Welcome to Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks, a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.
BALLPARK: Wrigley Field
HOME TEAM: Chicago Cubs
VISITS: 4 games, including 1 doubleheader
FIRST VISITED: August 3, 1994
CHRONOLOGY: 13th of 34
RANKING: 5th of 34
When I was nine years old, I briefly held quite the clever theory, namely that everybody famous did not exist. When we saw Tom Seaver on television, it was some kind of setup, I figured. How could it not be? How could anybody so much larger than life actually be living in the same life that we regular people lived?
I tried this theory out on my mother. She was good enough to shoot it down pretty quickly and plainly. No, she said, they’re real; who do you suppose is in those pictures anyway?
Ultimately, I couldn’t argue with that — I’ve always done better with logic than conspiracies — but still, it was tough to conceive that anybody or anything fantastically famous could be something you could just come upon. It’s probably why when I looked down from the Excelsior level at Citi Field and saw Tom Seaver walking through the Delta Club stands last June in civilian clothes (as, ironically, part of the nightly salute to military veterans), it was kind of shocking. I walk through the stands in civilian clothes. I’m a regular person. Tom Seaver is like a person-plus…y’know?
It’s that same concept of what’s real and what is simply too big a deal to be real that hit me the first time I approached Wrigley Field. I’d been aware of Wrigley Field for the previous quarter-century. I viewed it on TV at regular intervals every year. It was as photographed and filmed a ballpark as had ever been.
Yet there it was, on the street, in Chicago, right in front of me.
In some ways, I still can’t believe it.
To say there is nothing like Wrigley Field is one of the more obvious statements one can make about ballparks, but perhaps it is more telling for me to tell you that when I was growing up there was nothing like Wrigley Field. I watched the Mets play eleven different opponents annually and only one of them held its home games in a facility that appeared completely different from all the others.
Shea was Shea and everything else looked like everything else, just about. Dodger Stadium had those seats behind the netting that lined up right behind home plate, and the Astrodome was clearly indoors, what with its weird lighting, and once the Expos moved out of Parc Jarry, you couldn’t help but notice the lingering track markings of Olympic Stadium, but mostly it was all a blur of Mets gray and road game bland.
But not Wrigley. Wrigley was a break from the sameness. Wrigley belonged somewhere. Our announcers talked about Wrigley like it was something more than a baseball stadium, like it was…like it was somewhere. Dave Kingman (for us, against us and then again for us) hit balls on to Waveland Avenue. If he were a lefty, he would have hit them onto Sheffield Avenue. These were streets on the North Side of Chicago, where the wind might blow in from Lake Michigan, but if it didn’t…watch out, ’cause Dave Kingman was goin’ to town.
I knew about Chicago geography because the Mets played nine games a year at Wrigley Field. I knew more about Chicago geography than I knew about any other city’s, and I had never been there. I knew Wrigley Field’s address was 1060 West Addison because that’s the address Elwood Blues claimed as his own in The Blues Brothers. Did other ballparks even have addresses? Did Ralph, Lindsey or Bob ever mention the names of the streets behind left field at Veterans Stadium?
Wrigley Field was somewhere and it was definitely something. Only Wrigley had ivy. Only Wrigley had that hand-operated center field scoreboard. Only Wrigley had day games and, for the longest time, nothing but day games. Only Wrigley kept its capacity way below 50,000 (it wasn’t even close). Only Wrigley had Bleacher Bums. I read about them and I didn’t like them with their hating on hippies and throwing of beer, but they were identifiable. Who sat in any part of Three Rivers Stadium? Who knew? Nobody ever talked about any other ballpark in the National League the way everybody talked about Wrigley Field.
And the damndest thing was how long it had been there. Built in 1914 for the Chicago Whales of the Federal League as Weeghman Park, it became home to the Cubs in 1916 and changed its name to reflect Cub ownership in 1926. By then, the National League lineup of ballparks was well set for the next half-generation: Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis; Forbes Field in Pittsburgh; Crosley Field in Cincinnati; Braves Field in Boston; Ebbets Field in Brooklyn; the Polo Grounds in Manhattan; the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia; and Wrigley Field on the North Side of Chicago. In 1938, the Phillies abandoned the tin-fenced bandbox to share Shibe Park with the A’s. With that switch, the octet of N.L. home fields remained unchanged clear through to 1952.
