Mike Quade can handle the heat
Lifetime of dealing with alopecia instilled self-confidence, thick skin in Cubs skipper
The initial response was not necessarily the kindest.
There were the radio show faithful who called the hiring of Mike Quade as Chicago Cubs manager an insult of the highest order to Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg.
At some point you start to realize that you get looked at funny. But so much of how I was raised was that 'Hey, things aren't so bad. Let's go.' Woe is me was not going to happen.” -- Mike Quade, on having alopecia
There were the blogs -- and Quade's mother Gail read all those from Florida, you'd better believe -- that questioned the credentials of this guy they hardly knew.
And as sure as the Cubs have fans, the scrutiny and criticism will only intensify when the season begins.
But Gail Quade knows, just like Mike's father, three siblings and the new skipper himself, that there is nothing anyone can throw at her eldest son that could compare to the wigs that came raining down from the visiting bleachers that night of the big game during his senior year of high school.
The bald kid from Prospect High never could escape, especially not when the talented point guard was consistently one of the best players on the floor. And on this night, the Forest View kids decided to get clever during pregame introductions.
As his seething family watched, he picked up one of the wigs and put it on his head.
"I was so angry, and I said to my husband, 'Why would he put that dirty wig on?"' Gail Quade recalled. "And he just said, 'Don't worry, Mike will take care of it."'
After 15 years of taunting, Mike Quade had long since developed his own coping mechanisms.
"There are two ways to go with this," he explained. "You can be angry at the world, or you can be confident in who you are, pick up the wig, put it on and shake it to the crowd, then beat the hell out of them, which is what we did."
His family, needless to say, is not worried that he will have a thick enough skin for his new job.
"It will be pretty tough to rattle him, it really will be," said Bruce Quade, who with twin sister Theresa, is 14 months younger than Mike. Another brother, Scott, is 13 years younger.
The twins say it was harder on them when the teasing occurred.
"He would put up this wall," Theresa said. "Kids are so cruel in grade school, but he would never cry about it. We'd cry, and I knew he was just keeping it in."
"I remember distinctly getting into fights with kids," Bruce said. "To this day, when I see or hear about kids picking on other kids, it absolutely frosts me. Fortunately for Mike, there are a lot worse things than losing your hair."
It is how he was raised, Quade said, how he learned to cope with a disease that hit him suddenly and swiftly at the age of 3.
"The general tenor with my folks and with my family was, on a daily basis, this almost downplaying of it," Quade said. "At some point you start to realize that you get looked at funny. But so much of how I was raised was that 'Hey, things aren't so bad. Let's go.' Woe is me was not going to happen. Concern yes, but it was not the end of the world."
Of course, Gail and Mike Sr. were more worried than they let on. Gail worked nights for a pharmacist, and when you come home and your husband tells you that he was giving the kids a bath and your mop-topped, blond-haired 3-year old is losing his hair in clumps, it's frightening.
"We asked the pediatrician what he thought, and then I said I felt he needed to go to a dermatologist," Gail said. "We took him to so many doctors, and they all said the same thing: There was no cause and there was no cure. I even thought we should go to a psychologist, because I read that it could come from stress, and I thought maybe I was too strict. I was always telling them to stay out of the street."
She can laugh now, but not then. They read articles about alopecia areata and took Mike to one doctor on the South Side who claimed he could help their son.
"He would give him iodine treatments," she said, "and I'm telling [the doctor] 'They really hurt, he's rubbing his head.' They made him dizzy. And his hair wasn't coming back. It just wasn't coming back."
They talked about hairpieces. And about other doctors. But at age 11, he had had enough.
"The question came up, 'What else do you want to try?' and the way I recall, the decision was mine," Mike said. "I said, 'No wigs, no more doctors, I just want to deal with it.' "
Moving from the Chicago area to Ohio to New Jersey and back to Chicago for Mike Sr.'s work as a technologist and executive in the food industry, is not exactly the best recipe for fitting in, even when you do have hair. But being an exceptional athlete helped.
In high school, they called him "Isaac," short for "The white Isaac Hayes" as a freshman playing for an otherwise all-black team in Morristown, N.J.
"I think all of us, but especially Mike with his alopecia, became stronger and more confident with each move," Theresa said. "When we were in New Jersey, he was teased until they figured out he could really play basketball. Then we had the whole basketball team at our house every weekend."
