Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Windy City Whim

Summer is a time for vacations, road trips and self-fulfilling prophecies.

Some of these adventures require meticulous planning -- with flights booked far in advance, hotel accommodations secured and tickets purchased for whatever event you may be attending.

Other times, you just wing it.

On August 30th, 2009, I completed a lifelong dream by attending a baseball game at Chicago's legendary ballpark, Wrigley Field. How I ended up getting there was anything but conventional.

Visiting Wrigley Field was always on my bucket list

It all started innocently enough. On that Friday the 28th, I was visiting my parents at the Jersey Shore and watching the New York Mets play the Chicago Cubs on the living room television. During the course of that afternoon game, I noticed that there were a couple of empty areas in the famed Wrigley Field bleachers...a strange sight, since the Cubs were averaging nearly 40,000 fans per-game that season.
Watching a random Cubs-Mets game on TV set an ambitious plan in motion

Armed with my laptop, I quickly went online to see if tickets were available for other games in the series. Sure enough, there were limited tickets available for both the Saturday and Sunday games. A plan was beginning to formulate in my mind...but there were so many obstacles in the way.

For one, there was the matter of getting there. Chicago is roughly 800 miles from my home in New Jersey, and I had to work on both Saturday morning and Monday afternoon. Driving was not an option, and the cost of a flight would likely be astronomical on such short-notice. I was about to abandon the plan until an e-mail popped up in my inbox, advertising an "E-saver" list of discounted flights. Philadelphia-to-Chicago was one of the available options for that weekend, for only $200 round-trip!

A timely, discounted flight helped make the entire trip possible

I would still need to figure out a place to stay, however. I couldn't ask my Chicagoland friends for a place to crash one day in advance...I wouldn't have felt right. After some savvy Internet research, I found a room at my preferred hotel in suburban Chicago for a discounted rate! The pieces were starting to fall into place.

Still, no spur-of-the-moment idea could line up this perfectly. I checked the Chicago weather for the rest of the weekend...half-expecting Sunday to feature a forecast of torrential downpours. Nope...70 degrees and "abundant" sunshine!

Within the span of an hour, I went from trying to find reasons to go...to trying to find reasons not to go. There were none...all signs were pointing toward Chicago.

An opportunity of a lifetime was presenting itself

After arriving in the "Windy City" on Saturday afternoon, I did the typical tourist stuff and sampled some authentic deep-dish pizza for dinner. I was too excited to sleep on Saturday night...Wrigley awaited on Sunday.

Overlooking downtown Chicago from the Willis Tower SkyDeck on Saturday night

It was 9:30 am when I first arrived at the intersection of Clark and Addison Streets, in the Wrigleyville section of Chicago. The gates were still shut, and baseball would not be played for another 3 1/2 hours...giving me ample time to tour the neighborhood.

Wrigleyville on a beautiful Sunday morning in August

When it comes to Wrigley Field, the experience involves more than the ballpark itself. The surrounding shops and apartments are a part of it as well. Whether it was Harry Caray's Tavern, the "Eamus Catuli!" apartment building, or the house behind the center field bleachers that had a Wrigley Field scoreboard replica on its porch...the neighborhood breathes nothing but baseball during the summer months.

A makeshift Wrigley replica scoreboard hangs from the porch of a nearby house

Walking along Waveland Avenue -- behind the left field bleachers -- I encountered another example of the festive pre-game atmosphere. Someone, dressed in a full-sized bear costume that was wearing an oversized Cubs jersey, was casually walking in the street.

You never know what you're gonna see on gameday

With the gates finally opening, it was time to head inside and see if the "Friendly Confines" lives up to its moniker.

Upon walking through the entrance portal to the seating area behind home plate, I was overwhelmed by the sight. I stopped dead in my tracks, staring at a crisp, clear day at the purest ballpark in Major League Baseball. The New York Mets were taking batting practice on the field, but I could only fix my eyes on the many shades of green that stood before me -- the grass, the ivy-covered walls, the seats, the manually-operated scoreboard -- it was all so beautiful.

My "Welcome to Wrigley Field" moment

The traditions and nuances of Wrigley Field -- which I had read about countless times -- are now living, breathing things. The scoreboard in center field -- which features games from both the American and National Leagues, as well as the Cubs game -- sits blank, waiting for the day's action to start.

The scoreboard remains quiet before Sunday's games

Atop the scoreboard are the 16 pennants that represent each of the NL teams. They are arranged daily, in order of the teams' standings in their respective divisions. The flags can also offer a prediction for the game at-hand. On this day, the wind was blowing inward, foreshadowing a low-scoring game...without many home runs into the famous Wrigley bleachers.

The standings flags tell players and fans alike that the wind is blowing in

Continuing my self-guided tour, I became fixated on the ballpark's most unique feature...the ivy-covered brick walls in the outfield. The ivy, which was originally planted in 1937 by Cubs' then-owner Bill Veeck, was in full bloom...providing a thick layer of padding over the brick fence, stretching all the way from foul pole-to-foul pole.

