By Ginger Beaumont
In January of 1977, Alan Hartwick, a longtime Cubs fan, declared himself the world’s first free-agent fan. Hartwick had seen enough; after years of continued disappointment with the Cubs, he sent letters declaring his free agency to every team in the major leagues. He figured since he didn’t have a contract with the Cubs, he was under no obligation to remain a Cubs fan. He got a few offers, and a lot of publicity. But what Hartwick missed out on when he turned his back on the team was the true spirit of Cubs’ Baseball.
This year has not been a good one for the Cubs. With a record of 10-22, a team e.r.a. well over 5.0 and a team batting average about 50 points below the league average, there hasn’t been much to celebrate as a Cubs fan. While no rational Cubs fan expects his team to be in pennant contention when August rolls around, this year, things have sorted themselves out a bit earlier.
So how can you still enjoy a Cubs game when the promise of a winning season is a quickly fading dream? Why go to Wrigley when you can watch the tragedy unfold in the comfort of your own home? Let me suggest some reasons.
Well, okay, there really is only one reason—the park. Cubs fans know that fun and fan satisfaction are not always equated with winning. They go to Wrigley Field to have a good time—win or lose. If the pitching is bad, they wager on how much worse it can get. When hitting is slumping, they will diagnose the ailments and prescribe solutions. There are the stories of the days of yore back in ’08 when the Cubs had a winner, and in ’69 when they were robbed. But the one thing that remains constant for Chicago baseball fans is Wrigley Field.
Forget about all the clichés. We never argue that love’s familiarities are too prosaic or complain that water always taste the same; our hearts still flutter, and our thirsts are still quenched. So why argue that reasons for liking the Cubs—like Wrigley Field and summertime—are too obvious, when the grass is still as green, the smells still as invigorating, and feelings just as strong?
Besides the ivy, which won’t be grown in till mid-June, the sights and sounds of the friendly confines should provide more than enough entertainment to transform the average spectator into a die-hard Cubs fan. Outside of O’Hare, Wrigley Field is probably the best place to people-watch in Chicago.
A couple of years ago, I was at a Cubs game in mid-August. The Cubs were behind by more runs than you could count on both hands. My attention was waning, so I decided to take a look around the ballpark. Behind me, from the upper-deck reserve boxes, I saw a lone dollar bill floating through the air. It caught the attention of a few others as it dropped lower. Bodies began to stir and position themselves for the falling bill. As it reached the ground-level seats, it took a strong curve and landed in the outstretched hand of a beaming father, who proudly passed it to his son as if it were a world-series home-run ball. The crowd cheered, and looked upward to see if the sky was still raining money. Out of the upper-deck boxes a man slowly emerged with his arms raised in victory.
On the field, Sandberg took another strike, I think; but by now my attention was focused on the upper deck. The bill-dropper leaned over the rail as the crowd cheered him on. He reached into his pocket and produced another dollar bill. By this point, half the crowd seemed to be watching. As he waved the dollar in the air, frenzy rippled through the crowd. He let fly, and the crowd followed the bill’s fluttering descent closer than any foul-tipped ball. Fans sprang from their seats and jostled each other to snatch the sinking buck. This time the bill ended up in a young ushers hand. The crowd cheered fanatically. One zealot yelled “throw twenties.” Harry Caray poked his head out of the box to see what all of the commotion was about. It seemed as if no one was watching the game. The Cubs were losing and the crowd was getting their entertainment elsewhere.
Scenes like this, while maybe not to this scale, are abundant at every game if you know where to look. The excitement’s not always on the field. Maybe that’s the secret of being a Cubs fan. Unlike watching the game at home, you are free to scan the ballpark. It’s always fun to watch what other people are doing when the action on the field has lost its spark. Players will fall asleep in the bullpen, only to be awakened by a searing foul ball; ball boys and ball girls flirtatiously pass foul balls to attractive fans. On the rooftops, you can find anything from a wedding party to a summer cookout. In the bleachers, you can always find a couple of people dressed up in ridiculous costumes, or doing ludicrous things. There are usually a couple of celebrities in the good seats behind the dugouts.
Wrigley Field has a strange effect on people, unlike any other public space I know. People get comfortable and let down their hair, and, for better or worse, they become more human. Where else in the same glance can you view a mob struggle over a foul ball, and lovers enraptured in the privacy of 25,000 onlookers? There is a certain magic here that no other ballpark has. It is a cliché, but it is true. There is something about the smell of the grass, and the sound of the game. It feels sacred, like an ancient tradition. And it always feels that way, whether the Cubs win or lose.
So where does this leave Alan Hartwick? Bored and homeless, I guess, as he shifts his alliances between teams who know how to win. Perhaps he cheered for the Oakland As of mid-’80s. They had a good team, they won a lot of games. But where are they now? They are one of the only teams in baseball with a record worse than the Cubs. Hartwick should have stuck around. Who needs all that stress?