Itinerary: Wrigley Field

Greetings sports travel heads, it is I, fellow sports travel enthusiast (and loyal Itinerant Fan reader) J-Park here to deliver to you the first of four reviews from a recent vacation to the Midwest with my Pop. Five years ago we went on a once-in-a-lifetime (or so I thought at the time) trip to the Eastern Seaboard visiting Fenway Park (his all-time favorite), the Hall of Fame, old Yankee Stadium (we sidestepped Shea because, well …), RFK Stadium and Camden Yards. When, earlier this spring I was planning to visit one of my very best college buddies, Big Red, a lifelong Cubs fan, in western Illinois, the idea popped into my head that Pop may want to see Wrigley as well. He agreed, on one condition: “We need to see more parks.” (More on that in subsequent posts). After spending four days in Galesburg, IL, Big Red, Mrs. Red and I left 1 1/2-year old Mini Red with Queen Green (Mrs. Red’s mother) and met up with Pop in Chicago for an interleague tilt between the Cubs and White Sox.

The approach

Confession: I’ve never been especially religious, at least in the traditional go to church, pray and tithe deal. Sports occupy the space that religion would if I were a person of faith and to that end, I have found a new house of worship: Wrigley Field be thy name. Call Wrigleyville Vatican City.

Pop and I were staying in the Loop a scant two blocks from Grant Park and just one block from the Harrison stop of the El’s workhorse Red Line. We rose around 8:30 a.m. (I was like a kid on Christmas morning, got ready and were on the train by 9. This is truly the way to experience Chicago and Wrigley. A leisurely 25-minute ride through the city’s northern neighborhoods had us in Wrigleyville about three hours before game time. Public transit is your best option as there is not a parking lot to be found anywhere close although there are locals who will “rent” their parking spaces to attendees. And you get to haggle with them, so that can be fun.

The build-up

The thing to realize about Wrigley Field is that yes, it is 97 years old and yes, inside it shows its age. But the true Wrigley experience is how the whole community within about a five block radius comes together to celebrate the team, the game and and yard. The “Friendly Confines” moniker is not merely confined to the interior of the park. There is not shortage of things to do (though imbibing seems to be the favorite pastime before, during and after). Every street corner has T-shirt vendors (see photo above), some officially licensed, most not. There are plenty of bars and restaurants ranging from the the hole-in-the wall to upscale. We strolled the area immediately in front, chatting up the locals, one of whom, let’s call him Brixen Ivy, told us we were right to attend a day game (“Damn the lights,” which went up in 1988, he said. He also seemed to take great joy in telling the story of how the first night game at Wrigley was actually rained out) but was disappointed we weren’t seated in the bleachers. We were not disappointed, given that they’re first-come, first serve, people line up hours before to get in and they’re cut off from the rest of the of the park.

The rooftop scene is great too, though, at least I thought, the TV gives it a false perception of how close you are and the sightlines. Though they are better than say, the 700 level at the old Veterans Stadium or some of the upper reaches of the other cookie cutters of the ’70s, judging from where we were, there is no way you can see more than about 2/3 of the field at any time. And if you are planning on going that route, I recommend looking into the ones in right field as the ones in left pretty much face the third-base concourse. WrigleyRooftops.com is where you order tickets for that, though they are pricey (but include unlimited food and drink).

We first met up with Big Red, who had stayed in a different hotel the night before, to give him his ticket. Mrs. Red, a former seven-year Chicago resident was lunching with some friends still in the area. After a pregame Leinie’s Summer Shandy with Big Red, me and Pop headed into the Pearly White Gates.

The ambiance

The place just oozes baseball. The fact that the team hasn’t won a championship in 103 years does nothing to subtract from the allure. As soon as you walk in, you can SMELL baseball (it smells a lot like meat grilling with peppers and onion). Being 94 years old, the concourses are a little more narrow than you would encounter at most newer facilities, bathrooms are fewer and further between and switchback ramps are the only way to get from the lower concourse to the upper (see photo above). The field is at street level so when you walk in, you have to walk up to in order to get to your seat, no matter where it is.

At Wrigley, baseball is the star, so the modern amenities one would anticipate at say, AT&T Park or Target Field, are nowhere to be found. There isn’t much to do except soak up the fact that you are actually at Wrigley Field (which is what I did).

There is no large video board to be found (in fact, the only electronic displays are a smaller version of the kind that hang along the upper decks of every park nowadays) and the manually-operated out of town scoreboard only lists 12 games, prioritizing those in progress.

There is a bar inside near the right-field foul pole, though in-seat beer service (!) is available and frequently used by locals and tourists alike. The food selection, like the park, is beautiful in its simplicity. Hot dogs, brats, nachos (for some reason wildly popular in the Midwest), pizza (from local purveyor D’Agostino’s), peanuts and cracker jack is all you’re going to find and from the looks of it, there aren’t many complaints.

Pop and I milled around the gift shop for a bit, then grabbed some grilled meat and sodas and headed to the seats about 20 minutes ahead of first pitch. Big Red got to the seats just before first pitch while Mrs. Red, still catching up with recently-engaged friends, arrived during the third inning. We sat in the upper portion of the lower deck, shaded mercifully by the upper deck, about midway up, looking out on right field. One tip about buying tickets for Wrigley: Do your homework. It’s old and there are support beams all around the lower and upper decks. There are a few helpful websites to help you navigate it. Also, the numbering is very odd as aisles intersect sections giving the seating very odd numbers (for example, Pop and I occupied seats 9 and 10, but Big Red and Mrs. Red were in 111 and 112).

They do the anthem and “God Bless America” before the game because “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” takes precedence during the seventh-inning stretch. The day we were there, the Sunday of Fourth of July weekend, none other than Mr. Cub himself, Ernie Banks, was the honorary singer. He was greeted with more than a few chants of “Let’s play two!” from the Wrigley faithful.

When your team hasn’t won in a long time and your park is among the premier tourist destinations in baseball, it would be understood if not condoned, for you to feel a little bitterness. Not to be found at all at Wrigley. The Friendly Confines moniker fits the fanbase like ivy on brick. Though the fans behind us had armrest GM traded away nearly the entire roster by the end of the game, electing only to keep second-year shortstop Starlin Castro.

The game saw the homeside nine salvage the series with a 3-1 win over the Southsiders. This being a holiday weekend, I have to imagine the atmosphere was somewhat more boisterous than normal, but according to Mrs. Red, the bars surrounding the park are packed day and night, win or lose.

The damage

Tickets
$85 each (purchased through StubHub)
Food
$50 for 1 hot dog, 1 bratwurst, 2 sodas and five Old Style beers
Souvenirs
$60 (Shirt for me, shirt for Pop, shirt for Scissor Sister)

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