So much had changed in the 10 years since the bartender, the union laborer, Sammy's 37th and I all chanced to meet that night at the wall of the shrine. The rightfielder whom we'd come to exalt was now in exile. The piece of history that he'd sent to us, off his bat, was now stained. The man now standing in his place was Japanese. The bartender was an executive producer. And I was in a white plastic cowboy hat.
We were together again, all but Sammy, for the first time in a decade, reuniting last month at that same sweet spot where we'd met, Wrigley Field's ivy-covered rightfield wall. Still innocents, in spite of everything. Believing once more that something impossible was about to happen, that history again was in the air.
I'd come to Wrigley in July 1998 on the cockamamiest of crusades, chasing the Great Home Run Chase back when it seemed so clean and Herculean, crisscrossing the country without sleep to sit in San Diego's, Tampa Bay's and Chicago's outfield seats on three consecutive nights and catch Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey Jr. and Sammy Sosa as they pursued a record unreachable for 37 years: Roger Maris's 61. It was a summer of magic, a grace of such abundance falling from the skies that it sprinkled even me—all three titans rewarding my pilgrimage with home runs, and the last one, Sammy, depositing his virtually into my lap. Or so it all seemed....
September 28, 2008
All of us had gone up for Sammy's ball—the bartender beside me whom I'd just befriended, a bleacher regular named Chris Ramirez; his pal, the union laborer, Marty Crowley; and the Sosa Boys, four adjacent young crazies whose blue-painted bare chests spelled S-O-S-A—but the notepad and pen in my hands had betrayed me. The ball had ricocheted off the paw of a Sosa Boy into the wire-mesh basket atop the wall; wild-eyed Marty had dived headfirst into the basket, bit one of the Sosa Boys' hands and emerged with the prize, the 37th of Sammy's 66 long balls that homer-happy season; and eagle-eyed Sports Illustrated photographer John Biever, from clear across the stadium, had captured the frenzied moment for posterity. We'd posed for pictures in front of Wrigley's marquee with the ball—blood and beer brothers for a night—then never saw each other again.
And never would've, if magic weren't afoot in Wrigleyville again, and if cyberspace weren't so loose-lipped. Tracing on the Internet the now-defunct phone number for Chris Ramirez that I'd scribbled down that night, I'd found his mother's number, she'd found Chris, he'd found Marty, I'd found our old seats, and here we were, toasting old times as the Cubs, attempting to win a 10th straight series and run away with the National League Central Division, opened a four-game Labor Day weekend series against the Phillies.
The old yard hummed with harmonic convergence. This summer was the 10th anniversary of Sammy's epic chase, the 20th anniversary of the first night game played at Wrigley, the 60th anniversary of WGN's coverage of the Cubs, the 100th anniversary of the seventh-inning stretch song—Take Me Out to the Ballgame—immortalized by the Cubs' legendary voice, Harry Caray, and, looming largest of all, the 100th year since the Cubs' last championship, in 1908 ... the longest drought in the history of major North American professional sports.
On this team's worst days, the bleachers at Wrigley were the best place in sports; I was itching to see what they'd be like on the Cubs' best days. What sort of winners were the Lovable Losers, I wondered. What happens to a victim when his victimhood, in its 100th year, turns to dominance? Or so it seemed....
The Cubs were entering this series playing at a .721 clip at home, owned baseball's best record and sat six games ahead of the second-place Brewers. Could God be that heartless? Could this all be another cruel joke?
No. It couldn't be. No man would drape around his neck three long chains of green beads, one of silver and one of gold, place atop his head a two-foot-tall sombrero with a kamikaze headband wrapped around its cone in honor of the new rightfielder from the Far East, attach a colossal pair of pink synthetic testicles and woefully undersized penis to his loins, and lead a throng of two dozen men wearing white plastic cowboy hats into Wrigley's rightfield bleachers in order to be the butt of a joke ... would he? Of course not. Especially not a doctor. Dr. Drew Warnick, the sombreroed one immediately to my right, was hoisting beers to his final hours of freedom before his weekend wedding, and to his certainty that this Cubs team was the one that would at last deliver his tribe from generations of murdered hope, pausing only to grab one spare plastic cowboy hat and deputize me into his bachelor party just as Chris and Marty were arriving ...
