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"Un-believable," chimed Jim Edmonds, the ex-Cardinals centerfielder who'd looked at these crowds from both sides now. "I can't believe the excitement and energy that's in the air here day in and day out." His eyes clouded, remembering. "I wouldn't want to be an opposing outfielder here," he said.
Truth be told, he was worrying about the oddest thing, an exotic bacterial strain ne'er detected in Wrigleyville: satisfaction. He, DeRosa and Lee, three of the squad's most grizzled vets, were combing the clubhouse for it, he said, and prepared to pounce. Soriano confessed that he would almost welcome a loss here or there, as preventive vaccine.
Hell, was it only six months earlier, when Piniella gathered them at the outset of spring training, that his deepest concern was the viral opposite: Centumannusoexcretum! ... One Hundred Years of 'Oh, S---!'? "Don't put the load of 99 years of not winning on you," Lou had told his tribe. "Worry about this year only."
I grabbed a beer and beelined to the bleachers, packed nearly an hour before the game. My cellphone hummed. It was John McDonough, the ex-Cubs prez now Blackhawks prez, happy to take a breather from packing up for his freshman son's move to DePaul, to return my call and download on the topic. "The turning point for Cub fans was Lou's hiring," he said. "He's the dagger-in-the-heart, win-at-all-cost guy who's at the stage of his career when there's no reason to be around except to win it all. He's the anti--Lovable Loser. The time has come to turn out the lights and close the door on curses, black cats and billy goats. The fans aren't looking over their shoulders anymore. For the first time in my life, Cub fans have a swagger. The romance with the park, the team, the logo, the rooftops, I didn't think it could get any bigger, but now you put consistent winning in the middle of all that, and it's indescribable. When the Cubs win the World Series, it'll be the ultimate conclusion to the greatest sports story ever ... the second-biggest championship in the history of American sports, behind the Miracle on Ice by the U.S. hockey team against the Russians. Because in the deepest cavern of everybody's mind here, their fear is that they'd never live to see it happen."
I needed to locate the diehards, the leathery lifers ... the scar tissue. I found an enclave in center and squeezed among them. Judy Caldow, the retired phys-ed teacher who keeps score at every game and has over 3,000 scorecards organized at home in plastic tubs. Howard Tucker, the blind man with the cowbell and black transistor in his hands ... unless, of course, Judy had slipped a wrapped condom into them for the latest round of Name That Object. Fred Speck, the lawyer with the Hawaiian shirt, sunglasses and black cane who noticed me scribbling into a notepad beside him and announced, "You know, I was a journalism major at the University of Illinois, wrote for the Daily Illini and various minor publications. But then I found I just couldn't stick my nose up the asses of all the a-------."
"Oh, really? Obviously, I've had no trouble whatsoever!" I almost blurted. Instead I bought us each a beer, made Fred's acquaintance and jumped into the Batter Game, a gambling contest that a young blogger named Eammon Brennan and six other fans in front of me, including two young women, were initiating: buck an at bat to play, pass the cupful of bills to the next player for each successive batter, win a buck if your hitter singles, two if he doubles, three if he triples, four if he homers, and if you're lucky, like we were, one of the contestants will keep her stash in her bra. Here was a vestige of Cubs bleacher life from its grimmest days, when the regulars diminished the horror by betting on every pitch—ball, strike, hit, foul—and even on whether the ball, rolled toward the mound after the last putout each inning, would reach dirt or fall short and end up on the grass.
I came out smoking in the Batter Game, three of my first four hitters delivering. Fred sniffed. He'd been through every stage of Cubs fanhood: from the child in the early '60s who loved them unconditionally to the hoarse heckler in the '70s venting his ire from the near-empty bleachers to the 53-year-old man today sitting Buddha-like amidst the frenzy, unattached to each transient turn of fate—even Phillies rightfielder Jayson Werth's fifth-inning bomb to tie the game, 1--1—but grateful for it all. Well, sort of. "The a------- quotient is actually pretty low today," Fred declared, surveying the crowd.
"September baseball in the bleachers used to be the Cubs 20 games out, me and eight other people rooting for a totally lost cause with complete passion. There's nothing better than a lost cause. It's like being at a party at 3:30 in the morning, when the 90 people who were there at midnight are gone, and it's down to eight of you in the kitchen. That's the most priceless part of the party. A big part of me wants this team to sweep everything—first round of the playoffs, second round, World Series—then go right back into the toilet so I get my stadium back."
Yes, the audience had changed. Yes, many of the roughly 150 bleacher season-ticket holders resented the frat party they now found themselves in. And yes, there was a Spiderman standing just behind Fred at this very moment, defrocked of his mask by security guards because God knew what havoc a superhero, emboldened by anonymity and a dozen Pabst Blue Ribbons, might wreak. A Spidey from Scotland, of all places, here for—of course—his bachelor party with pals from Australia, Ireland, England and Norway on the eve of his webbing to a woman from Japan whom he'd met in the Caymans; what hath God and Wrigley wrought?
"I've been all over the world," Fred continued, unperturbed. "I've scuba-dived the Great Barrier Reef and motorcycled the Icefields Parkway in the Canadian Rockies, and, yes, they're both beautiful. But I realized when I first came here 45 years ago that this ballpark on a sunny day was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen, and that it still is today. So the bathrooms smell like piss? So Larry Craig wouldn't like our men's room? Well, I don't watch the ball game from there. This ballpark doesn't need a damn thing. Winning or losing stopped making me happy or sad years ago. I just love to be here."