DAY NINE: Wrigley Field in Chicago

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Saturday, June 9: CUBS 2, PIRATES 0

“In April of ’89 I made my first trip to Wrigley,” C.E. Sikkenga told me. “In a blizzard. Only college kids would drive three hours because it was free hat day.  We thought we’d just show up, pick up our hats and go home. It was the coldest April 9 in Chicago since 1863.”

Surprisingly, though, the game went on. Maybe that’s just what they do in Chicago when it’s cold. The home team ended up posting a 5-0 shutout over the Mets.

“We were sitting in the right field bleachers and I was in love with Wrigley Field from that day on,” he said. The game, played a few days after a snowstorm dumped 10 inches on the city, is on a list of the five coldest games in Wrigley history. Remarkably, in this clip of a Bill Buckner two-run blast that must have landed not too far from Sikkenga’s seats, you can actually hear the PA announcer ask fans to please stop throwing snowballs onto the field. I’m fairly confident that C.E. was not among those hooligans. I’m sure he would have told me if he was.

Anyway, there was magic in Wrigley for Sikkenga from the very moment he arrived.

“It was like everything you’d imagine in a play about Wrigley,” he said. “My buddy from MSU was wearing Sperry’s with no socks. The guys in front of us were from Southern Illinois University and were wearing socks for gloves so he bought their socks off them for 20 bucks.”

Sikkenga is a veteran newspaper adviser at Grand Haven High School and is a baseball fan in the purest sense of the word. And he’s a great friend of mine. We spent a lovely Saturday afternoon watching Jon Lester one-hit the struggling Pirates over seven innings. Just before game time, I had a chance to ask C.E. about his lifelong passion for baseball. It’s kind of like talking to the James Earl Jones character from ‘Field of Dreams.’ You should try it if you have a chance.

We agreed that Wrigley is absolutely a different park, vastly different from the previous eight I had visited. For one thing, it’s about as old as all the others combined. Part of the magic, C.E. says, is that it hearkens back to a different brand of ball.

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“I think it’s just a throwback to the times when teams played in neighborhood ball parks,” he said. “It’s about coming to a game and eating a hot dog, having a drink. Even though it has the bells and whistles of modern park nows, it’s different from that somehow. I’ve never been to Fenway, but really those are the last two of the old parks. It’s always fun here.”

C.E. has seen maybe a dozen other ballparks in person, and said the closest comparison to Wrigley has been Tiger Stadium, at least in terms of having that old stadium feel. Tiger Stadium, which originally opened along with Fenway two years before Wrigley, closed to make way for Comerica Park in 2000.

“Tiger Stadium [compares] in its own way but it was totally enclosed,” he said. “Whereas at Wrigley you’re looking out into the neighborhoods, and out over the Chicago skyline.”

Sikkenga’s love for baseball was cultivated by his father, Chuck, who coached the team where C.E. now teaches.

“I was a Grand Haven Buccaneer fan first because my dad coached baseball there for 27 years so I grew up in a dugout,” he said. “But I was in a Tigers’ household.”

The fact that WGN broadcast all of the Cubs’ games on national cable television in those days shifted his interest level a bit. Until this trip, I had sort of forgotten about the earlier days of cable, where we were all able to watch the Cubs and Atlanta on TBS and the New York Mets on WOR. It’s funny, one Braves fan I talked to a few days ago in San Diego told me a similar story while we waited in line for our Hodad’s burgers. This guy and C.E. and I are all roughly the same age so were probably introduced to the magic of cable TV about the same time. At Petco Field I had asked him about his Braves gear and he told me that he actually grew up in San Diego but watched enough Atlanta games on TBS that he became a fan. That probably happened to a lot of people in those days. Anyway, C.E. eventually became attuned to a National League squad in addition to his first love, the Tigers.

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“When I was about 10 we got cable TV and I’d get home from school and the Cubs would be on,” he said. “I kind of paid attention to the Cubs but I wasn’t really a fan.”

Until his first trip to see it in person, that is.

Grand Haven, a beautiful town that sits on the coast of Lake Michigan, is 190 miles from Wrigley (less, probably, if you were to go directly across the lake) and, remarkably, 194 miles from Comerica Park. You couldn’t find another town that was more in the smack-dab-middle between the two cities. Still, the fact that Grand Haven residents are Michiganders probably makes a difference in its loyalties.

“In Grand Haven it’s probably two-thirds to one-third, Tigers fans to Cubs fans,” he said. “That ratio expands as you go south.”

