I had the good fortune to attend a Cubs game last night, courtesy of a friend who has season tickets. It’s been five years or so since I went to a Cubs game, and it was a perfect night for baseball (or for just about anything else) – temperature in the mid-70s, low humidity, clear skies, no wind. The game was a pleasant surprise on many dimensions.
As someone who is not originally from Chicago, the whole Cubs thing has mystified me for the 20 years I’ve lived here. Wrigley Field’s ivy-covered walls are pretty, to be sure, but the stadium is very wide and flat, so most fans are a long way from the action. In that regard, it compares unfavorably to baseball’s other vintage stadium, Fenway Park, which is relatively steep, so that you feel much closer to the game. The sight lines of perhaps a third of the fans at Wrigley are obstructed by pillars. I’ve also always found the stadium to be in disrepair, so that far from being ‘friendly’, it always struck me as, well, a dump.
More importantly, I have long been mystified by Cubs fans’ rabid devotion to a team that is, as George Will puts it, now in the 104th year of its rebuilding effort. In a league where Johnny Damon leaves the Red Sox for the Yankees, Albert Pujols punts the Cards for a few more bucks in Anaheim, and two expansion teams win the world series within their first 10 years in the league (one of them twice within 10 years, the other only 3 years after entering the league), tradition doesn’t seem to count for much. Where goest the goat?
A few years ago, I met the thinking man’s sportswriter, Frank DeFord, at a book signing and took the opportunity to ask him if he could explain the Cubs phenomenon. He thought about it for a few seconds and then responded with a quizzical look to which I cannot do justice in person, much less in writing. He started to say that Cubs fans are a lot like Red Sox fans, but then reversed course. “Red Sox fans,” he said, “expect their team to win and are disappointed when they lose. Cubs fans expect their team to lose and are pleasantly surprised when they win.”
With that as background, I did indeed find some pleasant surprises at last night’s game.
One is that the cellar-dwelling Cubs won the game, although in reality the over-500 Mets lost it by bobbling more balls than the Cubs did. (Hold that thought for November, because the same will be true of the presidential election, regardless of which way it turns out.) Another is that I got to see the Cubs’ latest great hope, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, go 2-4 with one RBI in his Cubs debut.
Wrigley is in much better shape than it was the last time I was there. It’s still wide and flat, and the pillars are still there, but its rusting steel undercarriage has been cleaned up and painted. The concourse amenities are, if not, elegant, much better than they I remember them being. And the underside of the upper deck now sports nets that keep unsuspecting fans from being hit on the head by falling blocks of concrete. As someone who was sitting underneath the upper deck, I consider that a plus. If you disagree, please do so privately.
But the biggest surprise was in the seats themselves. . .or more accurately not in the seats. For the first time in my (admittedly limited) personal experience, a bunch of them were empty. Not half, not even a third. But many. When I moved to Chicago, Cubs tickets were impossible to get – even for the least compelling games on the least attractive dates. Now, at least some tickets are going begging. My friend John, the season ticket holder, told me that even the cross-town series against the White Sox wasn’t a sellout. It seems that Cubs fans are, at last, voting with their feet and their wallets – telling the owners that a team playing .350 ball simply isn’t worth their time or their money.
Markets may be slow, perhaps 104 years slow, but give them time and they’ll be efficient.