The seventh-inning stretch on May 27 commenced like any other in any other ballpark in America on any other day, with the assembly singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in multi-key unison.
But I wasn’t at just any other ballpark. I was at the oldest surviving major-league ballpark in America, a truly historic site that, over 100 years, has seen more unrequited tragedy than any other playing field in American sport.
I was at Wrigley Field in Chicago, watching the Philadelphia Phillies take on the Cubs, and it was my birthday. And as I sang, “So let’s root, root-root for the Cubbies,” I wondered, Is this real life?
I’d arrived late the previous night. My old friend Kate Gibson, former editor-in-chief of Guilford College’s student newspaper, met me at baggage claim, and we took the L’s Blue Line southeast from O’Hare to the Loop, then transferred to the northbound Red Line. We caught up — that long ride afforded plenty of time. But we also generated an itinerary for the day: Breakfast at Heartland Café (where President Obama launched his senatorial campaign forever ago), Wrigley Field, then Giordano’s Pizza.
After a tasty breakfast Reuben — fried egg, bacon, kraut and Russian dressing on rye — and an horchata milkshake from the café, we hopped on the Red Line once again and rode south 10 stops to Addison Avenue. Plenty of Cubs fans populated each train car, many with shirts and jerseys sporting different designs of the Cubs logo: the striding bear inside a red C, a cartoon cub’s face encased in a red circle and the eternal classic — red Cubs inside a navy circle.
Another shirt, worn by a man in his early sixties, featured a different legendary symbol of the brand. The catchphrase, “Let’s get some runs,” shouted above an illustration of late longtime announcer Harry Caray.
Delirious excitement seized me when we stepped into the heart of Wrigleyville. The stadium, beautiful iron and steel washed in white and emerald, was right there — the backside of it, anyway — and people decked in red, white and royal blue milled about in front of the famous Sports Corner bar.
“The whole place looks like a Fourth of July party,” Kate commented.
Kate and I could have entered from any side of the park, but I knew what I had to see.
We worked our way to the front of Wrigley Field, and there it was: The enormous red marquee, deco as the Chrysler Building, an emblem of baseball fixed in my imagination ever since I’d seen it in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as a kid. The perfect view, unobstructed by stoplights, came from in front of the Cubby Bear bar, another renowned Wrigleyville establishment.
I experienced a flood of removed nostalgia walking in.
I knew what had happened here. The Homer in the Gloamin’. The Sandberg game. Sammy Sosa’s race for runner-up in the 1998 home-run record hunt.
Infielder Ernie Banks, record holder for most games without a postseason appearance — 2,528 — played 18 seasons here. Grover Cleveland Alexander and Greg Maddux pitched here. Second baseman Rogers Hornsby, runner-up in highest career batting average, betrayed his St. Louis Cardinals and played his final great years here.
But also Babe Ruth’s called shot. The Steve Bartman incident. And six World Series, the last 71 years ago, without a single win. In fact, the last man to have played for the Cubs in a World Series game, shortstop Lennie Merullo, died last year.
All these folktales are but memories in the city’s ether, but so much of the park has remained largely unchanged that, for a first-time visitor like myself, my giddy imagination nearly blinded me.
For though Merullo, Alexander, Ruth and Banks are all gone, the analog centerfield scoreboard remains. Rust colors the whitewashed steel works, and paint chipped away on the underside of the terrace and façade reveals the old, aged wood. Verdant Boston ivy still crawls along the outfield walls and corner wells. And while it can never be the same breeze, wind off Lake Michigan still curves opponents’ line drives foul.
The Cubs may be the Loveable Losers, but they win in the long run, because they possess one of two remaining major-league jewel boxes. And it’s the most beautiful stadium I’ve ever seen.
Granted, I’ve never been to Fenway Park in Boston, but I’ll soon let you know what I think of that famous field.
And though the Cubs have lost so much in the 100 years they’ve played in Wrigley Field, they won that day’s game. They whipped the poor Phillies, 6-2, with three homers — two solos smacked by leftfielder Jorge Soler and third baseman Kris Bryant, and one three-run slam over the leftfield corner by catcher David Ross in the bottom of the fourth, his 100th career homer.
A remarkable 3-6-1 double play — a grounder fielded from first baseman Anthony Rizzo to shortstop Addison Russell on second to closing pitcher Héctor Rondón covering first — ended the game. A huge white flag sporting a blue W flew over the scoreboard, and the speakers blared the cheesy ’80s anthem, “Go! Cubs! Go!” It felt good to see the Loveable Losers win at home.
And they aren’t really losers: This season, they sport the best record in MLB.