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I Got Paid For Going To Chicago

August and most of September came and went, leaving the Cubs in first place for the homestretch. But following the games from my Phoenix base had become utterly unfulfilling, due partly to my self-disgust for being a mere cable Cub fan and due also to the fact that the radio in my office could get the games on KCKY only if I stood next to it with my hand on the dial. Coupled with this standard Cub anxiety was a nagging dread over the eventual outcome of the vote next Tuesday on a downtown baseball stadium. The polls were saying it can't pass, and that news was just too much to handle. Voting yes on the stadium proposition is, in my opinion, the single most important political act most of you weenies will ever commit.

So I blew up to this very large hub of Midwestern civilization early last week to catch a big Monday-night game against the Mets, clear my head and load up on good baseball karma in advance of the stadium vote.

My goal was an immersion into a state of Total Cubness. I had to see for myself what this team was about, what its real fans were about and what it's like to be in a town under the influence of a pennant race.

This is my Cubs diary. Monday, September 18
Noon

As the plane taxis toward the gate at O'Hare, I mentally review the second half of the Cubs' season. July 20 was a key date: The boys came back to whip the very tough San Francisco Giants. July 30 was another important day on the calendar, because Mark Grace won the Sunday afternoon thriller with a homer in the ninth, leading the Cubs to a critical three-game sweep of the Mets. On August 7, the Cubs dumped the Expos and moved into first place. August 15: Andre Dawson's three-run homer in the 12th inning beat the Reds. September 9: With the Cardinals closing to within a half-game of first, Luis Salazar singled with two outs in the eighth and drove in the tying run. In the tenth, he doubled in Dawson to win it. A season of turning points.

The biggest game of the summer for me and many other disbelieving fans came on August 29 against Houston, when the Cubs quickly barfed up a huge lead to the Astros. All over the country, TV sets switched off. John Vinopal, a high school pal of mine who works in the Loop, lost interest in that afternoon game when he heard the score reach 9-0, Astros. But Chicago scored a bunch of runs and was in the midst of an amazing comeback when John strolled past the small bar in his train station on the way home to Arlington Heights.

"There were businessmen standing eight deep at the bar," John says. "Usually it's just a few guys buying their doubles for the trip home. You would've thought that Heather Locklear was handing out martinis in the buff." Cubs win! Cubs win!

Monday, September 18
3:02 p.m.

I check into a cheap hotel near the ballpark, a place apparently quite popular with slow-moving cable Cub fans from Iowa. On my way upstairs I encounter several people wearing matching Kiwanis windbreakers, all seemingly in search of an ice machine. These people stand out in stark contrast to locals, especially at bus stops along Clark Street. The Chicago TV station WGN was sending Cub games into Iowa years before cable and satellite technology made it the trendy thing to do, so the team has a tremendous following from there. All of the Iowa-based fans look eerily familiar as you spot them around town, either stopping traffic to take a picture of the family in front of the ballpark or fumbling for change on the bus or scurrying away from panhandlers. Then you realize: You've seen all of these people at spring training. They're the ones who make it impossible to get tickets at HoHoKam.

Monday, September 18
4:02 p.m.

I hit the streets. The scene outside the hotel is your typical bustling gentrified big-city scene. The neighborhoods around Wrigley Field have achieved an unfathomable degree of hipness over the past decade or so, due how much to baseball I don't know. Real estate in the Wrigley area is hot, hot, hot--and the controversial addition of lights to the ballpark and the subsequent short schedule of night games has only amplified the boom. The morning papers, in additon to carrying the Cubs' magic number to clinch the division in a box on the front page, tell the story of a developer who is trying to turn the block directly south of the park into a big shopping mall. Considering that my first significant exposure to an adult urinating in public occured during my first-ever visit to Wrigley Field as a child, things have changed somewhat. Everywhere there are restaurants of all kinds and trendy shops and stores. En route to the ballpark I pass at least three sushi joints, several Mexican restaurants, a bunch of nightclubs, dozens of fun-looking bars with beer gardens and at least one coffee house populated by pale young bohemians dressed entirely in black. I consider for a second popping into this joint to ask the hipsters what they think about the Cubs' bullpen, but fearing an outbreak of poetry reading, I walk on. At the joint on the opposite end of the block from Murphy's Bleachers bar, I stop for an excellent Polish dog, the best I've had in roughly a decade. Pacing myself, I order a soda and get a dirty look from the bartender. With two hours to go before the first pitch, I stake out an observation post on the northwest corner of Sheffield and Addison. Monday, September 18  

5 p.m.

