One hundred years of baseball on the North Side of Chicago.
This wasn’t my first trip to Wrigley Field. I went for the first time as a college student in 2005. These days, I make it up there about once a year or so. I always have the same four thoughts, and in the following order:
1. Did I just step back in time?
This trip, it took about 10 minutes for me to start singing that Huey Lewis song, “Back in Time,” from the Back to the Future* soundtrack. Especially taking the short L trip from downtown and getting off at the Addison exit. Just 15 minutes ago we were at State/Lake in the heart of the downtown shopping district, and now we’re inside a 100 year old ballpark!
* – Interestingly, the Cubs supposedly win the World Series in 2015 when Marty McFly travels to the future in Back to the Future II. We’ll see.
The place is old. There’s a ragtime brass band that walks around and plays music in the ballpark. The organ belts out classic tunes. The men’s room still uses troughs for urinals. It’s authentically classic, and the Cubs have worked hard at maintaining it’s history without compromise.
Wrigley Field is still the premier venue to see an afternoon baseball game. In fact, they didn’t even play night games there until 1988 – they didn’t even have lights! They were planning on installing them in 1941, but they ended up donating the supplies to the war following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Then they swore that they’d never install them, but eventually they caved.
Save for the lights, the ballpark hasn’t changed much. Especially in the last 70 years. The scoreboard was already out there. The upper deck was added in the late 20’s and bleachers were added to the outfield in 1937. But slowly, they keep caving in to make minor modifications to keep up with the times -a small electronic screen highlights the right field wall, and there’s a marquee that circles parts of the grandstand now too.
The Ricketts family, the current ownership of the Cubs and Wrigley Field, have committed $500M worth of upgrades and expansion to the ballpark expanding the concourses, improving the roof and seating around the park, significantly enhancing the Cubs clubhouse and press box areas, and adding rooftop concessions with outdoor seating. All with the goal of preserving the structure and facade of the ballpark for the future. Because Wrigley Field is worth saving for years to come.
The old time feel of Wrigley is pure. It’s special. Fenway Park is the only comparable experience in all of baseball. I’m thankful they’ve committed to keeping baseball at Wrigley for years to come.
2. Is this ballpark regulation size, or what?
If its possible to get over the old-time feel of the ballpark, my second impression is always about the size and seating of Wrigley.
Somehow, they manage to cram over 41,000 people into that tiny little space. The seats are closer together, and the bleachers account for a lot of it. A lot of the seats are hidden up underneath the upper deck which sits extremely close to the field. It feels tiny and cramped, but it also makes is charming and heightens the camaraderie among the Cubs fans.
I’m used to Kauffman Stadium (only 38,000 fans at capacity) where you have all the personal space you need to spread out and relax. I don’t want to touch my neighbor that I don’t know, and I’m certainly not going to strike up a conversation with them. But at Wrigley, it’s inevitable. The tightness in the stands forces interaction and conversation. Smaller space, yet more people.
The small feel is also aided by the shallow power alleys: 368′ to left-center and right-center field makes the outfield look tiny. It makes up for the shallow alleys by having deep corners: 355 & 353 to left and right fields, respectively.
It’s a cozy experience at Wrigley, but not necessarily comfortable all the time.
3. Where’s the Old Style vendor?
Ooooo yeah. Wrigley Field is possibly the only place in the world where an Old Style manages to hit the spot. It’s not the best, but it’s true to the experience. The name sums it up perfectly.
Unfortunately, this year they quit selling it up tap and now only have it in cans. Bad move if you ask me.
4. Is there anyone sitting in the Steve Bartman seat?
Ah yes, the pinnacle of the Cubs’ curse. But before I explain who Bartman is, I first have to explain the Curse itself.
The Curse is believed to have begun in 1945 when the owner of the local Billy Goat Tavern, Billy Sianis, decided to bring his goat to a World Series game as a publicity stunt. Not surprisingly, the goat smelled, and he was asked to leave “The Friendly Confines” because some other fans were complaining about it. He declared, “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.”
