IN CASE YOU HADN'T HEARD, THE CUBS LAST WON THE WORLD SERIES IN 1908. BUT IF THEY'RE CURSED, WHY DO ALL THESE PEOPLE FEEL SO BLESSED?
IN CHRONICLING THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE 2004 CUBS FOR HIS NEW BOOK, Cubs Nation, senior writer Gene Wojciechowski didn't spend the season just with Dusty Baker, Kerry Wood, Greg Maddux and the rest of the combustible crew. He also spent it among those who live and die with them. He rented an apartment in Wrigleyville, hung out with fans in bars and on rooftops, chatted up the panhandlers and street musicians who come out on game days. He got to know the clubhouse men, vendors and support staff who truly make Wrigley Field what Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, dubbed the Friendly Confines. And then he divided their stories, and the season, into 162 chapters.
Before we get too deep into 2005, which already has taken on a life of its own (Prior's Back! Nomar's Out! Dusty's Sprinkling Holy Water!), let's meet a few characters who, for better or worse, keep the faith.
THE USHERS Almost as old as Wrigley, Ole Lyse, 82, and his wife Lois, 81, welcome you to your seats. Born in Norway, Ole spent 25 years as a sheet-metal man for Wrigley Gum. His hands are as big as waffle irons. After I exchanged a handshake with him, my fingers wanted to report to the first-aid station.
Says Ole, who works Aisle 15, just behind the Cubs dugout: "I've seated Hillary Clinton, Robert Dole, governor Jim Thompson, Matt Damon, Jim Belushi, Bill Murray. Governor Blagojevich comes here and sits with his daughter. There's been a lot of variety.
"Bribe offers? It has happened, yes. That is a complete no-no. We try to keep the integrity of the ballpark. I've been offered a fair amount. Our response: 'We don't do this at the ballpark.' We are offered tips. We don't accept tips.
"I had a guy the other day who tried to sneak by. He said he wanted to give a player a candy bar. That's a new one.
"That 2003 season, that was the first year since we've been working here that we saw the ivy change color in the fall. We had never been here that late in October.
"The best part about the job is the fans and the ballpark. A lot of the fans come here because of the ballpark, because it's an old-fashioned ballpark. You see people come up the stairwell and get their first look at the place. That never gets old."
THE PRIEST Reverend David F. Ryan, a longtime friend of Harry Caray's, performed last rites before the beloved broadcaster died in 1998. Father Ryan blessed the Cubs' 2004 season minutes after the Bartman Ball was zapped and reduced to angel-hair pasta at Harry's restaurant.
"Whenever I have a funeral for someone who lived to be 98 years old ... if I know they were born before 1908, I always bring up during the course of the mass that this is a very unique person. This person was actually alive the last time the Cubs won a World Series. There have been millions of people who have lived and died and not experienced that reality.
"I think part of being a Catholic, and it's the same to be a Cubs fan, is that you have to have a sense of long suffering."
After a slight pause, Father Ryan finally gets it.
"Maybe," he says, "it is time to write a Cubs prayer."
THE BEER MAN David Mariotti, a teacher in real life, has been lugging red plastic minitubs up and down the stairs since 1983.
"Best tip I ever got? What you want, clean or dirty? Dirty? Okay.
"Cubs-Cardinals game. I had Old Style that day, and the crowds, they were just happy to see a beer person. They were just happy to get their beer. I had these guys and girls, big group. They were tipping. At the end, they ran out of money. Nothing left for tips. So three of the girls came up and flashed me, and that was the tip.
THE UMPIRES ROOM ATTENDANT Jimmy Farrell, a former Army sergeant who served in World War II, then worked in the blood and muck of Agars meatpacking plant in the stockyards, has supervised the umps room near the Cubs clubhouse since 1982. Umpire Charlie Reliford calls him "the nicest man alive." Dusty Baker calls him "Sweet Jimmy." He often stands in the dugout during games, and he's so beloved by Cubs players, they voted him a playoff share after the '03 season. He's pictured here alongside ump Ted Barrett.
"I put the ball and the rosin bag on the mound. For Game 7 of the NLCS, I wrote W on the ball, for Win. I did it for Kerry Wood. He was under a lot of pressure-it was for a chance to go to the World Series. When he picked that ball up, he kind of laughed a little bit. He looked at me in the dugout, kind of tipped his hat to me. He noticed it right away. But he still lost.
"I've had it great here. Everybody's been so nice. If God should take me tomorrow, I don't think I've missed anything. I've seen it all."
