The great god Baseball has returned, driving the forces of winter and darkness from the tundral landscape. The players are in place in Arizona and Florida, this week the spring training reports began in earnest, and opening day is just a month off. Here in the midwest, however, the god got into the headlines a little earlier than expected by wreaking vengeance on its old nemesis, lightless baseball; and in true mythic form, the deity first made his victims mad. Real mad. Last week's City Council vote on the desirability, legality, and inexorability of night baseball north of 35th Street offers a new model for the dictum, "It's all over but the shouting." The fait has been accompli and, despite the tortuous logic and torturous wheedles of the ballpark's neighbors, Wrigley Field will be equipped for that thoroughly modern concept--night baseball--by midsummer. The din will continue way beyond that.
The argument has certainly brought out the best in its debaters. Here's Bill Jauss on Sunday's Sportswriters radio show contending--seriously stating--that fans are much more likely to urinate on Wrigleyville lawns at night than they are during the day. Here's another of the scribes promising that the Tribune Company will shortly demand more than 18 night games per season, even though the city ordinance passed Thursday quite specifically bans such a demand for the next 15 seasons--through the year 2002. Here's the neighborhood's association of sunshine advocates threatening to vote dry the precinct containing the stadium, as a matter of spite.
Ted Cox, the usual tenant of this space, is in Australia as I write this, which fits nicely, since he's also on the other side of the world from me on the issue of lights, and I know there'll be some serious cudgel-wielding upon his return. But even considering the many reasons to denigrate (a) Tribune Company as a whole; (b) the corporation's baseball wing in particular; and (c) the sins of the father (Peter Ueberroth, who would move postseason Cubs games to a National League park with lights) and the holy ghost (Dallas Green)--in spite of all this, pragmatism dictates lights on some scale.
Pragmatism in the service of a greater ideal--the Cubs' continued residency at Wrigley Field--is no vice. Admittedly, to suspend a game due to darkness, with the stranded innings appended to the next day's business, has a bit of quaint charm; when it happens two or three days in a row, however--as it did during the Dodgers series last July--it's a lot of misspent effort. What's more, though the Baseball/Television Axis may be morally wrong, it can keep the All-Star Game, and even the World Series, from occurring at Wrigley. Given the inconvenience and the promised drawbacks of a continuing "no lights" policy, the occasional night game (one every ten days, on average) holds no horror for me.
No, I don't live in Wrigleyville. No, it doesn't matter.
"Tell me," I want to ask the "No Lights" fanatics, "when you moved in here, did you, um, happen to notice that large structure just down the street there? Did you not know there was a ballpark nearby? Did you just wake up one morning and say to your spouse, 'Gee, Drew, some sort of reverse sinkhole must have opened up during the night and dropped this structure capable of housing the entire population of De Kalb into our neighborhood'?" It seems axiomatic that when you buy a home near a baseball park, you would expect there to be baseball games and baseball crowds in the bargain; the fact that a little more than 20 percent of them will now occur in the evening excites surprisingly little sympathy in me.
And that's not because I have any innate attraction to Tribune Company, or progress-for-its-ownsake, or night baseball. In fact, I prefer baseball in the day, by a wide margin. This has a little to do with the expected purist arguments--the greensward was meant for sunlight; the batters see the ball better, making for a truer test of competitive skills; you can stay for an extra-inning game and still get up for work tomorrow--and absolutely nothing do with the Cubs' lame postulate that working people can't see the team unless it plays at night. This city swarms with Cubs fans who have occasionally ditched their perfectly responsible daytime jobs to take in a ball game.
That's the real reason to extol the old-fashioned diurnal way. If a lawyer goes to see his hometown nine at night, it's just something else to do after work, like a movie, or drinks with the boys, or a routine night at the gym--it's just a ball game. But if that same lawyer tells his partners that he's off to take a deposition, then hops the el to Addison and heads for the bleachers--that's hooky. That's what it was when he was a boy cutting class to watch his grown-up heroes playing the boy's game, and the chance to recall that--to get away with sitting in the sunshine at a baseball game--is the best cheap thrill in town.
The second best cheap thrill--actually, it's not all that cheap the way we do it--is Rotisserie League baseball, the fantasy game in which amateur team owners compile a team comprising real players, then follow their statistical progress throughout the long season. Our organization--I mean the one to which Ted Cox and I belong--is the Bourbon League, which has been chronicled in this space before. Since the league's formation two years ago, the beginning of spring training has taken on a new dimension for us. We read the early dispatches only partly to discover the fortunes of the Cubs and White Sox, and much more so to find the hidden gem, the rough-hewn talent who will blossom into an unexpected superstar and pile up the taters, ribbies, and swiped sacks to vault our teams into the top division.
Both the Boomtown White Cox and the Tesser Rah-Sirrahs plummeted to disappointing finishes in last season's competition--fifth and eighth, respectively--and each team hopes for a respite from injuries so it can clamber back into the money this year. In the course of the next seven months, you will read little about these and the other eight Bourbon League teams, which exist only on paper but for their owners attain a greater reality than the teams from actual cities. The official draft is set for April 9, and this year the Commissioner's Office has approved the issuance of press credentials for the event, figuring that if reporters can masquerade as baseball owners, anyone can masquerade as a reporter. Direct inquiries to this column.
The Olympics proved nowhere near as interesting as hoped, and not merely because the USA contingent proved exactly as interesting as anticipated. The paucity of team sports, the prevalence of events that rely on individually clocked and measured achievements, as opposed to head-to-head races--in which you can actually watch someone win, rather than wait for the timekeeper to announce the result--such things make the Winter Olympics inherently less of a visual feast than the summer games.
But one aspect of the Olympics emerged as unexpectedly riveting: the press coverage in the Tribune, where, above and beyond the several beat reporters on location, Bob Verdi and Bernie Lincicome formed an unbeatable tag team in the combined column competition. With the one contributing a good amount of serious-minded interviews and analyses, and the other hitting the funny bone much more often than usual, Bobby and Bernie--he's the one with the smirk--became an unbeatable pipeline to Calgary. Especially Lincicome, a punchy, thoughtful stylist who specializes in prose rabbit-punches and the odd strong concept that peters out a third of the way through a column. In Calgary, he kept finding targets--the Olympic mascots, the Calgary cuisine, the inherent absurdity of curling, the press pack's dichotomization of the women's figure-skating protagonists--and knocking them down with precisely aimed shots. If the Tribune were to collect his Olympics columns, toss in a few drawings by Jeff MacNelly, and put out a book, I'd be first on line to buy one. And I can't stand the guy.