A Wrigley virgin's first time
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

Miles: 104 (Milwaukee to Wrigley Field); total miles: 2,225; moving violations: 0; hours driving: 2; hours of sleep: 4; Diet Pepsi: 5 units; thunderstorms: 3 (for a total of 8 on the trip); hot dogs: 1 unit; "Grapes of Wrath" cassettes: 1 (Tom leaves the family, the Joads get flooded out, Rose of Sharon loses her baby and the book ends with her nursing a starving man from her breast -- Tom's "I'll be there" speech remains one of the most powerful in American literature); miles to go 1,200 (approximate) ...

CHICAGO -- I had slept maybe four hours -- bringing my two-day total to about seven -- when he arrived at the hotel.

"Hey, I'm here in the lobby," he said. "And I've got another place for us to stop. Jamestown, New York. The Lucille Ball Museum."

Good morning, Scooter. Nice to see you, too.

Scooter is the most knowledgeable sports fan I know, the sort of man who feels most comfortable in shirts that have lettering across the chest (Canisius basketball was in fashion Tuesday). He would be my life-line for any sports question. Without prompting, he'll bring up one-armed Pete Gray batting .333 in the minors and say something like, "I don't care what league it was, to do that with one arm? That's amazing." He knows the name of every professional athlete who ever lived or played in his beloved, native Buffalo. Mark Guthrie will appear on a TV highlight and he'll say, "Mark Guthrie. Born in Buffalo" with an "I know you knew that but I'm just saying it to make sure" tone.

So he almost wept with envy when I told him about my cross-country Interstate 90 trip a couple of weeks ago. While I planned the trip, he would call and say things like, "You have to go to the Anchor Bar in Buffalo where they invented chicken wings" or "Sandusky, Ohio. Knute Rockne invented the forward pass there." When I broke down and invited him to join me on the final portion of the trip, however, he wasn't sure. He would love to go, but he had a lot going on and he would hate to be away from his wife that long, so probably not. But geez, it would be fun and he could show me so many great places in Buffalo, but he didn't know and he would have to think it over, but boy, he has friends in South Bend and Saratoga and it was sooooo tempting ...

He finally decided to join me last week. I think it was my stop in Sturgis that did it.

The plan was Scooter would join me in Chicago in time to visit Wrigley Field for a Cubs game. We sorted out the details over the phone and he e-mailed me with his flight number, along with this news bulletin: "John Henry Williams retired ... Who did more in his career -- Ryan Leaf or JHW?"

We met at the hotel, ate breakfast and got into the rental car. Tuesday was Scooter's 55th birthday, and he would celebrate it by attending a Cubs game at Wrigley Field for the first time in his life.

***** ***** *****

Built decades before retractable roofs, marble-floored luxury suites and public subsidies, 88-year-old Wrigley Field remains the best ballpark in baseball, the best sports facility in sports. Cities keep spending unimaginable millions on their enormous retro-parks, and yet this intimate old place beats them all. So much has been written of its many charms that I have nothing new to add, other than to say every time I see those ivy walls, I feel a few years younger.

It was great to watch a fan see it for the first time. When he saw the park, Scooter had such a goofy smile on his face that he looked like Harry Caray after about a half dozen beers. He was so impressed by Wrigley that as soon as we walked in, he left to go buy a disposable camera to record his visit. "This place is unbelievable," he said. "Nothing explodes here."

I knew what he meant. A longtime Seattleite, Scooter is used to Safeco Field and its noise: the hydro races on the video board, the blaring intro music for each at-bat, the grounds crew dancing to K.C. and the Sunshine Band at second base, the high school yearbook photos of the players, the omnipresent advertising, the Moose -- all the prerequisites of modern baseball. There's nothing wrong with any of that, but the gentle silence of Wrigley is refreshing -- no advertising, no loud music, no video board. Just that wonderful green hand-operated scoreboard.

"Look at the scoreboard," Scooter said. "They just give you the batter's name and his triple crown stats. That's all you need."

Scooter is such a purist that he still hasn't quite accepted umpires wearing khaki shirts -- "When did the umpires decide to go all Banana Republic on us?" -- but unlike me, he does not over-romanticize the game. Let others write poetry about baseball. He concerns himself with more important things.

"Only $2.25 for a hot dog? Less than $5 for a beer?" he said and gestured to the vendors. "Does Bud know about this place?"

Wrigley Field sign
Entering Wrigley Field is like stepping back in time.
Scooter has followed and loved baseball all his life. He rooted for the Bison when he lived in Buffalo, and he rooted for the Mariners long before it was the trendy thing to do in Seattle. The city's new fans drive him nuts. He loves to rant about hearing fans refer to the umpires as "refs," runs as "points" and foul territory as "out-of-bounds."

