I was in Chicago late last week and for part of this weekend. While there, I took in two Cubs games in two very different worlds – one where I felt like a stanger, and one where I felt like I was at home.
I doubt I have to tell most of you that Wrigley Field feels like home for Cubs fans, because you’ve probably felt it, too. (And, if you haven’t yet had the chance, I hope someday soon you do.) I’ve been to Wrigley many times before, but it always gets me. So, as I watched the Cubs take on the Brewers from the right field bleachers on Thursday, I felt like I was surrounded by thousands of friends. I had beers with BN’ers Spencer and JulioZuleta, cheered a couple kids who caught balls from David DeJesus, and even joked amicably with a few Brewers fans as they watched Zack Greinke flounder.
The atmosphere is so metaphorically familial that, at one point on Thursday, it became literal. A family was in the bleachers celebrating the 60th birthday of “Jimmy,” and we – all of us in the area – wore handed-out birthday buttons and sang happy birthday to commemorate the occasion. We were one drunk lamp-shade-wearing uncle short of a family reunion. (I’m pretty sure that uncle was there, but there are no lamps in the bleachers.)
That is all to say I was already having a wonderful time by the middle innings, when I excused myself from the right field bleachers to head over to left. Al Yellon, the guy behind Bleed Cubbie Blue, has a usual spot out there, and I wanted to go say hello. I contribute a few times a week to BCB, and Al and I have become friends. So, when I arrived in the upper left corner of the bleachers, I was looking forward to taking in an inning or two with him, his friend Miriam, and others in the section.
As I was happily chatting away with Al, I almost didn’t notice the man who’d walked up next to our seats. Tom Ricketts.
Tom and Al know each other, and Tom was stopping by to say hello as part of his usual round of mingling with fans at Wrigley. Al, for his part, was cool as a cucumber. I got the impression that the pop-in was something of a regular occurrence. Heck, everyone in the section was impressively cool about the whole thing.
Everyone except me, maybe. I was the opposite of cool as a cucumber. Hot as a … plum? Is there an opposite of cucumber?
Be cool, I thought. Introduce yourself, shake his hand, squeeze firmly but not too firmly. Is my palm sweaty? No. It’s ok. Oh no, did I look him in the eye? Did I speak loudly enough? Too loudly? Wow, he’s really tall in person. Kind of skinny, too. Crap! I’m staring. Has it been a long, silent stare? Am I creeping him out? Can he tell that I secretly want to hug him and tell him I want to be his friend?
Somehow, with the emotion of a 1960s teenage girl meeting Paul freaking McCartney bubbling up inside me, I collected myself enough to engage with the group in friendly banter about the Cubs.
The brief conversation touched on a number of Cub-related topics, from Matt Garza’s dominance that day to the team’s early-season struggles. I joked about Matt Garza improvidently taking an infield pop-up so he could improve his fielding percentage (Tom chuckled), about Garza’s struggles at the plate and how it’s probably hard to ask him to spend 10 more minutes in the batting cage (Tom chuckled), and about Ryan Theriot deciding he was a power hitter after hitting a homer or two a couple years ago (Tom chuckled and offered an anecdote about Darwin Barney not getting the same idea).
Ok, so all were “jokes” in the context of a group conversation, as opposed to me holding court. And maybe all laughs were of the “courtesy” variety, if they were directed at me at all – if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s making the kind of lame jokes certain to elicit a courtesy laugh. Except maybe the Garza fielding percentage one. At the time, it felt pretty funny. (And, after Garza threw that ball into the stands at the end of the game, I felt equal parts a psychic and a jinx.) What I know for certain is that I participated in a mutually enjoyable conversation with Tom Ricketts about the Cubs.
Tom’s entire visit lasted just a half inning or so, but that was good enough for me. No, Tom and I didn’t spend the whole time talking and slapping five, and no, he probably wouldn’t remember my name. But, in 10 minutes of his time, he left me with a priceless and indelible memory. Forever in my mind, I’ll remember the time “I met Tom Ricketts and made him laugh three times.”
And that, of course, is the point of Tom’s mid-game strolls. He knows the kind of impact he has just by stopping by and saying hello to fans, and he actually cares about making it. I was already a huge Tom Ricketts fan, but now I’m over the freaking moon.
I chatted with Al for a bit longer, expressing openly how cool I thought that whole exchange was, and then headed back to right field, awash in the glow of “did that really just happen?”
Matt Garza continued to mow Brewers down, and the Cubs won big. I doubted the day could get much better.
The icing on the cake came at the end of the game (“Go, Cubs, Go” was the after dinner mint) when, emboldened by my hobnobbing, I shouted a request to David DeJesus after he’d tossed another ball into the stands: “David, may I have your hat?” It was a joke, though, of course, I would have gladly accepted his hat. The joke was well-met by others in the bleachers, who piped up in a chorus.
