Taking In the Windy City
30 Ballparks in 63 Days
Craig Leener / Staff Writer
CINCINNATI — The barnstorming of baseball’s grand palaces was just eight days old, and my wingman Zachary already imposed a two-bratwurst limit — in my consumption at the snack bar as well as their frequency in these stories.
Sure, it was restrictive. Fortunately, grilled meats were just a small part of the story in Chicago, where the 13 subway stops that separate the Cubs from the White Sox may as well be 13 light years.
The origins of the great divide date back to the 19th century, when a gap developed between Chicago’s more affluent citizenry and the economically poorer immigrant and African-American population.
It resulted in a polarization the city’s baseball fans. Chicago’s north side, home to the Cubs, evolved into a main hub of the city’s wealth, while to the south, blue collar workers embraced the neighboring White Sox.
These contrasts came to light June 13 as we strolled alongside the stately row houses lining historic Clark Street on the way to that 92-year-old cathedral of hardball, Wrigley Field.
The venerable home of the Cubs seemed oddly but seamlessly wedged into the surrounding residential neighborhood, almost as if it were lowered in by forklift the night before.
The scene was also a reminder of how the three B’s — baseball, bratwurst and especially beer — are wholly intertwined in certain cities of the Midwest.
Before the game, we met up with Tom Smith, a Chicago resident and one of Zak’s college buddies. Tom gave us the lowdown on Cubs baseball over a few colds ones at Murphy’s Bleachers.
Murphy’s is a sprawling, wood-paneled mecca of lager packed mostly with businessmen and frat boys. It is strategically positioned between the subway station and the backside of Wrigley’s infamous bleacher section, taking the old real estate adage “location is everything” to new heights.
I went into defensive mode on Tom’s advice, procuring a Cubs hat from a nearby street vendor so as to blend in more readily with the partisan crowd.
Once inside the stadium — which smelled like a street carnival operating inside an aging Las Vegas casino — we witnessed some of the most ardent and relentless heckling imaginable.
Whether the cause was ample amounts of beer or decades of frustration over the absence of a World Series title, Cubs fans have taken the art of the heckle to profound levels.
In the second inning, two inebriated lads in their mid 20s wedged themselves into the empty seats to our right. From that moment on, the guy closest to us let loose with a standing, profane-laced tirade against Houston starting pitcher Andy Pettitte and every other member of the visiting Astros.
It wasn’t until the fifth inning that a gentleman directly in front us turned around and said, “Hey, buddy, we’re all Cubs fans here, but keep it clean. There are ladies present.”
The guy just shrugged it off, and Zak and I fled to higher ground. By then, the struggling Cubs, who entered the contest 11 games out of first place in the National League Central Division, trailed the Astros 9-0.
Chicago avoided the embarrassment of a shutout when Phil Nevin homered into the left-field bleachers to lead off the seventh.
When the Cubs added another run in the ninth, the fans reacted in a sort of reverse heckle, cheering as though the locals had just tied the score — a fitting conclusion to the experience.
Two days earlier we traveled by subway to U.S. Cellular Field to see the defending World Series champion White Sox take on the Cleveland Indians.
The stadium was built in 1991 adjacent to the old Comiskey Park, which originally opened in 1910 but was leveled to make room for the new stadium’s parking lot.
Zak and I concluded that the act of bulldozing the team’s heritage left White Sox fans with an identity crisis. They clearly took pride in a modern facility with easy street access and clear views of the action, but at what cost?
Once inside, we noticed that Sox fans— a multi-ethnic crowd dressed mostly in black — had a toughness to them. One fan in particular, a kid who was maybe 12, stood up and screamed, “GET OFF THE FIELD!” whenever Cleveland’s Travis Hafner came to the plate.
We weren’t sure why, as Hafner seemed like a likeable enough guy.
The young man didn’t unleash any of the foul language we witnessed at Wrigley, just a simple request — leave, now.
It took six innings, but Hafner finally answered the kid with an insult of his own — a towering solo shot to right that put the Indians ahead 8-2 and sent White sox starter Freddy Garcia to the showers.
After Cleveland took a 10-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth, Chicago made it interesting, batting around and pushing across six runs before Indian closer Bob Wickman doused the fire.
This stint in the Midwest concluded with a day game June 14 at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, where the Reds hosted the Milwaukee Brewers.
In that one, my son and I sat high atop the stadium, but saw two very different ball games.
For me, it was lethargic fans enduring 11 innings of scoreless baseball until Cincinnati’s Adam Dunn hit a walk-off three-run homer to mercifully end it.
Zak, however, meditated on the tranquility of the Ohio River and the rolling hills of neighboring Kentucky just beyond the bleachers in right field.
He theorized on how in baseball, it was conceivable that a game might never end, as was nearly the case that day. Through the eyes of a young artist, it was the ultimate in negative space, a form of infinity within the foul poles.
I’m thinking of mentioning that the bratwurst with grilled sauerkraut I devoured in the seventh inning was sensational, but I won’t because it would put me over the limit.
Craig Leener is a Signal staff writer. He can be reached on the road at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Signal.