... and affixing me with long, dubious stares. "You better hope people are thinking 'bachelor party' when they see you with that hat on TV," said Marty, "because otherwise they're thinking i."
While lefthander Cole Hamels was throttling the Cubs, staking the Phillies to a 1—0 lead through the fourth, Chris was catching me up on his metamorphosis from bartender to executive producer of his own company, Region Sports Network, covering local sports in northwest Indiana, and of what had become of Marty's Sosa home run ball. "Marty had it encased in a plastic box and bought 50 copies of that SI," reported Chris. "He used to bring the ball to my bar to show the girls."
"Did it work?" I asked.
"They took the ball home, not Marty. The ball got more than he did."
The two buddies had learned, like all Cubs fans, to seize such moments in spite of—or because of—their imminent decay, to salt their remnants with mirth so they could be larded away for all the long winters to come. Sammy's bat would shatter a few years later, exposing its illegal cork interior; Sammy's integrity would splinter again under oath at congressional hearings on steroid use when his answers and grasp of English both suddenly turned wooden; even Sammy's allegiance to Cubdom would go to pieces when he slipped out of its hallowed uniform and ballpark in the middle of what would turn out to be his final Cubs game. That somehow even the summer of '98—that love affair with that ballplayer who'd bolt like a happy young bull to rightfield at the start of every game and exchange nine innings' worth of finger kisses and heart taps with the bleacher fans like some mute, lovable son—could turn to ashes was so ... so Cub-esque. But thus it was, every bleacherite told me, Sammy having forfeited his surefire induction into the Cubs pantheon that flapped in blue lettering upon four pinstriped white flags, two from each Wrigley foul pole: Banks and Santo in left, Williams and Sandberg in right.
All four of which now stood starched, weather vanes pointing toward Lake Michigan as darkness fell, signaling.... "Watch out," said Chris, his expert eyes going directly to them the moment he'd entered the park. "It's the first time the wind's been blowing out hard all summer."
I looked down at the object in my hands. In other ballparks' bleachers a man would think nothing of passing a fellow fan's peanuts down the row. In Wrigley's we thought nothing of passing Dr. Drew's nuts down the row, the pink synthetic ones that security guards had the gall to order him to remove because they "might offend the women and children." They were now being passed to every female under 35 who entered the area, along with a pen with which to autograph them, each lass smiling and complying and inadvertently heaping more ridicule upon the spoilsport security guard. "Are you offended?" a Brokebacker shouted to two college-age women as they scrawled.
"Oh, no, we're fine," they replied.
"See that!" he bellowed at security. "You say it offends women and children—they're women and children!"
Nothing happening on the field could kill, or even flesh-wound, the bleacherites' buzz. Not Carlos Ruiz's nor Chase Utley's run-scoring singles in the sixth, which gave the Phillies a 4—1 lead. Not the constant chirping of Marty's cellphone—his girlfriend miffed by his hasty, unexpected departure to a Cubs game—which Marty kept ignoring. Heathenlike, I bolted from my seat during the seventh-inning ritual, the mass crooning of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, chased to the men's room by Old Style #4 but not yet, thank God, so muddled that I didn't remember to remove my Brokeback hat first and leave it on my seat.
I returned to chaos, four security men glaring at the Brokebackers and barking, "Who doesn't have a hat?" and bristling to find the culprit in the party who'd just flung a white plastic cowboy hat onto the rightfield grass.
"Everyone's got a hat!" the bachelor party, all innocence, chorused gleefully, as I s-l-o-w-l-y returned to my seat.
