Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Friendly Confines

As a lifelong baseball fan, I'm very familiar with Wrigley Field. The stadium, built in 1914 and home of the Cubs since 1916, is hallowed ground among fans of the sport. The ivy-covered outfield wall, the mostly manually operated scoreboard, day games, and bleacher bums...they're all part of the place's rich lore.

I've seen Wrigley Field countless times on television, but until last Friday I'd never set foot inside it. The strange thing is that after all this time peering into the home of the Cubs via telecasts, looking upon the field from the stands felt like something I'd done hundreds of times before. I guess it was kind of a deja vu moment. Here I am again for the first time.

My dad and I began our journey from the South Bend airport, which is where we picked up the South Shore train. About two and a half hours later we arrived in Millennium Station. Emerging from the train station, it felt like walking onto a movie set with tall buildings towering over us and the tracks and platforms for The 'L' framing some streets. Not entirely sure of which way to go to catch the red line train to the stadium, we followed people in Cubs jerseys based on my assumption that they were probably going the way we needed to be headed.

Within another fifteen or twenty minutes we walked out of the next station, turned to our left, and there was Wrigley. As you would expect, plenty of people were congregated outside the stadium, whether they were taking in the sights or hawking tickets and other items. And this was two hours before the game's first pitch.

If I'd been better prepared, I might have had a better idea of where we'd eat. Instead we popped into a pizza place across the street from the stadium and each got a single huge slice and pop for $5. As far as cheap, unpretentious eats by a ballpark go, this got the job done and was more localized than the Subway my dad initially suggested. Plus, I suppose it conveyed the big city experience and the neighborhood one that's unique to Wrigley.

Once inside the differences between it and pretty much any other stadium one will visit were immediately apparent. The concourses and ramps aren't as big. There are few concession and restroom facilities in the upper deck. All video highlights and replays must be viewed on monitors hanging in the stands. The seats themselves are a little narrower than those found in modern stadiums. Oh, and there are a fair number of columns to obstruct views. (I thought I'd be smart and buy tickets on the end of the row, which turns out to be where columns are placed. The two seats next to us were empty, so we didn't have to put up with a severely obstructed angle.)

Even without many of the modern stadium amenities, I really enjoyed being in this cozy little ballpark. All I really missed was being able to see replays and the radar gun readout. I appreciated the lack of elements that try to make a ball game the full entertainment experience. Who needs t-shirt cannons, dancing mascots and prize patrols, loud music, kiss cams, and the like when the game itself will do? I'm not completely opposed to all that other stuff, but the sheer volume of it becomes suffocating and detracts from what you are, in theory, there to see.

Wrigley's charms are from another era, and it benefits from its seats being mostly filled with enthusiastic fans. Let's not get carried away in praise of the place, though. Its specialness comes from being one of the last remaining old-time ballparks, one where you feel like you're seeing a game more or less the way that your grandparents and before might have taken one in. (My dad, who was also attending a game there for the first time, mentioned that it reminded him of the long-gone Crosley Field.)

When we arrived up top to get to our seats, the usher told us that we were free to wander around. Other than getting different perspectives on the field, there wasn't much else to see. The small patio that is underneath and behind the press box affords the opportunity to gaze out at the city and the neighborhood. A concession area with slightly more offerings than the small stands near the seats down the lines is about the only other draw.

Still, you get the sense that the team and its employees know what they have in this nearly century-old stadium even when considering its inconveniences. The spot has seen plenty of Cubs losing--which it also did on this day, as my visiting Reds won--yet its ability to function as a time machine for however much longer means more to the people walking through the turnstiles than any wins or snazzy updates to the yard could ever provide.

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