CHICAGO - It’s April of 1988, and a 23-year-old first baseman for the Chicago Cubs is walking from the on-deck circle to home plate. Mark Grace knows he should be thinking about the confrontation ahead of him. What is the pitcher going to throw? What kind of stuff does he have? What should my approach be?
But he can’t help himself. There’s only one thought in his head.
“I’m going to hit in the exact same batter’s box where Babe Ruth called his shot.”
Wrigley Field has that effect on people.
• • •
The friendly confines are 93 years old and showing their age.
The ballpark reeks of urine. The wooden benches in the dugout are hard on the players’ backsides. There are no elevators to take fans to the upper level, and cats are kept on the premises to deal with the rat population.
Three years ago, chunks of concrete fell from the upper deck into the seats below.
There’s no other way to say it: Wrigley Field is a dump.
But what a beautiful dump it is.
“There’s no doubt in my mind it’s the best place to watch a game,” said Cubs longtime broadcaster Ron Santo.
Chase Field is the quintessential modern-day ballpark, all noise and video boards and revenue streams.
Wrigley Field is a throwback.
It’s a cold Old Style beer on a warm summer afternoon.
It’s a hand-operated scoreboard, fans on Waveland and Sheffield waiting for a home run, and Italian sausages frying over an open grill.
It’s the Bleacher Bums, ivy on the outfield walls and foul poles named for Billy Williams and Ernie Banks.
You won’t find a JumboTron at Wrigley. Or excessive signage. And the sound system won’t make your ears bleed.
What Augusta National Golf Club is to golf, Wrigley Field is to baseball.
“It’s just good old-time baseball,” Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. “I think the world needs more of that.”
There’s something to be said for the modern amenities of new ballparks. But baseball, more than any other sport, has to embrace its history, and Wrigley Field does that.
Built in 1914 for $250,000, Wrigley is where Ruth called his home run shot in 1932. Where Banks coined the phrase, “Let’s play two.” Where the seventh-inning stretch became a singalong with Harry Caray and not an excuse to go to the bathroom.
“The tradition there is amazing,” said Santo, the Cubs’ third baseman from 1960 to 1973. “I could be on the road for 10 days and feel down but as soon as I walk into Wrigley Field it’s a high. There’s nothing like it.”
It’s not just the history that makes Wrigley special. It’s the ambiance.
The ballpark is snugly fit into a neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. You don’t get off at a freeway exit and pay $20 for a space in a parking lot. You take the EL train, depart at the Addison Street exit and walk to the ballpark.
Along the way, you might stop in at the Cubby Bear Lounge. Or Murphy’s Bleachers. Or the Billy Goat Tavern. The bars are small and noisy and crowded and cathedrals for Cubs fans.
“The ballpark is great, but it’s the neighborhood that makes it awesome,” Grace said.
Not everyone is enamored of Wrigley. Diamondbacks third baseman Jeff Cirillo, while cognizant of the ballpark’s traditions and history, would like to dress in a bigger clubhouse, sit on a softer dugout bench and play on an infield that’s in better shape than your average high school ballyard.
“There are things obviously not up to par,” Cirillo said. “It’d be nice if they put in a
Wrigley Field that was identical to the one now but with more amenities.”
Grace would rather Wrigley stay the same, warts and all. It’s part of the charm.
“If Wrigley Field had a perfect infield, it just wouldn’t be right,” he said.
The wrecking ball has demolished many of baseball’s shrines, places like Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds.
That won’t happen to Wrigley. It is a Chicago civic treasure and the politician or owner who plots its demise would be run out of town.
So Wrigley Field will continue to age, maybe not gracefully, but in its wrinkles and sagging skin there is comfort. It is a reminder of a day gone by, of, honestly, a game gone by.
“I hope we play baseball at Wrigley Field forever,” Hendry said.
Shame on baseball if it doesn’t.