I gazed across the asylum. Impending doom? Where was it now in Wrigleyville, where it always grew thicker than ivy? Gone, the fans around me kept insisting, vaporized ever since the Cubs had swept their four-game series with the second-place Brewers in July, the last three of those games outright thigh-slappers. "It's strange, because we've walked into this trap before," Will Wagner, the author of the 2005 book Wrigley Blues, had mused over pregame pizza.
"Nope, we're not going to have a '69 again," declared Chris, referring to that most notorious of Cubs collapses when a black cat scampered past Ron Santo in the on-deck circle at Shea Stadium as his team was busy trashing a nine-game mid-August lead. "This is the best Cub team since the '30s. We've got five pitchers who'll have double-figure wins. We win by five even when we don't play well. We've got depth and we've got versatility—guys that play everywhere and can hit almost anywhere in the order. We're always up 5—1 in the third or we're coming back to win in the eighth. I've been waiting for this team all my life."
eOn cue, the eighth-inning comeback began. Pint-sized pinch hitter Mike Fontenot socked one into the wind stream and watched it vanish. Phils 4, Cubs 2. Alfonso Soriano short-hopped the wall in right center for a double, then Ryan Theriot lined a single to right. Dr. Drew led the entire rightfield bleachers in Olé! Olé! Olé! Olé! "Never saw a Cub team like this!" howled Chris. "Never out of it!" Derrek Lee walked. Bases jammed. Entire joint on its feet. Another Marty-missed call, number 22 from his steaming girlfriend. A 1–0 fastball to Aramis Ramirez: Oh my God....
Ramirez sent it deep into the night sky, the wind whipped it further yet—grand slam! Cubs 6, Phils 4. The crowd boom was sonic, an eruption so deafening that it startled attendants at a parking lot a mile and a half away; how loud would it have been if so many people weren't kissing and screaming? Every plastic cowboy hat but my missing one twirled high above a Brokebacker's head like a bronco rider's. "Marty ain't gettin' none tonight!" shouted Chris, "but A-Ram is!"
No one departed after the Phillies submitted in the ninth. Everyone stayed and sang like a college crowd chorusing its fight song—
Go, Cubs, go!
Go, Cubs, go!
Hey, Chicago, what do you say?
The Cubs are gonna win today!
They got the power, they got the speed
To be the best in the National League
Well this is the year and the Cubs are real
So come on down to Wrigley Field!
—everyone, that is, except Marty, smiling too hard to sing, bent in half with bliss over the rightfield wall, head dunked in his beloved basket.
O.K., I admit it. I'm a lifelong Phillies fan ... and I almost sang that damn song! Something about this ballpark corrupted me—its intimacy, its age and its denizens, their rabidity and ribaldry. Where else is the historical hysterical? And so of course I jumped at the chance, just before the next day's game, to meet Wrigley in person.
Yes, Wrigley Fields had come to Wrigley Field to throw out the first ball, the unlikeliest of namesakes: he being blonde, blue-eyed, innocent and seven. His name had come to his father years before the boy was conceived, a moniker born, of course, in a beer bottle. Jerry Fields and some buddies were quaffing a few in their dorm at Western Illinois University nearly two decades ago when one of them said, "You know, you ought to name your kid Wrigley," and Jerry Fields gave it a half-second's thought and said, "Yeah!"it fee
Now Wrigley Fields was entering Wrigley Field for the first time, and he waands grooving on it. "It feels like it's my field," the lad gushed. "It's cool. And this team is doing awesome. My name is a baseball field, and I'm a Cubs fan so it's really cool. Except when kids at school see me and yell, 'Sox rule!'"
His father stood to the side, blinking. For him, these 2008 Cubs and this moment with his son were not just unexpected summer sweetness. They were release from a meat hook ... salvation. Another of his sons, two-year-old Trevor, had come within a few seconds of drowning in the family's backyard pool earlier in the summer—saved by his sister Kamryn's screams and the rapid CPR work of two neighbors—and it was this team that was preserving his sanity through weeks of guilt and nightmares. The Cubs were so beautiful to watch, so cohesive a team, that for a few hours each day they made him stop flogging himself and asking, "Why wasn't I there?" at least until he lay down in bed.
