CHICAGO – The Wrigley Field bleachers were built for $200,000 in 1937, and they've lived a good 78 years. They witnessed plenty of wins and a few more losses, millions of beers slugged in elation and about half that spilled in frustration. The ivy grew and the bums sunbathed and the bleachers lived the same existence every year, absorbing each moment, soaking up history. They had seen everything except the Chicago Cubs win a World Series.
Or at least they thought so until Monday night.
Every time Jeff Baum went up and down the stands to grab another beer, his legs burned. Six months ago, Baum booked a plane ticket here from Lubbock, Texas, to run the Chicago Marathon, which he finished in six hours, 29 minutes Sunday. He loves this city, and no place means more to him than Wrigley Field.
"This is the happiest spot in the world for me," Baum said.
Baum is 46 and has been a Cubs fan since 1984. "I was the fat kid that every summer instead of being outside in the heat would be inside on the couch watching the Cubs on TV," he said. When he got his license that year, he drove 10 hours to Houston to see the Cubs play the Astros, and he uses his days off as a school administrator in Lubbock to make at least one pilgrimage a year.
That Monday happened to be Game 3 of the National League Division Series – the first Cubs home playoff game in seven years – was kismet. Baum bought a ticket, donned a pair of 3D movie glasses because they looked like the Buddy Holly frames worn by Cubs manager Joe Maddon and settled into the front row of Section 305 unaware of the fortune that soon would fly his way.
In the second inning, rookie Kyle Schwarber lofted an 88-mph changeup from St. Louis Cardinals starter Michael Wacha toward left field, the same place he peppered balls during batting practice. Schwarber was one of four rookies in the Cubs' precocious lineup that made the bleacher seats a prime destination, balls flying into it all summer. Here was another headed that way.
"And I'm in the right place," Baum said.
The ball ricocheted off his left wrist and broke his watch. It landed in the basket just above the wall. As the rest of Wrigley broke into hysterics, Baum reached down, yanked out the ball and emerged with the best treasure imaginable. His phone blew up with text messages and his Facebook page with well-wishers and his mind with the sensation nobody in Wrigley on Monday could escape.
"It's a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching feeling any time the Cubs get close and don't make it," Baum said. "I've felt from Day 1 this year they were going to be special."
Nick Jarecki is 17 years old, too young to understand what the bleachers have seen, what being a Cubs fan means. It is about euphoria ceding to heartbreak, joy being leveled by inevitability, optimism crushed by reality. Generation after generation without a World Series title, 106 years and counting, turns a fan base into the ultimate believers, the ones convinced this year, or at least one of these years, will be theirs.
Jarecki wore the best-selling jersey in baseball this season, the No. 17 of Kris Bryant, the Cubs' rookie third baseman who embodies everything this team means to this city: Its present excellence, its future greatness, its hope personified. Bryant jerseys dotted the bleachers. Everyone in them wore Cubs gear outside of a few Cardinals fans who dared brave enemy territory. The bleachers are an unrelenting place. Sometimes they even turn on one another, the left-field denizens chanting, "Right field sucks!" and those in right returning the favor, bellowing, "Left field sucks!" Back and forth they go, bored, soused, amused.
No such chants emanated Monday. It was serious business, the Cardinals having taken a 2-1 lead before Starlin Castro stepped to the plate. He was a baby Cub once upon a time, too, when Chicago was losing 90-plus games a year as president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer rebuilt the team to its current state. Castro struggled early in the season, lost his shortstop job to rookie Addison Russell, found himself at second base and in the fourth inning drove a first-pitch curveball from Wacha right toward Jarecki.
"I was thinking this is the best thing that's ever happened to me," Jarecki said. "I had to catch it. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
He did so on the fly, a move that made his friends and teammates at Deerfield High School proud. He's a first baseman and a pitcher there, and he had a choice of games to attend with his father, Don, a season-ticket holder. Jarecki picked this one. The Cubs' ace, Jake Arrieta, was starting the game, and he figured he might see history. Little did he know he was a part of it.
George Gatto played for six seasons in the Cubs organization, a third baseman who never made it out of the low minor leagues. Even though his nephew Jim grew up on the South Side of Chicago, White Sox territory, he was always a Cubs fan, family loyalty trumping all.
