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Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Greetings from Mesa


He hasn't gotten too many complaints. Though one time a baseball fan in D.C. did try to get him kicked out of his seat, citing an "obstructed view." There are thousands of Cubs fans who head to Mesa, Ariz., every year for spring training, but 32-year-old Mike Hales, aka "Mohawk Mike," always stands out in the crowd.

Hales' first spring training game was back in 1989, when his family drove down from Utah. He got to meet baseball idols Mark Grace, Jerome Walton, Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson, and he even got Harry Caray to pen his signature "Holy Cow" on a baseball.

Spring training has been an annual thing for Hales ever since. In college he started bringing friends from the University of Utah down to the games, then after graduation he says he "moved to Arizona for the Cubs." And why not Chicago?

"Too cold out there," he told me. "Here it's 30 games, 30 days, 85 degrees -- and the girls runnin' around scantily clad."

What's not to love.

For Hales, who now lives back up in Utah but still makes the trek down every year, spring training isn't just a chance to see his beloved team up close, it's also a great spot for a young, unmarried guy. Beer, baseball, sunshine and the chance to meet what he calls his "future ex-girlfriends." The perfect place for a man who lives by the motto "Win or lose, we still booze."

Hales says the only years he ever missed spring training were when he was in the Army on active duty -- and even then he usually found a place to watch the Cubs play on TV. Uncle Sam has been the only boss who could ever keep him away from the ballpark.

"One year I was gonna have an issue getting the vacation time [from my job]," he said. "So I just quit and found a new one after the month of games. This year I'm working for a mortgage company, so I pretty much do what I want. I told 'em I was coming and if they don't want me back when I come back that's all right, I'll find another one."

Shannon family
The Shannons have passed down their love of the Cubs to their sons.

He's a pretty easygoing guy, Mohawk Mike. Even the Cubs' annual act of futility (often referred to as "their season") doesn't get him down.

"The best part about March is it's the beginning of the season," he said. "We're always optimistic right now. The beer's colder and always tastes a little better before September."

For the Shannon family, a trip to Mesa is a little tamer. Mike and Sammy Shannon met while she was playing volleyball at Rice University in Houston. Mike had played college volleyball at Pepperdine and was living in Texas doing his dentistry residency program and helping his sister through a tough time.

The two fell in love and Sammy learned quickly that her beau was a diehard Cubs fan. Mike's grandfather had been a fan of the Lovable Losers, and though his mother was raised on the South Side, she was raised to prefer the Friendly Confines to Comiskey as well. When Mike's parents moved to California for his dad's medical school residency, they brought their love for the Cubs with them and passed it on to their children.

Now the Shannons, who live in San Clemente, Calif., are teaching their kids to be Cubs fans, as well. Their youngest boy, Owen, who's 3½, is proving to be an easy convert. He says his dad is his favorite baseball player and he wears his Cubs tee with pride. Their oldest, 6-year-old Spencer, is a different story. He occasionally roots for the Cardinals or the Reds just to bug his dad. In fact, when the Shannons sing the kids to bed -- "Take Me Out To The Ballgame," natch -- Owen likes to take digs at the Cubs and the Pirates (Pittsburgh is "the worst team ever" he tells me) by making up his own words.

Both boys are big for their age (Mike is 6-foot-5 and Sammy is 5-10) and both are already dreaming of baseball careers. Meanwhile, Mike and Sammy dream of living in Wrigleyville for a year when the boys are all grown up. Sammy, a native of Texas, says Chicago feels like home.

"The people are so friendly and the food is fantastic," she said. "I was alone for a few hours one time while Mike was working; I went out and met some people and we were like best friends immediately!"

Kind of like the fellow Cubs fans you meet at spring training.

On Saturday I had the Shannons on my left, the boys wrestling over a box of Dippin' Dots, and Mohawk Mike to my right, drinking beers while curious onlookers stopped to touch his hair. And, of course, the Cubs dead ahead of me, on their way to a spring win over the Padres.

A perfect day in Mesa.