By now you're probably familiar with Tom Ricketts -- the fellow who owns, by Forbes' estimation, the fourth-most valuable team in baseball -- and Ricketts' gambit: He's threatening to move the Cubs from Chicago to one of its many strip-mall suburbs if he doesn't get some allowances from the city. He wants a big, modern video board, a few tax breaks and a cut of those Wrigley-adjacent rooftop seats.
Considering that Chicago is, on one hand, in the midst of a people-getting-murdered-way-too-often crisis and, on the other, a not-having-enough-money-to-pay-teachers crisis, Ricketts would do well to tone down this rhetoric. Surely, he knows a city with severe hunger issues and crumbling transportation infrastructure would rather not waste time bartering with an exceedingly rich man who is displeased about not making quite enough money off his baseball team.
Whether Chicago meets some of Ricketts' demands or otherwise, the Cubs likely aren't going anywhere. They are a nigh-untouchable public institution, as much a part of many Chicagoans' identities as putting pickles and celery salt on hot dogs and complaining about the CTA. The Cubs seem, especially as one draws closer to Wrigley Field, an inescapable presence in terms of signage and apparel -- the iconic "C" logo on hats, on awnings, on billboards next to iced buckets of beer. Nearly every dive within a mile-and-a-half of Wrigley has "Go Cubs!" or "Welcome Cubs Fans!" scrawled on its windows. The team has its own unofficial mascot, Ronnie "Woo Woo" Wickers, who is both jovial and sad in the way superfans are. Despite a brutal rebuilding process, the fans are still filling Wrigley most afternoons to get steezed on eight-dollar beers and watch their Quadruple A team get dusted by the Reds.
I mean this in ways both good and bad: Chicago's North Side and the Cubs deserve one another.
Wrigleyville itself, as the name clues you in, is the way it is because Wrigley Field has been home to the Cubs for nearly a century. If you've watched a Cubs home game on national television, you understand, for the most part: Wrigleyville is a bunch of bars, overpriced apartments and fast-food joints lining the ballpark. The neighborhood ballpark tag isn't a misnomer: Chicago is a city composed chiefly of low-rise urban sprawl, and Wrigley is indeed right in the middle of it. Walk north, east or west, and you'll hit tree-lined streets pretty quickly.
I have lived amid that sprawl for five years, though the sprawl I call home is farther north, where there are a few more violent crimes and a few less front porch cornhole tournaments. I've been searching for a new apartment for the past couple of weeks and decided from the start to rule out any place within eight to 10 blocks of the stadium. When I told a friend I would be in Wrigleyville for an afternoon Cubs game, his immediate response was a one-word text: Why? My sojourn only made sense to him once I explained I was getting paid.
The thing that you've perhaps not understood from listening to Dan Shulman rhapsodize about the ol' ballpark and its surroundings -- and what I'm going to impress upon you here -- is that Wrigleyville is a bropocalypse of white-collar anger and shrieking pukers. A lot of mainstream sports coverage (and baseball coverage especially) has a puritanical bent that treats sports and fandom as if they were incorruptible, when I think most of us know athletes can be unrepentant jerks, fans can be violent and rude, and leagues can be crass bullies who abuse their labor force and host cities for the sake of self-preservation and profit. Sports are played and operated by people, and people are sometimes brutish, unsettling and scary. Wrigleyville is one of those places where sports and fandom are revealed to be irksomely human.
It is also just the most annoying place. You know that Coors Light commercial where a bunch of sweaty people with symmetrical faces are sitting on a halted L train, and using magic bottle cap technology, Sexy Five O'Clock Shadow Guy transforms the train into a Coors Light party locomotive? What this ad presupposes is that I would ever want my public transport experience to be nightclub-like, when all I really want is to read my damn Harper's and get home before the Lebanese joint down the street closes. The Addison stop (a block from Wrigley Field) is like a low-rent, decidedly less attractive version of that ad. If you're unfortunate enough to be riding the L as a Cubs game is finishing up, your car turns into a sardine tin of drunks.
* * *
I was among the drunks on a recent Friday. Bands of thunderstorms were sweeping through the city, so foot traffic was lighter than usual. The intersection of Addison and Clark is usually a carnival of embarrassing stuff that happens when you're drunk: face-painted, cleavage-bearing women, cargo-shorted doofs, cell phone holster-clad dads, confused packs of college girls, malignant packs of college guys, and families apparently trying to traumatize their children. Basically the cast of a musical about Sport Clips. The social climate is decidedly Amp'd! in the Monster Energy Drink sense of the word. On this dreary day, that atmosphere was confined mostly to the bars.
