Most stadiums are just places to put butts.
Like a living organism, it takes time for these inanimate objects to grow into something more meaningful. The majority of Major League ballparks have not yet had this opportunity — 24 of the 30 have been built in my lifetime, and I’m still young enough to have lived my whole life within the frame of MTV’s existence.
Like a good child actor, some still create a convincing atmosphere despite their youth. But a facsimile is not the original, as the new Yankee Stadium has proven. There’s no substitute for soul. And that’s why Wrigley Field’s 100th birthday is a big deal.
It is the ancestral family home for those of us who don’t have an ancestral family home.
This is the place my great-grandparents had season tickets, using baseball as a means of assimilation into American culture. The place my grandpa claims to have seen George Halas trip up an opposing defensive back running along the sideline towards a sure touchdown against the Bears. The place my dad stopped visiting for more than a decade after lights were installed… and now seemingly only goes to for night games.
A place where I have gone on to form dozens of my own memories — and forcibly forget more than a few others.
The first time you never forget.
We were late, but somehow perfectly so.
My crazy hippie aunt — the one who once ogled Ken Holtzman as he warmed up in the bullpen before games and speaks fondly of the original Bleacher Bums smoking pot in the left field stands in the late ‘60s — was bringing me and my cousin. Neither of us are her children. No one is, which is how one becomes the ideal aunt.
The tickets were easy to come by. It was a Sunday during football season, and the Bears had a home game against the Giants. That was the radio soundtrack as we made the drive down to the city. Jim Harbaugh threw a long touchdown pass, which meant we were already off to an improbably great start.
That trip was also when I learned driving to Wrigley is a terrible, terrible idea. By the time we parked in someone’s yard, the game had already started.
But as they say, everything happens for a reason.
I was slightly ahead of the other two in the group, eager to get my first live glimpse of the diamond and the ivy. On the first pitch thrown after I entered the seating area from the concourse, Chico Walker (!) turned on it to lead off the Cubs half of the first with a home run.
Some old lady scowled at me because I started celebrating in the aisle and impeded her view, but she’s surely dead now, so I won that battle.
The Expos won the battle that day in 10 innings, joyously exiting the field in their resplendent powder blues after Mark Grace was called out looking on a fastball that crossed the plate near the bottom of the Cubs logo on the front of his jersey.
Grace looked back at the umpire in disbelief, but surely it had nothing on the face I was making. In my 9-year-old mind, Mark Grace did not take called third strikes. This was an outrage and an absurdity.
In retrospect, I was broken into the Wrigley Field experience the only fitting way — with a mixture of excitement and disappointment. But mostly disappointment.
The “L” flag would be raised on my first four trips to the ballpark, including the last time I sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” along with Harry in 1997.
That was the first trip to Wrigley without adult supervision, when my parents actually released me into the city with three friends and trusted I would return home in one piece. But that’s the thing about Wrigley. If three prior generations have come home safely every time, surely these 15-year-old doofuses will do the same.
The first win proved worth the wait.
The Cubs were playing the Braves, again. The third time Atlanta had been the foe in my first five Cub games. The Braves were at their peak, and the Cubs were the Cubs. They had just blown an enormous lead against the Phillies the day before, and there was a sense walking into the park that it would carry over against the Braves. Especially with Tom Glavine on the hill.
That sense only grew more foreboding when Matt Mieske started in right over Sammy Sosa. In 1998. The year Sammy Sosa would be named National League MVP.
Typical Hickey luck, I figured. I am blowing the money from my first two months as a working teenager to watch Matt Mieske instead of Sammy Sosa. The guy’s got a terrific mustache and all, but this was not what we had in mind.
Yet I would not go home disappointed.
Like my first game seven years before, this one went to extra innings. But this time Brant Brown became a personal god, driving a John Rocker pitch (before we knew who and what John Rocker was or, for that matter, who and what Brant Brown was) into the seats for a 5-3 Cubs walk-off win.
The place went into a delirium I had never experienced. This was pure, uncut joy. The Cubs would go on to win 10 straight games — including another Brown extra-inning walk-off homer, this one against the White Sox a week later — and make the playoffs.
I still have the hat I bought at the ballpark that day, as dirty and faded as it has grown over the years. The power of the memory is too strong to part with it.
As the years went on, the games grew too numerous to keep count. There were walk-offs, a couple coming off the bat of Sammy, who was no longer benched for Matt Mieske. I recall one against the Marlins; another against the Padres.