None of those buildings has seen major league baseball action since 1970. None except for Wrigley.
You can pick any spot you like in the last 95 years and reach a similar conclusion. In the year before the first National League expansion in 1962, the senior circuit’s ballparks of record were Crosley, Forbes, Shibe (renamed Connie Mack Stadium), Sportsman’s (renamed Busch Stadium, predecessor to the round version), County Stadium in Milwaukee, the Los Angeles Coliseum and the recently opened Candlestick Park…and Wrigley Field. No baseball in any of those places not named Wrigley since 1999.
For sixteen seasons, from the day the Expos took up uncomfortable residency at the Big O in 1977 until the next expansion kicked in, these were your stadia: Three Rivers, the Vet, Riverfront, Busch II (the circular one), the Astrodome, Fulton County, Jack Murphy, Candlestick, Dodger Stadium, our very own Shea Stadium, the aforementioned Big O…and Wrigley Field. Only Dodger Stadium has survived to keep Wrigley Field company on the National League schedule. And once the Marlins slide southward from their overly named facility in Miami Gardens to their as yet unnamed park in Miami proper, both ballparks from the 1993 expansion will be off the N.L. map.
By 2012, the National League ballparks with the longest stretch of continuous use by their primary occupant will be:
1) Wrigley Field, since 1916
2) Dodger Stadium, since 1962
3) Coors Field, since 1995
Or, to put it another way, starting with 1916 and running through the season after the next one, 14 National League franchises will have played regularly scheduled home games in 40 different venues, including two (the Polo Grounds and County Stadium) that were used by two different N.L. clubs. The only teams to call only one place home will be the Cubs and the Arizona Diamondbacks…who came along a mere 82 years after Wrigley Field took in its apparently permanent tenant.
To say ballparks come and go from our midst is an understatement — and an inaccurate one when applied to where the Chicago Cubs play.
Wrigley Field not only perseveres, it preserves. Catch a glimpse of it in a newsreel from the 1930s and it appears not much different from the Wrigley you’ve been seeing on TV all your life. Its vicinity may have grown more commercial, and various owners may have upped the modernity ante here and there, but when you look at it, Wrigley is still Wrigley.
Television opened my eyes to Wrigley, but Wrigley wasn’t made for TV. It was made for me to go see for myself. That was the goal for many years. Long before I fathomed I could, as a matter of course, visit ballparks other than Shea, well in advance of my fashioning a dream of seeing as many ballparks as I could, there was only one that was specifically on my must-go list.
I already knew where it was. Now I just had to get there.
Maybe, as the Fox promos from a few years back put it, you can’t script October, but Stephanie and I scripted our first multipark journey in the summer of 1994 exquisitely. Land in Chicago on Saturday. Visit the overwrought sequel to the late Comiskey Park on Sunday. Tool up I-94 to Milwaukee, the main Miller plant, Edwardo’s phenomenal stuffed pizza and homey County Stadium on Monday. Tool back down I-94 on Tuesday, take in something that has nothing to do with baseball — in our case, the Art Institute of Chicago — so we don’t seem overly one-track minded. And then, as if to build to a crescendo, you save the best for just about last.
Wednesday was Wrigley Field day…day, to be sure. Night games had been around the North Side since 1988, and I’m sure they served a purpose, but they didn’t serve mine. I could go to a night game anywhere. This was the day I’d been waiting some 25 years for, ever since I first heard of the Cubs and decided I didn’t like them. By 1994, the Mets and Cubs had been separated, made to sit in separate divisions, perhaps a result of them having talked too much and disturbing their N.L. East classroom. It was too bad. I loved the Mets-Cubs rivalry, from when it worked out well for us (1969) to when it didn’t work out well for either of us (1970) to when nature displayed its bizarre sense of humor (1984, 1989) and gave the Cubs a break at our expense.
The goal was to see Wrigley Field. The übergoal was to see the Mets there, preferably on a Friday afternoon (where else did they play on Friday afternoons?), with the Mets and Cubs battling it with something on the table (instead of merely knocking around that basement co-op they shared in the late ’70s and early ’80s) and, as long as we’re dreaming, make it a doubleheader, the way Ernie Banks would. That wasn’t happening this afternoon on the North Side. I’d have to settle for the Cubs and the Marlins, just one game.
