Thursday, July 01, 2004

The Religion of Baseball

I went to my first Cubs game at Wrigley Field in probably better than fifteen years today, to watch Matt Clement battle it out with Roger Clemens ... and the Cubs lost. But that's beside the point. Yes, it pisses me off, and I'll never forgive Ramon Martinez for not swinging at that last pitch (two outs, 3-2 count, bottom of the 8th, bases loaded; did you think he was going to walk you?!), but it's all beside the point. I discovered the ballpark for the first time in my life, and saw with my own eyes that Wrigley Field is the last real link to when it was a game.

My father, his friend and I took the train into Chicago to Union Station, at which point we hoofed it for what had to be a couple of miles past the Sun-Times building up to the Billy Goat Tavern on Rush (not the original Billy Goat Tavern, but good enough). Now, the Billy Goat Tavern is a Chicago staple that is famous for 1) even saying "Billy Goat" in Chicago strikes fear in the hearts of Cubs fans (imagine how the name Steve Bartman will be remembered in fifty years), and 2) it is the inspiration for the 1970's "Olympia Restaurant" sketches from Saturday Night Live. "Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger! No, no fries! Chips!" If you ever happen to see those sketches, go into the Billy Goat sometime and the sketches just get funnier.

At the Billy Goat, we met up with my Uncle Justin, who's got to be at least ten years older than my father, and happens to be a wealth of knowledge about Wrigley Field. I really have no idea exactly how old Justin is, but he spent the pre-game telling me where they used to keep the hay back when circuses and rodeos were held at Wrigley Field. He told me stories about when the Bears used to play at Wrigley. The most interesting story was about how he used to go to thirty games a year back when he got married, and then had to cut back because those thirty games were costing him about a hundred dollars a year, not including forty-five cents for a beer. By comparison, today's game cost thirty-six dollars and beer's up to five and a quarter.

Wrigley Field is a sight to behold. Coming in to the Addison stop on the CTA Red Line, you know you're getting close to Wrigley when you see the ivy starting to grow ever-thicker on the buildings. From a couple of blocks away, the first glimpse you catch of Wrigley are the lights that weren't even there until about twenty years ago. Prior to that, night-games just didn't exist on the North Side. And then it's there. From the outside, coming off of the El, it's not the contemporary monstrosity that new baseball stadiums are; rather, it's a ballpark, in the simplest sense; as though God Himself took a baseball field and just built around it until he hit the corners of Addison, Clark, Sheffield and Waveland. And then He rested.

For most people who might someday read this, the closest you've ever been to Wrigley is probably watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off for a shot of the famous Wrigley Field gate. Once you get inside and up to the lower-deck, it becomes obvious that they don't make them like this anymore, and there's a magic to the place. At one point, Justin said to me, "I swear to God, I'm half-expecting to hear a voice say, 'Ease his pain,'" to which I said something about Moonlight Graham, at which point we started talking about Field of Dreams and various Burt Lancaster pictures.

Seeing the Cubs at Wrigley Field is like going to Catholic Mass. Perhaps it's more like a revival. There's a lot of standing, sitting, standing, sitting, et cetera, and there's a whole lot of praying, occasionally followed by thousands of people screaming, "Praise Jesus!" or something to that extent, further backing the notion that attending a Cubs game at Wrigley Field is -win or lose- a religious experience, the chapter and verse of which are written in box-scores.

When I watch baseball on television, it's commercialized. This home-run replay has been brought to you by Ford; this inning sponsored by Miller Lite, which you can't even get within the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. When I watch batters at the plate during Cubs' home-games, advertisements are digitally inserted over the brick behind home plate, which is just a cardinal sin, the commission of which deserves rotting in the ninth circle of Baseball Hell; an eternity of watching an empty ballpark (and not a good one like Wrigley) with nothing to do but listen to the asinine organ music that's meant to pep up the crowd.

It was a game once. Back in the old days of Mantle, Maris, Yogi Berra and the real greats, back before things like Human Growth Hormone and endorsement-deals, professional baseball players made about $25,000 a year, which was still a lot of money to a regular person, but exponentially different than the absurd amounts of money players are making today by comparison to regular people. The great prophets of baseball mythology have given way to the great profits of baseball business, and there's nothing that can be done to stem the tide ... but at least by going to a game at Wrigley Field, you can fool yourself into truly believing that it's still a game.

AIM: therbmcc71

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