I was a Memphis kid with a Chicago hat. There was nowhere I went that summer that my blonde, unruly locks weren’t covered by the same blue wool and red embroidered “C” that my baseball heroes wore. I was seven years old, and as I sat looking out the window of a CTA train, or rather the “L”, an unfamiliar city passed by in an unrecognizable blur. Riding on rails was a foreign thing to me. The trains I knew carried coal, carried chemicals, but not people. My grandfather, a lifelong Northsider, sat next to me with a Cubs hat of his own— a floppy brimmed bucket hat adorned with buttons and sweat stained from a thousand innings under the sun before the lights brought night baseball to Wrigley.
We rode the Purple Line from Linden Station stopping at Noyes and Dempster, the car getting increasingly full of revelers dressed in blue. At Howard we changed trains for the Red Line and continued toward the ballpark taking on fans at every stop until it seemed unimaginable that the train could hold any more. And yet it did. We passed graffiti-sprayed rooftops, the great and sprawling Graceland Cemetery, and came so frighteningly close to the buildings we passed that I was sure who ever laid the tracks had gotten their math wrong.
The hissing and clanging of the rails quieted, and as we rolled to a stop at the Addison platform Wrigley Field rose into view, the steel framework standing like a cathedral to summer. Or maybe futility. It was a hulking slab of Midwest Americana older than half the teams that visited there. The park had, until then, always seemed to me more a legend than an actual field. A haunted place.
The doors of the train slid open to a scene of roiling humanity below at street level, and the car cleared. Vendors of every type shouted for your dollar with T-shirts, peanuts, and tickets for sale.
Hats. And buttons. And pennants.
Grandpa bought a program and led me through the tangle of people, past the turnstiles, and up to our seats in the bleachers. At first sight I was awestruck by the enormity of the outfield. It was an impossibly broad expanse of green. There was no way only three fielders could cover it even if their names were Mumphrey, Martinez, and Dawson. We saw the Cubs play the Pirates that day. I don’t know who won. It doesn’t matter now. Grandpa taught me how to keep score that afternoon by recording the details in baseball shorthand— a “6-3” ground-out, the backwards “K” for a called third strike, and the penciled in diamonds denoting runs scored. By the bottom of the ninth inning there was the whole game written out like some cryptograph, a coded language for the faithful.
My father taught me to play the game of baseball. My grandfather taught me to love it— its cadence and choreography, its geometry and grace.
In 2003 after their playoff collapse just five outs shy of the World Series I asked my grandfather if he was disappointed, if he was grieved that yet again the luckless Cubs had let redemption slip away.
“No,” he said, “this is the way of things.” Then he added, “Just wait ‘til next year.”
It is a game of small victories where failing as a batter less than 70% of the time is a benchmark of success. You learn to make peace with your losses.
My grandfather died the following May at the age of 92. The Cubs were two games out of first. Born in Chicago in 1911, he never saw them win it all. So, when I flew back to Chicago for his funeral I went to the only place I could to be near him. I rode the Purple Line to Howard and changed trains to the Red. I passed the graffitied rooftops and Graceland Cemetery where he would be buried the following day only ½ mile from his beloved ballpark. The doors slid open, and I walked down from the platform at Addison and through the tumult and the clamor of wandering hordes and vendors hawking wares.
Hats. And buttons. And pennants.
And there on the corner of Clark and Addison I bought a scalper’s ticket— Section 229, Row 11. Sitting halfway up on the first base side I looked out over that green lawn toward the ivy and the bleachers. Surely someone in those outfield seats was there for the first time, maybe with their own grandfather. I kept score the way mine had shown me one hazy and distant afternoon. We lost. The players names were different, but the teams, the game, and the field— that hallowed field— ever the same.
I don’t know my grandfather’s birthday. I’ve never asked. But for me Opening Day is a more fitting time to honor him anyhow. Because we have waited. Because this is next year. And because the promise of October belongs as much to us as anyone.