Darwin Barney #15 of the Chicago Cubs can't make a play on a single off the bat of Matt Carpenter #13 of the St. Louis Cardinals during the seventh inning on July 14, 2013 at Wrigley Field.
Chicago – Long Read

Losing has become a matter of pride

Photo by David Banks

Chicago – Long Read Losing has become a matter of pride

Hello Chicago, where ambition overcame nature to make skyscrapers rise from swampland but whose eye is always on something bigger. At historic Wrigley Field, where the Cubs baseball team has not won the World Series in more than a century, even losing has become a matter of pride.

Ed Graham
Ed Graham

“Wrigley Field is just a giant excuse to party,” baseball fan Joe Stanley tells me, somehow making it sound as if a party is a bad thing. We are in a Chicago bar talking about the oft loved, sometimes hated, possibly cursed home of the Chicago Cubs. The team has played baseball in their historic ballpark for most of the last century, having been in the same stadium longer than nearly any other sports team in America.

Joe grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he was a huge fan of the Oakland A’s and the Giants, but when I ask if living in Chicago has inspired a more favorable opinion of the local team, he responds pointedly: “I’ll never be a Cubs fan. I don’t want to live a life of disappointment.”

Everybody loves a winner in America, and the affectionately nicknamed “Loveable Loser” Cubs have not won a World Series championship since 1908. That is the same decade in which the Wright Brothers completed the world’s first heavier than air flight. The USA had yet to initiate New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii into statehood, and the country’s first affordable automobile had just been introduced in the Model T Ford. Having gone without a national title since, today the Cubs hold the dubious honor of maintaining the longest championship drought in the history of their sport. That some fans concern themselves more with which beer they will have next than with the on-field action is completely understandable.

Fall is imminent and the Cubs are playing one of their last home games of the year but, with no hope of making the playoffs, it is mostly an exercise in formality. I put on my well-worn Cubs hat and head outside for the walk to Wrigley Field. The sticky humidity of summer has given way to a slight chill accompanied, as it always is in Chicago, by leaves showing hints of color and overcast skies. Through the pleasant scent of the coming autumn I detect faint hints of rusted metal from the nearby “El”, the city’s mass transit rail system. The L is suspended above street level in many areas, its aging steel beams safely supporting more than four million riders each week. The rust smell is familiar and comfortable – the aroma of home.

It’s easy to become blissfully lost

Wrigley Field lies at the heart of aptly named Wrigleyville, a neighborhood of densely spaced sports bars and restaurants mixed among residential homes. North of downtown and a short ride away on the El, Wrigleyville is one of more than 200 small, loosely defined neighborhoods which together form the whole of America’s third most populous city. These neighborhoods are as diverse as the people who live there. Many local communities host annual festivals celebrating this diversity, showcasing arts, music, and food from the surrounding area and beyond. It’s easy to become blissfully lost exploring each area’s distinct identity.

There is the West Ridge neighborhood on the Far North Side, where a collection of brilliant multi ethnic restaurants line busy Devon Avenue. The air here is choicely thick, filled with the enticing aromas of fresh spice and curry from a multitude of Indian, Pakistani, and Afghan restaurants. The strong Middle Eastern and Asian influence of West Ridge is largely different from, yet seamlessly blended into nearby Andersonville, an old Swedish settlement that has seen a revival in recent decades. The main street is lined with small, locally owned coffee shops and eateries that ooze small town character. The area’s slower pace and charming ambiance might be mistaken for that of a rural American town.

Then there is Bucktown. Originally part of Chicago’s largest Polish settlement, it became diversified when Latinos immigrated here in the 1960s. Artists and young professionals eventually moved in too, and Bucktown is now a fascinating mixture of all those who call this place home. Delicious Cuban, Mexican, and Polish restaurants stand next to trendy bars appealing to hipsters and young professionals. In the summertime, the area hosts the Bucktown Arts Festival where live music accompanies theater and dance, poetry is read aloud, and resident artists show their talent.

Chicago’s neighborhoods are a stark contrast to the bustling downtown Loop area, named from the streetcar turning point it used to be. As their heads crane upward at such giants as the Willis (Sears) Tower and Hancock Center, few visitors realize that these buildings dominating the skies stand on former swampland. “Chicago looks natural, but it’s incredibly engineered,” says author and professor Dr. Dennis Cremin. “What really inspired me to study Chicago’s history is the city’s rapid rise. There were only 800 people here in 1830 and over a million by the 1890s. A lot of growth happened by the Loop.”