The most popular items of junk hawked by street vendors outside the park are not related directly to the Cubs. One series of tee shirts features the slogans: "St. Louis Sucks," "New York Sucks," and "What the Hell is an Expo?" These sell for $10 each. My favorite shirt says: "Chicago Cubs, World Champions, 1908."

When for the first time in more than fifteen years I hear one male call another male a "dildo," tears of nostalgia well up in my eyes. Is this a great city, or what? Monday, September 18

5:31 p.m.

I rendezvous with a large party of old friends on the back patio at Murphy's, a legendary bar located directly behind the center-field bleachers. The setting is sublime. As elevated trains full of downtown workers roar by directly overhead, smoke from the large bratwurst-grilling area wafts over the crowd. The atmosphere is not unlike the set of the City Streets attraction at Sea World, but with real people instead of drama students from San Diego State.

At this point I notice that Murphy is grilling, in addition to cheeseburgers and brats, something called a Cajun chicken sandwich. This also happens to be a menu item at Sea World, a fact that closes a cosmic circle I'd rather not think about.

Probably due to the huge demand, the brats we order are cold in the middle. Fortunately for all concerned, so are the cans of Old Style we order. I know this sounds nuts, but Old Style in Chicago is nothing at all like the Old Style anywhere else. It is, in fact, a Bud rival for the brew affections of several million people in the Chicago area. Monday, September 18

6 p.m.

As game time approaches and the bleacher seats fill up, the crowd at Murphy's begins to thin out. A person of late-middle age approaches me. He's wearing a bright green tee shirt and solar-cooled pith helmet and carrying an almost-life-size doll dressed in a Mets uniform. The doll has several dozen pins stuck to its face. "Here you go, Cub fans, no charge," the guy says to nobody in particular. "Stick it to the Mets." None of the remaining Murphy's crowd, which appears to be heavily laced with people who make more money than they probably should, appears interested in this wild voodoo fun. Ironically enough, the very next morning's New York Times carries a long feature on the yuppification of Wrigley Field. The star of the piece is none other than the voodoo man, Jerry Pritikin, a harmless fellow known as the Bleacher Preacher who is now famous around the world. Pritikin's deal is telling businessmen who come to games to remove their neckties. "It's a rule," he tells them.

Chicago restaurant magnate Richard Melman is a certifiable baseball nut who spends most of every March in Phoenix, where he attends spring training games with his partner Don Carson, boss at Don & Charlie's restaurant in Scottsdale.

He says business in his many joints sags whenever the Cubs are playing at night. On the whole, Melman says, the Cubs' success is good for business. "These games bring a lot of people into Chicago. People are out, feeling good. They want to celebrate."

Chicago is a city where many lottery winners immediately buy a bowling alley and a liquor store. Then, in the newspaper story that invariably appears about a year later, they ask: "Is that all there is?" I think Melman draws from a different crowd. As the clock ticks down toward 6:30, the streets, which just minutes ago had been packed with rowdies and slicks in business suits, begin to empty out. It's kind of weird to be standing outside the ballpark when a game is being played inside. It's quiet, almost peaceful. Monday, September 18  

6:36 p.m.

The game starts and I realize that, percentage-wise, there are more people in this crowd who know all the words to the Gilligan's Island theme song than in any other similar-sized gathering on Earth. The Mets, easily the most widely hated team in the history of baseball, get a couple of runs early, most likely because gracelessly aging catcher Gary Carter isn't playing. Carter (who would go on to hit a big home run against the Cubs on Tuesday) has replaced Steve Garvey on many fans' lists as the most contemptible, self-righteous, jerk-ballplayer currently active. You just want to throw lit matches into his perm. Darryl Strawberry smacks a gigantic home run in the third inning and gives the Mets a 3-0 lead. Many in the crowd fall silent, at least until the next beer man walks past. Monday, September 18

7:30 p.m.

While waiting for the next beer man to walk past, conversation in our party turns to the battle some local residents wage against the presence of Wrigley Field in their midst. An incredible amount of time, energy and money goes into keeping the ballpark's neighbors satisfied, including the enacting of mystifying parking laws, the assignment of massive amounts of police to the area and a special undercover squad of pale white guys in all-black clothing who force anyone caught urinating in public to listen to poetry. "If I see another interview with a pissed-off Wrigleyville person . . . I could give a shit," says my friend Joe, a suburban kid whose father was the best Cubs fan I've ever known. "Don't live there. The park was there first."

