The elevated train clatters toward Wrigley Field and a female
conductor drones "Addison is next" and "Stand clear of the
opening doors" and "Parents, hold the hands of your children as
you leave the train." Then--from her sealed box, through crackling
speakers--she sighs, "It's a beautiful day for a ball game."
Exit the station, blinking against the sunlight. A panhandler
says, "Help the beerless?" Chicago cops in checkerboard hatbands
tell him to beat it. The sign outside Hi-Tops bar says WELCOME
BACK CUB FANS.
An old man in a John Deere feed cap poses, at Sheffield and
Addison, before a statue of Harry Caray. His wife tries to take
his picture, but she can't find the shutter button. So the old
man stands there, stiller than the statue, while his petrified
grin becomes a grimace.
It's the last thing you see before you're swept through a
turnstile on a tide of humanity and into the Friendly Confines.
The stadium smells like concrete and Lysol. An eight-year-old
boy in the concourse beneath the grandstand has the blue lips of
a choking victim. Then you see, in his right hand, a bale of
Smurf-blue cotton candy. He smiles, and his teeth are the color
of babershop-comb disinfectant. And you think, Where on earth
would I rather be?
Follow a shaft of sunlight up a tunnel to your seat. The
thwock-thwock-thwock of batting practice echoes off the bricks.
The field is awesome, a brushed baize poker table. Atop the
scoreboard a riot of flags flutters in the breeze, like the
handlebar tassels on a girl's bike. The beer man arrives
unbidden and says, "What'll it be, guys?"
For a couple of brews our change from a 10-dollar bill is one
single, soaked in Bud Light. A tractor drags the infield in
circles, which looks right because the ballpark organ sounds like
the calliope on a merry-go-round. We are drinking beer at noon on
Thursday and feeling fully alive, like fugitives from justice,
while the rest of the world is at work in a cubicle.
The Cubs were co-owners of baseball's worst record last year and
have lost six straight games. Still, 36,014 fans are inside the
stadium, and there are filled rooftops beyond the bleachers and,
on Waveland Avenue, invisible figures with baseball gloves and
radios. So when Houston Astros outfielder Richard Hidalgo hits a
home run over the bleachers, the ball is regurgitated onto the
leftfield lawn before he can cross home plate, and a cheer goes
up for the Unknown Fan responsible.
A cell phone bleats behind first base, and the shirtless man who
answers it says, "What? I can't hear you. No, I'm at Wrigley,
watching these *&@#%! losers lose." But the complaint sounds
insincere, halfhearted. So, too, do those in the men's room:
Strangers stand at stainless-steel, trough-style urinals, each
man staring a hole in the wall in front of him, while voicing his
shock and disappointment in this year's lineup--even though the
Cubs, as every one of them knows, haven't won a pennant since
Shadows travel east across the diamond, from the third base line
toward the pitcher's mound, but here, along the rightfield line,
the seats are forever in sunshine. Four hours into the afternoon,
every hatless head in our section is turning red and
painful-looking, like a thousand thumbs struck with hammers.
Because Sammy Sosa is rabbit-eared and responds in
rightfield--with a head nod or a flick of the glove--to each
lone voice that hollers his name. "Sammy!" (Nod.) "Sam-may!"
(Flick.) This happens every time without fail, regardless of
what's going on in the game, and children sneak down to the
front-row railing to yell "Sam-may!" and have a superstar
athlete acknowledge their existence.
At the seventh-inning stretch, Chip Caray leans out of the
broadcast booth and sings, like his grandfather before him, Take
Me Out to the Ball Game. We sing along: "Well, we'll root root
root for the Cuhhh-bees, if they don't win it's a shame...." They
don't win. It's a shame. A glum face stares from a square in the
out-of-town scoreboard, on which appear eight letters,
stair-stepped down from left to right, across four empty line
scores: They spell NITE GAME. (Nite is misspelled, like Sox or
sno-cone, in the venerable baseball tradition.)
Just before we exit the ballpark and repair to Murphy's Bleachers
bar for "one more," we cast an eye at all those poor be-nited
cities on the scoreboard: at New York and Los Angeles, Atlanta
and Oakland. And we wonder why, in a free society, everyone
doesn't live here.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO