I wandered aimlessly around Wrigleyville on Opening Day

Hi, everyone! It’s the first weekend of baseball season, and to mark the occasion, I figured a bonus weekend edition of Outside the (Press) Box was in order. 

Thanks so much for taking the time to read (and comment, tweet about, etc.) my first post on Wednesday. I was a nervous mess all morning before hitting the “publish” button, and the fact that even a few people enjoyed what I had to say and shared it with friends meant a ton. So keep reading and sharing, and I’ll keep writing. (Actually, I’ll probably keep writing regardless.)

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That said, let’s talk Opening Day.

It says something, right, that it’s a proper noun? Opening Day. No sport starts its season quite as officially and majestically as baseball does: in the spring, outside, set to organ music. For me it’s always meant Clydesdales and Budweiser and the question of whether it’d be 90 degrees or 45, because April in St. Louis usually means one or the other. April in St. Louis meant begging my parents for tickets, for my mom to please, please, please let us leave school early and go. Everyone else was, after all.

It’s been 14 years since I last cut school for Busch Stadium, and I live in Chicago now, four miles south of Wrigley Field. I’ve been here long enough now to start to take Wrigley a little bit for granted, to think nothing of buying a last-minute ticket to sit by myself in the afternoon sun at one of sports’ most storied venues. 

That’s impossible now, but I couldn’t help myself on Friday afternoon, the day 26 of the 30 MLB teams kicked off their 60-game seasons. I put on a mask and headed north, with some notion that I needed to see it to believe it: a fanless game at Wrigley, the ballpark that’s the beating heart of a neighborhood, more interwoven with its city than any in baseball. 

From the start, everything felt wrong. There wasn’t nearly enough traffic as I headed north on Halsted, no throng of fans in blue making its way north through Boystown. The L stop at Addison looked like any other red line station—no ticket scalpers barking at the doors, no bottleneck of fans squeezing onto the sidewalk. That’s how I’d arrive under normal circumstances, squeezing myself through the sweaty mass, clutching my bag and rolling my eyes and loving every second. So much about game days at Wrigley is about that bottleneck. The train overflows, and then it’s down the halted escalator, past the door to The Sports Corner, into a structure built for baseball 106 years ago. You will knock elbows, step in beer, trip on the curb, excuse me, I’m sorry, enjoy the game. You’ll be squeezed and jostled and separated from your friends, but you’ll get to your seat, and none of that will matter.

An hour before first pitch Friday, Wrigleyville’s sidewalks were clear, and the streets weren’t sidewalks. Cars sped through the light at Addison and Sheffield, where the same t-shirt vendor as always was set up, but without any business, as if maybe he hadn’t gotten the memo: Not this season. Stay away. As usual, fans milled below the marquee, taking pictures. OPENING DAY 2020, BREWERS VS. CUBS, 6:10 P.M. The crowd was thin, and security dispersed anyone who had the audacity to sit on the edge of a planter or lean against a statue. There’s baseball here, allegedly.

At 5:30, the organ began to play. A tiny brown dog in a tiny white jersey sniffed the bricks along Waveland Avenue. His name was Tony. Tony’s owner hollered at the ballhawks, there as always in their same folding chairs, camped out in the road as if the city had closed it, which it hadn’t, which didn’t matter. Batting practice was long over, and so they waited for the same long shots they always do, hoping for 400 feet, or 450, to be the only people on the North Side with souvenirs of this off-kilter summer.

They brought the same signs as usual: Gatorade, $2 for Cubs fans, $3 for Sox fans, $4 for Brewers fans. No one was buying. Four Christian Yelich jerseys walked in a pack past Murphy’s Bleachers, back down Sheffield, past bouncer after bouncer at the gates of the buildings that house the Wrigley Rooftops. All you can eat, all you can drink, rows of seats looking down into the park. Wrigley is closed, but the Cubs can sell these tickets for jacked-up pandemic prices. As first pitch neared, movement from five stories up—an afterthought above the beer-drenched crowd in any other year—was impossible to ignore. This is Opening Day, then. Watch baseball if you’re willing to pay up, if you’re fine with a crowd. Disposable income and a sense of invincibility get you in the door. For the rest of us, TV will have to cut it.

I went to Wrigleyville expecting chaos, something approximating the photos I saw from the weekend Chicago’s bars reopened last month. It wasn’t that. Sure, fans sat inside the gloom of Sluggers, and bouncers lectured people to get their damn masks on as they waited in line for their IDs to be checked. But it wasn’t chaos. It wasn’t thousands of oblivious 20-somethings trying to replicate normal. It was orderly, for the most part, and order on Clark Street can be jarring. A vendor outside the Cubby Bear sold hot dogs. There was no line to buy them, because who wants a hot dog on this side of the ballpark’s gates?

I’m a little bit mad at baseball, but I still couldn’t stay away. Friday was too hot for Opening Day, and too quiet, too loaded with questions and anxieties. Should they be playing, can they pull this off, is this a good idea? But there I was, wandering Wrigleyville, humming along with the organ, smiling at the Harry Caray statue, wishing for a cold beer, letting myself pretend for a second that everything was fine.

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