"It's their camaraderie," he said. "I read their mannerisms. I watch them in the dugout, everyone always high-fiving. They have no MVP—they have ten MVPs. For years this team was all about Sammy Sosa. Now it's all about winning. I know I should be expecting doom, because I always have before, and if you don't, you're not a real Cubs fan. But I don't this time. I just don't." He glanced over at Trevor, in his wife Kathy's arms. "Thank God all this is happening," he said. "It eases everything."
Wrigley Fields strode to the hill in a Soriano jersey. The crowd roared so loud, when the tyke uncorked a beaut, that he forgot to do the cartwheel and flip that his dad had offered him 20 bucks to do. I raced upstairs to find Santo, the Cubs' radio voice, the wincing, wheezing embodiment of Cubdom, the team's 68-year-old former All-Star third baseman who, year after year, even on peg legs, just keeps coming back for more. Coming back despite his toupee being set aflame by an overhead press-box heater, coming back despite his diabetes and his amputations and his heart attack and his bladder cancer and his 22 operations and his team, coming back to slit his wrists and bleed Cubbie blue into the microphone for nine innings each day, then stitch 'em up and go home to await nine more. I needed to see if he sanctioned this freight train of faith roaring through Wrigleyville, this casting off of a century's chains ... and did he ever. "Don't worry about it!" bellowed Ronnie. "Enjoy it! Enjoy it! Don't worry about it! There are no holes in this team! This is the ball club!"
Wow. O.K. I rushed the news back to the rightfield bleachers and ran smack into another wedding party, 50 green-T-shirted people of both sexes celebrating the wedding—just two days away—of Jordan Gerber and Lynn Meyer, a 36-year-old optometrist whose grandma, were she not buried in a Cubs blanket, would've beamed at the white veil with white Mickey Mouse ears emblazoned with Cubs logos that now festooned her granddaughter's head. The bearded rabbi in a Cubs hat who was going to perform the wedding ceremony certainly looked pleased. Lynn's fiancé had spent about $2,500 and most of his summer combing Craig's List to buy 50 of the most expensive bleacher tickets on earth, at $45 a pop, at the only stadium in sports history that charged more for seats farther from the central drama than for many of the closer ones. But Lynn was sure Ronnie Santo was right. "We're used to devastation," she said, "but I just don't have that feeling this year."
The heat was savage. Today's was an afternoon game. Here was Wrigleyville broiled to its essence, young men and women pouring from the surrounding bars into the bleachers, pausing on the outdoor concourse to purchase a pair of 16-ounce plastic cups of beer, double-fisting them to an unclaimed patch of bench, stripping down to bare chests and bikini tops and settling in for a four-hour house party, the scents of suntan lotion, hops, barley and baked flesh inseparable by the bottom of the second. Marvelous multitaskers, able to eat, drink, text, troll, couple and clamor for the Cubbies all at once.
The Phils took a 2—1 lead into the bottom of the fifth. But these Cubs were so Santo, crawling off every gurney, hobbling back into every game, leading the league in come-from-behind hurrahs. They loaded the bases in the sixth as Kosuke Fukudome, their new rightfielder, the anti-Sosa, approached the plate. The Fukudomania that swept Wrigley back in the spring, fueled by his sizzling first month with the Cubs, had subsided, along with his batting average, to a quieter, deeper appreciation of his fundamentals and fielding, his egolessness and patience that had helped transform a lineup of flailers and lungers into the walkingest team in the league. But now Fuk Frenzy blazed anew, a full house in love with the sound of that name rising from its lips: FU-KU-DO-ME! ... FU-KU-DO-ME!...
