CHICAGO — What a sucker. I walked up to Wrigley Field knowing, like any pessimistic Chicagoan, what was about to happen in the Cubs game. And then the stadium seemed to emerge from the neighborhood, that ancient stadium, and I could hear the organ playing, and pretty much my entire happy childhood came rushing back to me.
Sucker. That’s what Wrigley Field is selling, a smell and a sound and a site and the sunshine of your favorite memories. It’s a living Field of Dreams.
On Wednesday, the Cubs will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field. And I have one thought about the place I grew up thinking of as the greatest, happiest place in the world:
I wish the Cubs would get the hell out of it. Just move out. Stop playing here. Build a new stadium in the city, in the suburbs, in Gary, Ind., for all I care. Just leave Wrigley Field.
The thing is, Wrigley Field is now just embarrassing. It is a working museum, yes. But a museum of what?
It’s a shrine to losing. Cubs losing. It’s a tribute to 100 years of embarrassment (though the Cubs didn’t move there till 1916), and it walks hand in hand with the definition of the Cubs.
I wish the Cubs would get the hell out of it. Just move out. Stop playing here.
I mentioned that the Cubs are celebrating 100 years here. Celebrating. They have never won the World Series since playing here. Never. Why are they celebrating?
They mowed "100" into the center-field grass. At the game I went to, Friday, the guests who sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game’’ during the seventh-inning stretch were the grandson, the great-grandson and the great-great grandson of Joe Tinker, of Tinker to Evers to Chance. The Cubs pointed out that Tinker was a staple of the team’s dynasty from 1904-08.
Do they know how embarrassing that sounds? They haven’t won the World Series since then.
But everyone knows the Cubs haven’t won since whenever.
The three most famous and defining moments in those 100 years are Babe Ruth’s called shot in the World Series, the legend of the Billy Goat (when Sam Sianis bought a ticket for his goat to the 1945 World Series and was kicked out when fans complained about the smell, so Sianis put a Greek curse on the Cubs that they’d never win the Series again). And in 2003, when the Cubs, just five outs from the World Series, gave up eight runs in the eighth inning, with everyone blaming some poor sap of a fan named Steve Bartman, who tried to catch a foul ball as below-average outfielder Moises Alou tried to leap, blindly, and grab a ball he wasn’t going to catch from the stands over his head.
I was at that game; I’ll get back to that later because you won’t believe what I told my friend not five minutes before the Bartman moment. But the thing is, the great memories of the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field all happened to the Cubs.
This is a hard thing to say. This place is still so beautiful. When the Cubs do win games here, it’s special. But it’s actually hard to think of defining moments that are positive. Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game as a rookie was here. Ryne Sandberg’s two homers off Bruce Sutter. Any number of Sammy Sosa game-winners. Ernie Banks’ 500th homer.
If they actually could win a World Series here, it would be the most amazing moment in sports history. But you just keep holding on to that, and eventually, the park just reminds you of all the losing.
I came to so many games in 2003, when it looked like it was really going to happen. The streets beyond the outfield walls were packed with thousands of people, with fathers throwing baseballs to their sons, with partiers, with people just sitting on the curb and watching. They couldn’t see in, but were part of it anyway, the sounds and smells were good enough.
I was 5 when my Dad took me to Wrigley for the first time. It was cold and rainy. The Cubs lost to the Pirates. I remember sneaking away with a buddy once as a kid, taking the L to Wrigley, walking past Bill Veeck sitting in the bleachers, and seeing Pete Rose smash a shot off Lee Smith’s body to the shortstop for a Cubs win. I came to Felix Pie’s debut. He was going to be the next superstar, and if memory serves, he got a hit off Greg Maddux and also threw out a runner at the plate.
I wonder whatever happened to Pie. He was awful, like so many other can’t-miss prospects. Too many to name, but a few: Corey Patterson. Gary Scott. Karl Pagel, who was once on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Last time I talked to him, he was driving a truck for UPS.
Yes, I was at the Bartman game. At the start of the inning, I turned to the guy I was sitting next to and said, “Uh oh. The Cubs are about to blow this.’’
This place is like a drug now. Or maybe it’s just telling a lie.
Typical Cubs fan, he said. Of course I would be so cynical in the Cubs’ best moment in over 50 years. Turned out to be more painful than Leon Durham letting the ball roll through his legs in the 1984 NLCS. I ran over to where Bartman was sitting, and ducked beer bottles and popcorn and who knows what.
In the 1930s, when old man Wrigley, the gum magnate and Cubs owner, died, Phil Wrigley took over. He didn’t know anything about baseball, and thought the thing to do was to turn the park into a beautiful place for a picnic. That way, if the team loses, people will still come and have a nice time.
I’ve had too many nice times at Wrigley. But that’s what this place now means. It’s a nice place to watch the Cubs lose. Sure, the Bears won championships when they played here, and Gale Sayers ran for six touchdowns here in one game. But they moved out, and it all worked out.
I don’t believe in ghosts. Mostly. It’s not that the baseball gods are against the Cubs. It’s not that the place is all rickety and falling down. Well, it sort of is, but the Cubs want to fix it up, which they can.
The Cubs owners, the Ricketts family, want the city to help out with that. They want to modernize, widen the concourses, add a Jumbotron. They don’t seem to know how to fight Chicago politics to make it happen. But they hired Theo Epstein to turn it around, and what he has done is add prospects in the minors. Cubs fans are told to believe, and to look at the beautiful park.
Epstein, fittingly, might well have assembled the worst team in history to help celebrate 100 years at Wrigley.
This place is like a drug now. Or maybe it’s just telling a lie. Or it’s a diversion from reality, even turning the losing into a cuddly, lovable thing.
Just leave a nice park here for nice-park types of things. Let Wrigley be used for concerts and maybe high school games and festivals.
One more thing: I got a bag of Cracker Jack Friday at Wrigley. As always, it had a prize inside. It was a little card with a sports fact. It said this:
"The New York Yankees have won 27 World Series Championships, the most of any team in Major League Baseball.”
Maybe so, but look how green the grass is at Wrigley. It’s beautiful.