A close-up of the brick wall and Wrigley's famous ivy

Across Waveland and Sheffield Avenues, behind the left- and right-field bleachers, activity was buzzing as well. Atop many of the apartments are bleacher seats, where fans who want to be a part of the Wrigley Field experience can watch games from outside the ballpark itself, on one of the rooftops. In many cases, food and drinks are provided as part of the ticket cost.

The rooftop of the "Eamus Catuli!" apartment building is packed with fans

After batting practice ended, I walked through the main concourse, on the way to the upper deck. In the hallways were giant banners of the great players and figures in Cubs' history. Rogers Hornsby, Ferguson Jenkins, Ernie Banks, Jack Brickhouse, Rick Sutcliffe, Ron Santo and Ryne Sandberg were among the names that jumped out...as fans waited in line to buy food and drinks for the game.

Banners of famous Cubs figures are unfurled in the main concourse

As I arrived at my seat in Section 421, I looked up. Directly above me was the WGN-TV broadcast booth, which famed announcer Harry Caray called home from 1982 until 1997. Caray added flair to the Cubs' broadcasts...and led fans in the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the 7th inning stretch. Ever since his death in 1998, the Cubs immortalized Caray with a silhouette logo above the press box.

The image of Harry Caray still watches over every Cubs' home game

With a nearly-sold-out crowd of 39,907 looking on, the game between the Mets and Cubs got underway.

The two teams were headed in opposite directions in 2009. The Mets entered the game with a 58-72 record, mired in 4th place in the NL East. The Cubs, meanwhile, were 65-62, good for 2nd place in the NL Central.

A classic image -- day game at Wrigley Field

The Cubs would strike in the 1st inning against journeyman Mets' starter Nelson Figueroa, grabbing a 1-0 lead on a single by third baseman Aramis Ramirez. The fans -- many dressed in sweatshirts and jackets on an unseasonably cool day -- clapped and cheered along.

Aramis Ramirez strokes an RBI single to center field in the 1st inning

As the game progressed, it was easy to recognize the differences between Wrigley Field and other ballparks. For example, only organ music would play in-between innings and before each player's at-bat. Little did I know that 2009 would be the last season for such purity, as the Cubs added pre-recorded walk-up music for their batters in 2010...much to the chagrin of many fans.

In addition, there were only a couple of electronic message boards throughout the ballpark. The main scoreboard statistics were limited to runs, hits, errors, the player batting, the ball-strike count, the pitchers, umpires, and the number of outs. For any other information, a fan would have to refer to their scorecard or the Internet on their cell phone.

No statistical overload at Cubs' games

Trailing 1-0 in the 3rd inning, the Mets would make their move against Cubs' starting pitcher, Carlos Zambrano. RBI singles by 1st baseman Daniel Murphy and right fielder Jeff Francoeur gave New York a 2-1 advantage.

Jeff Francoeur put the Mets ahead in the 3rd inning

For Zambrano -- who had a reputation as a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde pitcher -- it was Mr. Hyde who showed up on this gorgeous day at Wrigley, The Cubs' ace was chased from the game after only 3 1/3 innings...giving up 4 runs on a staggering 11 hits, while making a costly throwing error in the process. With each hit allowed, Cubs' fans would groan in disappointment.

Carlos Zambrano couldn't get out of the 4th inning on this day

Meanwhile, Figueroa -- who carried a 1-3 record and 5.40 ERA on the season -- settled down for the Mets...pitching 7 solid innings while striking out 10 batters. That 1st inning run was the only scoring the Cubs would generate.

Nelson Figueroa baffled the Cubs' batters for 7 innings

With Figueroa and the wind limiting Chicago's powerful offense, Cubs' fans remained quiet throughout the middle innings...as the Mets held a 4-1 lead. The energy in the ballpark would change in the 7th inning, however, as actor and comedian Jon Lovitz led the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." The entire crowd sang and swayed to the background organ music, and those in attendance started to believe that a comeback was imminent.

A scoreboard operator peeks through an opening after the 7th inning stretch

It was not the Cubs' day, however. Reliever Brian Stokes tossed a perfect 8th inning, and Francisco Rodriguez closed things out for his 28th save of the season...giving the Mets a 4-1 victory and sending many in the crowd home disappointed.

The Mets congratulate each other after a 4-1 win

Despite spending seven hours at Wrigley Field, I didn't want to leave after the game ended! I walked around the ballpark, taking it all in, watching the grounds crew perform maintenance on the playing field. Eventually, it was time to exit.

The grounds crew's day is not over just yet

Once outside the ballpark, I looked up at the iconic scoreboard once again. Hanging from the flagpole was a blue banner with a white "L," signifying a Cubs' loss. It is a subtle tradition, yet it is one that further preserves the history of the ballpark. In days before there was the Internet to check scores, or nightly sports highlight shows on TV...local fans could just pass by Wrigley Field to see how the Cubs fared that day.

The "L" flag flies atop the scoreboard

I flew home from Chicago the next morning. It was a whirlwind, spontaneous weekend that was based around baseball and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Perhaps it was crazy on the surface...but to me, it made perfect sense. Fate and the "Friendly Confines" were calling...and fortunately, I was around to answer.

Standing in front of the Wrigley Field marquee

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