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
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
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
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