I could handle that. I could even handle taking the bus to the ballpark, an option I had never considered outside of a camp trip to Shea. Stephanie and I began our Wednesday with a detour to the Chicago Historical Society — everything on this vacation felt like a detour once Wrigley loomed as our prime destination — and when we stepped outside to make our way to the El (the elevated line to Wrigley…that was part of the übergoal, too), a bus appeared that was headed to where we needed to be.
Imagine that: you get on a city bus and it just happens to stop a ballpark that’s been in operation since 1914, and the ballpark is where some people get off because their team has playing home games since 1916, and it’s where they go the way the rest of us go to our ballparks that, whatever their charms, are not Wrigley Field.
But this, once off the bus, was exactly that. It was Wrigley Field.
It was really here, right where Elwood Blues said, at the corner of Clark and Addison. It was really here, with the red marquee, clarifying that the Chicago Whales of the Federal League had long gone off to sea, that this was, no doubt about it, WRIGLEY FIELD HOME OF CHICAGO CUBS.
It was really here. Buses rolled by. A McDonald’s was across the street. Bars were nearby, too. Somebody I interviewed a couple of weeks earlier, from a beer importer, told me they had an account he could recommend where we could stop in before the game for a cold one.
Like I needed a cold one. I had Wrigley Field in my face. I was already intoxicated.
The Cubs, after thieving two division titles from the Mets in 1984 and 1989 went through phenomenon phases, as if Wrigley Field wasn’t phenomenal enough. Lee Elia’s caustic 1983 appraisal of critical Cubs fans — “Eighty-five percent of the fuckin’ world is working. The other 15 come out here.” — proved prophetic, in a way. There were times when it seemed 15% of the world was filing into Wrigley Field. Day games, night games, didn’t matter. Word was you couldn’t get a ticket.
1994 was not one of those years. We got the tickets pretty easily (ordering them “online” for novelty’s sake) and there were still plenty left when we arrived. Paid attendance for our first game at Wrigley was a little over 26,000, not the crowd scene I’d anticipated.
Which was fine. I didn’t want a scene. A scene I could get on television. I caught Wrigley when it was relaxed, when it was just a ballpark with two ballclubs playing one ballgame as might have been going on in just about any year since 1916. There was nothing on the table for the Cubs or the Marlins. I could sit back with an Old Style and take that in with ease.
Here’s what I remember about the ballgame itself: almost nothing. Here’s what I remember about Wrigley Field: almost fainting from how beautiful it was. Our seats were great. Maybe all seats there are great, but these definitely were. Got a great downstairs panorama of Waveland over there and Sheffield over there, and the ivy in the foreground. Jesus, there’s really ivy on that wall! It wasn’t a photographic illusion. It was small yet it was grand. The players were close by. Harry Caray led us in “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.” The wind blew out more than in. The Cubs scored eight. The Marlins scored nine.
Didn’t matter what either team did. The day was a dream. I was enthralled. Stephanie, to date a modestly interested observer on these sojourns, was enchanted. She loved Wrigley Field enough in 1994 to stop and watch every Cubs home game that has come on TV since. Hasn’t made her a Cubs fan (lord help her if it had) but she knows the place as any baseball fan would.
We walked around the park afterwards. We took the El back downtown. We went for German food that night. We flew home the next day.
What could be better?
Four years later. That’s what.
No, strike that.
It’s 1998, and my fondest Wrigley Field wish is about to come true. I am about to get everything I ever wanted. And for that, I have two entities to thank.
1) Nature, for raining out a Mets-Cubs game in April (a makegood for that bizarre behavior from ’84 and ’89).
2) Jeff, for everything else.
Jeff has made a few cameos in these ballpark chronicles, but now it’s time you meet him in full. It’s all right that it’s taken this long. It took me a while, too.
We were what you’d call ships who passed in the night. Technically, we passed in the day, which was appropriate, given we’re talking about Wrigley Field. In March 1989, I was interviewing for my new job with a beverage magazine on Long Island, almost stumbling into it. When I inquired about openings by phone, I was thinking freelance. The editor said they had a fulltime position newly available. It had been, up to that week, Jeff’s. He was moving on, to Chicago, to a dairy magazine. When I first came in, Jeff was still at what was about to become my desk. We were introduced, we shook hands, and that was that.