The Cubs would go on to lose to the Tigers and haven’t been back to the World Series ever since. They last won it all in 1908. Poor Cubbies. Even their curse narrative is somewhat embarrassing.
Okay, on to Steve Bartman.
In 2003*, the Cubs were the closest they’d ever been to making it back to the World Series. It was the eighth inning of Game 6. The Cubs led 3-0 and were up 3 games to 2 against the Florida Marlins. There was one out. Just five more outs, and the Cubs were moving on to the World Series.
* – Ironically, 2003 was the Year of the Goat according to the Chinese zodiac calendar. Next year, 2015, is the first “Year of the Goat” since 2003. You guys, what if Back to the Future actually gets it right?
Luis Castillo was batting for the Marlins, and hit a fly ball down the left field stands. Cubs’ left fielder, Moises Alou, went running over and leapt up against the side wall, attempting to make the catch. Replays indicate that he had a play on the ball and could have recorded the out.
Steve Bartman – poor, poor, Steve Bartman – was sitting in the front row at Wrigley Field right where Alou was jumping for the ball. He was wearing a green turtleneck, glasses, and a Cubs cap with Walkman headphones over his ears. Bartman did what any of us would have done in that situation: he tried to catch the foul ball.
He didn’t make the catch, but he got a solid left hand on it directly above Alou’s outstretched glove. Since the ball was out of the field of play, the umpire couldn’t call fan interference, but it was clear what had happened.
Alou threw an absolute fit. He chucked his glove into the ground. He looked back at Bartman and glared. He yelled into the umpire, shouting for interference.
But no call ever came, and a Cub implosion ensued.
Castillo walked. Ivan Rodriguez singled. Miguel Cabrera reached on an error by the shortstop. Derek Lee doubled. Mike Lowell was intentionally walked. Jeff Conine hit a sacrifice fly for the second out in the inning. Mike Mordecai doubled. Juan Pierre singled. And finally, Castillo – the man whose foul ball had started the whole ordeal – flew out to second to end the inning.
The Marlins sent twelve men to the plate, scored 8 runs, and won the game 8-3. They went on to win Game 7, the NLCS and eventually the World Series.
The image of Steve Bartman sitting with a glum look on his face – eyes teared, neck turtled – is forever etched in my mind. I’ve never felt more sorry for anyone in my life.
This being 2003, there was no big screen to watch the replay on, and no one had the MLB At Bat app to reference either. But slowly, as the carnage ensued on the field, there was a slow fire burning through the grandstand. Fans were getting phone calls and pages from people at home watching the game that it was the guy in the headphones’s fault. Fans started shouting at him. They were throwing peanuts, pointing fingers and dumping beer.
There was a new goat at Wrigley Field.
Every time the cameras cut back to him, he appeared to be getting smaller. Cowering lower with every hitter the Marlins sent to the plate. He needed a police escort to leave the game safely and had patrol cars at his house as well. People suggested he enter the Witness Protection Program and governors offered him asylum from the city of Chicago.
He declined all of those things. He also declines to do interviews. He declines autographs and apparently declined a 6-figure check to do a Superbowl commercial.
The seat – Aisle 4, Row 8, Seat 114 – is now legendary and a favorite for fans like myself to sit in. He isn’t hated around Chicago as he once was, but he is certainly still blamed for the Cubs 2003 playoffs. He still lives in Chicago, but has never been back to Wrigley Field.
Wrigley Field has an interesting atmosphere these days. At this point, tt’s like the fans have gotten used to “The Curse” and have embraced the lovable loser mentality. It’s not about making the playoffs anymore or even finishing better than 5th in the NL Central (which they’ve done for the last 5 years and currently sit today).
For Cubs fans who go to catch a game at Wrigley, they just want to party it up and win today. If they don’t win? Hey, that’s okay. We still had some fun.
