Sunday, August 12, 2012

Games 8 & 9: A Chicago Doubleheader

Gale force winds whip our faces, sweeping debris — empty hot dog wrappers, plastic lids, abandoned score cards — up the concourse and into the chain link fence directly behind us. From below, the PA announcer's voice is drowned out by the wind's howl. A pillar obstructs our view of home plate. 

Welcome to Wrigley Field. 

The walk from the metro station takes you through Wrigleyville, one of Chicago's plushest neighborhoods. And then there, where there were chic stores and expensive bars before, stands Wrigley  Field — a nearly century's old structure, surrounded by considerably younger buildings and even younger patrons.

As we walked to the stadium, every step evoked more of the Cubs' tragic history. In this case we explained, in hushed tones, the legend of the "Billy Goat Curse" and, even more quietly, the story of Steve Bartman. My girlfriend, Anna, upon hearing the way Cubs fans harassed and threatened Bartman after the game, responded, "God, that's so dumb." And she's right, of course. It is dumb — not to mention inexcusable — but it also speaks to the irrational devotion of a desperate fan base. And when the collective emotions of the Wrigley faithful are directed towards more positive things, it is undoubtedly an awesome experience.

While the stadium, like its fans, has its rough patches, the venue is unlike any other in professional sports in this country. You enter, not into some wide, outdoor concourse as is the case with most of the new stadiums, but directly into the bowels of the building. Though in some places, such as Busch Stadium, it seems as if half the fans spend the game inside, enjoying the air conditioned dining areas, Wrigley's narrow walkways and the bustling fans create a desire to escape — to surface above ground and see the field for the first time. And what a sight it is; the first glimpse out of the tunnel makes you feel as if you've been taken back in time to the 1930s or so and makes you consider, with goosebumps rising, just how many people have stood in the same spot, admiring one of America's greatest landmarks. 

The Wrigley Field atmosphere is one that needs to be experienced in order to be understood. Even with the Cubs mired 20-plus games under .500, the fans show up in droves. There is no JumboTron blaring music or mascot blasting free shirts into the night sky; the weather is cold and the wind is biting; the Cubs make five errors, though it easily could have been seven. The fans are not showing up to be entertained or to spend an afternoon in the sun. They're not even showing up to watch good baseball. They're coming for Wrigley. And to interact with one another. 

During the middle innings of the game, a group of friends converged in the bleachers on the first base line. Without enough seats for everyone, a number of them just sat down in the aisle. While this would be spotted and weeded out at almost any other stadium, such behavior is accepted at Wrigley. A couple of minutes later, a vendor came by, made an offhand joke about fire code safety and continued on his way after sharing a laugh with the group. 

Sitting in front of us were two Brits, a man and a woman from London. It was their first-ever baseball game and they were curious about Wrigley Field — how it compared to other stadiums, how old it was, etc. In response I told them that Wrigley Field was the American equivalent of Old Trafford, Manchester United's historic stadium. And the more I thought about it, I realized just how similar the atmosphere at Wrigley is to many Premiership venues. 

One of the lamentable aspects of spectator sports in the US is the overuse of artificial sounds and cues. That fans need any sort of prompt from the JumboTron to know the right time to clap or stand or cheer — and believe me, they do — is an indictment of our culture. Fortunately, this is not the case at Wrigley, where the wind makes even the PA difficult to hear and where the fans cheer and boo liberally and lustily. And much like many of the Premiership teams that have fallen on hard times, the fans always show up, if for no other reason because they don't know anything else. 

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of their crosstown rivals, the White Sox, who sit in first place in the AL Central, but drew fewer fans to a Friday night game against the Wild-Card-leading A's than the Cubs did earlier that day.

Such is the reality of the White Sox and always has been. But to their credit, they have never tried to be the Cubs and US Cellular Field has no desire to be Wrigley Field. Lacking both the diehard fans of the North side and without a historic venue, the White Sox decided long ago that they would need to draw fans a little more creatively. 