“David, may I have your glove?”
“David, may I have your shirt?”
“David, may I have your belt?”
The consummate professional, David ignored our humorous requests. Until the last one, that is. It came from a jokester just over my shoulder.
“David, may I have your wife?”
At that one, David turned and smiled, and raised a thumb in our direction. He knows he’s doing all right. He knows.
* * *
On Friday, the Cubs travelled to St. Louis to take on the Cardinals for their home opener. It was quite a to-do, with some kind of procession and trophy presentation, blah, blah, blah. I was still in Chicago for the day, originally planning to take in the game at a Wrigleyville bar with other Cubs fans.
But, for some reason, I got it in my head that I should instead tempt fate. Maybe it was because the game the day before had been such an excellent experience (maybe I thought I was invincible), but I was feeling bold. I didn’t want to watch the game surrounded by Cubs fans.
I wanted to watch the game surrounded by Cardinals fans.
I had chatted up a few folks the day before about the idea in a general sense, but I got the impression that there was indeed a Cardinals bar on the North-ish side of Chicago. After some Googling, I found the place – Sedgwick’s – and I set my mark. I was actually going to do it.
I had no plans to show up and be a total douche, of course. I just thought it would be an interesting experience. I figured if nothing else, it could make for a great story.
So, when I started on the walk from my hotel to the Cardinals bar on Friday, I was feeling pretty good about what I was about to do. But the near two-mile walk gave me plenty of time to think about the plan. By the time I arrived at the Cardinals bar, I was (1) tired, and (2) really freaking nervous.
Would they turn me away at the door? Would they openly mock me? Would they spit in my food?
As it turns out: no, not really, and probably not.
The place was relatively crowded for an early Friday afternoon. It turns out that Sedgwick’s, like the Cardinals’ organization, was also having a home opener celebration – drink specials, “toasted ravioli,” and a Cubs/Cards ticket giveaway. The faces in the bar turned to regard me as I entered, naturally decked out in Cubs gear. Most offered little more than a sneer, and returned to the TVs around the bar. Some shook their heads. One guy turned to say something, but his more delicate companion stopped him.
So, I took a seat at a table off to the side, and started watching the game (which the Cubs were already winning 4-0). The waitress was unenthusiastic when I asked for a menu and for the drink specials, but I should say that, until the end of the visit, the service there was lovely.
I enjoyed the game, and Tweeted about the experience throughout, as I ate, drank, and watched. The Cardinals fans cheered their team well, despite the lopsided score. I got the expected dirty looks when I loudly expressed joy at the Cubs’ high points, but no one said a cross word to me. There were no oafish insults, no jerks, and no mullets (or jorts). At most, I got a handful of nasty looks. I can handle that.
It was a humorous experience, but I was surprised at how … confrontationless it was. I’m sure a big reason for that was my resolve to be a nice, courteous, normal guy, just there to eat and watch the game. The other big reason? The folks in attendance were all Chicagoans. They love the Cardinals and all that, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be good, decent people, too. Sure, they were visibly unhappy that I was there, enjoying myself. But they handled it with class.
Mostly. There was that end-of-the-visit exception.
Late in the game, I had to excuse myself to use the restroom, and soon after returned to my table, only to find it empty. A man working there, who’d stopped by my table no fewer than three times in the preceding half hour to check if I was still working on my food and drink, was cleaning an adjacent table. I correctly surmised that he’d cleared my spot, too.
“Oh, were you still here?” he smiled. A knowing smile. “Sorry.”
It could have been a simple misunderstanding. But I was gone (by “gone,” I mean 10 feet away) for no more than a couple minutes, and I had just ordered another drink. It was more than 3/4 full when I left for nature’s call, and my plate was still full of tater tots.
You can rip a man’s team, spit on his shoes, and bloody his nose. But you never touch another man’s tots.
With nothing left to eat or drink, and a lingering suspicion that I’d just been needled, I decided to head out before the game finished. It was the 8th inning, and I wasn’t crazy about hanging out until the final pitch (both because the bar patrons might turn even less friendly, and because the Cubs’ bullpen might blow it).
As I walked back to my hotel, I couldn’t shake the shit-eating grin off my face. I’d just watched the Cubs destroy the Cardinals while sitting among Cardinals fans in a Cardinals bar. The day before, I’d met Tom Ricketts (and watched the Cubs destroy the Brewers). I can only assume my walk transformed into something more like a strut.
It was a good couple days.
Of course, I returned home to the real world the next day, only to watch the Cubs be destroyed by those same Cardinals two days in a row. At least I wasn’t sitting in a damn Cardinals bar for those ones.