By Sam Garfield
Feb. 8, 1958
(Chicago) – There’s something hypnotic about a February snow. I’m watching the city fall under its spell from my fourth-floor office window. Traffic crawls. And it’s slow moving for pedestrians on the Michigan Avenue Bridge. Up here, with the warmth of my morning coffee, I’m memorized, watching the quiet beauty – curtains of white falling past tall pillars of granite and glass on their way to the icy Chicago River. Summer soon fills my mind:
It’s Tyler’s first big league baseball game, and, as his only uncle, I’m proud to take him to Wrigley Field. He asks if we could get there early…“you know, to see batting practice.” Tyler’s an old salt when it comes to baseball, a purist – at age ten. Tyler and his family live in Philo, in central Illinois farm country. “The best soil in all America,” he’s quick to tell you. Maybe so, but Tyler lives in a baseball draught; American Legion ball is as good as it gets in Philo. He reads my newspaper – I renew his subscription on his birthday – so he keeps up on the majors, especially the Cubs. He also follows his team on radio…“the games come in real good at night when they’re on the road.”
We arrive at the park mid morning. First stop – the players’ entrance in the far corner of the park, under the left field grandstands. “Look at that, a house attached to Wrigley Field. Boy I’d love to live there.” I tell Tyler it was actually built for the groundskeeper years ago. Just inside the park I point out the door that leads to the Cubs’ clubhouse. Tyler wants to have a look but I tell him the players are already on the field.
We walk through the darkened concourse and head toward a long swatch of sunlight that spills into the concourse. I point out a sign directly over an entrance to the field–AISLE 16, Field Boxes…“That’s us,” I tell Tyler. We head for the sign and enter a snub-nosed tunnel that leads to a short staircase. I motion for Tyler to stop at the foot of the stairs, which lead to a bright rectangle of blue sky.
“Listen, Tyler, what do you hear?”
“Nothing.” A fresh gust of wind and the smell of freshly mowed grass catch him by surprise. “What am I supposed to hear?” He stares at the rectangle of blue.
“You’ll hear…be patient.”
Suddenly it’s on top of us…crack…crack…crack…
“Batting practice…batting practice,” Tyler yells and takes the steps three at a time.
I stay in the tunnel and look up at him. He stands motionless, against the blue sky, at the top of the stairs, surrounded by an urban sea of green — thirty-five thousand green seats and acres of perfectly manicured bluegrass and clover. Wrigley’s wind rustles Tyler’s blond hair, and its history fills his senses. I imagine he hears the voice from the radio calling to him. Just another summer evening on the farm…but now all those names from the radio come to life in his head: Banks homers to give the Cubs the victory…Bob Rush just doesn’t have it tonight as the Redlegs score six runs in the seventh…Join us tomorrow night when it’ll be a battle of left-handers – Dick Littlefield for the Cubs, Warren Spahn for the Braves.
“What do you think?” I ask as we make our way through the tiered field boxes and take our seats right behind the Cubs dugout.
“It’s so big…and empty. Look at all those buildings beyond the bleachers. Boy would I love to live there some day. Just think, I could look out my bedroom window and watch the Cubs play. Maybe take a lawn chair up to the roof and have the game on my transistor radio. How old is she, anyway?”
“She? How old, what do you mean?”
“Wrigley Field. How old is she?”
“About forty-something, I think.”
“Gee, that’s old.”
“Does she look old to you, Tyler?”
“No, she looks perfect. But she needs a few more people to fill the seats.”
“It’s still morning. Just wait a few hours.”
There’s something serene about an empty ballpark. Like having your favorite bar all to yourself – just you and the bartender: You take a slow sip of your drink and study the barkeep as he prepares for the impending rush of cocktail hour. That’s how it is now –just the two of us watching batting practice. The field slowly comes to life with every crack of the bat: reporters talking with players by the batting cage; photographers taking pre-game shots. The men in dark suits and ties and street shoes – they’ll be gone after batting practice, and give way to the players for infield practice. Then the grounds crew will water the skin part of the infield, chalk the batter’s box and foul lines, and smooth out the dirt at home plate and on the pitcher’s mound. All part of the major league ritual. I don’t want Tyler to miss any of it.
“Tyler, how bout we head to the Pink Poodle for a sandwich before infield practice? You can meet some of my newspaper pals.”
No answer, his 10-year-old eyes still taking it all in, sweeping from foul pole to foul pole.
“Is that where Jack Quinlan talks on the radio,” he asks, looking up to the radio booth behind us, above the home plate grandstand.
“Yep, and just to the left is the press box, where the writers watch the game.”
He turns around again. “Wouldya look at that scoreboard. It’s bigger than our barn.”
I make a mental note to buy him a souvenir before we leave. Maybe a miniature set of National League pennants, like the ones that fly atop the scoreboartd. He can arrange them on his bedroom wall –like they do at Wrigley– from first place to last.
“What a great idea to have ivy cover the entire outfield wall. When I get home I’m gonna plant some on the side of our barn.”
“Back in the ’45 World Series, when the Cubs played the Tigers, Andy Pafko –out there in left field– lost a ball in the ivy,” I say.
Tyler doesn’t respond. His eyes are locked on Ernie Banks, who walks toward the dugout in his baggy white flannels, his b-p completed. He gives Tyler a smile and ducks out of site. Tyler says nothing. But somehow I know the kids in Philo will hear about the smile from Ernie Banks.
After a few minutes of silence, Tyler says, “Center field.”
“Center field. That’s where Andy Pafko lost the ball in the ivy in the ’45 Series. Center field, not left field.”
There’s an irritating knock on my office door. It won’t stop.
“Come in already.”
“Sam, you wanna go out and grab some lunch at Ric’s?”
I look out the window. Still snowing.
“What, leave now? The game hasn’t even started.”
Copyright © 2012. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.