THE BALLHAWK His name is Dave Davison, and he has no ballhawk peer. "How many baseballs you got now?" asks the cop working the corner. "Uh, 3,699," says Davison. The 36-year-old works at The Home Depot on North Avenue. If the Cubs are in town and the wind is blowing out, he's on Waveland by 11. Listen to the master for ballhawking tips: "Stand away from anybody with a glove. "Don't follow the crowd. "Seventy-five percent of everything you catch is on the fly. "Kenmore and Waveland is the best spot."
He could tell you more, but he won't. Trade secrets.
THE ROCK STAR Billy Corgan grew up in suburban Glen Ellyn, wanting to wear Cubby blue. When that didn't work out, he became a rock star with The Smashing Pumpkins, which is nice, but not the same as taking the mound at Wrigley or rearranging your cup on WGN.
"Loveable losers? I think that's bull. The fact that the ballpark is populated by a bunch of people who view it as another stop on their tourist destination is not my problem. I really do love my team. I loved my team when there were only 7,000 people in the stands."
THE CARETAKER Ashes to ashes, dust to dust? Yes, some deceased residents of Cubs Nation are part of the Friendly Confines, whether the organization likes it or not. Head groundskeeper Roger Baird, occasional raker of remains, explains.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, it happens after a ballgame when people are exiting the stadium. They'll sneak down by the wall and toss something over it. We try to get a hose on it right away. If you get too much of that stuff on one area, it can kill your grass. It's something we learned over the years. Most of the time, if we let them do it, we have them pour the ashes on the warning track. Then we drag it and hose it down. But it shows how much loyalty our fans have to this organization and to this ballpark."
THE FIREMAN The red Spartan Gladiator FF with the Luverne pumps pulls into the concrete driveway of Engine Co. 78, on the corner of Waveland and Seminary. An American flag flaps from the back of the fire truck, and a worn Cubs flag flies from the driver's-side mirror. Pat Reardon (second from left), a 16-year veteran of the CFD, is behind the wheel.
"I originally started on the West Side. Then I requested to come here in 1999. The location was why, the only reason why. I'm a big Cubs fan, and I wanted to be closer to the Cubs."
This is pretty close-about 50 feet. From a bench just outside the garage door, you get a perfect view of the leftfield wall and the grandstands on the third base side. No wonder this is the 42-year-old Reardon's idea of work heaven. "The coolest thing is when you're watching TV in the front here-it's delayed about one second-and you hear the crowd roar. Then you know something's going to happen."
A call comes over the firehouse intercom. This one isn't a drill. "We got to run," Reardon says.
Moments later, the siren sounds. And those two flags wave.
THE BARTMAN IMPERSONATOR Actor/improv comedian Brian Boland played the infamous Steve Bartman in a 2004 production at The Second City in Chicago. (The real Bartman has reportedly changed his hairstyle and glasses, and he's still refusing all interview requests.)
"I play him like an innocent at first, which I think he is. The poor guy. I remember him writing that initial statement, something like, 'from the bottom of this broken Cubs fan's heart,' or whatever the exact quote was. I feel sorry for the guy. He has really eschewed any sort of media coverage. He just wants to disappear and hide under a rock.
"The funny thing is, if Bartman made a cameo at our show, I think he would actually be cheered and applauded ... Certainly he would be heckled as well. But at this point, I think enough time has passed where it's like, people realize it wasn't really his fault."
THE CURSEKEEPER Sam Sianis, proprietor of the Billy Goat Tavern on North Michigan Avenue, explains why you never cross a Greek-or his goat. The story revolves around William "Billy Goat" Sianis, Sam's uncle and the joint's original owner.
"Back in 1945, my uncle tried to take his goat to Wrigley Field for the World Series between Detroit and the Cubs. He had two tickets and they refused to let him in. My uncle says, 'I've got tickets. The goat has tickets. Why not?' And they said they can't have animals in the ballpark. So my uncle says, 'Ask Mr. Wrigley.'
"Somebody went up there, told Mr. Wrigley that my uncle was down there, a billy goat was down there, they have tickets, and they want to get into the game. Mr. Wrigley says, 'No goat allowed. The goat smells. We don't want any smelly goat in there.'
"My uncle went back to his tavern at 1855 West Madison. That was the old Billy Goat. He stayed there, and the Cubs lost the game. Later on he sent a telegram to Mr. Wrigley after the Cubs lost the Series. It says, 'Who smells now?' I've got the telegram right over there, behind the bar.
"Then people say that my uncle said, 'As long as I live, the Cubs, they're not going to win any World Series here.' But my uncle, he never told me that. He always told me, 'The Cubs are going to suffer because of what they did to my goat.' That I remember.
"Now nobody calls me from the Cubs. Nobody invites me. It's too late now. But you know what? If they asked me, I'd find a goat, and I would go to Wrigley Field."
Adapted from Cubs Nation: 162 Games. 162 Stories. 1 Addiction.
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