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Those who love Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs for the last 61 years, do so for various reasons. There is the old-fashioned green scoreboard in center field that is manually operated by three men and gives inning-by-inning scores of out-of-town games. There is the flawless Merion bluegrass in the field and the red-brick walls covered with ivy (planted by Bill Veeck in 1937). And the all day-game schedule because owner Phil Wrigley, who died last week, refused to install lights. And the seats so close to the field that fans can chat with outfielders during warmups.
In an age when most parks are huge and sterile, Wrigley offers intimacy. The player at bat has not only the field and bleachers in view but also a backdrop of trees and three-story graystones. In short, a real neighborhood filled with things like windows that can be hit—and sometimes broken—with a long ball.
The snugness of Wrigley Field also brings pleasure to some fans who seldom enter what Chicagoans call the "friendly confines." On most summer days boys with baseball gloves and radios line the streets just beyond the outfield fences, Sheffield behind right, Waveland behind left, harvesting the baseballs that leave the park. When the wind is blowing out—and Chicago is not called the Windy City for nothing—even pop flies are potential "leavers." As Cub Leftfielder Jose Cardenal says, "At Wrigley you no have to be a home-run hitter to hit a home run."
During batting practice before one of the Cubs' final home games of 1976, most of the small boys were not out there, because school had started, but Rich Buhrke, who is 30, was sitting on the hood of a car at the corner of Kenmore and Waveland, flexing his glove and looking up at the sky for any balls that might come sailing out of the park. Buhrke, though still a student, had no classes that day. During the last 12 years he has held a variety of jobs and now goes to college part time, but to everyone in the area around the ball park, he is known only as "the guy who chases the balls." Buhrke was concluding his 18th season of playing the streets outside Wrigley Field and, he said, it would certainly not be his last.
Tall, intense, hawk-eyed, with flecks of gray in his brown hair, he remembers his first catch well. " Don Zimmer, playing second for the Cubs, hit it off Johnny Podres of the Dodgers," he said, waiting for a ball to soar above the crowd and head in his direction. "It was Sunday, Sept. 18, 1960; I hadn't caught any homers in my first season, 1959. I took it on a bounce off Waveland, and later Zimmer autographed it. I wrapped it in a plastic Baggie so it wouldn't yellow, wrote up an index card—it was Zimmer's fifth homer of the year, 47th of his career—and put it in a box. Now I keep it with the other balls at my house."
Counting batting practice balls and an occasional ball retrieved while sitting in the stands at Comiskey Park on Chicago's South Side, Buhrke has since caught 875 more. The collection, based only on the retail value of the balls, is worth more than $3,000. Of the 876 baseballs, 83 represent genuine over-the-wall home runs. "Those 83 homers," he said, "I'd stand those against anybody."
Though many of the street fielders at Wrigley merely want a ball or two for their own games, Buhrke has another motive. "My dream was to be a major-leaguer," he said. "I realize now that this is as close as I'll ever get to it." In his career Buhrke has "played" in over 720 games. Dedication has given him a sense of worth, of identification with the Cubs.
"This is a unique park," he said. "The walls are so close, and when a ball comes over and the people in the top rows of the bleachers are looking out and you're right there in the limelight, you feel like you're part of the team."
Buhrke is not above admitting that talent is a factor out in the street, just as it is inside the park. "I'd like to see some of those players catch the balls we do," he said. "They've never had to worry about curbs and trees and trucks."
Like a true major-leaguer, Buhrke has suffered for his sport. In 1975, while pursuing a Bill Madlock homer that landed in a Waveland Avenue elm tree, he was clipped from the side. "Just as the ball dropped from a branch, this kid hit me at the knee," he said. "He got the ball, and I ended up walking with a cane for about a month." At Comiskey Park, also in 1975, Buhrke had his glove hand jostled aside in a crowd, and a ball hit him in the eye. He ended up with a concussion, multiple abrasions and a lingering shiner.