Though equally well contested, the three games between the Cubs and the White Sox at Wrigley Field last week weren't as tight as the three-game series at Comiskey Park last month. But most fans who saw games from both sets would probably agree that last week's were more intense. The play was better--fewer defensive miscues--and more fiercely competitive, with spikes-high slides, brushbacks, and a little hotdogging. Neither team's status had changed from the previous city series: the Cubs were still in first, the Sox still a distant third and trying, once again, to get back to .500. One could make the point that it was important for both teams, coming off the All-Star break, to begin the second half well, but I think the big reason the players and fans all felt the games more deeply was Wrigley Field itself.
Last Friday, helped by the late 2:20 PM start, I got to the park as the Cubs were still taking batting practice. I sat in the stands listening to the distinctive "pock" of bat on ball and "smack" of ball hitting glove. Where beautiful music is concerned, I'll take that over the Grant Park Orchestra on a summer night or birds in the woods on a spring morning. Even after the fans began to stream in, there was none of the abrasive hard rock favored as batting practice background noise at Comiskey, only TLC's mellower "No Scrubs" (playing, appropriately enough, as the Cubs' starting lineup took its turn in the cage), soon followed by the even mellower strains of Gary Pressy at the organ. I climbed the ramps to the upper deck as the Sox took the field, but instead of going to the press box I sat in seats where I knew some friends were going to be, not far from where my buddy Boomer and I used to have season tickets. It had been a while--too long--since I'd left the press box for the seats of the hoi polloi, and I was instantly reminded of what a great and beautiful ballpark Wrigley is, with its upper deck hovering right above the field (without, of course, being too steep) and its intimate visual connection to the buildings across the street and the surrounding neighborhood, all the way to blue Lake Michigan glimpsed between the Lake Shore Drive high-rises in the distance. The turf--usually threadbare in spots around home plate, like an old rug in front of a fireplace--looked rich and full after the All-Star break, and the ivy was lush and green on the outfield walls. It was all so lovely I had to take a deep breath.
One of the reasons I was struck by the park's appearance is that once again it's in jeopardy. Emboldened by the team's fine performance on the field this season, Cubs management recently proposed almost double the number of night games next season, and structural changes that would include an expansion of the bleachers out over the sidewalks on Sheffield and Waveland. The Cubs argue that they need these changes to compete; I respond skeptically that sometimes big business needs to be protected from itself by its customers.
When the Tribune Company bought the Cubs in 1981 and brought in Dallas Green as general manager, he became the point man in the battle to bring night baseball to Wrigley Field. At the time many team executives believed that the club also had to put in skyboxes and an upper deck of bleachers. It took all the public pressure that groups like Citizens United for Baseball in Sunshine could muster to hold the line at 18 night games, and this resistance seemed to smack the club awake. Lights and skyboxes were installed with sensitivity to the way they'd meld with the ballpark's architecture, and the idea of a second deck of bleachers was dropped. Good thing, too, because the low Wrigley bleachers give the park its singular connection with its surroundings, a look that distinguishes it from more claustrophobic stadia from the same era such as the late, lamented old Comiskey Park and Detroit's Tiger Stadium and even Boston's Fenway Park, with its forbidding left-field wall, the infamous Green Monster.
The result of the compromise between purists and profits was that Wrigley became the acknowledged cathedral of baseball, and attendance rose, surpassing the two million mark in all but the most abysmal Cubs seasons. Compare this with what happened on the south side, where Jerry Reinsdorf's threat to move the Sox got the team everything it wanted in a new park but produced a sterile and characterless stadium in a barren area. Unwilling to share their parking or beer profits with anyone, the Sox get to hog the meager proceeds from a baseball desert.
So of course I'm doubtful about the changes the Cubs want to make. The bleacher additions look tolerable--stylish and not too excessive, leaving an open view from the tops of the surrounding buildings even if a few apartments figure to get blocked out--and would seem to maintain the sight lines from the park onto the neighborhood. But the increase in night games I cannot endorse, not even though I'm now one of those normal working stiffs who make their money by day (which I wasn't back in the glorious mid-80s, when I lived in the redbrick building at 3645 N. Sheffield and worked nights, the better to enjoy the bleachers if not the rooftop during the days). I'm surprised the entire city hasn't raised more of a ruckus about the proposed changes. Anyone who lives or works on the north side of Chicago knows that night games tangle traffic from River North to Uptown and from Lake Shore Drive to Western. Night games are a nuisance the Cubs don't need to inflict on their neighbors. They make more by being able to market old-fashioned baseball than they would from unlimited night games and baseball's modern sideshows--the fireworks and huge-screen TV scoreboards.
