Understand that my argument against night games was always an aesthetic argument. Although I admire Citizens United for Baseball in Sunshine and the other Wrigleyville groups that have fought the good fight against lights, I consider their arguments concerning parking and rowdiness a bit tenuous. Having moved away from and then back to that neighborhood in the last year and a half, I can testify that anyone who thinks that parking near a ballpark is bad should try parking near ClubLand and Union. The only difference between yahoos who go to baseball games and yell at umpires and yahoos who go dancing and yell at Madonna videos is that yahoos who go dancing find it easier to buy mixed drinks. The same comparison can be made in any of a dozen city neighborhoods.
So it was an aesthetic argument. I thought it wonderful that there was still one ballpark that not only allowed but demanded baseball played as it was meant to be played--outside, under the sun--and I think any fan of the Cubs who grew up after World War II and before, say, the mid-70s shared that feeling. It was an honor, almost a shameful privilege, to be to Wrigley Field born.
Because day baseball is a way of life. I mean no hyperbole, no irony. It is an undeniable part of the national fabric. This was brought home to me a few nights ago by a friend who recently returned from New York. He'd gotten to know some fire fighters there, and he said they were all fans of the Cubs--although these Mets fans would never have admitted it. They got home from work and they turned on WGN on cable. They asked intelligent questions about the team, they knew the players well, and they kept asking my friend, "So what do you think about the first night game?"
To the sun gods and goddesses in the bleachers, day baseball is tanning. To children, it offers easy and relatively safe access to the sport. It is waiting for you when you come home from work or school; it is comfort to the sick who had to stay home; it is a persistent voice calling out to play hooky on summery afternoons; it is, after all, a source of sly joy to anyone who can remember smuggling a radio to school or to a job to listen to the World Series back when it was played during the day. I grew up coming home from school to watch Jack Brickhouse and the Cubs on television. I saw Ernie Banks's 500th homer while staying home from classes, and I remember coming home from playing baseball myself to watch Ken Holtzman's Wrigley Field no-hitter.
Day baseball is no more antiquated than the family farm, and an argument can be made that it is a good deal less trouble to maintain. The Cubs require no government subsidies; Dallas Green said the Cubs had to draw two million to survive, and they have done so in three of the last four years--without lights. In one ballpark in the nation, there was baseball played the old-fashioned way, and it was here, in Chicago. We were lucky.
Of course, the aesthetic argument goes out the window when the powers that be allow Wrigley Field to be taken out of the rotation for the all-star game, and when they decree that any postseason games must be played elsewhere so they can be played at night. Wrigley Field is one of baseball's greatest treasures, however, and a person would think that once every 26 years (for the all-star game) and once every 40 years (or however often it is that the Cubs get into postseason play), the sport would take pride in its roots and encourage playing hooky from work and carrying radios to school.
So blame Peter Ueberroth for caving in to the television interests instead of standing up for Wrigley Field, and blame Dallas Green and the Tribune Company for not standing in the way--if they didn't actually conspire to encourage lights. That public men publish falsehoods is nothing new. Night baseball is here.
It was hot and steamy a week ago last Monday night as we stood on the balcony of a friend's apartment on Sheffield and listened to the countdown and watched the lights flickering into life. They seemed weak at first--there was only a bit of blue in the middle of the bulbs--and it was like watching rows of eggs hatch all at once. We had been invited for a pregame barbecue, and we finished eating and cleaned up and headed out to the ballpark, to the faraway strains of the Chicago Symphony playing Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra.
My wife, Catherine, had called to say she was going to be late. Not her fault this time, she said; the CTA was screwed up. Two trains had run past already, and the platform at Grand was packed, but she was going to pile on the next train whatever the cost and we'd meet in front of the ballpark at 6:45. She arrived cranky and bedraggled, having been packed tight into an el car without air-conditioning. Had she known what it was going to be like inside the park, I think she would have gone back to the el.
Wrigley Field's single-date attendance record is close to 47,000, but that was back in 1948, in the days of folding chairs in the box seats. For the first night game, the attendance was estimated at 40,000, but I've never seen it more crowded or felt more bunched-in. The lines at the program stands were long and unruly; naturally everyone had to have an official program. I was cajoled into buying one, then found when I arrived at our seats that the "official program" had no scorecard in it. So it was back down to stand in line again. I finally slapped down 50 cents, grabbed a scorecard, and ran.
