Swing batter batter (Cover story)

Jim Martinho

“Is anybody in here a Cubs fan?” a stocky, mostly toothless man asks as he staggers through the El train’s doors at the Howard stop. Most of the passengers in the car seem to be waiting for the train to take them the 12 stops to Wrigley Field — where Chicago will play the Cincinnati Reds in about an hour — and most sport a Cubs hat or T-shirt.

But apparently that’s not enough to convince this guy we’re all true Cubbies fans; although when he spots a man in an official replica jersey he asks if he plays for the team.

“I feel like I should ask you for your autograph,” the man slurs between sips of his soda, which is apparently a tad bit stronger than ordinary Mountain Dew.

There are a fair number of Northwestern students on their way to the game, but I’m wondering how many, even sober, would recognize a Cubs player besides Sammy Sosa riding in the same car. Before the Cubs’ thrilling run to within five outs of the World Series last fall, how many could’ve picked pitcher Mark Prior out of a lineup of Kellogg School of Management students?

Cubs fever swept NU in September and October and had students more excited about sports than they had been for any NU team since the 2000 football season. Techies and sorority girls who had never sat through an entire baseball game based their nights around the playoffs, bought Cubs hats and collectively hated Steve Bartman.

Suddenly it was trendy to root for a team that hasn’t won a World Series in 96 years.

But the 2003 season that made Cubs fans of seemingly everyone in the area came with a price — literally. The team raised ticket prices in the offseason, knowing fans will pay up in the most anticipated campaign in years. Season tickets went quickly, and the team expects to set records for total attendance.

Some diehard fans now worry that they’re getting shut out of tickets by the pseudo-fans.

“I’m a baseball fan, and I’m a Wrigley Field fan,” said Doug Rusch, a Weinberg junior and Bloomington, Minn., native, before Sunday’s game. “There are some people who don’t care what’s going on in the game. They just want to get on their cell phones and maybe get on TV. Then they can go to bars later and say they went to the Cubs game.”

The Cubs play most of their games during the day (Wrigley didn’t even have lights until 1988), so if you’re going to skip a few classes you might as well make a whole day out of it. For the group that I’m traveling with, that means a stop at 1000 Liquors at the corner of Sheffield and Belmont. We then take the party to our home base, Trent Gill’s Sheffield Avenue apartment. Gill, 27, is a rabid Cubs fan and the brother of Mark Gill, a McCormick junior. Gill woke up at 4 a.m. last season to get a wristband to buy single-game tickets, saw Prior’s debut start for the Cubs and caught the first foul ball the pitcher gave up.

We leave the apartment and walk five minutes to the park, merging with the hordes of fans exiting the bars surrounding the park. One ticket scalper asks “Anybody need tickets?” and a few steps later a fan yells “Anybody got tickets?” Somebody has to get these guys together.

I buy a $10 standing-room-only ticket outside the park and find a seat with Gill and his cousin Brian Langenkamp 30 rows behind home plate. Eighty degrees and sunny, with the wind blowing out hard enough to stiffen the flags topping the hand-operated scoreboard in center field, it’s the kind of day when “Mr. Cub,” legendary Cubs shortstop Ernie Banks, would’ve said, “Let’s play two.”

The crowd is a mixed bag of middle-aged season ticket holders, college kids and a few of the people who are apparently giving Cubs fans a bad name. Two girls in the 10th row spend most of the game with their heads turned away from the field, talking to two older men in the row behind them. Part of me wants them to get up and sit behind a pole, giving up their prime seats to some 8-year-olds who’ll relish being so close to the players they idolize. But the other part of me understands that baseball is different from football and basketball. Its rhythm is slower, its rules are more complex and I’ve heard it called boring by the uninitiated.

“Baseball is an acquired taste, like coffee and beer,” Trent Gill says. “But once you acquire it, it’s pretty tough to get rid of.”

Wrigley has a way of speeding up that acclimation process. The park’s magic is in its quirks, and there are a lot of them. The “Hey, Hey!” written in red on each foul pole honors longtime radio broadcaster Jack Brickhouse, whose name is even more synonymous with the Cubs than Harry Caray’s. Fans inside the “Friendly Confines” (Wrigley’s affectionate nickname) sit closer to the action than in any other park in the majors. The men’s bathrooms have troughs, not urinals. And of course there’s the not-yet-green ivy on the outfield wall.

Even with Greg Maddux returning to Wrigley as a Cub, it’s clear this game won’t be a pitchers’ duel. Sosa hits two dingers, but gets heckled by a redheaded fan — “Oh my God, you suck!” — when he lets a fly ball drop in front of him in the sixth inning. He gets off easy compared to the Reds’ Ken Griffey, Jr., who has a beer poured on his head in center field when he misjudges a fly ball an inning later.

The Cubs eventually lose 11-10 in 10 innings to fall to 6-5 on the season. Fans file back to the bars, the diehards heading to the outdoor patio at Bernie’s Tavern, 3664 N. Clark St., and postgame chatter centers on manager Dusty Baker’s inability to manage a bullpen. No longer the loveable losers of the North Side, the Cubs’ 2003 success has left fans thirsting for more.

“Last year was so amazing because nobody expected it,” said lontime fan John Adams, a McCormick junior. “Now we’re predicted to go to the World Series, so if we don’t I’ll be pissed.”

Transplanted Cubs fans who came to NU from other cities may never experience the life-or-death fandom of diehard fans, but just for a day, they can become honorary members of one of baseball’s most dedicated fan bases.

So get to the park early to score seats in the right-field bleachers, down an Old Style or two and root, root, root for the Cubbies.

If they don’t win it’s a shame, but Bernie’s patio is open, the beer is still flowing, and there’ll always be another game — or another bar — just around the corner.

Medill junior Jim Martinho is a writer for PLAY. He can be reached at [email protected]