Fast-forward a year-and-a-half later, to a trade show in Chicago. Jeff dropped by the convention center to say hi to his old friends from the beverage magazine. I wasn’t one of them, but he was friendly toward me nonetheless. In our first brief chat since our earlier handshake, the subject of baseball came up (funny how quickly that happens in my conversations). I said something about envying his locale given the ballpark geography at his disposal. Well, Jeff said, next time you’re in Chicago during the season, look me up and we can go to a Cubs game.
For a few years thereafter, I’d see an article in the Times about milk or one of its related products, clip it and mail it to Jeff. He would reciprocate with a clipping about soft drinks from the Tribune. No biggie. Then one day I received a beverage article from Jeff with the news that the last dairy story I sent him was forwarded to him at home. He hadn’t been with that magazine for a while and, since his daughter was born, he had taken up a life of freelancing. I snapped up his editorial services until he moved back into fulltime employment. Of more lasting significance, we developed a baseball-centered line of communication. I was a Mets fan, he was a Tribe fan (originally from Ohio) but our common ground was our love of ballparks and our desire to see as many of them as often as we could.
Somewhere in there, the “next time you’re in Chicago…” invite, which I had never forgotten, remained alive, especially since Jeff’s new job was with the company that owned — wait for it — the Chicago Cubs.
We were pretty good e-mail buddies by early in the ’98 season when rain fell on Wrigley and a single Mets-Cubs game in July was rescheduled into a Friday doubleheader. Hey, Jeff suggested, maybe you can come out for that.
Yes, maybe I could.
Jeff worked his levers and I did what I had to do. A public relations person was delighted to hear that (ahem) I would be in town in late July and would love to drop by and visit with her client. Whaddaya know, they’d love to have me! There — I had an official reason to be in Chicago, and let my magazine know I had real important business in the Midwest, I’ll be out of the office toward the end of that week (such initiative I was mysteriously showing). I flew out on a Wednesday night, checked into a hotel near O’Hare (with decent if staticky AM reception of the Mets-Brewers game from Milwaukee; Bob Uecker referred to our manager as “Bobby Valentin”) and devoted Thursday to making sure the dream would indeed manifest into reality.
The hotel had a shuttle to the airport. The airport had a light rail terminal with a train that took you into downtown. Bam, I’m there. I meet Jeff at his office…first time I’d actually seen him in eight years, third time I’d shaken his hand ever. He introduced me to several co-workers as the Mets fan he’d be going to the game(s) with tomorrow.
And every one of them sneered. Playful sneers, friendly sneers, but a definite undertone of animus. They didn’t like the Mets anymore than I liked the Cubs.
Which I loved. They still resented us for 1969. 1984 and 1989 didn’t do a thing to salve their souls. For a moment in 1998, I was the embodiment of all that had gone wrong in their baseball lives. They actually cared about the Cubs and the Mets the way I cared about the Mets and the Cubs.
My existence was validated.
Jeff and I had a nice lunch, he handed me my ticket for the next day (he’d meet me at our seats after a half-day of work, a very Chicagoan thing to do, I thought) and he pointed me in the direction of my appointment. Right…I had to go interview somebody to justify this wonderful boondoggle. No problem, I could do that.
Friday dawned hot and sunny. Perfect. The shuttle to O’Hare was at my door. Perfect. I knew exactly where I was going by CTA. Blue line to downtown. Transfer to the Red line uptown. Lots of Cubbie blue on the Red, and just a little Mets blue…mine.
“Mets fan, huh?”
Spotted. And guilty. And wearing HUNDLEY 9 on my back. Took a bit of ribbing from my trainmates over how non-adept our new left fielder was with fly balls. Todd Hundley, the conversation went, what a joke.
Which I also loved. Not the part where Todd Hundley couldn’t catch a wave if he were a Beach Boy; that part sucked in the overarching quest for the Mets to snag the 1998 Wild Card. I loved that these Cubs fans knew what was going on. That they knew from Hundley’s travails. That even if they were too young to remember 1969 (which I was old enough to remember only sketchily) that the Mets were a dark part of their family heritage. When they saw a Mets fan on the train, they weren’t exactly welcoming, but they weren’t threatening, really — and they were definitely acknowledging. The Mets, 3½ behind the Cubs in the multidivison playoff race, were on their minds. I was the Mets’ surrogate for the moment.