When the family returned to Mount Prospect, Mike excelled as a three-sport athlete and was a top student, and if he was not the most popular boy in school, his family said, then he was close.
"My brother, Bruce, and I would joke that Mike's popularity is how we got all our friends," said Theresa, who further joked that it's how she was voted homecoming queen.
The problem was with those who didn't know Mike. For a while, it was assumed that he was so brash, he shaved his head, an inaccuracy that even worked its way into an article in a major local paper, immediately prompting a stern letter from Gail.
"They saw this kid with the shiny head and said he was cocky," Theresa said. "But he was the total opposite, a totally humble guy."
It became easier, Mike laughed, when Michael Jordan and others made baldness cool, and he'd laughingly brag at all the money he had saved in hair products he didn't have to buy. Though he was able to grow a mustache in college, he actually had the most severe form of alopecia and soon lost all his facial hair, including his eyebrows and lashes.
It was the first time youngest brother Scott said he noticed something was truly different about his brother. "It has to form your personality a little," Scott said. "Growing up in the '70s when everyone has big hair and afros, and you're the kid with no hair, I imagine you become thick-skinned and determined -- sort of an 'I'll show you' attitude -- and those personality traits are with him to this day."
It is a theory Mike does not dispute.
"There's no question, there's obviously a variety of things that make up who we all are," he said. "I'm not a psychiatrist, but so much of that is formed early in life, whether it's strong bonds at home or this unique situation that I've had. ...
"Someone asked me about the thick skin required to do this job. Did that have something to do with it? It probably did. But more important is the way my folks taught me to handle it, being proud of who I was, confident and ignore people being mean and move on. If you dwell on it, it's not good for you.
"Coming into a job like this, we're going to struggle and I'm going to be criticized a ton by some and others will like me. We all have opinions. But when I talk to male children [with alopecia] -- because I think it's much more difficult for females -- the message is the same: It's OK. Hey, believe me, it's really OK. ... You do what you love to do, turn the other cheek and to heck with everything else."
Much as he has become accustomed to standing out, his family said it might be just as difficult for Mike to become adjusted with significantly more attention now, good or bad. Taking the El train, which he prefers to his Isuzu, is sure to be a different experience. And Scott, who shares a two-bedroom apartment with his oldest brother just two blocks from Wrigley Field, has already seen how Mike's walk to work has changed.
"As a third-base coach, some people would recognize him, but it's funny how it flips so quick," Scott said. "He would walk home past the same bar probably 90 times, and maybe get a 'Hey, coach, how are ya doin?' And after Lou [Piniella] left and Mike got the job, he'd walk past the same bar and get six or seven people go, 'Hey, when are you going to take care of this?' That was in a matter of hours."
But that doesn't mean he expects his brother to change.
"You're in the minors for so long, not making a ton of money, that just becomes you, and you kind of take pride in it, that this is the guy I am. I work hard, I don't need much and I love what I do," Scott said. "When Mike found out he got the job, he said, 'Who would believe it? Yesterday I rode over on my bike with the flat tire to catch blue crabs wearing my old hat, worn-out clothes and bad shoes.'
"I said, 'Geez man, you're the manager now, you've gotta spruce up.' But that has not changed and it's not changing."
Mike's siblings also remark about the wow factor, that regardless of how long he has been in baseball and in the big leagues, it has not ceased to dawn on him just how cool it is that the kid who attended his first major-league game at Wrigley Field at 6 is now managing one of the most high-profile teams in all of sports.
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Shortly after he got the job, Theresa, who lives in Indianapolis, recalled a call from Mike, who was with the club in Cincinnati.
"He was like, 'They got me this suite. It's as big as a football field. Come on out.' " she recalled. "He was like a kid. And he was so bummed out I couldn't come. ...
"When he first started with Oakland, it was huge to our family. But this is crazy."
Bruce Quade lives in the Chicago area and suspected some of his own friends would have been happy to see Sandberg get the job.
"I could tell deep down they thought Ryne was the better choice," he said. "And I told them there are not many people who know more about the game than Mike, and there are very few guys who will out-work him. So then it comes down to how well can you handle people, and I don't know about Ryne or [Eric] Wedge, but Mike will do a good job with that.
"He's as excited as I've ever seen him about anything. He believes in himself, he really does."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.