Starting in the 1970s then owner Bill Veeck decided the best way to bring fans to the park was to use gimmicks — to attract fans using other forms of entertainment. While some of his ideas, such as Disco Demolition night backfired spectacularly — the White Sox had to forfeit the second game of a doubleheader to the visiting Tigers because fans wouldn't stop frisbeeing discs all over the stadium — other innovations, like the exploding scoreboard and commissioning radio broadcasts were excellent for the game of baseball. And, on this night, one of Veeck's innovations — setting of fireworks any time the home team hits a home run — was particularly appropriate.

On Fireworks Night at US Cellular Field, White Sox left fielder Jordan Danks ended the game with a bang, crushing a walk-off home run and the first home run of his career into the bleachers in right field. The ensuing fireworks that lit up the night sky and the post-game show, which nearly everyone stayed for, reminded me that, while there can only be one Wrigley Field, there is more than one way to experience, and enjoy a baseball game. 

Games Watched: 9
Games to Go: 21
Thuuz Scores: 70 (Cubs), 75 (White Sox) 
Stadium: Wrigley: A, It was my first time visiting Wrigley and is something I will never forget. Though I have been to Fenway and the old Yankee Stadium, neither has the same timeless feeling that Wrigley exudes. US Cellular: B, It doesn't hold a light to Wrigley, but the stadium is adequate and is a suitable place to watch a good baseball game.
Fan Atmosphere: Wrigley: A, As I wrote earlier, Wrigley is one of very few places where fans do not need, nor do they receive, a cue to cheer or clap. There is also a strong sense of community at Wrigley, something that I have only experienced in Pittsburgh, though it manifests itself differently in each park. US Cellular: C+, The fans who did go were alert and into the game, but for a team in first place and with a potential Wild Card rival in town, fans should have packed the building.
Concessions: Wrigley: B, The food at Wrigley was decent, though hardly the best we've had. I was surprised, however, at how relatively inexpensive (for baseball game's of course the concessions were.) US Cellular: The South siders had some good food — in particular their nachos were quite good — and once again, reasonably priced.
Quote of the Day:  Tim: "I've got a joke — what's name of the team that plays in Texas?" Me: "The Rangers." Tim: "I wasn't expecting that. That's unfortunate, really." Short pause. Still Tim: "Doesn't fit into my joke, does it?"-One of the many hilarious conversations we had with Tim, one of two Brits sitting in front of us, who provided more than enough entertainment for the six of us over the course of the game. 
Tim Kurkjian Award: In the sixth inning of the game, Drew Stubbs stole second base, advanced to third on a throwing error by Cubs catcher Wellington Castillo and then scored when centerfielder Brett Jackson failed to cleanly field the ball, allowing the ball by him and into centerfield. Safe to say none of us had ever seen a baserunner score from first base on two separate errors on the same play. 
Total Miles Traveled: 2,418
Miles to Next Game: 407 (Rays @ Twins, August 11th)

The famous entry to Wrigley Field.

 Pre-game showers made way to an afternoon of blustery baseball. 

 The stadium is devoid of almost all electronics. The old school scoreboard hanging above a section of covered seats are just two of Wrigley's quirks. 

 The apartment buildings around Wrigley have bleachers on the roof so tenants can watch the games from home.

 This chain link fence acted as a vacuum for the wind escaping the field.

Our British friends who were hilarious and responsible for our quote of the day. 

Jeff's wish came true, as we saw Aroldis Chapman close out the game. 

 A view from our seats at US Cellular Field, where we were disappointed by the fan turnout.

Though hardly iconic, US Cellular is a solid venue. 

White Sox players mob Danks at home plate after his walk-off home run. 

Fireworks night — an idea conceived by Bill Veeck during the 1970s — is a regular promotion at US Cellular Field. 

Anna and me with a great shot of the Chicago skyline in the background. 

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