"Yes, I hear their chanting," he'd assure me later, through his interpreter, in the Cubs' clubhouse. "They might be releasing tension. I have heard many male fans here saying, 'I love you,' which I find odd. This is the biggest party of any baseball stadium I have played in in America. If we win the World Series—if I can be sure to come home alive—I will join that party." But just in case, I asked him what the traditional Japanese antidote would be to ward off some threatening evil, like, say, a 100-year curse allegedly brought on by a smelly, rain-soaked billy goat's eviction from a very well-known baseball stadium in 1945. "A small mound of salt," he replied, "placed outside the front door." ...
FU-KU-DO-ME!... Laying off nibbling sliders and fastballs, killing so softly, he worked a walk and nudged home the tying run: 2—2.
One inning later, when the thunderbolt came, I was perched beside an intense, wiry 50-year-old computer salesman named Ken Keefer, who was explaining to me that Soriano was the only member of this year's team who stirred mixed feelings in Cub Nation's belly, the only one swinging for Lake Michigan when a walk or a worm-killer to the right side would do—"He only hustles for an extra stat. He gets so distracted, he actually works on his batting stance in the outfield. Sure, I ride him. He's waved me down to fight him"—when Soriano uncoiled and sent a white rocket into the heart of the house party in left center: 3–2 Cubs! "We love him! We love him!" hollered Ken as the ball cleared the wall. "What a team! It's like living a dream!"
The Cubs' pen handcuffed the Phils in the eighth and ninth, and Wrigley rocked again. Out of nowhere, a thousand placards and flags bearing a blue W appeared—a new ritual in Cub Nation, fans informed me, multiplying on porches across the Midwest—the surprising rehabilitation of America's most down-and-out letter.
Jim McArdle, a lifetime fanatic who'd moved into an apartment across the street and set up camp in the bleachers to write a book on this centennial of slaughtered dreams, had the glint in his eyes of a man beginning to think he might be rolling snake eyes. "We're in uncharted territory," he pronounced, unrolling the map for me: 20—6 in August with two games left, 39th come-from-behind win, 35 games over .500—the most games over of any Cubs team since 1945—and, short of calamity, which they have never been short of, on track to win 100 games overall and 60 at Wrigley, the most home wins of any NL team since the '75 Big Red Machine.
Gleefully, lovingly, 40,844 people offered themselves to the impending traffic snarl on Lake Shore Drive and the clustermuck at the el stop on Addison Avenue, refusing to leave the yard until once more they'd all croaked that song, the one that patrons in bars and restaurants across Chicago were standing to croak with them—
Hey, Chicago, what do you say?
The Cubs are gonna win today!
Baseball time is here again
You can catch it all on WGN
So stamp your feet and clap your hands
Chicago Cubs got the greatest fans.
You're singing now....
Go, Cubs, go!
Go, Cubs, go!
—the one written by Steve Goodman, the Cub lover who died of leukemia in 1984 just four days before his team was going to clinch its first postseason birth in his lifetime ... just 12 days before he was to sing The Star-Spangled Banner before the opener of the NL Championship Series ... just 17 days before a ground ball rattlesnaked through the legs of first baseman Leon Durham, dooming the Cubs to a disastrous come-from-ahead loss to the clearly inferior Padres in the deciding game of the NLCS.
III. Scar Tissue
So ... had I drifted into mass delusion? The crowds here, on their feet and deafening for 3-and-2 counts in the first inning, were like beer poured from a bottoms-up bottle, full of froth and laughter and forgetting. "What I said to Lou Piniella when I interviewed him for the manager's job," Cubs chairman Crane Kenney told me, "was, 'Lou, these people have been sober for 100 years. They need a drink.'"
Hmmm. 'Twas an accusation I'd never heard leveled at Cub Nation before, and I wasn't quite sure how to defend it. I headed to the clubhouse before Game 3 of the series to gauge the mob's effect upon the players. Mark DeRosa, the Cubs' six-position player, grinned. Just the day before, Rollins, the Phillies' shortstop, had asked him how the Cubs survived the sleep-cycle whiplash of all the Wrigley day games scheduled on the heels of night games. "I told him, 'It's our fans. They don't let you get tired. They're on their feet this year in the first!'"
