As of the time this blog was published the Chicago Cubs were leading the national league central division by a slim 2.5 games over the amazing, young Milwaukee Brewers. Never mind that the NL Central is the weakest division in baseball; there’s playoff fever in Wrigleyville!
This year the competition for playoff spots is going right down to the wire, especially in the National League. Some races are so tight that even a single win might be the difference between going to the post-season and cleaning out the lockers. In baseball, every game counts, whether it’s being played in chilly April or on the last day of the September. Baseball isn’t like the national hockey league where the regular season is meaningless because just about every team makes the playoffs. In baseball you earn the right to be in the playoffs by winning your division, plain and simple.
Baseball season is a lot like life itself; it’s not a sprint, but a marathon. Each team plays 162 games; 81 at home and 81 on the road. By All Star break in early July some teams are already hopelessly out of the pennant race. For those teams and their fans the rest of the season must seem like an eternity; the only excitement being the possibility of playing the “spoiler” to a division contender at the end of the season. In those cities, fans dream of “next year” when hope blooms again like the spring flowers.
That’s what Septembers are usually like in Wrigleyville; thoughts drifting off to next year. But this year there is actually a pretty good chance that the hapless Cubs will win their division and earn a spot in the playoffs. The pundits don’t believe that any NL central team will progress beyond the first round, but look what happened to St. Louis last year. The cards were considered a weak team, but got hot and won the World Series!
On Sheffield Avenue, right across the street from the right field bleachers, is a sign on one of the bleachered Greystones with the Latin words Eamus Catili (Let’s Go Cubs). Below that sign is the inscription AC046299. AC stands for Anno Catuli (In the year of the Cubs). The first two numbers (04) indicate the number of years since the Cubs won the central division in the National league, which last happened in 2003. The second two digits (62) indicate the number of years since the Cubs have appeared in a World Series, which last occurred in 1945. The last two digits (99) indicate the number of years since the Cubs have won a World Series, which hasn’t been since 1908. Yes, folks, that’s 1908, four years before Wrigley field was built! Two world wars have been fought since the Cubs have won a World Series. Cub’s legendary announcer Harry Carey was born, lived, and died without witnessing the Cubs win a World Series.
In the 1945 World Series the Cubs lost to the Detroit Tigers. It was during the 1945 Series that Chicago bar owner Billy Sianis brought his pet Billy Goat to the game. Billy and the Goat had box seat tickets. However, as the game wore on the objectionable odor of the Goat became an issue and Sianis and the goat were ejected. Sianis cursed the Cubs, saying that they would never again play in a World Series at Wrigley Field. Sianis’ World Series Billy Goat curse still stands today.
Despite the fact that the Cubs are always long shots to get into the World Series, just the fact that they have a chance to get into the playoffs this year brings a fountain of optimism to Wrigleyville. Early in the morning on game days, beer truck drivers can be seen wheeling endless kegs of beer into local taverns. As the brown line EL train rumbles overhead to merge with the red line tracks heading south to the Loop, restaurant workers hose down sidewalks and set up tables and chairs for the thousands of fans that will eat and drink in Wrigleyville this day. Over at the Salt & Pepper Diner on Clark Street, longtime waitress Karen serves up a Popeye Omelet to a customer who seems more intent on reading the front page of the Chicago Tribune. Karen knows that this will be a big tip day for her. In fact, everyone who works in Wrigleyville today will make money.
Oblivious as to whether this is a game day or not, Ernesto drives his old pickup down the alley, honking as he turns corners. He looks for anything metal that residents have left alongside for him to recycle. Air conditioners, old pipes, discarded steel furniture; you name it, if it is metal, Ernesto takes it. It’s tough being an illegal alien, but driving a truck down alleys looking for scrap metal allows Ernesto to send more money weekly to his Mother in Mexico than she can earn in a month.
An hour before game time Pete rides his bicycle up Seminary street to Addison street and then down Clark street to Roscoe street, where he ducks into the alley behind his house. He’s checking to see how full the parking lots are. Ron’s lot on Seminary and Clark is almost full. Bob and Ivy are parking the last of their block-in slots. Pete knows that full lots mean that he’ll get as much as $50 for each of the three cars that he can legally park behind his garage. Half-full lots might mean that he’ll have to settle for $30, unless there is a mad panic after the game starts. Pete knows that if the Cubs make the playoffs this year he’ll get at least $60 per car. He might even charge $80 if some guy is crazy enough to bring a Hummer, Escalade, or dual axel pickup down to Wrigleyville. He always gets more money for the big vehicles.
An hour before game time Billy stands on the southeast corner of Clark and Addison, just across the street from the friendly confines. A wiry black man with an infectious, cheery countenance, he’s got a large tray strapped to his back, crammed with large bags of peanuts. At $5 for a large bag, fans can get at least three-times as many nuts for the money from Billy as they would from vendors inside the park. It’s legal to take the peanuts inside the “Friendly Confines”, so Billy always does a land office business. Billy stands on the curb with his back to the traffic, facing the fans that are waiting for the traffic light to change. For about 45 seconds he’s got a captive audience. He skillfully chants out his sales pitch for the peanuts, but unlike many vendors, Billy’s words have a sweet, even loving, tone. He truly enjoys this job and it shows. Once, between light changes, he whispered in my ear that “The corner of Addison and Clark is the finest place in the world. There is no place that I would rather be.”
Xiao makes her last inspection of the kitchen as the woks hit the fire at Penny’s Noodles on the corner of Roscoe and Sheffield. All days are busy as Penny’s but today she will get busy earlier than normal because of the Cub’s 1:20 start. Petite and pleasant, Xiao has worked at Penny’s for twelve years. Across the street at Redmond’s Tavern, Bouncer Cory Pavek stands outside, checking ID’s. Things will be pretty mellow until the game lets out and then he’ll have to diplomatically turn away those who have already consumed too much Old Style. However, he looks forward to today’s shift. It will be easier because of the fact that it’s a week day and many of the bar’s patrons will leave early because they have to report for work tomorrow.
After the game ends, fans sing “Go Cubs Go” as they watch the hoisting of the big white flag with a blue “W” from the flagpole at the top of the center field scoreboard. The “W” signifies a Cubs win. If the Cubs lose, a flag with a large “L” is hoisted. Soon, crews smother the old ballpark, quickly disposing of discarded beer cups, crackerjack bags, cotton candy sticks, frosty malt containers, and pretzel parts. It’s a pleasant evening. The firemen of Engine Company 78, located in the shadow of Wrigley’s left field wall, sit in lawn chairs with the door open. Neighborhood residents bring their dogs by the firehouse and chat with Chicago’s finest, while their canines drink from a big white bucket of water that is constantly refreshed from the dribblings of a hydrant spicket. As the sun recedes, greystones and brownstones cast shadows of historic elegance on the cracked pavement. It is peaceful for now. Another day has passed in Wrigleyville, home of the Chicago Cubs.