It could be argued that everybody who grew up within the broadcast range of WGN has a vote in what goes on with the team and stadium. As suburban kids, it was kind of tough for me or Joe or J.P. or John or Mack or D.O. or anyone else to go to many games. But we could participate as Cub fans fully, because every single game, home and away, was always carried by WGN. The ties to the team for someone like me, who now lives a thousand-and-a-half miles away, remain strong because of cable. I'm still in WGN's range. It's amazing. It's also probably equally amazing to someone who lives a couple of blocks from the ballpark that I own a tee shirt that says No Lights in Wrigley Field, or that I think my opinion should count for anything. To them I say, get some sun on your face, you mopes. And how about not dressing like a stagehand all the time?

After a short pause for emphasis, talk then turns to Cub fans in general, and it occurs to me that most of the Cub fans who live in the Chicago area are drastically different from the rest of us. For one thing, there is very little misty-eyed romanticism going on in Chicago over the Cubs. These people are tough, cynical, vastly irreverent and, ultimately, extremely patient. Cable Cub fans are too damned weepy for their own good, especially considering the distance their emotional commitment has to cover. Even famed announcer Harry Caray, a most beloved Cub icon, is a target for wise-guy behavior by the locals. A prime target. Harry, a stroke survivor, had a stretch of games late this summer in which his voice got so thick with phlegm it was actually quite painful to listen to the guy. According to my friends, it was not unusual to be watching a ballgame with a roomful of people somewhere in the Chicago area and discover that everyone was doing simultaneous sympathetic throat-clearing noises while Harry tried to rasp out a line score. Then everybody would laugh like crazy.

Perhaps the most righteous fun with Harry is coming from Jonathon Brandmeier, formerly the star deejay at KZZP in Phoenix, now a rock jock for WLUP who practically owns morning drive in Chicago. Brandmeier found a guy who does perfect imitations of the Cubs broadcasters. The guy is so good, Caray has editorialized against Brandmeier in a real snippy way on TV.

The best bit to come out of Brandmeier was when he had his Harry call the real Harry's hotel to have the desk clerk read back Caray's phone messages live on the air. Brandmeier calls the current Cub-fan mood cautious. Nobody really believes the team will really win the division. Brandmeier: "At first it was like, `I can't believe this is gonna happen.' Now it's like, `Wait a minute. Waaaait a minute. The Cubs have done this way too often.' "I think the celebrating is gonna go berserk, when it happens, but right now the feeling, I believe, is wait, just wait. Forget the magic number crap, let's get on with it. Let's get to the play-offs, you know what I mean?"  

Monday, September 18
8-something p.m.

The place goes up for grabs when the Cubs come back for four runs in the fifth and two in the sixth. Everybody, that is, except for several crowd members who arrived at the game with pastel sweaters tied around their necks. They applaud politely and whisper explanations to their dates about the significance of the situation.

Hey, it's cool enough outside to be wearing a sweater, but fashion statements seem so alien to me in the context of this particular situation. I know, I know, the yuppification of Wrigley Field is the kind of thing you expect to read about in the New York Times, so I'll change the subject soon. I am relieved nonetheless to speculate that it will forever be too hot at Phoenix's new downtown stadium for anyone to ever wear a pastel sweater tied around his neck. And while we're on the topic of climate and baseball, I'm going to veer off the path for just one more moment. I have never been colder in my entire life than one spring afternoon I spent in Wrigley Field as a teen-ager. In the suburb where I lived it was warm and sunny. At the game it was cloudy and cold, and I'm guessing the wind chill was in the 20s, no lie.

I guarantee you there were afternoons like that during this baseball season, and the Cubs are going to draw about 2.5 million people. Which brings me finally to the heat question people seem to bring up every time I begin to argue the merits of an open-air ballpark in Phoenix. Look, goddamnit, the people who live in Phoenix know that it's hot in the summer. Very hot and very uncomfortable for several months. Still, people do not move away. For whatever reasons, we have made a decision to live where it's very hot for a major part of every year. It just doesn't stop us from doing stuff.