All three games at Wrigley between the Cubs and Sox were day games, and all three produced standing room only crowds of about 40,000. It's no wonder, with so many fans packed into the intimate little grandstand, there was a cauldron atmosphere that produced stirring baseball. In the first game Eric Young, trying to steal second in the bottom of the third, spiked Sox shortstop Royce Clayton on the forearm. To be fair, it looked as if Young was just trying to get his foot to the bag as soon as possible and took a short slide with front spikes raised. (If the spikes hit dirt short of the bag, a player risks a gruesome broken ankle of the sort Robin Ventura suffered with the Sox a few years ago.) Young eventually scored on a Sammy Sosa sacrifice fly for the first run of the game. In the top of the fourth, the Sox' Chris Singleton slid spikes high into third base and tried to kick the ball loose from Cubs shortstop Ricky Gutierrez. Gutierrez clearly took offense, but he didn't act on it--not until he came to the plate with the bases loaded and one out in the eighth inning, after the Sox had tied the game at one, and hit a grand slam that produced a 5-1 victory.
A feeling of tit for tat, action and response, pervaded the stands. On Friday the Sox pushed two runs across the plate in the fourth, as Kerry Wood, having one of his tough control days, hit two batters and walked two others. The Sox added another in the fifth on a Magglio Ordonez sacrifice fly after a Wood wild pitch. Sosa got the Cubs back within one in the sixth by cranking a high, tight Mark Buehrle fastball deep into the shrubbery in the center-field hitting background with Gutierrez on, but Jose Valentin responded in kind leading off the next inning. Turned around by lefty Will Ohman and forced to hit right-handed, his weaker side, Valentin swept a low inside pitch into the bleachers. Adding insult to injury, as he rounded first base Valentin mimicked Gutierrez's fist pump from the previous day, and when he came home Sosa's signature kiss gesture. What's more, for the benefit of the home audience he thumped his chest in front of the dugout camera the way Sosa does.
Then Ohman walked two more batters, and Paul Konerko greeted Todd Van Poppel with a three-run homer on a first-pitch fastball to put the Sox up 7-2.
The knee-jerk columnists at the downtown dailies screamed for Valentin's blood the next day, and the Wrigley fans booed him ferociously when he came to bat in the first. Yet Valentin had explained that he'd simply been carried away by the atmosphere--and who wouldn't be, rounding the bases on a game-sealing homer at the Friendly Confines? I was inclined to believe him, and so apparently were the Cubs, who didn't come close to retaliating against Valentin, not even after Sean Lowe brushed Sosa back with a little chin music late in the game. By that time the Sox had taken a 2-0 lead, one of the runs coming on a Carlos Lee homer off a Julian Tavarez fastball. Sosa, dusted off, had runners at the corners with one out in the sixth and could have put the Cubs up with another long one. Lowe got him to hit a hard liner right at Lee, playing just short of the warning track in left field. That scored a run but killed the rally, and the Sox answered in the very next frame with an insurance run on a Lee sacrifice fly for the 3-1 final score.
The win gave the Sox a 2-1 series victory to match last month at Comiskey. But the Cubs didn't look crushed, not the way they were two years ago when the Sox sweep at Wrigley Field ended their season. With the Cubs beating the Kansas City Royals the following day at Wrigley and the Sox winning in Milwaukee against Brewers pitching phenom Ben Sheets, it was as if the Wrigley Field series had recharged both Chicago teams. If the three-game series hadn't actually been overshadowed by Wrigley Field, at the very least the ballpark seemed to give both teams and their fans a sense of what they were playing for. In Wrigley Field it really doesn't matter who wins or loses; the game itself is all. That is the great abiding blessing of the place, and also its greatest curse.