"Un-believable," chimed Jim Edmonds, the ex-Cardinals centerfielder who'd looked at these crowds from both sides now. "I can't believe the excitement and energy that's in the air here day in and day out." His eyes clouded, remembering. "I wouldn't want to be an opposing outfielder here," he said.
Truth be told, he was worrying about the oddest thing, an exotic bacterial strain ne'er detected in Wrigleyville: satisfaction. He, DeRosa and Lee, three of the squad's most grizzled vets, were combing the clubhouse for it, he said, and prepared to pounce. Soriano confessed that he would almost welcome a loss here or there, as preventive vaccine.
Hell, was it only six months earlier, when Piniella gathered them at the outset of spring training, that his deepest concern was the viral opposite: Centumannusoexcretum! ... One Hundred Years of 'Oh, S—-!'? "Don't put the load of 99 years of not winning on you," Lou had told his tribe. "Worry about this year only."
I grabbed a beer and beelined to the bleachers, packed nearly an hour before the game. My cellphone hummed. It was John McDonough, the ex-Cubs prez now Blackhawks prez, happy to take a breather from packing up for his freshman son's move to DePaul, to return my call and download on the topic. "The turning point for Cub fans was Lou's hiring," he said. "He's the dagger-in-the-heart, win-at-all-cost guy who's at the stage of his career when there's no reason to be around except to win it all. He's the anti—Lovable Loser. The time has come to turn out the lights and close the door on curses, black cats and billy goats. The fans aren't looking over their shoulders anymore. For the first time in my life, Cub fans have a swagger. The romance with the park, the team, the logo, the rooftops, I didn't think it could get any bigger, but now you put consistent winning in the middle of all that, and it's indescribable. When the Cubs win the World Series, it'll be the ultimate conclusion to the greatest sports story ever ... the second-biggest championship in the history of American sports, behind the Miracle on Ice by the U.S. hockey team against the Russians. Because in the deepest cavern of everybody's mind here, their fear is that they'd never live to see it happen."
I needed to locate the diehards, the leathery lifers ... the scar tissue. I found an enclave in center and squeezed among them. Judy Caldow, the retired phys-ed teacher who keeps score at every game and has over 3,000 scorecards organized at home in plastic tubs. Howard Tucker, the blind man with the cowbell and black transistor in his hands ... unless, of course, Judy had slipped a wrapped condom into them for the latest round of Name That Object. Fred Speck, the lawyer with the Hawaiian shirt, sunglasses and black cane who noticed me scribbling into a notepad beside him and announced, "You know, I was a journalism major at the University of Illinois, wrote for the Daily Illini and various minor publications. But then I found I just couldn't stick my nose up the asses of all the a———-."
"Oh, really? Obviously, I've had no trouble whatsoever!" I almost blurted. Instead I bought us each a beer, made Fred's acquaintance and jumped into the Batter Game, a gambling contest that a young blogger named Eammon Brennan and six other fans in front of me, including two young women, were initiating: buck an at bat to play, pass the cupful of bills to the next player for each successive batter, win a buck if your hitter singles, two if he doubles, three if he triples, four if he homers, and if you're lucky, like we were, one of the contestants will keep her stash in her bra. Here was a vestige of Cubs bleacher life from its grimmest days, when the regulars diminished the horror by betting on every pitch—ball, strike, hit, foul—and even on whether the ball, rolled toward the mound after the last putout each inning, would reach dirt or fall short and end up on the grass.
I came out smoking in the Batter Game, three of my first four hitters delivering. Fred sniffed. He'd been through every stage of Cubs fanhood: from the child in the early '60s who loved them unconditionally to the hoarse heckler in the '70s venting his ire from the near-empty bleachers to the 53-year-old man today sitting Buddha-like amidst the frenzy, unattached to each transient turn of fate—even Phillies rightfielder Jayson Werth's fifth-inning bomb to tie the game, 1—1—but grateful for it all. Well, sort of. "The a———- quotient is actually pretty low today," Fred declared, surveying the crowd.
