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Living the Dream
An Inside Account of the 2008 Cubs Season
By Jim McArdle
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2009 Jim McArdle
All rights reserved.
IN 1937 THERE WAS A 10-year-old boy living in a neighborhood known as Old Irving Park about five miles directly west of Wrigley Field. In adolescent insubordination against his mother, he stormed off one day. His sister Kathleen came home. "Where's Frankie?" she asked. "He ran away," her mother shot back, busy setting the table for supper. "Off that way," she added, dismissively flipping her wrist to the east, "toward the Cubs."
Kathleen caught up to her brother, who was walking resolutely down Addison Street with his baseball mitt in hand. "I'm going to join the Cubs. Maybe they need a batboy!" he exclaimed. She talked him down from joining the traveling baseball circus, and they headed back home. He never did get a job in baseball, but almost 60 years after that juvenile standoff with his mother, Frankie's son came to work for the Cubs in the organization's publications department. In 12 years as editor of the monthly magazine Vine Line, one of the highest-regarded team publications in pro sports, and 11 years as a regular Wrigley Field tour guide, I came to know more about the Cubs and the ballpark than my dad or his father ever could have imagined. And that's saying something.
My grandfather and namesake, who immigrated in 1915, initially became a White Sox fan. He came from Northern Ireland and settled on the South Side of Chicago, noted for its Irish population. Since the Catholic Comiskey family owned the Sox, and the Protestant Wrigleys owned the Cubs, it was a natural. However, soured by the Black Sox scandal in 1919, and since he eventually settled his family on the North Side, where he was running garages like the one in which Al Capone staged his infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre, he switched allegiances.
Like many fans, I attended my first Cubs game with my family. It was in 1970, and I don't remember much except that Fergie Jenkins shut out the Phillies 2-0. But I do recall fixating on the homes across the street and thinking how cool it would be to live there, to look out my living-room window and watch Cubs baseball every day.
The story is bittersweet how I came to live 460 feet from home plate. When the Cubs went to the National League Championship Series in 2003, a charter was booked to fly front-office employees to Games 1 and 2 of the World Series at the AL site. That plane, obviously, never flew. With another weekend to apartment hunt, my roommates, Rudy Vorkapic and Dan Long, and I found a place on Sheffield Avenue. Our apartment was the home of Kathleen Turner's private dick character in the 1991 film V.I. Warshawski. In fact, the building was nearly destroyed from a stunt in the movie that set the building on fire. The place was right across from the bleachers, in fair territory. From my bed, I could wake up to see the flags waving from the right-field foul pole. Who else in Chicago could say that? We procured an excess hunk of bar from our favorite watering hole on what's known as the "Southport Corridor" just west of Wrigley, put in some fancy-colored track lighting and started referring to the place as the Love Swank Lounge, or "Swank," for short.
All three of us grew up rooting for the Cubs in Chicago-area suburbs: I in Des Plaines, Dan in McHenry, and Rudy in Bellwood. I graduated from Chicago's Columbia College with the quickwitted 43-year-old Rudy, known as "Dude," whose Serbian genealogy gave him olive skin, wiry black hair, and a keen predisposition to drink schlivovitz. Early in my journalism career, I met Dan, another writer who started on the preps sports beat. The 44-year-old has a stocky build, shaved head, goatee, and a cynical sense of humor. Think David Wells. I came to call him "Crankshaft," derived off a name-calling rant we found amusing that was spewed by vile nightclub performer Tony Clifton in the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon.
Rudy moved to New Orleans after the 2004 season, got married, and launched a satirical Onion-like newspaper called The Levee in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina fiasco. A new friend named Will Byington took up residence. He has short, black hair and a goatee, and in a knit skull hat without his glasses, the 30-year-old looks like U2's The Edge. Born in west suburban Naperville, Illinois, "Willy B" picked up a southern accent (he calls us "y'all") in four years of college at the University of Alabama. Coming off a few years of touring with a rock band called Cowboy Mouth, he was launching a new career in photography, and thought shooting his favorite team and sports venue would be a great place to start. Operating on the top of our three-flat was a rooftop business called Skybox on Sheffield.
A new city ordinance with regard to these rooftop businesses passed in February 2006. Among other things, it mandated that every rooftop owner install emergency lighting and sprinkler systems throughout their buildings by January 2008. The two blocks began to have a feeling of abandonment as leases weren't renewed, and apartments went unrented while properties could be brought up to code. We became victims in November 2007, when we were forced to leave Skybox on Sheffield. They were going to tear up drywall to install sprinklers, rip off the back of the building to put in an elevator, and were considering converting our apartment into a place where corporate guests could conduct meetings before games. One of my friends called it, "Cubtrification."
"You gotta leave?" my buddy said. "All so some fat cat doesn't have to use his legs to climb the stairs?"