I took the brief barrage of abuse with a smile. I wouldn’t have done that on a train to anywhere else. It was early Friday afternoon and I was a couple of stops from Wrigley Field where I was about to watch a couple of games. How could I not be smiling?
We pulled into the Addison station, and there it was once more, right where I left it in 1994, right where it had been since 1914. Wrigley Field…since I was last here three National League ballparks had risen and two had been swept away. The army of steamrollers Terrence Mann spoke of in Field of Dreams would just keep coming. The Vet would be replaced by Citizens Bank. Three Rivers would make way for PNC. Riverfront would disappear and Great American would materialize. Jack Murphy would bow out and Petco would be let in. The second Busch would become the third Busch. Shea would be dismantled before my eyes in favor of Citi Field.
Wrigley Field wasn’t going anywhere. But I was going inside.
Jeff told me he was securing us what he called the Rock Star Seats, the company box of boxes. He wasn’t kidding. These were seats worthy of Styx or REO or Chicago themselves. These were on a line with the Cubs on-deck circle, so close that the pine tar practically spattered off Mark Grace’s bat onto your lap. It was a few rows from the field, and at Wrigley, that meant you were close to everything. You were practically in play. It was the first time I truly feared for my well-being vis-à-vis foul balls.
Everybody wanted to be in the Rock Star Seats. An usher was charged with shooing away children who were hoping for a souvenir or an autograph or a nod from a Cub Star. The usher’s job was to be suspicious, unless you produced the Rock Star ticket, in which case he couldn’t have been more courteous. I got courtesy and a query about my HUNDLEY 9 shirt. The usher, so close to action, wasn’t really up on what was going on in baseball. I briefly explained what Todd had been doing since his pop Randy left the North Side in 1977.
Me and the usher, we got along fine.
Even Lee Elia would have been impressed by the crowd of over 40,000 this Friday. More than 15% of the world’s population was crammed into Wrigley Field, or so it felt. Small park, big interest, old logistics. If I wanted comfort, I would have stayed back at the hotel. It was a little cramped? Who cared? I was at Wrigley Field on Friday afternoon for a Mets-Cubs doubleheader in the midst of a battle for the National League Wild Card.
I ran down all those particulars in my head about six-dozen times in the course of the afternoon just so I could be sure I wasn’t dreaming any of them.
Jeff joined me in the first inning. Even he seemed impressed by how good the Rock Star Seats and what they showed us were. Friday afternoon doubleheaders weren’t exactly common, not even in Chicago. It was good for him to be out of the office. It was good for me to be next to him, the one Mets fan (politely) cheering the visitors in a sea of homestanding partisans. I’m a good guest. I didn’t boo any Cubs. Hell, this was the Summer of Sosa. I had brought my camera and clicked off any number of shots of Sammy loosening up his arm, Sammy ducking into the dugout, Sammy taking practice swings, Sammy — 2-for-8 on the day — not homering.
But I rooted for the Mets, and that’s where the dream really took wing (that’s a birding allusion in deference to Jeff’s other great passion, which he brings to life quite accessibly here — treat yourself and read it). Armando Reynoso was making his long-awaited first start of the year, and he picked up where he more or less left off in 1997, by being largely untouchable. Eight innings, five hits, no runs. The Mets pecked away at future Met Geremi Gonzalez and we (or should I say “I,” since I didn’t have much company in my affections among the Rock Star set) won going away, 5-0.
Butch Huskey had a couple of hits. I mention that because Butch Huskey was Jeff’s favorite Met of the era. His favorite Met name anyway.
Between games, I got up to find the men’s room and something to eat. Both were challenges, linewise. 1914 comes home to roost again. The sound system sucked. There was no replay. Even Rock Stars lacked amenities; Jeff noted a game earlier in the season at which one of the NBA champion Bulls had to queue up at the trough like everybody else.
And again…so what? It’s amazing how ivy and intimacy and a hand-cranked scoreboard and bricks not for effect but because they were an excellent building material and two games at a time of day when there are usually none trumps everything. Plus, the Mets won. Ralph Kiner always advised winning the first game of a doubleheader was crucial. You had one in your pocket.
Everything else would be gravy. But what gravy!