"September baseball in the bleachers used to be the Cubs 20 games out, me and eight other people rooting for a totally lost cause with complete passion. There's nothing better than a lost cause. It's like being at a party at 3:30 in the morning, when the 90 people who were there at midnight are gone, and it's down to eight of you in the kitchen. That's the most priceless part of the party. A big part of me wants this team to sweep everything—first round of the playoffs, second round, World Series—then go right back into the toilet so I get my stadium back."
Yes, the audience had changed. Yes, many of the roughly 150 bleacher season-ticket holders resented the frat party they now found themselves in. And yes, there was a Spiderman standing just behind Fred at this very moment, defrocked of his mask by security guards because God knew what havoc a superhero, emboldened by anonymity and a dozen Pabst Blue Ribbons, might wreak. A Spidey from Scotland, of all places, here for—of course—his bachelor party with pals from Australia, Ireland, England and Norway on the eve of his webbing to a woman from Japan whom he'd met in the Caymans; what hath God and Wrigley wrought?
"I've been all over the world," Fred continued, unperturbed. "I've scuba-dived the Great Barrier Reef and motorcycled the Icefields Parkway in the Canadian Rockies, and, yes, they're both beautiful. But I realized when I first came here 45 years ago that this ballpark on a sunny day was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen, and that it still is today. So the bathrooms smell like piss? So Larry Craig wouldn't like our men's room? Well, I don't watch the ball game from there. This ballpark doesn't need a damn thing. Winning or losing stopped making me happy or sad years ago. I just love to be here."
He proved it—not a twitch, not a blink—as Werth whacked a two-run single in the sixth, widening the Phils' lead to 3—1. "My anger ran its course years ago, as all natural things should," he mused. I loved this guy. I sprang to the concession stand to snag us two more beers, shocked by the beer lady's edict that I could buy only one. The police, watching swagger turn to stagger, had just decreed a one-per-customer limit, forcing me to take two steps to the right, to the beer lady beside her, to buy my second.
I returned just in time to begin singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame only to notice, out of the left corner of my eye ... yes, another marriage busting out, a young man on one knee offering up the big question and the big rock to a young woman in a sleeveless Cubbie T-shirt.
"Just—say—no!" chanted Judy behind me.
"What right have they to be happy?" queried Fred.
The woman, 21-year-old Megan Bart, slipped on the ring and flushed. The man, 27-year-old former Padres minor leaguer Rusty Moore, rejoiced. "Why here?" I asked him.
"Because the atmosphere is unmatched," he replied. Even trailing 3—1? "This year, for once, I just don't think something bad is going to happen," he said.
Something bad happened. Ryan Howard, as Rusty spoke, poleaxed a pitch to dead center: 4—1 Phils. Werth bludgeoned another: 5—1 Phils.
Freddie Scar Tissue just sat and sipped, transcending. "In the early '60s," he said, "I saw the Cubs give up a three-run homer on a bunt. How can life disappoint you after that?" His head moved in a small radial. "These fans believe we'll win this year. I can't let myself be sucked into it."
It was time, I decided, to put the Buddha's detachment to the ultimate test. Yes ... Bartman.
Bartman, the young man wearing earphones and a Cubs hat in a seat near the leftfield line who, on the evening of Oct. 14, 2003—with Chicago leading 3—0 and five outs away from a World Series berth—rose and touched a foul pop-up just as Cubs leftfielder Moises Alou reached for it, possibly preventing him from catching it, initiating a catastrophic sequence of events, including a butchered double-play ball, that resulted in an eight-run inning and culminated in an 8—3 loss to the Florida Marlins ... and no World Series, again. Bartman, the one incident that provoked Cub Nation to lose its sense of humor, to shower slurs and threats, until two diehards, one of them a pyrotechnician, had the cursed ball rigged with explosives and blown to smithereens.