Let it be said that I like a drink. I've closed down bars, fallen asleep in them, taken friendships to places they didn't need to go. And I'm not picky -- some bars suit me better than others, but as long as the floor is composed not entirely of bodily fluids and a High Life doesn't cost me six bucks, I won't complain. A place where people go to knead the peskier knots out of their consciousness should never be spotless or even particularly pleasant. Pristine bars are lying to you, in a way. So it's not that Wrigleyville's most popular game-day hangouts -- The Cubby Bear, John Barleycorn, Sluggers, et al. -- are dingy or mobbed that bothers me. The populace and the atmosphere they produce are not conducive to my idea of a good time.
You've got the churlish description of the goofball parade above, and yeah, OK, I think most of the people in Wrigleyville's bars look silly. But the Affliction tee shirts and Hooters Couture are often signifiers for something more troubling. If you follow the boozy slug-trail down Clark Street for half a block, you'll hear a woman being harassed, a man-gorilla whooping over some non-event and a furious and indignant dude who is furious and indignant for a reason that can't possibly be valid.
Wrigleyville is stupid. (Or I think it's stupid; it wouldn't be popular if a lot of people didn't think it was a fun place to hang out.) Stupid is fine. I don't burst into people's living rooms and tell them to stop watching CSI: Miami. What's awful about Wrigleyville is how hostile and unhappy it frequently is. Bar populations are not homogenous, especially when they're stuffed to the gills with patrons, but in spending about four hours boozing with the locals, I witnessed so much needless anger.
"I'm trying to watch the f***ing game!" a bro in a Rizzo tee shirt snapped at his girlfriend when she tried to ask him a question.
"Why can't the game start!" whined a 40-year-old woman wearing Abercrombie jeans.
Because there's a thunderstorm. Just turn your head toward the window.
The actual Wrigleyville experience is incongruous with the sterilized version you're often fed when broadcasters portray it as a utopia full of well-behaved fans simply a-watchin' a ballgame, not only because it's loud and sweaty and uncouth, but because a fair share of people seem to be having a terrible time. They're falling down drunk or screaming at their boyfriend or way too upset -- like they're being blindsided -- about the Cubs not being an especially competitive baseball team.
These are the sort of people whose identities are fastened too tightly to being the sort of people who hit Wrigleyville once or twice a week and get obliterated. These people are Cubs fans, technically, but their fandom is a transmuted and secondary thing. In most cases, that they are getting soused in the Ville is more important to them than whatever the Cubs are up to. They are there for the carnivalesque element of it all. They are when fandom and an unhealthy relationship with alcohol slow dance with one another until the exercise degrades into something butt-grabby and gross. They're fist-bumping and hollering at the day's outset, but by the fifth inning (or, during my visit, the second hour of a rain delay) have been marinating in Bud Light and fry-gunk long enough to become reduced to nothing more than belchers of discontent. Matters aren't helped by the Cubs' habit of being down, 5-1, by the time this happens.
These people objectively suck, and it would be unfair to characterize the majority of Wrigleyville dwellers as such, but there are enough of them, and they are so obnoxious -- like cigarette ash stirred into yogurt, you're going to notice it -- as to spoil the drinking and the watching of a baseball game.
* * *
I was trying to compose something like these thoughts in my head during the bottom of the fourth. I wrote "fandom meaning too much/being a Wrigleyville person meaning too much" in my notebook. I was irritated because I knew I had to travel back home to write and because the guy behind me kept elbowing me in the back. I squeezed through the crowd and sidled up to the bar. The bartender didn't hear my order, at first. "A High. Life." I over-enunciated like the barkeep was stupid rather than half-deaf because the bar was overcrowded. I felt bad immediately after the words came out of my mouth. I hadn't noticed how angry I felt just sitting in the bar, trying to watch the game and take in my surroundings. I killed my beer quickly and ducked out.
I asked a few people in the bars what they thought of Ricketts' (disingenuous) intention to move the Cubs to the suburbs. The most popular response -- among "Who?" and profanity-laced name-calling -- was something along the lines of "I hope he doesn't. I love Wrigley. I love this place."
I will go back to avoiding Wrigleyville. You get it: I don't like that place. But there are thousands of Chicagoans who do. They show up and spend money and have, I guess, a good time. While the whole Wrigleyville experience is sometimes only incidental to the Cubs, it embodies what sports are for, from the perspective of both the capitalist and the fan: for people to show up and spend money and enjoy themselves. Wrigleyville barflies love that place. For better or worse, it's not going anywhere.