Founded along a continental divide with the Great Lakes to the east and the Des Plaines River to the west, “the city had a lot of natural advantages that needed work,” says Dennis. “They had to raise the street level to avoid floods.” This was manually accomplished in the 1850s by lifting buildings with jackscrews as new foundations were built underneath. As the city continued to grow, drainage into the Chicago River polluted Lake Michigan, threatening the city’s drinking water supply. In one of the greatest engineering feats of the time, the river’s flow was reversed in 1900. Instead of draining east into Lake Michigan, the dirty water was sent south to annoy St. Louis.

Propelled Chicago to global importance in short order

These feats of engineering ingenuity helped propelled Chicago to global importance in short order. “Chicago’s the seventh ranked alpha city in the world, but we’re like a little infant compared to other alpha cities. It’s incredible what we’ve had to overcome to get to where we are today,” says historian Dan O’Connell. Dan fell in love with Chicago when he moved here from New England 21 years ago and now runs Chicago’s Finest Tours, providing a living history of the city to visitors and locals. He tells me how the city gave birth to the history’s very first skyscraper, the ten-story Home Insurance Building. “In 1884 William Le Baron Jenney changed the world by introducing the load-bearing steel frame. Piling steel upwards is limited at about 215 feet because it begins to crush the base below it, but the sky’s the limit with the load-bearing steel frame.”

Architect Daniel Burnham and his partner John Root added their genius by developing a method allowing these tall buildings to be built on seemingly unstable ground. “Today’s foundations go all the way to the bedrock but in the 1880s we had no way to get there,” Dan says. “What Root suggested is to go to the clay level 40 feet below the surface, and have a floating raft reinforced with steel. This anchors the foundation of the buildings.” Clay is compressible material, and buildings could thus be expected to settle slightly with time. “Through physics they estimated the weight and wear of the foundation. These calculations were extremely accurate.” As to why anybody would bother to build skyscrapers on swampland in the first place: “We built them to show everyone this is a world class city.”

Burnham designed the Flatiron Building in New York, Washington D.C.’s Union Station and Selfridge’s department store in London. And, although Chicago’s vertical growth has slowed in recent decades, its architectural expertise continues to be felt worldwide. Chicagoan architect Adrian Smith designed the tallest building in the world, the 2,717-ft Burj Khalifa in Dubai, and is working on the upcoming 3,281-ft Kingdom Tower in Saudi Arabia.

As I walk towards Wrigley Field this afternoon, I begin to feel the city’s energy, a force that fully permeates this area whenever there is a game. I pass scores of bars, each alive with its own small gathering of patrons. Most people are drinking beer, with only a few content with just water to chase their chicken wings and fries. The sidewalks are lined with vendors selling Cubs merchandise. I see hawkers trying to move their last tickets, and now that it is past the first few innings I hope to score a good deal on one.

Chicago has always been a place where locals proudly wear their favorite team’s colors. It is easy to love sports in a city which is home to so many professional teams. Most have won championships in recent memory: the Bears were dominant in the 1980s and won American football’s Super Bowl in 1985, the Bulls won repeatedly in basketball throughout the 1990s, and the Blackhawks won ice hockey’s Stanley Cup in 2010 and again in 2013.

Even baseball saw success when the Chicago White Sox won the World Series in 2005 (along with New York, Chicago is one of only two cities to host two baseball teams within city limits.) To Cubs fans, this did not mean a whole lot. Chicago’s baseball fans tend to throw their support behind either the northside Cubs or the southside White Sox, and they rarely admit to cheering for both teams. Yet if Cubs fans are jealous of other teams’ successes, it does not show.

I stand now at the intersection of Clark and Addison, near the ballpark entrance. I speak to the ticket hawkers and discover their starting prices are unrealistically high. “Twenty dollars, it’s a good deal,” one says. Looking slightly bored, he is dressed in jeans and long-sleeve T-shirt. I guess he just wants to get rid of the tickets and go home. I laugh as I politely remind him that the game is already a third of the way over and that the Cubs are losing. In a feeble attempt at negotiating, I lowball him at five dollars. To my surprise, he agrees; I will watch the game for a price unheard of at most Major League Baseball grounds.

This is more than just another baseball stadium

I show my ticket and enter, and I am immediately reminded that this is more than just another baseball stadium. I see the local Red Line El train passing by at the opposite end of the field, and the surrounding buildings beyond the tracks form a fitting backdrop to today’s game. Bleacher seats sit atop the roofs of adjacent condominium buildings, where tickets to the game are also sold. I look towards the on field action and see defensive players guarding against fly balls in the outfield grass. Offensive players await their chance at bat in the dugout below the stands. They will each take turns attempting to hit curveballs, fastballs, sliders, and change-ups thrown by the pitcher.