The Mets came out for the second game in different uniforms. This was the first year of the wearing of the black, and the Mets weren’t shy about sporting everything in their wardrobe. For a little while it appeared they might be changing their luck and not for the better. Todd Hundley displayed his unfamiliarity with left field when a Tyler Houston line drive eluded his glove (he should’ve worn a chest protector) but no harm was done. Still, the Mets trailed going to the eighth. But Mike Piazza drove in the tying run, Lenny Harris drove in the go-ahead run and, in the ninth, the Mets tacked on a few more.
It was a sweep! A Mets doubleheader sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field on a Friday afternoon that I took in from the kinds of seats reserved for the Eddie Vedders of the world. The Mets were the real rock stars, however. They were now 1½ in back of the Cubs for the Wild Card. There were still two months to go in the season, but this would be, thanks to expansion, realignment and general Seligism, the last series between the two old rivals. We had to get to the Cubs while the getting was good.
The getting was very good this Friday. Wrigley was very great. I didn’t want to leave. Savoring victory, I took out my Chinon 35mm camera (huge by 2010 standards) and took some more pictures. The memories, however, would suffice. I can still see Wrigley filling up; Wrigley jammed; Wrigley filing out; the green, green grass of Wrigley, so close to me…I didn’t want to pull back from it.
Even though we took our time exiting, it was still a mob scene getting out. Absorbed at least one not so gentle ribbing about my Mets cap and shirt from someone who had obviously enjoyed a few Old Styles in the course of the long day. I might have answered a little chippily at that point, but I had two wins in my pocket. No need to ruin the sensation.
You know what’s outside Wrigley Field? Wrigleyville! It wasn’t planned that way, and I understand it’s pretty annoying for people who just want to live in the area (those who consume too much Old Style can pose a threat to local lawns), but what a boon to those of us who don’t want to let go of our experience. We don’t have to! Jeff guided us to a used bookstore he told me about. I had mentioned a few times in our stream of correspondence my twenty years of disappointment at losing my copy of Screwball, Tug McGraw’s 1974 autobiography and one of my all-time favorite books. It fell off the back of my bike in tenth grade after I had just used it for a book report (which I had also done in eighth grade and sixth grade), and never, prior to the invention of eBay, could track it down.
We browsed the book store, I had no luck with Screwball, though I was delighted to find Joy In Mudville by George Vecsey, the story of 1969 (I’m surprised it wasn’t repackaged for this neighborhood as Misery In Wrigleyville). It was a swell consolation prize and I was prepared to pay for it when Jeff, very matter of factly, pointed to a wall.
And so it was. Two decades of searching ended two blocks from Wrigley Field, not too far from a brewpub called Weeghman Park and just up the street from a Chinese restaurant with the name Prince.
Could it get any better than this?
I’d fly home Saturday morning and listen to the Mets lose to the Cubs on the drive back from LaGuardia. The Mets would also lose Sunday. The margin was again 3½. We’d alternately sparkle and fade down the stretch in 1998. The Cubs gave us a fantastic opening one memorable September afternoon when their left fielder, Brant Brown, handled a fly ball like he was Todd Hundley and allowed three Brewer runs to score in the bottom of the ninth. Every Mets fan believed this was a sign of 1969 reincarnate, but the Mets themselves had no such illusions and went about losing their final five games of the year, leaving the Wild Card to be settled between the Cubs and Giants on a sudden-death Monday night at Wrigley. I tuned in, but I couldn’t bring myself to watch. That was supposed to be our Wild Card, dammit. Somewhere deep in my thinking, as the hurt of the ’98 proto-collapse eased, I would sate myself with my Friday from July. That was my playoff, and I won.
Twice, per Mr. Banks.
As for Wrigley at night…what’s the point? TV, I suppose, and maybe competitive realities, but c’mon. It puts me in mind of when cold-weather NFL teams parade their cheerleaders down the sidelines in warmup suits, as if the important thing is they lead cheers, not show off their…outfits. Covering up Wrigley’s sunny fashion with darkness demonstrates the same questionable taste.
Jeff told me he actually preferred night games at Wrigley and was kind enough to take me one evening in 2003 when I was back in town on business. The seats were good if not Rockin’, and Wrigley was still nice, but not sunlit, and therefore not as special, not in my book. But Jeff saw some birds he liked and it was very much baseball, so it was by no means a total loss.
