Sports

No Joy in Wrigleyville

I stood outside Wrigley Field during the Cubs’ fan-free playoff opener. I won’t do it again.

Man standing on a sidewalk, wearing a baseball uniform with the name WOO-WOO on the back
Cubs superfan Ronnie “Woo-Woo” Wickers outside Wrigley Field on Wednesday. Justin Peters

After a weird, truncated regular season in which their most notable accomplishment was having none of their players contract COVID-19, the Chicago Cubs made the MLB playoffs for the fifth time in the past six years. In normal times, I would have been inside Wrigley Field for the first game of their series against the Miami Marlins, roaming the aisles as a beer vendor. But these aren’t normal times. There were no fans in the stands this year, which means there was no vending. And so, on Wednesday, I went to see what it’d be like to follow a playoff game from the streets outside Wrigley Field. I was expecting some kind of communal experience, if not a typical game day scene. Instead, I felt totally alone.

Wrigley is one of the few remaining American stadiums that’s situated in a residential neighborhood rather than a 14-acre parking lot. On game days, Wrigleyville is usually thronged with people in Cubs gear, with each new arrival of the elevated train disgorging hundreds of new fans. Bars and restaurants are packed to fire-hazard levels.

After 20 seasons of vending at Wrigley Field and a lifetime of going to games there, the sights and sounds of the neighborhood are imprinted on my mind. Going to a game is in part an act of reconnecting with my own memories, and the fixtures of Wrigleyville are living avatars of those memories: the ruddy-faced scalper who circles the neighborhood on his bicycle, muttering “Who needs two?”; the independent peanut vendor who implores fans to “get ’em on the OUT-side, you’ll save MON-ey”; the hydrant outside the firehouse on Waveland, which the firefighters rig up as a makeshift water fountain.

On Wednesday, the hydrant was off, the peanut guy was missing, and the only bicyclists in sight were out there purely for exercise. Some of the neighborhood bars looked closed; the ones that weren’t seemed abandoned. The Red Top parking lot on the corner of Clark and Waveland was bare asphalt. Joggers ran down empty sidewalks as a strong wind blew through empty streets.

The ballhawks were there, as usual: about a dozen middle-aged men with folding chairs and baseball gloves on the street beyond the left field bleachers, waiting to snag any home runs that flew out of the park. There were a few other fans, too, mostly on the rooftops of the apartment buildings on Waveland and Sheffield avenues, which offer bird’s-eye views inside the stadium below. The rooftops have always been hot tickets. This year, they’re the only tickets. A quick check of the internet confirmed that rooftop seats were starting at $400. But even they weren’t totally full. On one roof, a guy gamely banged a cowbell until he lost interest and stopped. On another, two young guys leaned over the side and shouted down to three pedestrians on the street. “See you at trivia,” they yelled. There will almost certainly be more people at trivia than there were on the roof Wednesday afternoon.

The game began with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” sung by local anthem celebrity John Vincent.

The big-lunged Vincent is known for extending the final note of the phrase “land of the free,” and the crowd always reacts to this feat the exact same way. First, they cheer at a normal volume. Then, they get sort of quiet. Then, when they realize that Vincent is still holding his note, they erupt in ear-splitting cheers and applause. But with no crowd to egg him on, Vincent seemed to pull up short. I didn’t blame him.

Even though nothing is the same this year, the stadium personnel are committed to having things sound the same, more or less. The PA announcer still shouts out each hitter’s name, and the batters still hear their chosen walk-up songs. At the corner of Addison and Sheffield, outside the Sports Corner bar, merchandise vendor Byron Yablon stood muttering to himself as Van Halen’s “Jump” wafted from the stadium. The Cubs used to play this song before every single game, until one of their relief pitchers begged them to stop. Apparently, it’s back for 2020. “They’ve been playing a lot of the old stuff this year,” Yablon said.

Yablon has been selling gear at Wrigley for 23 years. In all that time he’d missed only a handful of games. This year, he says, he’s showed up to about half. “He’s been here for all of ’em,” he said, indicating a wheelchair-bound vendor to his right, displaying a T-shirt reading “Trubisky Makes Me Drink.” On Tuesday, the two of them were the only independent merchandise vendors around.

How’s business?

“Terrible! You got 600 people on the rooftops in a stadium that seats 40,000. You figure it out,” Yablon said.

So why does he keep coming?

Yablon sighed.

“I got nothing better to do,” he said.

By the time I completed my next lap, Yablon had already gone home. “There’s no money!” his friend explained, mournfully. As it started to rain, he covered his merchandise with a blue tarp, which he weighed down with a single crutch.

