Baseball season just started so that means your summer ballpark road trip is that much closer! In a bid to help you with your upcoming journeys, Big League Stew has solicited the help of the locals. Over the next month or so, we'll be hitting up our usual guest blogger crew to feature 10 tips for enjoying each of the 30 ballparks like the locals do. Have a suggestion in addition to the ones listed here? Make sure to list it in the comments below.
Next up in the series is yours truly on a 99-year-old park that remains one of the top tourist destinations in Chicago. Wrigley Field is about to undergo a $500 million facelift, but here's how to best experience the turn-back-the-clock machine before the construction trucks arrive at the end of the season.
So you're planning a trip to Wrigley Field this summer? You're not the only one. As the Ricketts family often mentioned during their failed bid to secure public financing for the park's much-needed facelift, the 99-year-old lady is the third-most visited tourist attraction in the state of Illinois. I can't find which sites rank ahead of the Friendly Confines, but let's see you try to get a suntan, throw peanut shells on the ground and scream obscenities at the bullpen while you're visiting the Lincoln Library or the Art Institute. Or at least let's see you try all those things without being arrested moments later.
Anyhow, while you're just as likely to sit next to a couple from Lubbock than Lincoln Park this summer — hey, the nice thing about being a Cubs fan is that there are always plenty of tourists to fake signs of support and spend money during lean years like this one — I'd like to give you a few tips so you come off as a Wrigley lifer when you're sitting next to those tourists from Texas.
1. Public transportation or cabs are the only way to go: If you're the typical Chicago tourist, you're likely staying in one of two areas. You're either battling dental conventioneers for a sky-high room rate downtown or you're staying out in Rosemont/O'Hare by where the Cubs tried to pretend they might move had the ballpark deal not passed. Both are great options because it's easy to take public transportation or to hail a cab. (If you're truly road-tripping and have a car with you, the parking restrictions around Wrigley are heavy. Either pay to park in someone's garage or head west of Ashland for more lax restrictions.)
If you're staying at a downtown hotel, take the Red Line to the Addison stop, which will let you off on the platform you can see from the ballpark. Staying out by the airport means a trip down the Blue Line to that line's Addison stop and a bus trip on the CTA's 152 line to the park. While the prospect of sitting on a city bus for 20-25 minutes may not seem that appealing, try to enjoy the anticipation that builds through a few of the city's different neighborhoods as you wait for the first glimpse of Wrigley's famous red marquee. Taking the 152 also gives you a chance to hop off at California Avenue and enjoy the wonder that is Hot Doug's, The Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium. Lines form early for Doug's great treats like rattlesnake sausage and duck-fat fries, so give yourself plenty of time if you're going to a 1:20 start. (Also, a word to the wise: Like Chick-Fil-a, it's heartbreakingly closed on Sundays.)
2. Go a round with the Ballhawks: There are few sporting venues in this world that allow you to participate alongside the pros. Jockeying against the dedicated men who spend their days on Waveland Avenue trying to catch baseballs from batting practice and games is one of them. While you might not have a great chance of success against these guys — they're on their way to the landing spot before you even realize a baseball's headed your way — mixing it up before a game is a great way to take in the ambiance of the neighborhood. Do it soon, though. Wrigley's renovation plan includes increased signage in the outfield and could put the Ballhawks in danger of extinction.
3. Try the bleachers at least once. Wrigley's bleachers are so famous that the Cubs have been able to jack up the bleacher prices way past what you're probably used to paying at your home park. They were actually able to command those prices, too, when Sammy Sosa was making them the hottest ticket in town or when the team won back-to-back division titles without winning a single playoff game in 2007 and 2008.
Now, though? You should be able to buy bleacher tickets well ahead of your stay or pick them up for a huge discount from someone who's headed in with an extra. All bleacher tickets are general admission, so don't be afraid to accumulate a bunch of single if you're going with a group. A day in Wrigley's bleachers is better than a day just about anywhere else. Just make sure you pack your sunscreen and pick a good spot. I've always liked the third row in the bottom of the right field bleachers since it always seems to have a few empty seats, even close to first pitch on crowded days. It's also prime territory to catch a home run.
One final note: Bleacher ticket holders have access to the entire park, but the reverse does not hold true. If you want to watch the game from the bleachers, you need to buy a bleacher ticket.
4. The best value comes in the 400 level: OK, so the bleachers may not be everyone's cup of tea. I've had a harder time sitting in them lately as 1) my advancing years make me yearn for an actual seat back and 2) the section increasingly attracts chuckleheads like the clown who dumped beer on Shane Victorino a few years back. So where do you sit if you don't want the hassle? I'd log onto Stubhub and check for available seats in the 400 section that are located between the bases. Yes, the 400 level is in the upper deck but Wrigley is so cozy that they're among the best seats in the house with an excellent view of both the field and the neighborhood beyond the ballpark's walls. The box seats are also great, but will run you a pretty penny. There are a lot of good deals to be had in the 200- and 500-levels, but beware of the dreaded support poles. WrigleyFieldSeating.com has an excellent breakdown of the seats you want to avoid if you want an unobstructed view of the game.