How many people drove out to Fountain Hills last Fourth of July to see the Gatlin Brothers? The Gatlin Brothers! The answer is, hundreds of thousands. How many people attended the fireworks show at the state capitol on the same night? Another hundred thousand. Add to that the crowds at other fireworks shows, including the 10,000-plus who fought the traffic on Van Buren to wait in long beer lines at Phoenix Muni. And how many of you knuckleheads spend one or two nights a week all summer playing softball? I know that every field in town is booked solid every possible moment all summer, so it's got to be a lot of you. My point is, when someone starts to bitch to you about how they should build a dome downtown or else risk nobody coming to major-league games, and you are not some person who digs a hole and hides all summer, then you ought slap that person silly for what he's saying. It's hot in Phoenix. Big deal. Build a decent big-league ballpark and I'll go to games and so will you and everyone else that matters. End of discussion. Monday, September 18

Maybe around 9 p.m.

Among the many stories told on goofy relief pitcher Mitch Williams as he became a genuine media star this summer is the fact that he sometimes unwinds after games by going bowling. Williams comes to bat in the eighth inning with two runners on, and my pal John says out loud, "It's just like bowling, Mitch! Just like bowling!" Actually, Williams has no idea what it's like. He's never had a major-league hit.

The roar that accompanies Williams' subsequent three-run homer to left field signals the end of the world as we know it. When Williams comes back on the field to pitch the ninth, his limited composure is blown to bits. He allows two runs and loads the bases before enticing Darryl Strawberry to fan at several bad pitches to end the game. At that point, I realize I have been levitating for about 15 minutes. Me and everybody else float out of the ballpark and into the Cubby Bear lounge across the street to celebrate this major victory. Monday, September 18

Late

The Cubby Bear almost perfectly captures Wrigleyville's split personality. In the off-season, punk-rock bands play in the dark, cavernous bar until the wee, cold hours. During the season, young baseball fans already exorbitantly lubricated from watching games enter the bar to further drown their good fortune. They are young, fluid and living in or near Chicago. Hey, bartender!  

You hear lots of semi-accurate slogans about Chicago, everything from The Windy City, to The City With Big Shoulders, to The City That Works. Actually, Chicago is The City That Somehow Functions With A Terrible Hangover Almost Every Single Day. That is my informed journalistic impression, at least, and damned if I know how they do it. Anyway, it is likely that Darryl Strawberry is able to hear, as he exits the clubhouse at Wrigley Field and loads his untapped-potential-laden self onto the team bus, the many young celebrants down at the Cubby Bear moaning his name, just like they do when he comes to bat during a game. The sarcastic chanting goes on well into the night. Considering that the drunken taunting comes at the expense of another human being, a real person with feelings and emotions, it is a glorious sound. Made even more glorious, I should probably add, by the news learned a day later that Strawberry was in the Mets clubhouse undressing Monday night when he learned that faltering Wild Thing Williams was waiting to pitch to him with the bases loaded in the ninth. Mets manager Davey Johnson fined Daaaaryyyl some money for that careless act, but probably no more than what the guy spends on cologne in a week. Tuesday, September 19

Real early

I end the evening at a bar just up Clark from Wrigley, talking to a local wise-guy rock critic named Bill Wyman. Wyman grew up in Phoenix, but lives in the Wrigleyville area now. His deal is a committee of people whose goal it is to get the Cubs to move to Comiskey Park, the south-side home of the American League Chicago White Sox, which is, I believe, due for demolition starting any day now. He claims it is a very exclusive committee. Like I say, a wise guy.

We talked at some length, and I took detailed notes, but I can neither remember a single thing the boy said nor read a single scrawl in my notepad. I woke up the next morning with a pounding forehead and peanut shells entwined in my shoelaces. I brushed my teeth, slapped some sunblock on my tongue and headed off to the ballpark for the second game of the series. Darryl Strawberry got the day off, but I didn't. Due to slime like Gary Carter, the Cubs lost that game. Then I left town.

Currently I'm clinging to the memory of Mitch Williams' sprint around the bases after his homer and the sound of Darryl Strawberry's name echoing down an alley off Addison Street. And that's how I'll remember the whole season, regardless of how the Cubs do this weekend in St. Louis or next weekend in San Francisco. Anyway, the most important thing in my professional life right now is the vote on Tuesday, not the fate of some distant, near-mythical baseball team. If the vote is yes, that means we'll get a stadium of our own and, eventually, a team of our own, too. I had to go all the way to Chicago, but I've seen what that's like.

Vote yes, you slugs.


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