CHICAGO — I grew up in this city, and I’ve wandered the streets of Wrigleyville on a clear day and on nights when more than the sky was cloudy. I know the neighborhood surrounding Wrigley Field well, and when it became clear that the Cubs were going to win their first pennant since 1945 and play in the World Series, I knew I had to be present to see how that neighborhood — and the city as a whole — would respond.
I wasn’t disappointed — the epicenter of the city has moved north, to the corner of Clark and Addison, for an incredible weekend of baseball history.
The mood around the ballpark before Game 5 — an elimination game for the Cubs — was surprisingly upbeat. It’s truly impossible to have a bad time in Wrigleyville, it seems. The jubilant mood was bizarre and slightly unsettling, because just over the walls and inside the ballpark, you could feel the tension — but beer is far more expensive in there.
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As the game started, I decided to see how the people who lived a few blocks from the ballpark were taking in the game. You could catch every pitch of the contest by walking and looking into the windows of the brownstones — the roar of the crowd indicating that you needed to get your eyes on a set ASAP.
I had wandered five blocks away from the park — walking under the L and just outside of the range of the Wrigley Field lights, when the yelling started.
I had my headphones in, listening to the Cubs’ broadcast of the game, but I heard it. Then I saw a larger black SUV with a well-dressed man, white and middle-aged, hanging out the window.
“Hey, come here,” he yelled.
This ought to be good, I thought.
“We can’t go — you want a ticket to the game? Just one.”
How do you say no to that?
I’m a Chicagoan, but I’m not a Cubs fan — I grew up rooting for Frank Thomas, Mark Buehrle, Juan Uribe (my favorite player of all time) and the White Sox.
I took the ticket anyway.
Better for me to have it than the guy in the black SUV driving away from the game, I thought.
I had spent the first four innings of Game 3 hanging out with ticket pushers at the corner of Clark and Addison, so I knew how much that ticket was going for. I was offered a ticket — at face value — to “(expletive) off” on Friday night, but I didn’t want to pay and to justify that stance, I had convinced myself that I wouldn’t take a seat that could belong to a Cubs fan. I had seen too many fathers and sons stand outside the ballpark, unable to get in because paying $1,500 for a ticket was ridiculous.
But there I was, in the second inning of the game, holding a ticket to the last World Series game at Wrigley Field, and it didn’t cost me a penny.
But I couldn’t use it.
I know how much the White Sox winning the World Series meant to me in 2005. I remember how I broke down emotionally when the Chicago Blackhawks, the team that I used to pay $5 to see when I was in high school — the worst franchise in professional sports — won the Stanley Cup in 2010. I went to Game 2 of that series, and it was the most incredible sporting experience of my life.
I’m not a Cubs fan — I wouldn’t feel joy being in that park. I’d be stealing someone else’s joy.
I knew who needed to use the ticket.
Steve Henneberry was my best friend in high school, but more than that, he is the biggest Cubs fan I’ve ever met. We didn’t stay all that close once we left for college, but we still see each other at Christmas every year — we make the time.
Steve moved to Minnesota a few years back, and he and his wife Kelly started a family. We had some good times, but I’ve never seen a happier photo of Steve than the picture he took of him, Kelly and his son Thomas at the kid’s first Cubs game.
Steve drove in from Minnesota to see if he could get tickets to any of the three games this weekend. He found out rather quickly that wasn’t going to happen – if he was lucky he could have gotten a standing room-only ticket for $1,000. We watched the game together with other friends Saturday night, but he and Kelly wanted to be as close as possible to Wrigley for Sunday night’s game. They set up shop at Lucky’s Sandwich Shop on Clark, three blocks south of the ballpark.
One minute after receiving the ticket, I called Steve, but didn’t get a response. I sent a text:
Call Me Now!
Ten seconds later, a call and the offer — you want the ticket?
Steve wasn’t sure. Only one? He didn’t want to leave Kelly at the bar. I told him he had five minutes to think it over — I was heading towards Lucky’s.
We met outside the watering hole — I refused to take no for an answer. He really didn’t need much convincing. Sorry, Kelly, you’re flying solo.
As we walked to the ballpark, I opined that I wasn’t feeling a tremendous amount of excitement coming from Steve.
“I’m just shocked.”
As we approached the gate, Kris Bryant hit a homer to tie the game. The ground shook. Despite this seismic moment, I forced Steve to take a photo in front of the Ron Santo statue outside of Gate D before he headed into the park. The ticket worked. From 50 feet away, you could see the shock on Steve’s face when it did. I might have blurted out an expletive in relief — the apocalypse caller with the sign standing next to me didn’t care for that too much.
Steve was able to see the Cubs take the lead in the fourth inning. He was able to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with Eddie Vedder in the seventh inning. He sang “Go Cubs Go!” when the Cubs extended their season at least one more game with a win.
“This is incredible,” he texted me from inside the park. “I’m shaking.”
Those things wouldn’t mean a thing to me. They’d be cool to see, no doubt, but I wouldn’t have felt the emotions of the moment. The celebration of this amazing Cubs season has been so memorable because of all the terrible memories that preceded it. I never suffered through those moments, so how could I celebrate them?
And that’s what this is all about — more than a celebration, it’s catharsis.
This weekend, Cubs fans took chalk and wrote their names — and the names of their loved ones — on the wall just behind the right field bleachers. It was a living mural to fanhood, even for those who are no longer with us. Those who were able to make the pilgrimage — and make no mistake, that’s exactly what this weekend was — carried a lifetime of memories and relationships with them to the venerable old ballpark. And for all those who couldn’t make it, they were still there, in a way.
Steve’s mom died when he was in middle school. He was the oldest of three, and he helped his dad raise his two sisters. He worked his tail off in high school and then worked his way through college at Creighton. There were an incredible amount of ups and downs — he had to become an adult long before the rest of us. Through all of that, the Cubs have been a constant. For a long time, they were the only steady thing in his life.
One of those summer jobs Steve worked to help pay for school — usher at Wrigley Field. The pay was garbage and the job was tough, but Steve got to be in Wrigley Field every day. Where would you rather be?
Steve is an optimist. As a deep-seated pessimist, it created a good balance. But that optimism would annoy the hell out of me when he’d say, every year, that it was going to be the year for the Cubs, even when, deep down, he knew that wasn’t the case.
Others might have matched it, but no one in the world has more hope for the Cubs than Steve.
I don’t believe in karma or cosmic intervention, but the universe was working in strange ways Sunday night. Steve, the biggest Cubs fan I’ve ever known — the guy who cheered the loudest in the good times and suffered the hardest in the far more frequent bad times — had to be in the park for that game. It happened.
Standing outside the park, hearing the roar of the crowd as the Cubs took the lead, I started to cry.