Tradition surrounds me as I take my seat. Although I have missed the singing of the National Anthem before the game, I will still be able to sing along to Take Me Out to the Ball Game. This is a highlight of the seventh inning stretch, the short break toward the end of the nine innings game. Judging by the score, it seems unlikely I will be able to sing along to Go, Cubs, Go, the team’s de facto victory song. Other music is played during lulls throughout the game. While many ballparks have replaced it with pop or rock and roll, here at Wrigley a traditional live organ still plays over the loudspeaker system.

Along with the music, other things once immaterial have taken on nostalgic significance with time. I look towards the brick wall which borders the outfield and defines the boundaries of the game. The brick is barely visible, concealed by thick ivy which envelops its entirety. Beyond the wall is the scoreboard, installed the same year the ivy was planted in 1937 and still operated by hand today. It strikes me that I am not just watching a game; I am experiencing a piece of history.

I think back to what baseball fan Scott Brochhausen recently said. He is a Milwaukee Brewers fan who routinely makes the 90-minute drive from Milwaukee to Chicago for work. While he has no love for the Cubs or their fans, he has immense respect for the stadium: “It’s a beautiful ballpark, so full of history. It’s a living monument to American baseball.”

To see the Cubs play baseball in Wrigley Field is to cheer amid scores of fans, all happily indulging in the wonderful periphery of America’s favorite pastime: hot dogs, peanuts, and the excitement of catching a game at home. As Kimmie Fay, who works nearby says: “Being part of the neighborhood is always an adventure. The roar of the crowd, the smell of the beer and, of course, the trails of fans all piled into the trains. It’s a sense of community that not all cities have. No matter win or lose, the city’s largest beer garden also holds the fans with the biggest hearts.”

Although the stereotypical Cubs fan may be described as fun-loving, my years here have taught me locals hold a much deeper affection for this team than might be initially obvious. The ballpark’s unique residential location as well as the team’s near-100-year longevity here means generations of Chicagoans have grown up watching the Cubs. While other sports teams across America have come and gone, Wrigley Field is as much a part of Chicago as are deep-dish pizza and tall buildings. The stadium is more a friendly, dependable neighbor than a major league sports venue.

Simone Cullen, who grew up down the street, says: “It’s a tradition. Small children go to their first game, get their first hat, maybe catch their first ball. It’s a family ritual filled with love. We learn to love the Cubs when we’re little so there will always be a new generation loyal to these lovable losers. And when the children grow up we trade in our foam fingers for beer. As a city we would never let anyone change Wrigley’s name, never allow the Cubs to be moved, and never be caught paying 50 bucks for easy parking at the Taco Bell across the street.”

Bars where fans go after each game

As the game nears its end, the Cubs will need a miracle to win. I walk to a small outdoor patio area at the front of the stadium. This overlooks Clark Street, densely lined with bars where fans go after each game. As I wonder which one I might go to myself, a man approaches me with the friendly, easygoing style typical of the Midwest. He is tall but slightly hunched, unshaven and wearing an old button-down Cubs jersey. He is holding a plastic cup of beer, one of several he has had today I’d guess.

He introduces himself as Walter from the South Side. “You aren’t supposed to like the Cubs if you’re from the South Side,” says. “But I’ve been coming to Cubs games for years. I love the Cubs.” I ask if he has season tickets. “It’s impossible to get them. The wait list is decades long. I just take the El here and buy tickets before each game.”

Before we part ways, Walter points out some of the upcoming changes to this area, gesturing toward buildings across the street. “That won’t be there and that won’t be there,” he says. “They’re putting a hotel in.”

As Wrigley Field turns 100, it seems progress is inevitable. As other city’s baseball stadiums have embraced change, for better or worse Chicago has resisted. The owners were famously reluctant to install lights, making it one of the last to introduce night games (its first was in 1988). More changes are coming, despite resistance from locals. These include a giant TV screen to display on-field action, much to the chagrin of the rooftop bleacher owners across the street whose views will be blocked. Only time will tell if Wrigley Field can retain its neighborly feel while adopting a more modern and commercial façade.

With the game over, I leave the ballpark in search of a bar. American football’s season has just started and there are a few games I might still want to watch. The symbiotic relationship between local businesses and Wrigley Field is obvious as fans fill the streets and bars around me. In Redmond’s Ale House, general manager Zach Winters pours me a beer. “Wrigley Field supports locals in more than just providing a place to have fun,” he says. “Business owners benefit from the stadium’s ability to draw visitors, bringing jobs and opportunities to the people here.”

I ask him what he thinks about Cubs fans. “They are some of the most enjoyable I have had the privilege to be around. I am from Pittsburgh and was born and raised a Pirates fan. Cubs fans remind me a lot of Pirates fans while I was growing up in that we don’t take the games too seriously. That creates more of a party atmosphere as opposed to a serious baseball atmosphere.”

I’ll drink to that. And as for the Cubs? Well, there’s a saying in Chicago: “There’s always next year!”


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