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CHICAGO — At 2:28 p.m., 120 days after Chicago Cubs baseball was supposed to begin, and four hours before it finally did, a man in a retro, baby blue Greg Maddux jersey pressed his masked face to the barred exterior of Wrigley Field. With a raised right hand, he clasped Gate 17, outside Section 132, down the right field line. He leaned in. Narrowed his eyes.
“See anything in there?” a passerby asked him.
“No. I wish I could be in there though,” he responded.
And he hobbled off down a quiet Sheffield Avenue, his words speaking for thousands of diehards, his longings part of an eerie, unprecedented scene: Wrigleyville, on Cubs gameday, nearly empty.
Clark Street, whooshing traffic aside, virtually silent.
Gallagher Way, the typically festive area outside the third-base gates, closed. A few hours before first pitch, on an opening day unlike any other, a father and daughter sat on a Wrigley-adjacent bench enjoying ice cream. A young adult hunched over a textbook. A man in a paint-stained, de-sleeved T-shirt stopped for a smoke. An employee at the official Cubs Store popped out of the front door into sunlight, and brought a flat hand to his brow, searching for business. Only three customers had entered over the past 30 minutes.
Fans have been flocking to these streets for over 100 years. Because for over 100 years, they could squeeze through Wrigley’s hallowed gates, into the Friendly Confines, to watch, and hear, and smell, and soak up baseball. On Friday, they couldn’t. Some stopped by the marquee anyway. A dozen showed up early for player autographs, but settled for pictures. Merchandise stands sold next-to-nothing. Prolific scalpers were absent. The Addison “L” stop was deserted. Carol Haddon, the team’s longest-tenured season ticket holder, sat at home. “This is gonna be very lonesome,” she told Yahoo Sports earlier in the week.
As the afternoon wore on, hints of normalcy appeared. A white Hummer circled Wrigley flying a Cubs flag, blasting music. A national anthem dress rehearsal boomed from within. Murphy’s, a famous bar across the street, filled. A dad and son tossed a baseball on the red-brick sidewalk. A teenager with a glove camped out on Waveland Avenue, and gradually, as batting practice neared, ballhawks joined him. One smart vulture stood on Sheffield, outside right field, and pocketed three baseballs – because he was the only one there. The rest waited outside left. Rich Buhrke, who’s retrieved some 180 balls over the years, peered up at Wrigley’s railings. He’s been coming to Cubs games, and almost every opener, since 1959. Friday, he said, felt “weird.”
And then, after BP, he left. Perhaps for his house, but probably, he said, to head out to Impact Field, home of the Chicago Dogs, an independent minor league squad based in the suburbs. They’re hosting fans. Buhrke’s wife bought him season tickets. He wants to savor live baseball. That, for the foreseeable future, won’t be possible at Wrigley or throughout MLB.
Unless, that is, you pay hundreds of dollars for a spot on a rooftop.
View from the rooftops
I spent Friday night atop the Wrigley View rooftop, just outside the left field foul pole, some 500 feet from home plate. And I saw, and heard, and smelled baseball. The pop of a catcher’s mitt. The thwack of a bat. The tunes of Wrigley’s organist, and “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” The scent of Italian sausage. A nine-inning, three-hit gem from Kyle Hendricks. A 3-0 Cubs win over the Milwaukee Brewers.
But as a man standing on the Wrigley View balcony said to his buddy in the second inning: The experience, in many ways, was “totally bizarre.”
We could also hear foul balls smack empty seats.
And the Cubs dugout clapping along to Anthony Rizzo’s walk-up music.
And sirens, and rumbling “L” trains, and barking dogs.
And cheers from a nearby patio bar, reacting to plays on TV several seconds after we’d seen them with our own eyes.
We could see two Cubs players or coaches sitting alone high up in the bleachers throughout the first inning, bantering with Kyle Schwarber as he trotted out to left field to warm up.
And, strangest of all, we could hear crowd noise – from inside the park, despite its emptiness. MLB teams are pumping video game crowd tracks into stadiums to give them life. When Hendricks mowed down the Brewers in the fourth, each third strike was met by an auto-generated roar – and then a smattering of applause and whistles from the rooftops.
Friday was, in every conceivable way, a brilliant night for baseball. Blue sky, a few cotton-candy-like clouds, 77 degrees, gentle breeze, picturesque sunset. And yet so much about it was odd. Most rooftops are more open-air party than sporting event anyway. At Wrigley View, a band played up to and through first pitch. Most conversations among partygoers weren’t about the game. Selfies and group pictures were plentiful. (Mask-wearing and physical distancing were encouraged, but not enforced.) “It's enjoyable socializing,” Haddon, the longtime season ticket holder, said over the phone. “But it isn't really a great way to watch baseball.”
Down on Waveland
So, for the ninth inning, I ventured down onto Waveland. Ballhawks still waited. Murphy’s was packed to its coronavirus-era legal limit. The streets were still mostly empty. But fans had, by 8:30, flocked to Wrigleyville bars. I walked down Sheffield. “Get up! C’mon, everybody up!” somebody yelled from a right-field rooftop as the Cubs neared their final out.
And when they got it, the Murphy’s patio erupted. Diners clinked utensils against plates. Friends high-fived. “Go Cubs Go,” the team’s victory anthem, began to play. Patrons sang along. Two older women whipped out a “W” flag, stood up, and swayed side to side, reveling in the first Cubs win in 300 days.
When they finished, “Sweet Home Chicago” took over, trickling out from the stadium. Motorists honked their way down Waveland. Two Brewers fans packed up their lawn chairs and called it a night. Everyone around them radiated relief – that baseball was back – and happiness – that the Cubs were 1-0.
Wrigleyville, meanwhile, became what Wrigleyville always is on a Friday night, game or no game, pandemic be damned. Young adults waited in line at bars. Clark Street had come alive.
But Gallagher Way remained uninhabited. Birds searched for scraps – unsuccessfully. The Addison “L” station remained lifeless. Up on the train platform, a half-dozen fans waited for the red line toward 95th. There was no crush, no stream of humanity energized by a baseball game, no diehards like Carol Haddon, who watched on TV with her husband and kept score from her couch.
At the corner of Clark and Addison, there were more picture-takers, but also more barrenness. A street vendor sat on the hood of her parked car selling Cubs-themed masks. “CUBS WIN!” the marquee blared, but few were there to see it. A man in a Blackhawks cap and Mitch Trubisky T-shirt reminisced about the before times, about past opening days, when the streets would fill before noon, when old friends would meet up for the first time since September. Then he looked around.
“Never in my life have I ever seen it this empty,” he said.
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