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The Sports Section

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The flags are flapping overhead, but softly, not with their usual starchy pop. The wind is wafting in. Pockets of clouds are forming on the horizon, but they remain in the distance; the sky is the pale blue of a baby's eyes. From where we're sitting in the bleachers, the Wrigley Field grandstand stretches like a theater backdrop, and the fans are screaming for the members of the Cincinnati Reds to throw them baseballs, for it's batting practice.

It's been one of our dreams, from the formative days of this column, to spend some time in the bleachers with our Remington portable and see what comes of it, to write in one long stretch, without benefit of revision, the way Kerouac used to do it. We're afraid, however, that the dream as it's apt to be lived out in the 90s will be as dated as Kerouac's writing.

Baseball's peculiar magic was slow in coming today. Not because of the lingering effects of the baseball strike, but because the day had almost been ruined by the Cubs' new bleacher policy allowing advance sales of bleacher tickets. We arrived with the typewriter under our arm this morning to find remarkably short lines for the bleachers. The reason for this, however, was quickly explained by a security guard: bleacher tickets--even on this mid-May day--had already been sold out. So it was down to the Addison el station, to wait outside chanting, "Anybody got an extra bleacher ticket?" every time a train let off a new group of passengers.

A short interruption: back in the bleachers, we hear the first strains of the day from the organ. Gary Pressy is playing "Go, Cubs, Go," and the nostalgia of the tune and the inherently nostalgic tone of the organ are having, we're pleased to note, a calming effect.

We're outfitted today in a floppy Stetson, a flannel shirt torn above the left shoulder, shorts (white, even though it's not yet Memorial Day), and sandals--not quite yuppie enough to ward off a certain bumlike air. Or at least that's how we felt waiting outside the station, all those Cubs fans going by, averting their glances or, sometimes, looking us straight in the eye as if to derive some secret: how has someone who looks like a decent person come to this unfortunate end, begging for a bleacher ticket? With the arrival of each train the scalpers descended like carrion crows, standing in front of us as we lingered near the curb with our typewriter and bag. They hated us for free-lancing, for horning in on their business. Their expressions said, "What are you doing here? Why don't you go wait on the corner with all the other yuppies and wait for us to score you a ticket?"

In the end, one sidled up anyway and offered us a bleacher ticket--for $15. This is what the Cubs' management has bought into with its advance bleacher sales--rampant speculation. It may be that the ill effects of this spring's strike are already beginning to disperse, but the effects of the Cubs' rampant profit-seeking still rile us. And those effects are here to stay; the bleacher action as it once was--fans humming outside on the street from the early morning hours, the center-field stands filling up from within a half-hour of when the gates first open, and of course the college kids getting drunk by noon--has been replaced.

Now it takes the college kids until 12:30 to get fully drunk.

We have prepared a couple of answers for when people ask us what it is we're doing here. One is, "I'm working on a paper. It's due at four o'clock." The other is, "I'm working. It's the only way I can write off the 15 dollars I paid a scalper." (Note: should've gotten a receipt.)

It's only 12:30, the Reds are still on the field, but the center-field section of the bleachers, where we're sitting, is beginning to quickly fill in with the overflow from the left- and right-field sections below; like any container of liquids, the bleachers fill from the bottom up. In the old days, of course, this section would have been filled by now, but we sat in center because we'd hoped it would allow us the privacy to get over the self-consciousness that comes from working in public, among thousands of screaming people. (How do these ball players do it?) And because the relatively mellow center field has come to better serve us as we grow old. Center is less rowdy than right or left, especially since the Andre salaamers feel they have to compete with the traditional bleacher-bum enclave in left. We have our own sense of tradition: we're sitting in the center-field section near where Bill Veeck used to sit in his final years, chain-smoking ciggies and propping his wooden leg up against the front-row railing.

Back from a cigar break. Twain said he smoked 300 cigars a month while working--improved his concentration. Can't blame him. He'd have smoked more if he'd worked in the center-field bleachers. This (the writing) can't go on much longer. Typing turns heads, distracts from the game. We'd thought about typing through the game, and perhaps if we set up a steady din we'd fit in; but by the end of the game the column would be the length of a short novel. It's almost 1 PM, the lineups are about to be announced, and amid the laughing flesh of the bleachers everyone is getting primed, each in his or her own way. The bleacher preacher came by with a sign saying: "Thou shalt not begin, nor practice in the wave." An admirable sentiment, even for religion. Two women nearby were discovered with cans of Bud Lite; it appears they got off with a warning, although a senior security guard, wearing something resembling a Combat-style communication pack, hovers nearby, as if to call in reinforcements and evacuate the area. How do these security guards remain so pale? They've taken on the trappings of all police; one even wears reflecting aviator-style sungoggles. The woods, as Kerouac wrote, are full of wardens--that's one sentiment that will remain forever timely. There's no way to write and keep score--unless one is working with a lap-top computer in the comfort of the press box--so we'll give this up as the game begins. We go in search of a dog and a beer--the staples of baseball.

From the el platform, later, heading for downtown:

That peculiar magic took until the bottom of the first inning to kick in. With Ryne Sandberg on first base following a hit, Mark Grace hits one in the gap in left center. Sandberg, running in his usual style, head down, looks up while rounding second and sees the play develop. Eric Davis--in left field because of an injury to his knee--hustles into left-center to field the ball. He's usually a center fielder, because of his speed and his arm, but Sandberg sees he'll field the ball wrong for throwing to third, and he goes. Davis scoops the ball, pirouettes, and fires a strike to third. Sandberg is tagged out in a bang-bang play.

The game goes on like that, a scoreless tie, well pitched and well played on both sides. The Cubs' Mike Bielecki gets Davis to ground to third base with the infield in and a man on third, one out, in the sixth.

Through it all there is the cacophony of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (the bleachers can't keep a steady beat), and the visual cacophony of salaams for Andre Dawson (he is intentionally walked twice to preserve the shutout).

And by some grace of the gods, "Cubs Floppy Hat Day" has coincided with senior ditch day for several north-suburban high schools. ("Right field, left field sucks" is replaced by "Huskies suck" and "Central sucks.") The hats are supposed to go only to fans 21 and older, but they quickly become a status symbol for high-school seniors, both because of the age restriction (same as beer) and because they are to be worn, no doubt, at school tomorrow. At one point, several security guards go running off--a mob of high-school kids has swept in downstairs and started stealing the hats right out of the box, under the noses of the aged ushers assigned to hand them out at the gate. So I sell mine to a high-school kid for five bucks, reasoning that my bleacher ticket cost only $10 then, which is about what one expects to pay these days to get away from the drudgery of work and relax at the old ball game.

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