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COLUMN

Man has customized headstone with photo of Wrigley Field

Thursday, December 3, 2009 - 10:26 am

The bumper sticker on the back of Jeff Bultemeier's car celebrates the 1908 World Series champion and explains the license plate in front: W84NXYR.

That's “wait for next year” for fans whose team's popularity and mystique don't rest upon a century of often-tantalizing futility.

Being a 54-year-old Chicago Cubs fan, Bultemeier knows he only has so many “next years” left. Not to worry, though: Thanks to his new headstone, he'll be able to celebrate the lovable losers in eternity even if they somehow manage to avoid victory the rest of his life.

The Cubs aren't quite a religion for Bultemeier, which is why the board of the Lutheran Concordia Cemetery Gardens on Lake Avenue last month decided his tribute to Chicago's North Siders didn't blaspheme the various crosses, folded hands, angels and Scripture verses.

The inscription framing a striking aerial photo of the Cubs' home park on Bultemeier's dark-blue granite monument isn't exactly biblical, either, but does reveal his vision of the ideal hereafter: “If heaven is anything like Wrigley Field on a Saturday afternoon, then death isn't such a bad thing.”

“I read that in a magazine article about the Cubs 15 years ago, and knew I wanted it on my tombstone,” said the man whose stone-immortalized nickname “Cubbie” was bestowed in middle school by a fan of the Cubs' fiercest rival, the St. Louis Cardinals. “Mom died in February and 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.”

Bultemeier's unrequited love affair with the Cubs began the year after one of the team's most infamous seasons: 1969, when a late-season swoon allowed New York's “Miracle” Mets to capture the National League title and, ultimately, the World Series.

Bultemeier had been a Cleveland fan because Fort Wayne native Steve Hargan pitched for the Indians, but Bultemeier eventually switched allegiances because his dad was a Cubs fan, and he had been mesmerized by Wrigley during the Wildcat League's annual train pilgrimage to Wrigley. “It was July 9, 1964, and the San Francisco Giants won 9-4,” he said, with no trace of bitterness over all the losses that followed.

A 25-year employee of the Avery Dennison Co., a label manufacturer, Bultemeier visits Wrigley Field several times each year - eight games last season alone - and seldom deviates from his routine: from the hotel, to Dunkin' Donuts, to the park hours before the umpire cries, “Play ball!”

“I just sit there and drink my coffee, and it's so peaceful - not crazy like it is later during a game,” he said.

Now a small piece of that peace has been transplanted to a patch of greenery in Fort Wayne, where eternal rest awaits a man who has endured Bartman, alleged curses, underperforming millionaire free agents, losing records, playoff collapses and a host of other aggravations most people would equate with somewhere considerably hotter than heaven.

But not Bultemeier, who was divorced 20 years ago - not because of his passion for baseball - but still had enough faith to order a tombstone with room for one more name. “Maybe ‘Mrs. Cubbie?'” he said.

Personalized tombstones are becoming increasingly popular, according to Chris Ostermeyer, Concordia's sales counselor, who explained that the photo of Wrigley Field was etched into a ceramic tile attached to the granite - an image that should last at least as long as it's taken the Cubs to win the World Series.

Bultemeier, who disdains computers and cell phones - maybe because they weren't around in 1908 - admits some of his friends think his obsession with all things Cubbie is just a bit odd. But as a long-suffering Cubs fan myself - 1969 was my baptism under fire - I admire anybody who can find permanent serenity amid such chaos, anger, disappointment and despair. He's even talking about buying a Cubs casket before striking out for the final time.

“But give me a few years,” he said.

Here's hoping for extra innings. It's not like the Cubs are going anywhere.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel.
E-mail Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.