Jim Gatto is a doctor in Wisconsin, where he runs a family practice. He still has Cubs season tickets. He gives some to friends and sells others, making it to about five games a year. He wasn't going to miss Game 3, not under any circumstances. Gatto is 46. No matter how wonderful the future looks, these are the Cubs, and to take any year for granted is not in his DNA.
Never, in all his years going to Cubs games, had Gatto caught a ball. Not in batting practice. Not a foul. Certainly not a home run. So when the opportunity came in the bottom of the fifth inning Monday, he understood his imperative.
"I didn't miss it," Gatto said. "Two hands. No glove."
This was for his family – Uncle George and the people around him who felt like blood. The bleachers do this. When Bryant barreled the ball that ended up in Gatto's hands, strangers hugged and couples kissed and Wrigley shook. The ballpark is 102 years old, in the midst of a renovation to modernize it, 42,411 on Monday packing it to the gills. The bleachers were among the first parts of the facelift, and they were there for fans like Jim Gatto.
Soon after he caught the ball, a Wrigley security employee came up to him and asked for the ball. It was Bryant's first playoff home run, Gatto was told, and he probably would like it as a keepsake. Fans around him encouraged Gatto to hold onto the ball and get something for it. Maybe World Series tickets.
That didn't sound right to Gatto. "He should have the ball," he said.
Bryant's home run knocked Wacha out of the game and gave the Cubs a 4-2 lead. In came left-hander Kevin Siegrist, who came in firing fastballs. The first was 95 and the next 95 and then 94 and 94, and then came the fifth in a row, belt-high and bisecting the plate. And Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs' slugging first baseman and cleanup hitter, the rock of the lineup and face of the franchise, turned on it and gave right field what left field had hogged all night.
Sitting 440 feet away was Paul Fromm. He's 30. The last playoff game he attended at Wrigley was Oct. 14, 2003.
"The Bartman game," said Steve Fromm, his father.
"I cried on the way home," Paul Fromm said.
Fromm was 18 then, a freshman in college back from the University of Virginia because this was going to be when the Cubs clinched their return to the World Series. And Steve Bartman, the headphoned fan along the left-field line, reached his way into immortality by interfering with a flyball that Moises Alou believed he could catch. Maybe he would've, maybe not. Maybe the Cubs would've blown the game another way or maybe they would've won it and beaten the New York Yankees for a championship and rendered Monday far less meaningful. The Cubs' history is littered with maybes too sad to consider.
Fromm ignored his sadness and joined the Cubs' season-ticket waiting list that year. He graduated, moved to New York and Michigan, spent years wondering when he would reach the top of the list. He moved back to Chicago this year, and he just so happened to get the call.
"So the year I move back is the year I got off the waiting list and the year the Cubs got good," Fromm said. "And the year I got Anthony Rizzo's home run in the playoffs."
The ball landed two rows in front of Fromm, just to the left of Rob Chagdes, who tried to jump on the ball and fell on the ground. As Chagdes and other fans scrapped for it, the ball squirted out and Fromm reached down and grabbed it. Seconds later, a Cubs employee asked for the ball, and Fromm gladly yielded it.
Chagdes glanced at his wrist and saw blood leaking from it. His pinky and elbow were bleeding, too. He didn't care. The Cubs had hit four home runs. They were up 5-2. If that was his sacrifice to the bleachers, it was worth it.
Typical Cubs. Jake Arrieta, unhittable for months, the man who had allowed four earned runs in his last 97 1/3 innings coming into Monday, got tagged for a home run by Jason Heyward that cut Chicago's lead to 5-4. The bleachers weren't quiet exactly – the bleachers never are quiet – but enough people had seen enough games to recognize the folly in believing anything positive is preordained for the Cubs.
Tony Killeen grew up a Cubs fan in Lansing, Ill., about 30 miles south of Wrigley, and today lives in Dyer, Ind., just over the border. He is 38 years old and lived through the playoff collapses in 1984 and 1989 and 1998 and 2003 and 2007 and 2008. And he was still here, only because his brother Mike, with whom he shares season tickets, wanted to go to Game 4 instead.
