CHICAGO — Don't tell Pete Vonachen there's no crying in baseball.
The former owner and longtime investor of the Peoria Chiefs fought a losing battle with his emotions from the moment he arrived at Wrigley Field on Wednesday as the Chicago Cubs guest of honor.
Happy tears, he called them.
"So unbelievable, so emotional for me," said Vonachen, who will be 86 in August. "You can tell how this is affecting me. I got so many phone calls today from people congratulating me."
The Cubs honored Vonachen for his lifelong contributions to minor-league baseball, and fittingly, with the visiting St. Louis Cardinals on hand, accounting for both major-league parent clubs the Peoria Chiefs have worked with for more than two decades.
New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi and Houston Astros manager Brad Mills — both Chiefs alumni — each phoned Vonachen on Wednesday to offer congrats. By Dave Eminian. (Peoria) Journal Star.
"And the best one of all — Jimmy Piersall — he called, too," Vonachen said. "Just busted my chops and told me I was one lucky SOB to get a day in my name.
"Well, he's right."
Down on the field, Vonachen leaned against the wall near the third-base dugout, swarmed by players and officials, including Cubs manager Mike Quade, who walked up during an interview and said, "Is that guy STILL talking? You'd think after 85 years he'd be out of words."
There were visits from Cardinals TV broadcaster Al Hrabosky, the former reliever. And Cubs bullpen coach Lester Strode.
"I was there in Peoria in 1990, and what a great experience it was," Strode said. "Pete wasn't the mayor of the town, but he could have been. He gets to know people, makes sure you are comfortable and your family is OK. His antics are legendary, we all know the stories - the rooftop thing (Pete's Perch) was the best one.
"Baseball has been lucky to have Pete Vonachen. Lucky to have a guy with his passion and dedication."
Said Cardinals pitcher Jason Motte, who made his conversion to pitching while on assignment in Peoria: "I loved that organization there. Good crowds, nice ballpark, I have nothing but good memories of my time there.
"Pete did things right, and it's awesome that he's getting a day in his honor."
The Cardinals most high-profile ex-Chief, Albert Pujols, did not visit with Vonachen on the field, and dodged multiple attempts by media members to ask him for comment about the guest of honor.
But the Cubs were more than gracious.
"Pete gave us all a gift at the end of my season there — a shirt and a bag for our gear," said Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney. "I still have that bag and use it to this day. It's the only place I've ever been where the owner gave you a gift. He's an amazing guy."
Former Chiefs Welington Castillo, Justin Berg, Casey Coleman and Jeff Samardzija all trotted out on the field to join Vonachen for a photo near home plate during a ceremony in which the team presented him with a plaque bearing the No. 25, made out of Wrigley scoreboard pieces, to commemorate his years of service in the game.
Vonachen teared up, then walked out halfway from home plate to the pitcher's mound and sent in a two-bounce, rolling ceremonial first-pitch to Berg.
"He did a great job," Berg said. "He got out there and had something on the ball, and that's all you can ask for a guy his age. He's got so much energy."
Quipped Vonachen: "I decided to throw him something that looked like a split-finger. But all it split was the grass."
Then, tearing up again, he added: "I don't have words for this. I'm in shock, and it's a moment I'll never forget."
He hurried to his seat with Dutchie Caray to await the seventh-inning stretch - at which he was scheduled to sing - and was undaunted by a 53-minute rain delay.
"I'd rather look at this day as an honor to the Peoria Chiefs franchise and all the people who have worked for it over the years. My goal has always been to entertain people, take care of families and make sure that ex-Chiefs players remember Peoria as the best place they ever played.
"I bought this team for $100,000 in 1983 because I believed professional baseball was going to make Peoria a better place to live.
"You need the Peoria Rivermen hockey team in Peoria. You need the Bradley Braves. And you need the Peoria Chiefs, because these are the things that make Peoria an exceptional sports town."
Information from: Journal Star, http://pjstar.com