Back to the seats, which were--if anything--more hot and uncomfortable than the atmosphere beneath the grandstand. We had gotten the seats through our weekend season-ticket package: the Cubs had promised tickets to the first night game when the package was offered last winter, and believe it or not, they came through. Our seats were moved, however; we were not our usual upper-deck positions but in the lower deck just off third base. The upper deck hung low over our heads like the brim of a hat, and the heat of our own bodies gathered above us and rolled like the steam from a sauna. I was sweating through my shirt, my pants, and it seemed even through the soles of my shoes. It made me feel no better to see Ernie Banks sweating through his silk suit jacket as he went to the pitcher' s mound, along with Billy Williams, to throw out the first balls.
Commissioner Ueberroth was lustily booed, which I was glad to take part in but couldn't understand. If anyone deserved credit for the first Wrigley Field night game it was Ueberroth, but evidently I wasn't the only one with torn attitudes at the game.
The umpires gathered at home plate for an official photo, emphasizing that this was no ordinary game. Rick Sutcliffe delivered the first pitch, and home-plate ump Eric Gregg called for the ball to be thrown out and sent directly to Cooperstown. Then Phil Bradley of the Philadelphia Phillies--the Cubs' unfortunate confederates in making history--hit the first nighttime home run into the left-field bleachers at Wrigley, and the game was on.
We were so high up under the deck that we couldn't see the lights themselves--although we'd had plenty of chances to observe them gathering, perched atop the ballpark waiting for action, in the weeks leading up to the game. We saw only the field, lit from above, so our impressions were probably very similar to those of people who saw the game on television. I later heard from television watchers that the light was "eerie," and that it was unusual to see familiar camera angles and backgrounds under that weird cast. To me the field seemed bleached out, formal and a little pale, like a passport photograph.
In the Cubs' first bats, Mitch Webster got on base on a single. The game's elevated stature was then reemphasized by the entrance of Morganna, the Kissing Bandit, who came trotting onto the field from beyond first base. (Evidently the tough ticket market had forced her to buy seats beyond her natural range.) She came bouncing across the field. Ryne Sandberg has long been on her hit list, and Morganna obviously wanted him, and we in turn were cheering for her, but she never had a chance. Security guards had her surrounded by the time she got to the pitcher's mound. Yet Sandberg, pumped up as any man might be by the sight of Morganna running toward him in seeming slow motion, hit a homer to left, to put the Cubs in front.
I mention these details because these home runs later disappeared. The rain-out washed them away. Of course, we had expected it to rain (the forecasts had said it would hold off until midnight), but we had thought that we'd get at least five innings in. In the third inning, the wind shifted; dust blew high into the air over the infield. Both Sutcliffe and the Phillies' hitters backed away, rubbing their eyes.
Dark clouds moved across the sky to the north; at first we could see them through the back of the grandstand, then they closed in behind the bleachers. With the shift in the wind, the dark clouds moved south along the lake shore; it was as if they were surrounding the ballpark. A friend who was outside the park said later it was like watching a bear claw close on the area. Catherine, suffering from overheated synapses, said it reminded her of a word, but she couldn't think of which one. It was somewhere between "natural" and "epic." She plotted them on a mental graph and a half-inning later came up with it: "portent."
The weather was indeed portentous. The Cubs scored again in the third and did not bat again; the rain began to fall before the bottom of the fourth, six outs shy of an official game. It never let up. The rain fell in sheets through the lights; Catherine said it looked like confetti, and indeed it did--although I thought, right away, that the beauty of rain falling through light would be old hat to White Sox fans. At first the crowd moved up from the unprotected seats below and made things under the upper deck even steamier and more unbearable. Yet as the rain continued, some fans gave up and the temperature cooled and it became almost comfortable. We sat on, watching it fall, waiting for the flashes of lightning above the lake.
Around nine o'clock, after about 50 minutes of a steady downpour, the rain diminished for a moment, and we began to clap for action on the part of the grounds crew. But then it came down harder than ever, and from then on it was simply a matter of waiting for the umpires to make the rain-out official. Several fans and then a few Cubs came out onto the field to slide on the tarpaulin; the fans were dragged from the field by security guards, the Cubs were not. (The sliders--Jody Davis, Lester Lancaster, Greg Maddux, and Al Nipper--were later fined, however, by manager Don Zimmer.) It was pleasant, and I realized that every bit of pain about the evening had brought me a little bit of perverse pleasure--although I was there, I didn't want to be there, and although it was happening, I didn't want it to happen. And so, as with a sore tooth, I prodded at everything that might aggravate me--and this, finally, was the best of all. Rain. We watched it fall.
This was no more the end of day baseball than it was when they first put the lights atop the upperdeck roof, but at the same time I don't think anyone would be cantankerous enough to say that things haven't changed at Wrigley Field and in baseball and in our culture in general. The last ballpark without lights is gone. Be angry at the sun for setting.