Optimism? Confidence? Expectations of success? There's no title yet, but things have changed at the ivy-covered burial ground on the North Side
This is an article from the Aug. 31, 2015 issue
A FEW WEEKS before I turned 47, for reasons I don't quite understand myself, I felt compelled to travel to Chicago, sit in the bleachers at Wrigley Field and watch the Cubs. I suppose it had to do with getting older and my fear of death, but there was also a general sense that something remarkable was happening in what Ernie Banks called the Friendly Confines and Steve Goodman called the ivy-covered burial ground: The Cubs were winning.
No one loved Wrigley Field more than Bill Veeck, who worked for the Cubs in the 1920s and '30s when his father was team president. Though Veeck went on to enjoy one of the most colorful careers in baseball history—owner, promoter, madman—he spent some of his last days, when he knew he was dying of cancer, in the rightfield bleachers at Wrigley, ending as he began: with a frosty malt, watching the Cubs lose.
It was Veeck who, as a young man, planted the ivy that became the franchise's boon and bane, a clock that mirrored the timeline of most Cubs seasons: dormant in April, beautiful in July, ragged by August. Some believe the team traded its mojo for greenery. When Veeck planted it in 1937, he was following a scheme cooked up by owner Phil Wrigley, who, perhaps more interested in chewing gum than baseball, had designed a strategy around quality of life. Going to a Cubs game would be like going to a picnic—not about victory or defeat, but about having a great time. This, the theory goes, killed incentive. If the stadium sells out even when the club is miles out of the race, who needs to win?
It's fitting that Veeck—see his memoir Veeck as in Wreck—took a station in right, as the rightfield bleacher bums have always been a nastier lot, maybe because rightfield at Wrigley is a kind of Bermuda Triangle, where singles turn into triples and routine flies vanish altogether. It's the sun and the long afternoon shadows and the swirling wind. The fans can be even worse than the weather, hectoring outfielders into ruinous attack. In April 1983, Keith Moreland, having been doused with beer, had to be restrained from storming into the stands, resulting in the best press conference in Chicago history.
"F--- those f-----' fans who come out here and say they're Cub fans that are supposed to be behind you, rippin' every f-----' thing you do," manager Lee Elia, who was fired about 10 seconds later, said of the Wrigley faithful. "I'll tell you one f-----' thing, I hope we get f-----' hotter than s---, just to stuff it up them 3,000 f-----' people that show up every f-----' day, because if they're the real Chicago f-----' fans, they can kiss my f-----' ass right downtown and PRINT IT.... What the f--- am I supposed to do, go out there and let my f-----' players get destroyed every day and be quiet about it? For the f-----' nickel-dime people that show up? The mother------- don't even work. That's why they're out at the f-----' game.... Eighty-five percent of the f-----' world is working. The other 15 come out here. A f-----' playground for the c----------...."
Now and then, when things got slow, the rightfield bleacher bums would even turn on us leftfielders, chanting, "Leftfield sucks, leftfield sucks." Which was not news. I mean, we knew we sucked. How else to explain our compulsion to return year after year with the same groundless expectation.
And yet, for most of us, there was a breaking point. For some, maybe it was 2003 with the Bartman game. Maybe it was 1969, when the Cubs, who'd led the NL by nine games, dropped eight straight in September, giving way to the surging Mets. For me, it was 1984, the season when my geometry of hope and disappointment were fixed. I attended 27 games that summer, always sitting in the leftfield bleachers. The '84 Cubs, a team that won the NL East in a walk, a team that featured a group dubbed the all-animal infield—Bull at first; Ryno at second; Bowa at short; Penguin at third; Trout on the hill—won and won right up to the moment that they lost it all. I was watching on TV when Padres first baseman Steve Garvey hit the home run that killed us. I quietly excused myself, went outside and wept. I kept going to games after that, but it wasn't the same. I'd been wounded by experience, slapped into sobriety. It's like old men used to say about the Great War: You come back, but come back different.
And then, at a certain point, I stopped going altogether. Because I'd learned the lesson: The world is misery, and human endeavor ends in pain. We lose and lose and win but only for a moment because we're still too busy losing. An old Cubs fan is as fatalistic as a French existentialist. All we have is this, and here, and now. Live for today, for tomorrow we lose. The Cubs have not won since 1908. The Cubs have never won in Wrigley. Not even in the years of Andre Dawson, not even in the years of Greg Maddux and Mark Grace. Even in those seasons when the team gets off to a jackrabbit start, you know how it's going to finish. Only kids feel different because, as any parent can tell you, kids are stupid.