One more Wrigley opportunity presented itself that season — or postseason. I had a trade show in Chicago and called Jeff to get together for dinner when my day was done. This was the night off between Games Five and Six of the NLCS between the Cubs and Marlins. The series was coming back to the North Side, the Cubbies just one game from their first World Series since 1945. Jeff had tickets — bleachers — for tomorrow night.
Did I want to go?
It was a terribly tempting offer. I had been caught up in the Cubs’ march to glory of late. It was the first time they’d made the playoffs in a way that had nothing to do with the Mets, so I could be magnanimous in their direction. Most of decent baseball-loving America was dreaming of a Cubs-Red Sox Fall Classic, and Chicago was doing its part to hold up its end of the bargain. Everybody in town was talking about a Cubs’ pennant as a done deal. The newscasts were full of warnings about not overdoing the celebrating like was done for the Bulls — let’s not loot, OK? The PBS affiliate devoted a half-hour to mulling the bad old days and how they were about to be erased.
There might as well have been a MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner strung up across Michigan Avenue.
Even I, old Cubs-hater, was talking about it in definite and approving terms. No way, I said to Jeff, can the Marlins come back, not with Prior going in Game Six and Wood, should it get that far, going in Game Seven.
Tantalizing as Jeff’s latest invite to take in a Cubs game was, I turned it down. I was in my third week of acute bronchitis, and it was all I could do to muster the strength to make my trade show. My flight home was the next day and I truly wanted to be on it, even if it meant passing up a chance to play eyewitness to baseball history. Besides, I told Jeff, you should find a real Cubs fan to accompany you. Somebody who’s been waiting his whole life for this moment should have that ticket.
Stephanie and I rooted my ancient nemeses on from home. It may have been the first time I sincerely hoped good things for the Cubs, but I was no luckier for them than any black cat or Brant Brown. Down 3-0, with one on and one out in the eighth, Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo popped a ball to the left side. Cubs left fielder Moises Alou seemed to have a bead on it, but it might be going into the crowd and…
Whoever had what could have been my ticket in the bleachers was an eyewitness to history, all right. Actually, he may not have been able to make out from that vantage point what happened, but he and Jeff and everybody else would learn soon enough the name Steve Bartman (poor kid) and what happens when you assume. Eight Marlins runs scored, the Cubs lost Game Six, the Cubs lost Game Seven and the Cubs are still waiting.
I haven’t been to Chicago since. Haven’t had much reason to pay a ton of attention to the Cubs except when they’ve come to Flushing or the Mets have gone to Wrigley. No rivalry anymore, except in my head. I’ve never let go of the Cubs as Metropolitan Enemy No. 1 on my most loathed list — I mean, sure, the Braves and the Philies and the Cardinals have all taken their turns, but it’s never stopped being 1969 in the depths of my being. I still resent them the way a six-year-old would for trying to keep my team from winning what I decided I wanted my team to win more than anything else. How dare they?
This feeling doesn’t dissipate easily. Or at all.
In the fall of 2006, on the eve of the Mets’ ascending to the National League playoffs, HBO was running a documentary chronicling all the dratted luck the Cubs had experienced in the past century. When they got to ’69, I forgot all about the Dodgers and the present. I was lost in love for my first Mets team, and took ungodly pleasure in how they destroyed the best Cubs’ team of its generation.
Eff you Durocher. Eff you Santo. Eff you 37-year-old footage of Bleacher Bums promising you’d have a little “surprise” for Cleon Jones when the Mets come in next week. I was so seriously revved up — especially by the lady TV reporter stationed at empty Wrigley Field on October 11, whining that the Cubs were supposed to be in Baltimore for Game One of the World Series, and instead she’s standing in the rain, and there’s nothing going on behind her and “it’s a lousy day in Chicago” — that when the documentary got around to Bartman, I couldn’t help myself. The ball again eludes Alou, Castillo is still batting and the Marlins are once more putting an eight-spot on that old-fashioned scoreboard.
“YES!” I suddenly let on to a genuinely surprised Stephanie, three years after the fact. “YES! I’M GLAD THEY LOST! I WANTED THEM TO LOSE!”
It was liberating to admit. It had nothing to do with 2003 or the Marlins and everything to do with 1969, 1984, 1989, 1998 and however many hundreds of Mets-Cubs games I’ve experienced in my unyielding memory. I just don’t like them, and I’m not good-natured about it.
Yet I’m absolutely, eternally in love with Wrigley Field. Even irrational hatred must have its limits.