5. Avoid the rooftops: Buying a ticket to watch the game from one of the rooftops is good if you're attending a business meeting or bachelor party and don't really care about tracking the game too much. I could also see coming in for a three-game series and doing one day from the rooftops just to cross it off your bucket list. But if you're just there for one day? Forget about it. All of the converted rooftops have a decidedly corporate feel to them and they're dreadfully overpriced, even if you get a "deal" on a coupon site. The days of tenants inviting their friends to watch the game with lawn chairs and a six-pack are long gone. Heck, so are most of the tenants, as the landlords have converted their apartments into meeting rooms and lounges.
6. Go old school: This "local's guide" series has been heavy on where to seek out high cuisine and craft brews on your concourse. And that's fine. The new age of ballparks provides plenty of forum for those types of menus. But we're talking about Wrigley Field here, a park that opened well before the start of World War I and remains beloved because of the way it presents a window to the past. So when you go, do things the way we used to do them. Order hot dogs and pile them high with onions and mustard. Drink terrible beer out of wax paper cups. Eat your weight in peanuts. Demand the malt cup vendor give you a wooden spoon to eat your frozen treat with. Expect your kids to sit in their seats and watch the game. Keep score and only whip out your smart phone to take pictures of the memories you're creating. There'll be plenty of time for sushi plates and merry-go-rounds when you hit other spots on your ballpark tour.
(One food recommendation, though: Wrigley is now offering D'Agostino's Pizza from a popular parlor down the street and it might be the best ballpark pizza I've ever tasted. Grab a slice, wipe the sauce from your face and then say a pie-themed prayer for the United Center and U.S. Cellular Field. Both crosstown venues sold their soul to the devil and offer DiGiorno Pizza — yes, you read that right — at their concession stands. What a civic embarrassment.)
7. Don't mess around with the seat ushers: If you take the bus to the game, there's a good chance you might have to give up one of your seats to an elderly person making his or her way to Wrigley to work as an usher. You should do this as a matter of general principle, of course, but don't expect any sort of favors once you hit the park. These men and women WILL TAKE YOU OUT if you try and sneak into any good seats under their watch. A lot of ballpark fans claim their ushers are the worst, but no one tops the stubborn sentinels that Wrigley has posted in front of the box seats. If I sound upset over this, it's because it's personal. One old cuss prevented me from going down to get a player's autograph during the 1990 All-Star Workout Day — even though the player, I wish I could remember who, was waving me down with a smile — and I've held a grudge ever since.
8. Make friends: Wrigley's old seats are cozy at best and designed to send you to the chiropractor by the sixth inning at worst. Let's just say they were bolted down during a generation that might not have gorged themselves on malt cups and pizza. However, the cramped quarters also mean that there's almost no way you can go an entire nine innings without talking to the people around you. So go ahead and strike up a conversation. I've met people from all around the country and in all lines of work. As our culture sinks farther into our smart phones, take the chance to meet and talk with someone new. You already know you have an appreciation for baseball in common.
9. Make Murphy's Bleachers your pre- and postgame stop: Everyone has their favorite Wrigleyville watering hole and mine happens to sit at the corner of Sheffield and Waveland, just outside the gate to the bleachers. It's safely tucked away from the madness of Clark Street, allows for a great view of the 'L' tracks and has a great walk-up grill to soak up the suds you've been consuming. Stake your claim out on the patio with a few friends and marvel over the great day you're having. Also, keep in mind that this is the exact dynamic that every new ballpark has tried to capture with their bar and warehouse districts.
10. Go Cubs Go!: I can't explain it. On the rare occasion the Cubs do win, I look at the people singing the celebratory song "Go Cubs Go!" on television and think they look ridiculous. "Who would ever make a fool of themselves like that?" I say.
But when I'm at the park on the rare occasion the Cubs do win? Well, I belt out the song along with everyone else. It's a little like attending a wedding and eventually finding yourself on the floor with everyone else while the DJ plays "Shout!" Not only is everyone else doing it, you've had too many drinks to care — and it is really a lot of fun. Enjoy your trip to Wrigley.
Previous parks: Citi Field, Marlins Park, Great American Ball Park, Petco Park,Comerica Park, Progressive Park, AT&T Park, Rogers Centre, Wrigley Field, O.Co Coliseum, Yankee Stadium, Coors Field, Minute Maid Park, Fenway Park