted it on my tombstone,” Bultemeier said at the time. “Mom . . . left a small inheritance, so I figured I'd better do it now. I'm really pleased with how it turned out. I feel like a kid at Christmas.”
At the time, he even talked about buying a Cubs coffin. "But give me a few years," he said, with no idea of the irony foretold by those words.
I don't know what happened in Bultemeier's life since then, but his zeal for the Cubs clearly was a source of joy, not just frustration. Nor was that enthusiasm confined to the cemetery. Visitors to his home were greeted by a Cubs marker tucked into the shrubbery and a “welcome Cubs fans” door mat.
As Bultemeier's family and friends struggle to comprehend such a sudden, strange and premature death, I hope they will remember that joy, and share a Cub fan's ability to endure heartbreak for the promise of better days to come.
As his license plate read at the time, "W84NXYR." That's "Wait for next year," as any Cub fan knows.
For Bultemeier, the pain is over despite the fact that his beloved Cubs are comfortably in last place in the National League's Central Division. For him, presumably, the sun is shining above Wrigley Field. Lake Michigan is blue, the Saturday afternoons warm, the beer cold and a gentle breeze is blowing out to center field. The Great Umpire is in charge, the Cubs never make an error, never strike out at crucial times or give away a game in the late innings. Nobody has ever heard of Bartman or the Billy Goat curse and Harry Carey is still singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and shouting “Cubs win!” after each game.
Including the last game of the World Series.
And if that's anything like heaven, Bultemeier can indeed rest in peace because his epitaph will have been proved right:
"Death isn't such a bad thing."