His interest level expanded drastically once he actually made it to Wrigley, after his best friend in high school, who was a huge Cubs fan, kept telling C.E. he had to go to Wrigley. Thus that fateful, frigid April trip.

“I’ve come to at least one Cub game each year since then,” he said.

Sikkenga has seen his share of memorable games over those years. In 2016, he and a couple of buddies finally managed to snag a season ticket package that his friend had first put in for on a lark about two decades earlier. Cubs fans might remember 2016 as the year in which, ohhh, you know, the team won their first World Series in more than a century. No big deal. C.E. doesn’t claim all the credit for the championship. But it seems a little more than just coincidence, you gotta admit.

“The [game] that stands out was in ’93 and we saw the Giants when Barry Bonds was in his pre-steroid prime,” he told me. “I’ve never seen a guy that thought he was greater and backed it up. I think he went two-for-five with two home runs and two fly balls to the warning track. And he looked genuinely surprised [the others didn’t go out]. And Matt Williams hit a line drive that was still going up when it hit the building. If it hadn’t hit the tree and the building, it might still be going. So that was a day with a lot of home runs.”

In 2016 he was at game one of the NCLS when Migual Montero hit an eighth-inning grand slam to essentially seal the win, and then and games four and five of the World Series.

This whole city was blue that week,” he said. “It was amazing.”

Our game’s first pitch was about to be delivered by Lester, and I had to check in with C.E. on the legendary Chicago hot dog. Man, they’re good. I still don’t understand that fluorescent green relish, although I apply it liberally every single time. Everything else about the Chicago dog is amazing, too. So is it a requirement at Wrigley to get one?’

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“Not required but you can’t go wrong with that,” he told me. “Italian Beef, Chicago hot dogs, deep dish pizza. That is Chicago. It’s not required but it’s highly recommended.”

We got the dogs, and a couple a Goose Island IPAs, and enjoyed an afternoon in baseball paradise.

 

 

 

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It’s Wrigley: what else do you need to say? This is a magical place, where even if you don’t particularly care much about the Cubs, you can’t help but root along with the diehards. Easily the fullest stadium I’ve visited, it’s no surprise that it was a raucous good time for all. And C.E. is right; there’s something distinctly different about this park and Fenway and, in another way, Tiger Stadium.

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The ‘Friendly Confines’ refer to the stadium itself. But you’re also gonna have to be pretty friendly when going for a dog and a beer. It’s packed in here.

This isn’t really a case of “They don’t build ’em like they used to,” it’s more along the lines of “They aren’t going to build ’em like they used to.” There are enough flaws with these old buildings that it really doesn’t make sense to try to recreate them; nobody’s gonna spend a bunch of money to build a park like Wrigley, where the concourses are over-packed and there isn’t a monster truck driving around the infield blasting t-shirts at fans from a cannon. I mean, the new way is way better…right?

Wrigley first opened in 1914. Here’s how that compares to the other parks I’ve seen thus far:

Globe Life Park opened in 1994.

Coors Field opened in 1995.

Safeco Field opened in 1999.

AT&T Park opened in 2000.

Minute Maid Park opened in 2000.

Great American Ballpark opened in 2003.

Petco Field opened in 2004.

Busch Stadium opened in 2006.

I’m headed to Oakland tomorrow, where the Coliseum has been hosting A’s games since 1966. That makes it a relative dinosaur, if a rather ugly one. And still, it’s a half-century younger than Wrigley. And most of the rest of the stadiums across the league are no older than 10-15 years, either. Consider this: Tropicana Field, home of the (in my mind, still) expansion Tampa Bay Rays, is the eighth oldest stadium in the major leagues. Crazy.

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I also got to see Notre Dame head basketball coach Mike Brey belt out ‘Take me out to the Ballgame” during the Cubs famous seventh-inning stretch. Watch it here. Awesome.

In the Cincinnati airport this morning, I met a father and son on a similar journey; Scott and his son Koby are from Connecticut. They had gone to the Reds game and were headed to the Cubs like me, and then one other game in Seattle. I mentioned my ten game journey. “Man, that puts us to shame!” It’s super cool to know that other people are on baseball trips too.

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Koby and his dad Scott, headed from Cincinnati to Chicago.

This was the first shutout on the trip since Day 1 when the Giants blanked the Phillies, and the seventh overall victory for the home team against just two losses (Colorado and Cincinnati). ONE MORE TO GO!

PREVIOUS GAME: @Cincinnati Reds vs. St. Louis Cardinals

NEXT GAME: @Oakland A’s vs. Kansas City Royals

MILES TRAVELED TO GET HERE: 360

MILES TRAVELED TO THIS POINT: 7419

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