He expected to hear a more knowledgeable fan in Chicago, but we weren't in our seats five minutes before we heard the man behind us mispronounce "Roger Clemens." When another fan asked us how many innings must be played for it to be a complete game, Scooter said, "I may owe Seattle fans an apology."

Chicago's Moises Alou trotted to his position in left. "Moises Alou. Former Bison," Scooter said. "Part of the greatest Bison team ever. Alou, Jay Bell, Wes Chamberlain, Al Martin."

***** ***** *****

Scooter is a Mariners season ticket holder even though the price rises steadily season after season, placing more and more of a strain on his budget. He wonders how much more he can take, how much more he can afford. For years teams have required that fans purchase the entire strip of playoff tickets -- division series, championship series and World Series -- and the total cost approaches $1,000 just for one strip. The Mariners added a twist this year, requiring fans to also purchase a ticket in advance to a possible playoff game in case Seattle finishes the season in a tie for the final postseason spot.

This is the sort of thing that drives fans crazy. The prices teams charge for scheduled games is bad enough, but being required to pay them for games that probably will never be played is crossing the line.

Wrigley bleachers
Loyal Cubs fans enjoy the view from left field.
It isn't just the teams, though. The owners of the neighboring buildings here have erected bleachers sections atop their roofs as elaborate as any section inside Wrigley Field, charging upwards of $100 for the seats. They've turned what had been a quaint pastime into just another thing to sell. And when the team put up spite screens this year to hinder the view, these freeloaders had the gall to complain about the Cubs squeezing every cent they could from fans.

And don't even bring up the Williams family.

"I've about had it," Scooter said, repeating what he has said several times this season.

***** ***** *****

Dark clouds rolled in the fourth inning and rain forced a delay in the fifth inning. More rain forced another delay in the sixth but this didn't bother Scooter. After 25 years watching baseball in the Kingdome and Safeco Field, he enjoyed seeing a rain delay again. He even reminisced about the old days in Buffalo, when fans used to come out of the stands to help cover the field with the tarp.

"Do you think they have an interactive exhibit at the Lucille Ball Museum?" he suddenly asked during the delay. "Like the chocolate factory sketch? I could be Ethel."

Sitting with Scooter can be a bit like having your car radio on scan.

The game was not sold out and thanks to the rain delays, we moved around the ballpark easily. We sat down the left field line first, then the right field line. We listened to the fans look to the broadcast booth and join in an ear-threatening rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Like I said, Scooter can be a bit of a curmudgeon and doesn't over-romanticize things, but this tradition impressed him. "That's pretty good," he said simply.

We watched the eighth and ninth innings in the bleachers. "We're still pretty close to the field here," he said. "Think how far away we would be in Seattle's bleachers."

The attendance flashed on the scoreboard: 29,641. Not bad for a rainy midweek day game for an underachieving team 16 games under .500. Of those fans, most either came to see Sammy Sosa or the ballpark. Wrigley Field is a wonderful blessing for baseball and a minor curse for the Cubs. Because Cubs fans come out win or lose -- they went nuts when Sosa caught a routine flyball in right field -- there isn't much incentive for the owners to really, really try to win. If fans come out win or lose, why overspend to win?

Most of the fans had left by the time Cubs reliever Antonio Alfonseca took the mound in the ninth inning. Alfonseca has six fingers on each hand, a source of constant fascination to Scooter.

Wrigley field crew
Wrigley's grounds crew didn't need Scooter's help to unroll the tarp during a rain delay Tuesday.
"Six fingers," he said. "What Pete Gray couldn't do with just a couple of those."

Alfonseca retired the Astros in the ninth and Alex Gonzalez homered in the ninth to cut the lead to 5-4. The few remaining fans got excited, but the Cubs managed nothing more and lost, dropping to 17 games under .500. I took a photo of Scooter under the scoreboard and we began to leave. As we reached the exit, he pointed to a sign that read, "Respect Wrigley."

I do. I know the effect it has on fans. Walk into Wrigley and instantly your troubles slip off your shoulders (the same, however, is not true for the players).

Baseball can do that, too. Several years ago, Scooter fought cancer -- non-Hodgkin's lymphoma -- and beat it. Then it came back, and he beat it again. He frequently watched baseball games while enduring his chemo treatments, relying on his favorite sport to ease the pain of cancer. It did.

We posed for photos in front of the Harry Caray statue and went to our car. As we drove by on our way for the highway and the next stop on the tour, Scooter took one last look at Wrigley.

"That place is wonderful," he said. "They better not touch it."

There are a lot of fans saying they won't return if baseball goes on strike. I don't know if they really mean it, but I do know that if baseball loses Scooter, it might as well go out of business.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at cuffscaple@hotmail.com.



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