A Cold Day in Center Field

I watched the Major League Baseball All-Star Game with friends last Tuesday night. The game doesn’t have the same meaning to me that it once did. What was once the ultimate showdown of good (National League) versus evil (American League) is now a glad-handing, nauseating exhibition, glorified only by the fact that the winning league gets home-field advantage in the World Series. I’ve soured a lot on professional sports over the past couple of years. Money has an unbreakable full nelson on every aspect of every sport, every game. Maybe it’s always been that way, but the emotion and spirit of competition seems to be gone, as well. The presentation of the game is sterile and lifeless, driven by endless sponsorships and partnerships with every brand in existence. There are no characters in sports anymore. The only ambitions the players seem to have are a fat paycheck and establishing their own brand. Who cares about the team, right? Perhaps I’m jaded, or maybe I just need to find some new sports to watch.

As our interest in the All-Star Game waned, we started swapping baseball stories, as an evening of watching baseball with friends typically does. I was reminded of a story that I don’t believe I have ever shared online in its entirety. It’s long-winded, so I didn’t share it that night, either. Fortunately, it makes good blog fodder, so here it is!

It was April of 2000. I was 16 years old, and my brother Craig had moved to Chicago the previous January for school. He came home for the weekend to see family and his girlfriend (or maybe she was fiancée by then; I can’t remember), but also because we were going to an Extreme Championship Wrestling show at the Family Arena in St. Charles Sunday night. However, this presented a problem: Craig would have to drive us both up to the ECW show, then take me home, and then drive back to Chicago, effectively adding four hours to his trip home. I could drive, but I had only been licensed for roughly a week and was naive and also a coward, so there was no way I was going to attempt to drive myself to St. Louis. But Craig didn’t want to lose all that time taking me home, either.

The solution? I go stay with him in Chicago for a week. My school district had, in a moment of  uncharacteristic generosity, granted us a week of spring break since there hadn’t been any snow that winter, so I didn’t have any plans or responsibilities for the week, anyway. Then we’d come home again the next weekend. It was the perfect plan.

The wrestling show was good. We saw lots of extreme wrestling action, chanted “E-C-Dub” and “Holy shit” at the right times (I was hesitant on that last one—I was still very innocent, remember), sang along with “Enter Sandman” when the Sandman came to the ring, probably ate some jumbo hot dogs, and so on. I think we even had front row seats?! I’m not sure how Craig pulled that off, come to think of it. Then, we listened to the tail end of a Cardinals game as we navigated the Interstate Highway System out of St. Louis and north to Chicago. The Cardinals almost came back from a tremendous deficit against the Rockies in the latter innings, but fell just short. It’s one of the last games I remember Joe Buck calling on the radio before moving to Fox full-time.

After a few hours of dozing on and off, I woke up to find we were in the suburbs, on Interstate 294, closing in on Des Plaines, where Craig lived at the time. He pointed out that if you carefully looked through the suburban sprawl at just the right moments, you could see downtown Chicago off in the distance. The skyline lights burned in the early-morning darkness. It was very exciting; here we were in this new, mysterious place where my brother lived. I was the farthest from home I had ever been without my parents. It was a strange feeling. I was a little scared, probably, but mostly just excited.

We had many adventures that week, including my introduction to Chicago-style deep dish, visiting the Field Museum of Natural History, trying (and failing) to track down the legendary RF Video kiosk (they sold wrestling tapes) at a mall in Gurney, and driving past the highway patrol headquarters building used for the exterior of the high school in The Breakfast Club. (Craig lived right around the corner from it.) While Craig was going to school, I hung around his apartment and played video games and watched old wrestling tapes and Godzilla movies, eating inhuman amounts of Cocoa Pebbles and drinking Coke 2. (New Coke was still being sold in certain regions under the name “Coke 2.” I thought it tasted like regular Coke, but it was Coke 2, so it was different and awesome.)

My best, most distinct memory of the trip, however, was a trip to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs play the Florida Marlins.

It was my first trip to Wrigley, and I didn’t care about either team involved in the contest. We bought seats in the center field bleachers, and it was immeasurably cold, gray, and windy. The air temperature was around 40 degrees, but the wind blew hard off the lake. Naturally, we both wore shorts like we always did, neither of us willing to admit what a mistake it was in this particular instance. Meanwhile, few others came out to brave the weather, or these two miserable teams, on a weekday. The left field and right field bleachers were sold out to incorrigible drunks who spent the entire game chanting insults at each other, but only about a thousand others, ourselves included, were scattered around the rest of the stadium.

It was utterly miserable. We were cold. We ate some more jumbo hot dogs that would have otherwise been great if the wind hadn’t sapped all of the heat from them by the time we reached our seats. We peed in the customary Wrigley Field fashion: in the dilapidated troughs of a dank men’s room. It was a terrible experience and one of the worst baseball games I’ve ever attended. I couldn’t have enjoyed it more.

Wrigley Field Bathroom

A bathroom like this, but dirtier and not nearly so bright. (image credit: Flickr)

And the best part? Midway through the game, seagulls circling center field started to divebomb Marlins outfielder Preston Wilson. He never had to run away, but I’m pretty sure he did shoo them away with his cap at one point. I don’t know what their interest in Preston Wilson was, but these seagulls were out for blood, or maybe something tasty on his cap.

It's from Hitchcock's The Birds

An approximation of the seagull attack on Preston Wilson.

We left in the eighth inning, unable to stand the cold any longer. It wasn’t much of a game, but we left with some great memories. I thought about it, and maybe I’m looking for my enjoyment of sports in the wrong place. It’s not so much the game itself, but whom I enjoy them with and the adventures they produce. I don’t remember the score, or even who won that game at Wrigley, but the experience and our time out in the cold is still an incredible memory. Likewise, when I think back to any All-Star Game, my memories aren’t so much of the game, but of the time I spent watching the game with friends or family. It’s nice to know that even if I don’t enjoy sports as much as I once did, there’s something much more important I get out of watching them: fun and fellowship. That’s worth far more than any National League victory, no matter HOW rare they may be.