Actually, it was the Americans with Disabilities Act, which all legitimate businesses have to comply with. The rooftops had grown from a cottage industry to a respected Chicago tradition in 20 short years. For me, however, in the middle of making arrangements to write this book, the timing couldn't have been worse. Imagine the limitations of an apartment hunt in a total of 21 buildings on two streets — about 70 flats by my count, many of which were occupied or unavailable for the same reason I was in the housing market.
Astonishingly, we found quite a few, but nothing that would accommodate all three of us. So Willy B took a one-bedroom place right next door, where residents routinely hang around on the front porch before, during, and after games. With his second-floor flat right across the gangway, we chaffed on moving day that a conveyer belt from window to window would have come in handy. Dan and I found a two-bedroom apartment in a brown brick six-flat on Waveland Avenue with a spectacular second-floor view looking directly down the left-field line at home plate. We'd essentially moved from foul pole to foul pole. If a home run ever crashed through our window, we could do the umpires a favor and make the call, because half of our living room is in fair territory, and half is in foul. In fact, one of our windows was broken a few years back during the filming of Rookie of the Year, but they cheated and were hitting from third base.
It's a different perspective of the stadium, busier and more intimidating. The end of the left-field upper deck looms high overhead, with erect light standards towering 150 feet above like a dorsal fin, and staggered concrete rows on the lower grandstands appearing like sharp teeth on an open jaw of a massive predator fish about to pounce. At ground level across the street, concessions deliveries go into Gate K, and garbage trucks tow away dumpsters. Players drive past on the way into their parking lot for home games and board busses in front of our building for road trips. Then there are the loud comings and goings of Engine 78 and Ambulance 6 at a firehouse that's been four doors to the west at 1052 Waveland since 1894.
I marked it off one day; we actually had moved closer. Where it used to be 390 paces from my front stoop to the office door at Clark and Addison streets, I had trimmed it to just 285 (230 if I cut through Gate K!). When we first moved in, Crankshaft's mom somehow got our street address mixed up, and he wasn't getting mail from her. He asked where she was sending it, and she told him 1040 West Addison Street. "Well, no wonder," he told her. "You're sending it to first base!" Ours is the only building on Waveland and Sheffield that isn't making a buck off the Cubs. There are no rooftop bleachers, no billboard advertisement. It's just a flat, tarred roof. Since 1989, the 50-year-old owner of the property has lived on both sides of the top floor, which was converted into one giant apartment by her father, an attorney who purchased the building for $30,000 in 1971. "Landlady Lara" grew up around the corner on Kenmore Avenue in a building she and her brother still own. Needless to say, she loves her Cubs. Her dogs are named Ryno and Fergie, and almost every time I see her out walking them, she's wearing some sort of Cubs apparel.
Even more, perhaps, she loves her neighborhood and hates how it's transformed from the days when she'd set up a lemonade stand at the corner of Waveland and Kenmore as a little girl. More fans meant more riffraff and years of cleaning puke off the front steps. After fans tore off the downspout while chasing after a Cubs home run in the 2003 playoffs, she put in a wrought-iron fence around the front of the building. "I hate that fence. I feel like I'm in jail," Lara said. "It used to be a neighborhood. I don't get that sense anymore. There are no kids. When's the last time you had a trick-or-treater? I don't like that part. It's very transient. People live here two or three years, and then they move."
Until the roof started leaking and needed repairs around 1992, she used to have friends over for rooftop parties, enjoying all the playoff games in 1984 and 1989, Opening Night in 1988, and the 1990 All-Star Game much the same way other rooftops were operating at the time — with lawn chairs, coolers, and a charcoal grill.
"Going up to the roof is really a pain in the ass. You've got to carry all the stuff up, and if somebody comes late, you've got to go downstairs and buzz them in," Landlady Lara said. "It's not an easy thing to do, and when you think about it, how many friends do you know who will have a party more than once or twice a year? People say, 'Oh, I'd have people over here all the time.' Well, at first you would."
She constantly resists lucrative offers to sell the building from those who want to convert it into another rooftop monstrosity. It's her home, and I admire her for literally holding her ground.
* * *
A MISCONCEPTION ABOUT Wrigley Field is that it hasn't changed in 90-plus years. Granted, the addition of the upper deck in the late-1920s brought its capacity up to roughly what it is today, and its backyard character was created in 1937 with the addition of the bleachers and towering center-field scoreboard, and the planting of the ivy. Consider that the scoreboard originally was a rusty-looking reddish-brown, the green doors on the outfield walls were barndoor red as late as the 1970s, and the red marquee at Clark and Addison streets was a bluish-green as recently as the 1960s. And that's not even mentioning the lights that were added in 1988, relocating the press box to accommodate the addition of mezzanine suites in 1989, or the bleachers' renovation completed in 2006.
