NBierma.com File

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

"Wrigley Rapture"
By Steve Rushin
Sports Illustrated, May 28, 2001

The elevated train clatters toward Wrigley Field and a female conductor drones "Addison is next" and "Stand clear of the opening doors" and "Parents, hold the hands of your children as you leave the train." Then--from her sealed box, through crackling speakers--she sighs, "It's a beautiful day for a ball game."

Exit the station, blinking against the sunlight. A panhandler says, "Help the beerless?" Chicago cops in checkerboard hatbands tell him to beat it. The sign outside Hi-Tops bar says WELCOME BACK CUB FANS.

An old man in a John Deere feed cap poses, at Sheffield and Addison, before a statue of Harry Caray. His wife tries to take his picture, but she can't find the shutter button. So the old man stands there, stiller than the statue, while his petrified grin becomes a grimace.

It's the last thing you see before you're swept through a turnstile on a tide of humanity and into the Friendly Confines. The stadium smells like concrete and Lysol. An eight-year-old boy in the concourse beneath the grandstand has the blue lips of a choking victim. Then you see, in his right hand, a bale of Smurf-blue cotton candy. He smiles, and his teeth are the color of babershop-comb disinfectant. And you think, Where on earth would I rather be?

Follow a shaft of sunlight up a tunnel to your seat. The thwock-thwock-thwock of batting practice echoes off the bricks. The field is awesome, a brushed baize poker table. Atop the scoreboard a riot of flags flutters in the breeze, like the handlebar tassels on a girl's bike. The beer man arrives unbidden and says, "What'll it be, guys?"

For a couple of brews our change from a 10-dollar bill is one single, soaked in Bud Light. A tractor drags the infield in circles, which looks right because the ballpark organ sounds like the calliope on a merry-go-round. We are drinking beer at noon on Thursday and feeling fully alive, like fugitives from justice, while the rest of the world is at work in a cubicle.

The Cubs were co-owners of baseball's worst record last year and have lost six straight games. Still, 36,014 fans are inside the stadium, and there are filled rooftops beyond the bleachers and, on Waveland Avenue, invisible figures with baseball gloves and radios. So when Houston Astros outfielder Richard Hidalgo hits a home run over the bleachers, the ball is regurgitated onto the leftfield lawn before he can cross home plate, and a cheer goes up for the Unknown Fan responsible.

A cell phone bleats behind first base, and the shirtless man who answers it says, "What? I can't hear you. No, I'm at Wrigley, watching these &@#%! losers lose." But the complaint sounds insincere, halfhearted. So, too, do those in the men's room: Strangers stand at stainless-steel, trough-style urinals, each man staring a hole in the wall in front of him, while voicing his shock and disappointment in this year's lineup--even though the Cubs, as every one of them knows, haven't won a pennant since 1945.

Shadows travel east across the diamond, from the third base line toward the pitcher's mound, but here, along the rightfield line, the seats are forever in sunshine. Four hours into the afternoon, every hatless head in our section is turning red and painful-looking, like a thousand thumbs struck with hammers. Nobody cares.

Because Sammy Sosa is rabbit-eared and responds in rightfield--with a head nod or a flick of the glove--to each lone voice that hollers his name. "Sammy!" (Nod.) "Sam-may!" (Flick.) This happens every time without fail, regardless of what's going on in the game, and children sneak down to the front-row railing to yell "Sam-may!" and have a superstar athlete acknowledge their existence.

At the seventh-inning stretch, Chip Caray leans out of the broadcast booth and sings, like his grandfather before him, Take Me Out to the Ball Game. We sing along: "Well, we'll root root root for the Cuhhh-bees, if they don't win it's a shame " They don't win. It's a shame. A glum face stares from a square in the out-of-town scoreboard, on which appear eight letters, stair-stepped down from left to right, across four empty line scores: They spell NITE GAME. (Nite is misspelled, like Sox or sno-cone, in the venerable baseball tradition.)

Just before we exit the ballpark and repair to Murphy's Bleachers bar for "one more," we cast an eye at all those poor be-nited cities on the scoreboard: at New York and Los Angeles, Atlanta and Oakland. And we wonder why, in a free society, everyone doesn't live here.