Yes, Wrigley still lives up to its own hype

Wrigley Field, built in 1914, may be old and creaky, but its charm cannot be denied. Scott Boehm/Getty Images

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So much has been written and said about the old ballpark at the corner of Clark and Addison on Chicago's North Side that it would seem almost impossible for the Wrigley Field experience to live up to the hype.

There's the ivy on the outfield wall; the pennants breezily waving from atop the roof; the iconic, hand-operated scoreboard rising above the bleachers; and another sellout crowd on its feet for the seventh-inning stretch and sing-along.

Outside the gates, the "L" rattles to a stop behind the park, disgorging fans coming to the game. Street vendors hawk souvenirs and peanuts; "Cheaper on the outside!" is their familiar cry. Firefighters stand out front of their station just beyond left field chatting with passersby. And grown men wearing baseball gloves gather on Waveland Avenue waiting for home run balls to drop from the sky.

And, oh yeah, there are more bars and restaurants a short stumble away than you could visit in an entire season.

Hype or no, for the singular baseball experience nothing may beat a summer afternoon at Wrigley Field.

That's not to say Wrigley isn't without its flaws and occasional detractors. The park was built almost a century ago and it sometimes shows. The bathroom scene can be bad, the concessions are subpar considering you're in maybe the best restaurant city in the country, and there's a remote chance you'll end up stuck in a seat behind a pole. Safety netting is strung to the underside of the upper deck to keep debris from dropping. And the team is in the midst of a bit of a championship drought, in case you hadn't heard.

Actually, many locals would much rather never hear again that the Cubs' last World Series title was in 1908.

"We want to shoot the TV every time that 100 years thing is mentioned," said Al Yellon, 52, of Chicago, a lifelong Cubs fan. "We know, we don't have to be reminded. And it has nothing to do with what's going on now."

Some fans and members of the media have suggested the Cubs consider either abandoning Wrigley for a new park -- with its added comforts and additional revenue streams -- or at least knock down the grandstand and replace it with a modern structure; the bleachers and scoreboard would be left intact. The team did invest millions in park renovations a couple of seasons ago that expanded the bleachers and put a club behind center field, among other upgrades. This past offseason a bar and restaurant were built into the park that'll be open year-round, and a new ownership bid has revived talk of other modernizations.

But the park has landmark status from the city that protects it from significant structural changes, and the Ricketts family, longtime Cubs fans who agreed earlier this year to purchase the team from the Tribune Co., seems to have great respect for the Wrigley experience. Tom Ricketts, the family spokesman during ongoing negotiations, once lived across the street from Wrigley and reportedly met his wife in the bleachers. It doesn't appear Wrigley, imperfections and all, is going anywhere soon. And for that, Cubs fans and baseball traditionalists should rejoice … and get to Clark and Addison.

While there are other ballparks situated in dynamic, urban neighborhoods, there is no setting to rival Wrigley's. So fans should plan to get there early -- the Chicago Transit Authority's Red Line drops you off right behind the park -- to wander the neighborhood a bit and stop in one of the many bars for a pregame pop or bite to eat. Murphy's Bleachers, where they've been serving them up across the street from the entrance to the park's bleachers since the 1930s, is a great place to start. The game-day beer prices are steep, but you're there to rub elbows with Cubs fans; besides, Murphy's Bleachers may offer the best cheeseburger in Wrigleyville.

Other classic joints across the street from the park include the Cubby Bear and Bernie's. If you want more local flavor and conditions that aren't so cramped, walk a block or two from the park and try any number of other spots. There's the dive bar Nisei Lounge and the Piano Man, popular with cops and other locals. Or try the Gingerman Tavern on Clark Street just north of Wrigley; it has a more eclectic crowd, tattooed bartenders serving up a great selection of beers, and a couple of pool tables in the back.

While you're walking around or heading between bars, make sure to visit with the so-called ball hawks, those guys who shag home run balls during batting practice and the game on the streets just outside the park. A handful of regulars have been at it for years and some have caught hundreds of balls or more.

Ken Vangeloff has been hawking balls for more than 15 years, and while the Chicago resident says the recent bleacher expansion has robbed him and his colleagues of some balls, they're still out there every game. Vangeloff was married last September and the reception was in Wrigley's Stadium Club. He used some of the balls he's caught as party favors, stamped with the wedding date and the names of the happy couple.

"That was a quick way to get rid of about 150 of them," Vangeloff said. "Little kids were coming up and asking for autographs from me and my wife."

He said his wife has no issues with his hobby; she's a huge Cubs fan and the two met at Wrigley.

"Everybody at the wedding was on a huge high because the Cubs were on the way to the playoffs," Vangeloff said. "It was all downhill after that, but my wife and I are still going strong."

A wedding reception at Wrigley is nothing compared with what Brian and Lauren Clark of Plainfield, Ill., did late last year, naming their firstborn Addison N. Clark. They may have been taking the lead of the guy a year earlier who named his son Wrigley Fields. The Cubs have an enormous and national fan base, and it's known as a rabid and die-hard bunch. You all but have to be obsessive to hang around a team that hasn't won a championship in more than a century. Not that Cubs fans want to talk about it.