"Yes, I was here on Bartman night," said Fred. "The woman I came with was crying. I walked out of this stadium after Game 7 like John Wayne, and I realized, They can't hurt me. That's the moment I knew. I'd hit the Zen spot—no one or nothing could touch me."
I, too, transcended, gloating not as my team salted one away, 5—2, and I hit the jackpot as the last man holding the Batter Game cup when the ball game ended. The crowd exited, stunned that its favorite song remained lodged in its throat. Fred, just before departing, told me which one of the three dozen Wrigleyville bars to meet him at, and he finally let down his scar tissue. "If they win it all," he confessed, "I'll cry like a baby and laugh like a hyena for a week."
I awoke on my last day, showered and caffeinated away the cobwebs, hopped the el to Addison Avenue and arrived eager to go out with a bang. The beer gardens were already thronged, the music hopping, the vendors weaving through the surge selling salty T-shirts—I WANNA SEE MARK DEROSA IN EVERY POSITION the females' fave. It occurred to me how familiar all this was beginning to feel, from summers I'd spent in Italy and Spain and Bolivia, and how foreign it felt in America. What Wrigley had wrought was something virtually nonexistent in the United States and yet essential to life in southern Europe and South America: the fiesta!
By blind luck as much as design, the Cubs had gathered and stirred all the critical carnaval ingredients: They annihilated the social barriers by preserving the bleachers, keeping humanity of all ages, shapes and bank accounts ass-to-ass on the same plank. They served up songs that everyone knew and sang together. They had percussion, pelvic fuel, in the bands of black youths beating overturned plastic buckets on Addison, Waveland and Sheffield. They had pagan sacrifices, like the skinned carcass of the billy goat lashed to the arm of Harry Caray's statue when they were going down in flames last October. Add alcohol, costumes, old men tottering on baseball-bat canes next to college-age girls removing their bras and wearing them as earmuffs—see YouTube, search Wrigley bleachers Cub girls get drunk. Add defeat, year after year of crushing, bewildering defeat, essential as well because the fiesta, at its roots, was a pre-Christian hoedown, a rational man's response to the irrational, his howl at wrhis ultimate futility, a few days or weeks a year when he embraced the absurdity of it all ... by becoming it.
Which is precisely what was occurring in "the well" out in left, the bleacher seats—located at the wall's sharp inward curve—where I'd been invited to join Ken Keefer and the Merry Pranksters, a throng of old hippies who roosted there every game. Ken was spraying the shapeliest of neighboring females with one water bottle, Ellen Shockley was spraying Soriano with another, Mary Ellen Reinhold was spraying Phillies leftfielder Pat Burrell with sexual innuendos, and Ellen's husband, Radical Tim, was spraying one-liners upon everyone and everything. They had Burrell shaking his booty for them—best one in baseball, the ex-hippie chicks concurred—and nodding when they asked if he was going commando.
Oh, by the way, the Cubs were busy going down 5—3 throughout all of this, losing their second straight at home for the first time in over a month. And yes, the 66-year-old fan sitting on my left, Elliot Fineman, was busy recruiting me to his website and his 1200-Month Fan Club, convinced that Cubs fans must begin referring to their drought as 1,200 months rather than 100 years to counteract all that number's negative psychic energy, "because otherwise, if a black cat walks across the field in the playoffs or Kerry Wood hurts his finger on the orange-juice squeezer, this city will freak, and as good as this team is, it can't wipe that away." And yes, the Cubs would lose six of their next seven games after the Phillies left town, and old fear would begin to spread, and Judy Caldow, the centerfield bleacher regular, would tell me that "Cub fans will tell you that doom's not in the back of their minds, but it is—it is for every Cub fan here."
But I felt no pity for them as I wobbled out of Wrigleyville. They could lose for 100 more years, and they still had what neither I nor any other fans in sports did, on the schedule every year from now till kingdom come or Wrigley go. Eighty-one chances to be children again.