Mike was watching in the sixth inning when Jorge Soler came to the plate. Soler, a 23-year-old Cuban who was one of Epstein's and Hoyer's first big-ticket purchases, spent most of the 2015 season flashing his great potential without any consistency. Maddon slotted him in the lineup trying to ride his hot hand, and Soler rewarded him by getting on base for the first eight playoff plate appearances of his career, a major league record. His ninth came against Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals' ace coming off Achilles surgery and pitching out of the bullpen.
Wainwright's first pitch was a 90-mph fastball. Soler turned on it and sent it back at 107 mph, a laser lofted at just 20 degrees and rising toward Killeen. He caught the ball, raised it high, plain for his brother to see. "He texted me already," Killeen said. "He said he hates me."
Killeen held onto the ball, promising he'd bring it down to the clubhouse after the game for Soler. This felt essential to him, this bond between this Cubs team and these fans being forged even further. They'd given so much to him. He wanted to give something to them, too.
Since the first World Series in 1903, never had one team hit six home runs in a postseason game until Monday night. For everything the bleachers have seen – love blossom in their stands, hatred cast toward the opposition, copious home run balls thrown back, plenty more kept for posterity – this was new, something only a few thousand people could say they witnessed from the definitive angle.
In the right-field corner, Gary Patterson stood below a raucous bar where the overserved congregated and celebrated. He'd drained a few pops himself, enough that when Dexter Fowler laced a ball toward his seats, he was positioning himself to catch the ball and the sunglasses atop his head fell down and covered his eyes. Patterson regained his composure, read the bounce off a chair in front of him and seized the ball.
Rather than hide it in his pocket, Patterson showed it off to the fans around him. One woman asked to see the ball. Patterson didn't hesitate to give it to her, and she held it in front of her and posed with it for a selfie.
"This is what a Cubs home game is," Patterson said. "You know? Home Cubs playoff game. This is what it's all about."
Patterson is 39 and lives in nearby Oak Park. He clutched his ball in one hand and a beer in the other, the perfect embodiment of a Cubs fan, the archetypal bleacher dweller, living the sort of night that seemed like a dream.
"Six home runs from six different players," said the selfie-taker. "Never happened in postseason history."
"And," Patterson said, "I got one of 'em."
No seat in sports is more cliché than a bleacher seat at Wrigley Field. It is where the tourists want to sit today, where the unemployed sat during the Harry Caray era, overlooked by the rooftops behind it and colored by the field in front of it. The bleachers are the rawest representation of the Cubs, the place where the camera will train itself when inevitability becomes reality and they finally do win a World Series.
Maybe it will be this year – another maybe, yes, but one that felt so much more real after Monday because nights like this prove that even the Cubs, the woebegone Cubs, can still find themselves intertwined with history. And because those who played a small part in that history are content in giving it back to those who made it.
In the afterglow of their 8-6 victory Monday, one that left them a Game 4 win Tuesday shy of advancing to the NL Championship Series, Rizzo beamed at having his home run ball waiting for him in his locker. "The fans here are behind us all the way," he said. "We're all in this together." And Bryant, informed his was on the way, said: "Nice!" He inscribes on each of his mementos where they came from and keeps them in a room, a collection sure to grow in the coming years.
Schwarber didn't get his ball, even though Baum said he would've given it up if the Cubs asked, as did Jarecki with Castro's home run and Patterson with Fowler's. For Schwarber, that was OK.
"These fans deserve it," he said. "We're able to come out and give them a playoff experience. For them to give us the electricity, feeding into us, it's awesome. They exceeded my expectations."
At its best, Wrigley Field is a symbiotic creature, fostering a perpetual give and take between a city that loves a ballclub and a ballclub that loves it back. About 45 minutes after the game, Fromm, Gatto and Killeen waited outside the clubhouse for their bonus return. Fromm got a bat signed by Rizzo. Gatto got a ball signed by the whole team. And Killeen, after walking away because he wasn't certain Soler wanted the home run ball, traded it for the same prize as Gatto, a gem-white ball full of blue-inked signatures.
"Awesome," Killeen said. "This could be history."
Depending on Tuesday, and the days thereafter, it could be the sort that exorcises a century-plus. In the excitement of the moment, though, twirling this ball with all the familiar names in his hand, Killeen forgot what he'd just seen. This already was history. And it will always be his and Chicago's.
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