Of all the many overwhelming things that came with working for the Chicago Cubs in the year of our lord 2008, and year 100 of the since-quenched championship drought, the one that’s stuck with me most was cashing my first paycheck. Looking down, seeing my name on the “To” line, and on the “From” line:
Chicago National League Ball Club
Like the crumbling iron and concrete park the Cubs call home, with its cramped clubhouses and cozy confines, the name is evocative of baseball’s (or base ball’s) past. Every ballpark around baseball offers something different, but there’s nothing like the Wrigley Field experience, especially when the Cubs are good.
The sun-soaked bleachers become a summerlong party. The cramped, outdated press box shakes with the roar of a home run. The entire neighborhood stops for hours before and after and through each game, as Wrigleyville becomes its own universe.
That year, the Cubs won 97 games, posting the best record in baseball, so there was no shortage of memories. There was the Ernie Banks statue dedication on Opening Day, with Mr. Cub himself standing next to his bronzed immortalization. There were daily sellout crowds, booming “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and, 55 times in 81 home games that season, “Go Cubs Go” following a win. There was a very drunk, southern woman who, upon exiting one of the suites while I was running postgame notes to the press box, told me “goodbye,” embraced me, and whispered into my ear, “I love you.”
Walking the south side of the stadium, from the L stop to the dilapidated former doughnut shop in the southwest corner of the grounds that used to serve as the team’s media relations office, the smells of onions and sausages popping on the flat top would fill the air. The cotton candy machines’ mechanical arms would thread yarns of pink sugar as I popped from the offices to the clubhouses, past Jason Marquis running the ramps on days between starts before the gates opened, sliding that day’s notes and stats under manager Lou Pinella’s office door as he took his daily pregame nap.
Those Cubs followed the lead of every team before them since 1908. Despite the signs and shirts claiming that “This Is Next Year,” that it was the North Siders’ time, that team was flawed. Pitching was thin, and by the time the playoffs hit, there were no strong left-handed bats. They lost the first two games of the Division Series and were swept out in LA, never to return. But the fans never changed, roaring and rowdy to the end, their perseverance finally rewarded eight years later.
It was odd to see how many Brewers fans packed Wrigley Monday for Game 163, which Milwaukee won to take the division, forcing the Cubs to return on Tuesday for the NL Wild Card Game. I can assure you the fan breakdown will be much more heavily adorned in Cubbie blue for that one, as they fight for their postseason lives against the Rockies.
Cubs fans may not be nearly as desperate, or as likable, as they were before their 2016 championship. But they remain one of the best crowds in the game, especially for playoff games. The sport is better when the Cubs have a say in who wins.
Because no matter how nice and full of amenities any new ballpark is, there’s no place quite like Wrigley Field.