But now, for the first time in several decades, the Cubs have me hoping and believing and thinking, Maybe, just maybe. It's Tom Ricketts, who bought the team in 2009; Theo Epstein, who came on as President of Baseball Operations in '11; Joe Maddon, who became skipper this season. Mostly it's the players: Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Dexter Fowler, Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and the kid, Kyle Schwarber. It's not just that they win—as of this writing, they're 72--51—but how they look doing it. As giddy as a team in the Little League world series. As happy as a bunch of half-blasted guys playing 16-inch softball by the lake. Not only will this team bring me back, I thought, they will bring back all the wounded old-timers.
I LANDED IN Chicago with just enough time to check into a hotel, dump my bags and hop on the El, which took me over the rooftops of the North Side, in and out of redbrick buildings with glimpses of wood and steel. From the back, the houses are a complicated weave of fire escapes. As a kid I used to imagine hitting a baseball into the grid, watching it bound like a dinger hit into empty seats. This was the first game I'd seen in years, and I was as giddy as any of the men and women and kids who filled the train with hats and jerseys. It got crowded, more crowded, impossibly crowded. At Addison Street the doors burst open and the masses spilled down the steps as the cars tottered away like a popped balloon.
The atmosphere was carnival-like before the game. I stopped at Murphy's bar across from the rightfield bleacher entrance for a beer with an Iraq war veteran who told stories about Cubs greats of yesteryear, Kenny Holtzman and Rick Monday. "You know, in the old, old days there was no World Series, no real championship," he said. "When the season ended, one team had taken the pennant and that was it. For most teams, the idea of winning was finished by July. So what was there to care about? Each series, each game. Day by day. The rest of it, the big dream, was not their business. It's a better way to live."
Evening shadows were creeping up the facades on Sheffield Avenue. I walked around the stadium. Wrigley had been renovated in the off-season. The bleachers were popped out, in the way sections of a mobile home can be popped out when you reach the campgrounds. It has given the surrounding streets a cavernous effect. More than ever the neighborhood feels like an older America. A group of men, grown-ups who should know better, Lee Elia's mother-------, had stationed themselves, with baseball gloves, on Waveland Avenue. The Cubs were taking batting practice, and here were souvenir hunters, hoping to snag the random blast that cleared the park. A security guard shouted down from the bleachers, "Bryant's coming up." There was a flurry among the hunters. A moment later the balls started flying out. Banged off a building. Bounded down an avenue. Skipped along the pavement, the men chasing after them.
The seats were filled by the first pitch. General admission. Bench seating. Standing room only. Fans leaned against the perimeter fence, arranged along the steps that service the centerfield bleachers, their silhouettes dark against the dark sky, that vast Chicago sky of my childhood, as thin as gossamer, as deep as the deep end of the pool. The ancient scoreboard towers against it like a memory of the 1930s: Babe Ruth calling his shot in the '32 World Series; Gabby Hartnett hitting the homer in the gloamin' against the Pirates in '38. That scoreboard, which once loomed like a palisade, has since been diminished by modern screens installed behind the left- and rightfield seats. And yet the overall atmosphere remains the same. The body has gone under the knife, but the soul is intact.
The Cubs were playing the Rockies. Like many games in my youth, it was over a moment after it started, Colorado jumping all over the Chicago starter, 26-year-old Oklahoman Dallas Beeler.
Below are the notes I took during the game.
Summer night. Big moon. Pennants flagging above the big board in a sultry fashion, slowly, as if underwater.
A guy dressed in Cubs regalia saying to another guy dressed in same: "Just to give you an idea, his son's no genius either."
Jerseys worn in my vicinity: Dawson, Sandberg, Santo, Ramirez, Reuschel.
Top of first. Two strikes and two balls on leadoff hitter, Blackmon. He doubles to left. Number 2 batter doubles to right. Then a walk. Air goes out of the bleachers. Nolan Arenado doubles to left. My God, it's a shooting gallery! The kid next to me was born in 1992 and knows prospects down to Single A. He speaks of promising trades. How about trading one of those prospects for an out?
