John McGrath

Memo to Mariners: Wrigley Field is going to be better than you think

jmcgrath@thenewstribune.com

Fans gather on the streets outside of Wrigley Field after the Cubs won 6-4 in Game 4 in baseball’s National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015. The Mariners will return to Wrigley Field today for their first series there since 2007.
Fans gather on the streets outside of Wrigley Field after the Cubs won 6-4 in Game 4 in baseball’s National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015. The Mariners will return to Wrigley Field today for their first series there since 2007. The Associated Press

Bill Murray has made me laugh since I saw him onstage, in 1973, portraying an insincere piano man working his piano-bar audience.

The skit was so funny I cried.

But he tells a story about a profound moment of his childhood, and it brings me to tears of a different kind. The story is about his first visit to Chicago’s Wrigley Field. After passing through the turnstile, the 7-year-old kid is approaching the staircase toward the box seats when a big brother wraps his hands over Murray’s eyes.

“Billy,” he is told, “it’s gonna be even better than you think.”

So true. A first glimpse of any big-league ballpark is a thrill destined to remain indelible, and if the big-league ballpark happens to be Wrigley Field, the experience is both magical and mystical.

The Mariners are there for three games this weekend — matinees on Friday and Saturday, baseball as God intended it, preceding a nationally televised series finale on Sunday night — in what amounts to an endorsement of Bud Selig’s crowning achievement.

Two decades ago, while the former commissioner was touting the benefits of interleague competition, I envisioned the Mariners playing at at Wrigley Field every three years or so. But with 15 teams in each league, schedules can be quirky, and the notion of a Seattle team as a regularly scheduled Cubs’ road opponent is not unlike the realization that the enormous dinosaur depicted on the back of a cereal box turns out to be the size of a thimble.

Since interleague play began in 1997, the Mariners have appeared in Wrigley Field for one series, a three-game set in 2007. The heart of the batting order assembled by manager Mike Hargrove had Jose Guillen hitting third and Raul Ibanez hitting cleanup, followed by Richie Sexson.

It’s been a while.

The ballpark that provided Bill Murray and me and millions of others with the sense we’d gotten a sneak preview of heaven is not what it was in 2007. A mammoth video board hovers over the left field bleachers, and another video board has been installed in right field. Home runs that inspired street scrums on Waveland and Sheffield avenues are now contained. Another charm bites the dust.

Before Dave Kingman became a Cubs slugger who hit the ball a long way on those infrequent occasions his bat connected with a center-cut fastball, he was a Mets slugger of the all-or-nothing-at-all persuasion. Kingman once launched a pitch that crashed through the glass of the porch door of a woman watching the game on TV — four houses north of Waveland.

I can see the house now, thanks to the framed photograph of Wrigley Field that hangs on my office wall. It was taken on Aug. 8, 1988, the evening that the Cubs joined the 20th century and played under the lights.

A night game at Wrigley Field isn’t as enchanting as a day game at Wrigley Field, but, hey, you can’t always get what you want. Compromise was preferable to the alternative, a new stadium built in a Chicago suburb pocked with strip malls.

As cozy as Wrigley Field is for baseball, it was even more intimate for football. I recall the day my dad took me to a Bears game in 1963. We watched it in the end zone.

Literally.

Because the football field was positioned with the goal posts in left field and the first-base line, the south end zone extended for maybe 9 yards. We had front-row seats for the touchdown pass that wasn’t thrown in a 6-0 Bears victory decided by a pair of field goals.

Three years later, in 1966, my well-connected godfather — he oversaw the paint company that regarded Wrigley Field as its most preferred client — arranged for my dad and me to sit in the center field scoreboard for a Bears game against the 49ers.

We climbed a ladder into this dark, dingy place thick with cigar smoke, where nobody talked. The only sound was the Western Union ticker clanging with updates of out-of-town scores.

I love this life, that was my first thought. My second thought: The only way I’ll be able to sustain continuity in this life is as a sportswriter.

A few years ago, the house I grew up in with three siblings was razed for a much larger house accommodating one child. The ball field down the street, that’s gone too, replaced by the newest wing of an ever-expanding high school.

And yet Wrigley Field is still there, its iconic red marquee decorating the intersection of Clark and Addison. The video boards are ugly, and the ivy-covered walls are no place for corporate sponsors, but life goes on, and compromises are necessary.

Memo to Kyle Seager, a University of North Carolina student the first and last time the Mariners visited Wrigley Field: It’s gonna be even better than you think.

  Comments