Then there was the time my buddies and I drove up from college for a weekend game against the Reds in ‘04. The Cubs trailed going to the bottom of the ninth, but it was a wild game. 10-9 Reds. Sosa was due up and searching for his 500th career homer.
Being in college and always in search of extra dollars, we had the notion that we’d spend the bottom of the ninth on Waveland Avenue, catching Sammy’s historic home run and pawning it off.
My gut instinct proved correct. With the roar of the crowd, we knew he got all of it. What we didn’t know was it was an opposite-field shot that stayed in the bleachers.
It’s the thought that counts?
A couple pitches later, Moises Alou did send a ball onto Waveland, albeit short of where we stood as some more enterprising ballhawk got his hands on it first.
There are many other random memories.
A family friend telling me to take a picture when Sosa stepped into the batter’s box to face Roger Clemens because they would both be in the Hall of Fame someday. Or how none of us dorks could get dates to prom, so instead we planned a non-prom trip to Wrigley. (The end result was the same as if we had gone to prom: disappointment). A 19-5 win over Milwaukee. My buddy getting so hammered that somehow a lit cigarette appeared in his mouth when I turned to tell him something during a mound visit. Seeing the place wonderfully transformed into a different world for the Winter Classic. The time we took the German exchange student to a game, explaining both what was happening and how this place was like no other in baseball.
Wrigley’s greatest skill is seduction, as it has tricked every generation into thinking this could be the year.
In 1938, they had Gabby Hartnett’s “Homer in the Gloamin’.” The summer of 1969. The Sandberg Game in ‘84, followed by the 2-0 NLCS lead heading to San Diego. Five years later the 10-run comeback against the Astros made it obvious it was the Cubs’ year, a bubble that was not shattered until the villainous Will Clark single-handedly murdered all of our dreams.
For me, the moment took place in 2001.
It was a week before I had to go back to college, and my cousin and I — the same from Game 1 — decided to end the summer with my first trip to the bleachers.
They weren’t smoking pot like in my aunt’s heyday, but you wouldn’t know it based on what was happening on the field.
Wildly drunk seventh-inning stretch guest conductor Steve McMichael was ejected after criticizing home plate umpire Angel Hernandez, surely marking the only time in baseball history a singer has been removed by an umpire.
It may not have been the weirdest thing to happen that night.
In the bottom of the ninth, Joe Girardi had what appeared to be the game-winning RBI until Ricky Guitierrez tripped halfway between third and home.
The ultimate “you gotta be shitting me” Cubs moment had arrived.
Only Girardi used those baseball wiles that would eventually get him a managing gig and got caught in a rundown between first and second — bizarre because second base wasn’t even open — and bought Guitierrez enough time to race home from third and slide in for the winning run.
The Cubs were in first place, and by God, this game was living, breathing proof that they would not be stopped. You’re gonna add Fred McGriff and Juan Cruz into this mix too? That’s not even fair to the other teams.
Except they’re always stopped. The ’01 team didn’t even make the playoffs.
That is the overlying theme of the Wrigley experience; a reminder that it’s not all peanuts and Cracker Jack.
Experiencing the park as an intern in 2002 exposed the aging building’s many behind-the-scenes flaws. This was a place built before World War I, and in a lot of places it shows.
The clubhouses are unbelievably small compared to their big league counterparts, particularly for the visitors — not to mention the quarter-mile or so trek it takes for them to reach the dugout. I’ve since wondered if the Cubs might fare better if they lavished their guests to the point where they would not have reason to be angry with their hosts.
On the other side of town, the White Sox have a giant media room reminiscent of a college lecture hall. The Cubs have a tiny space not much bigger than a bedroom that is across the hall from where they store the fertilizer.
Even compared to ancient counterpart Fenway Park, Wrigley is a bit dingy and cramped in the concourse and seating areas. Though some improvements have been made in the last decade, it’s still lagging behind the Boston ballpark in many ways.
Frankly, if you’re looking for amenities and cleanliness, the ballpark on the South Side of Chicago is a better place to watch a game.
But it doesn’t have spirit. It doesn’t have soul.
Wrigley does. You can feel it in her creaking bones and the breeze that lets you know what kind of game you’re about to see just by looking to the flags in the outfield.
So few places have that anymore. Many never did. And that’s what makes Wrigley’s 100th birthday (a blown Cubs ninth-inning lead featuring a Starlin Castro error, naturally) something to celebrate.
It is a piece of our past living in the present, and hopefully on its way to being part of our future. Win or lose — and these days it’s usually the latter — it is important to sit back and appreciate the gift Charles Weeghman left us on the corner of Clark and Addison as it heads into its second century.