Wrigley is almost a college atmosphere, actually. Lots of young professionals move to the North Side out of college, work downtown and live in the Wrigleyville area. There are cool restaurants and bars surrounding the ballpark, and it’s very reminiscent of a college town.
For the first time in a while, the Cubs are starting to have some hope coming through their farm system. In 2011, the Cubs hired Theo Epstein to be the President of Baseball Operations. Epstein returned winning back to the cursed Boston Red Sox in 2004, and the Cubs hoped he could do the same for them.
But the baseball landscape is different today, and when Epstein came to Boston, there were new statistics and measurements in the work that set the stage for a revolution in baseball. Oakland’s Moneyball mentality had made its way around the league, and the Red Sox were the earliest adopters with the largest wallets.
But the Cubs are making progress behind the scenes, and I was there right on queue to see that “progress” make it’s first appearance at Wrigley Field on Friday afternoon. But more about that in the “Game Notes”.
My largest connection to spirituality here is definitely going to center around curses. Do they exist? Does God curse? Does God care about baseball teams winning or losing? Does God have any role in 106 year curses?
I believe in a God that is for us and not against us. But in baseball, someone has to win and someone has to lose. We might all be praying for God to bless our team’s performance, but the other team is praying a counter-prayer for them to bless their team’s performance instead.
God can’t answer both prayers, can he?
Or here’s another example: a church is holding a picnic for inner city kids. They pray and pray for nice weather, but on the day of the picnic it’s pouring down rain. However, 15 miles away, there’s a farmer and his family who have been praying and praying for rain so his crops might get the moisture they need to grow.
They’ve both been praying, and one’s answer to prayer is perceived as a curse to another. Interesting.
The “progress” on the field that I referenced earlier? His name is Javier Baez. He’s a power hitting infielder who has been coming up through the Cubs system for a few years now. He’s the first in what is supposed to be a wave of 3 or 4 prospects that the Cubs have been grooming to turn around the organization from lovable losers to lovable winners again.
Friday night was Baez’s first game at Wrigley Field. They had called him up from the minors just three days earlier. In his first big league game, he hit a go ahead HR in the 12th inning to win the game against Colorado. In his third game, he went 3-4 with two HRs. Then in his Wrigley Field debut on Friday, he stroked a single on his first swing of the game and came around to score the first run of the game.
But then he struck out the next 4 times up. Ouch.
The game was a good one: an afternoon matchup against the Rays. These teams scored a single run in 7 different frames making for a back-and-forth game. The Rays first run came in the 3rd with a leadoff HR from Desmond Jennings. Tied up, 1-1.
The Cubs retook the lead in the 4th. With 1 out, Arismendy Alcantara walked, advanced when Ryan Sweeney reached base on a throwing error by the pitcher and scored on a John Baker single. 2-1 Cubs
A leadoff triple from Sean Rodriguez started the 7th inning. Two batters later, Curt Casali hit a ball sharply to third, but the Cubs weren’t quick enough to get Rodriguez at the plate. Tied up again, 2-2.
In the 8th, Ben Zobrist doubled and scored on a Rodriguez single making it 3-2 Rays, but the Cubs answered in the bottom of the 9th when Luis Valbuena led off with a single and came around to score and make it 3-3.
Free baseball was disappointing, however. The Rays quickly made it 4-3 in the 10th with three consecutive singles, and the Cubs went quietly in the bottom half – K, K, 1-3.
Both starters, Chris Archer for the Rays and Tsuyoshi Wada for the Cubs, pitched very well and neither got a decision.
I left the game disappointed. There’s nothing more fun than celebrating a Cubs win with a “Go Cubs Go!” Instead, it was a melancholy walk to the L Station – which was packed with sad fans, so we took a cab instead.
Twenty-three down. Six to go.
Up Next: Minnesota Twins.