Even the term "Wrigleyville" is relatively new. The ballpark dates back to 1914 and originally was called Weeghman Park, after Charlie Weeghman, who built it for his team in the upstart Federal League. After that league folded in 1915, chewing gum magnate William Wrigley was an investor in the Cubs when Weeghman purchased them and moved them into the park in 1916. Wrigley bought out Weeghman as principal owner in 1918, changing the stadium's name to Cubs Park in 1920 and to its present name in 1926.
Wrigleyville won't be found on a Chicago neighborhood map, because it's actually an enclave of Lakeview, which was settled in the mid-1800s and was incorporated as a township in 1857. After refugees from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 began to settle in Lakeview, the population boomed from 6,500 in 1880 to more than 52,000 in 1890, a year after it was annexed by the city of Chicago.
In 1891 the Lutheran Church announced plans to develop an eight-acre parcel of property bordered by Addison, Sheffield, Clark, and Waveland for a church and seminary. Soon, however, Lakeview became a loud, bustling community. Alongside what would become the western wall of the ballpark, the Milwaukee Road Railroad moved coal, sand, and gravel to local builders, and ice and milk to residents. Noise from the rail area, the rumbling of the nearby elevated train, and the clanging of the trolley car bells on Clark Street drove the seminarians out, and they sold the land for $175,000 in 1909 to Milwaukee investor and hotel owner Charles Havenor, who planned to build a baseball stadium for an American Association team. While that never materialized, Weeghman signed a lease for the property and had a 14,000-seat, singlestory ballpark constructed.
The migration of middle-class America from the cities to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s preceded the recession of the 1970s. A sign of the times, many major league teams moved from aging, intimate inner-city ballparks to massive, multipurpose, concrete coliseums. Wrigley Field endured due in large part to Philip K. Wrigley, who took over ownership of the Cubs after his father, William, died in 1932. Often criticized for spending too much on the stadium and not enough on his team, P.K.'s legacy lives on in baseball's second-oldest venue. It's a throwback to the days of Ebbets Field, Shibe Park, and Forbes Field, when fans could walk down to the park to enjoy a hot dog and a few innings of baseball during their lunch break. "It's one of the few ballparks that's actually right in a neighborhood," said future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux. "Most of the ballparks are built right next to an interstate."
When Maddux came up with the Cubs in 1986, players all lived in the suburbs. Ryne Sandberg and Rick Sutcliffe, teammates on the 1984 and 1989 division-winning teams, tell stories about car-pooling together to the ballpark. Billy Williams spent 1959 to 1974, most of his Hall of Fame career, with the Cubs. He returned as an instructor, and in 1980, he and another coach, Gene Clines, took an apartment on Addison Street just west of Wrigley. One day they were headed to the stadium, but for some reason Williams had reservations and brought some of his valuables along.
"When we got back, our television and a lot of things were gone. They had broken into the place and stole a lot of stuff," Williams said. "This place over here was run down. They put the lights in the ballpark, and a lot of people started buying these buildings, redoing them, fixing them up, because they knew when they put the lights in that Wrigley Field was going to be here."
Indeed, the installation of lights ensured the Cubs' longtime commitment as tenants at a time when prime-time baseball was harvesting increasing advertising revenue. As yuppies began populating inner cities like Chicago again, so did players. On game days during the 2003 playoffs, Crankshaft and I made a habit out of touching Eric Karros' mailbox a few blocks away for good luck. We even left a thank-you note the night the Cubs advanced past the NLDS.
During his tenure with the Cubs, from 2004 to 2007, catcher Michael Barrett lived in Lakeview and Lincoln Park. He often would have breakfast at Sam & George's Restaurant on Lincoln Avenue or Anne Sather on Belmont, and dined with his wife at Strega Nona on the Southport Corridor, among other places. Perhaps more than any Cub in recent memory, Barrett gushed about his experience on the North Side.
"After I got involved more with the team, I realized the community was involved, dating all the way back to the early 1900s," Barrett said. "It was about taking pride, not just in being a member of the Cubs organization, but in being a member of this community. I sort of felt like that carried over into my attitude going out on the field every day."
Of the guys on the 25-man roster in 2008, only one lives in the suburbs, and 60 percent live within a couple miles. Like in the days of sandlot ball, Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly have about a five-minute walk from their homes to the ball yard, and Ryan Theriot spent the 2007 season living across the street. Wrigleyville truly has become home of the Cubs.
* * *
WATCHING THE CUBS FROM THE rooftops of Chicago's historic Greystone buildings is a tradition that dates back to the West Side Grounds, where the franchise played from 1893 to 1915. A May 1898 Chicago Daily Tribune article reported that owners of buildings across an alley south of the ballpark were charging fans 10¢ to come up top and watch games at a time when admittance to the stadium was 50¢. The article intimated it wasn't the first time this was a issue: "New fences and high grand stands which were erected around the Chicago ball park at Polk, Wood, and Lincoln streets this year have cut down materially the number of suburban grand stands. Three still remain, however, to give distress to the managers of the park."
Excerpted from Living the Dream by Jim McArdle. Copyright © 2009 Jim McArdle. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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