Bottom of first. Fowler goes down swinging. Schwarber walks. Bryant: Big swing and miss. Bryant strikes out a lot, and it can be like watching the Whammer and Roy Hobbs at the county fair. A drunk three rows back curses him as the new Dave Kingman. Memories of Kong make me shudder down to the ground ... and then Bryant walks.
Now when you get a hot dog at Wrigley, they ask if you want "real onions."
THE ROCKIES were up 7--2 at the end of the eighth. Several people had been kicked out by then, some for rowdy behavior, some for underage drinking, some for both. The crowd was younger than I remembered. Where had the old guys gone, the characters who used to sit beside me, sharing wisdom, statistics, jokes? ("How d'ya say Garage Key in Russian? Grajkey! Ha! Ha!" Cough. Cough. Sigh.) I realized that I was the old man now, at least 10 years senior to my closest neighbor. I'd become Bill Veeck or Harry Caray, who in the late summer used to broadcast games from the rightfield seats, getting hammered as the day went on, as the legend goes. The average age was probably 23 out there, the young workers of Rahm Emanuel's Chicago.
There was something strange about these fans—it was how they carried themselves, cheered. The bleacher bum is traditionally humorous and wise. When you live on a wheel, you know what awaits beyond the next turn. But these new bleacher creatures actually expect to win! I mean, they really think it's going to happen. Next season. This season. "We get that wild card, nothing can stop us." This, as much as the retooled roster, is the work of Ricketts and Epstein. They've steadily created a new mind-set, the low expectations of the fans being a great enabler of futility. You see a change even now, in the first years of the new dispensation. I was in the same seats in the same park, but it was a new country.
I saw it in the way these kids heckled—not with comic sensibility, nor weary acceptance of defeat, but with outrage. They were appalled by poor play, believing they were entitled to better. I felt like a relic among them, a miser fishing for crab from a broken-down pier. In the future my cast of mind, characterized by the acceptance and even the comfort of defeat, a worldview formed by the Cubs, will seem unhealthy, strange. At best, they will pity me. At worst, they will hate me and those of my generation who cling to the solace of Bill Buckner's 1980 batting title amid a season's sea of woe, or Ernie Banks's two MVPs won while playing for terrible teams. Why did the Hebrews wander 40 years in the desert? Because God was waiting for the slave generation to die. It takes a people unsullied by the stink of history to settle the promised land.
THE NEXT AFTERNOON I met my friend Dennis for the matinee. The Cubs didn't install lights at Wrigley Field until 1988 and have always seemed more natural and at ease in the sun. It was an entirely different crowd. Kids and fathers and dreams of the next 20 years. Smoothies instead of beer, and the Cubs rattling the cages, sending balls deep into the outfield. Dennis talked about real estate deals and life choices and how, no matter what we do with our time, we end up like our parents, but I did my best to watch the game. Lester was on the mound for Chicago. He stared in for the sign with a quizzical look. He struck out 14. No lefthander had done that at Wrigley since Sandy Koufax struck out 18 in 1962.
It was hot but there was a breeze, and the sky was filled with fair-weather cumulus, vertiginous white clouds with flat gray undersides, arranged like stepping-stones. In them I could see Jose Cardenal's Afro and Rick Reuschel's belly and Ivan DeJesus, who, before each at bat, would cross himself then grab his crotch. Nothing bad can happen on a day like that. When Anthony Rizzo clinched the game with a towering shot in the third, it felt inevitable, as certain as victory to a 25-year-old.
The innings passed like silos on a Wisconsin road trip. Sixth, seventh, eighth. As Cubs fans, we found ourselves in the unusual position of hoping not much more would happen. We stood and cheered for the last out, then streamed down the ramps.
Looking out at the street, I remembered a long-ago moment, perhaps my favorite, that typifies the local sensibility. It was late innings in a game lost hours before. Rain had come and gone, leaving the bleachers half empty, with a scatter of dead-enders. Some big enemy slugger tagged a hanging curve, turned it into a speck that dropped onto Waveland Avenue. We clamored to the fence to watch it bounce. It landed near a mailman making his rounds. He stared at the ball a moment, then picked it up and turned it over. Looking up at us, he shouted, "Ours or theirs?"
In one easy motion the mailman, the bag still slung across his shoulder, threw the ball over the fence. It traveled a perfect parabola, landing without sound on the soggy outfield grass. It was the best play of the day.
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