I walked to the right field gate and peered into the empty stadium. A guy in a camouflage Cubs hat pulled up next to me on what appeared to be a homemade scooter. The wheel of that scooter caught on a bolt, and he lost his balance and almost fell to the sidewalk.

“You make that yourself?” I asked when he righted himself.

“Uh, I added this,” he said, pointing to the handlebars.

It felt like we both felt equally embarrassed to be there.

Moving on, I encountered Cubs superfan Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers, clad in his trademark Cubs jersey with “Woo-Woo” on the back. He was holding a half-eaten Chipotle burrito.

Wickers is known for always being inside Wrigley; some fans have theorized that he lives there. On Tuesday, he was hobbling down the sidewalk, wearing a Cubs face mask as he listened to the game on a tiny portable radio. “How ya doing, Ronnie?” I asked. He offered a wan thumbs-up.

It felt like time to start drinking, so I stopped into Murphy’s Bleachers. How’s business been? The bouncer simultaneously shrugged and winced as he led me to a table on the bar’s back patio. The tables back there were appropriately spaced and only half full. I sipped an Old Style and squinted at a television that I could barely see through the drizzling rain. At a corner table, three bros pounded light beer and paid no attention to the game. One of them had fashioned his bandanna into a bonnet to shield his head from the rain.

I moved on to Lucky Dorr, a newish bar on the ground floor of a Cubs office building on Waveland, where a dozen people sat watching the game on television. The Cubs were up 1–0 in the top of the seventh, but the Marlins were threatening. When Miami got two men on base, a faint “Let’s go, Marlins!” chant wafted from one of the nearby rooftops. But when Marlins outfielder Corey Dickerson smacked a three-run homer, the lead change barely registered. As the half-inning ended, a recording of long-dead Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” emanated from Wrigley. One woman hoisted her beer and began to sing along. “I’m the only one singing!” she observed, and then she, too, lost interest.

As I paid my tab, I told the bartender that I’d normally be in the stadium selling beer. Instead, I said, “I’m just out here wandering around.”

“Aimlessly,” he said.

“Aimlessly,” I echoed.

I waved goodbye and wandered aimlessly some more. Outside the Addison L stop, Clark Street Sports was boarded up, and the neighboring ticket brokerage had a “no trespassing” sign on the door. On Waveland, two haggard drunks slouched against a building, pecking at a scratch-off lottery ticket as a bag of ice leaked onto the sidewalk. The ballhawks paced and seemed sad that nobody was there to take their pictures. I wondered if I should leave early to get a jump on postgame traffic before realizing that there would be no postgame traffic. I sighed again and decided to get one last beer.

At Bernie’s, on the corner of Clark and Waveland, I nursed one last Old Style on the back patio and watched the final inning. A mustachioed man in a Miller Lite fleece—in a real feat of synergy, he was also holding a can of Miller Lite—staggered over and started working the crowd. “Go Mitch!” he screamed, and the four-top in the rear right corner began to chant along: “Go Mitch! Go Mitch!” Mitch is Mitchell Trubisky, the Bears’ terrible, recently benched quarterback. It was the most excited anyone had been about Chicago sports all day.

The Cubs lost, of course, and a man who resembled Calvert DeForest clapped his hands sarcastically. “One fucking run!” he screamed, but that was the extent of it. Within a minute, the bar had cut the sound from the televisions and cranked KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes.” Mustache Guy, a red gaiter pulled down on his neck, tottered from table to table, shouting indecipherably as he pulled on some guy’s ear and leaned on his shoulder. This almost feels normal, I thought, before I left the bar, lest he come and lean on me.

Back in 2003, the last time the Cubs played the Marlins in the playoffs, Wrigleyville was coursing with excitement. The stadium was packed for every game of that National League Championship Series, and the fans who couldn’t get inside filled the bars and streets. In Game 6, a foul ball in the left field boxes resulted in the most famous act of fan interference in baseball history. The Cubs lost. The Marlins went on to win the World Series.

That was depressing, but it wasn’t as sad as what I saw this week. Fears of COVID-19 surely kept people away from Wrigley Field on Wednesday. After all, for most of us, it no longer sounds like fun to jostle up against thousands of tipsy strangers. But I think something else was going on, too. This year, baseball felt like a simulacrum, the season happening in places we’d been before but that were now just out of reach. The games were broadcast from the uncanny valley, with all the people that give live baseball its warmth and character—fans in the seats, vendors in the stands—disappeared. The Cubs were playing in a kind of fantasy Chicago, one that might as well have been built on a sound stage on another planet. I tried to visit that place on Wednesday, but proximity didn’t make it feel any more real. I won’t be going back for Game 2 on Friday afternoon. Sorry, Ronnie Woo-Woo, you’re on your own.

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