If sports are an analog for war, then fandom is an analog for patriotism. Never is this more evident than when a team makes a deep playoff run. The diehards’ fervor remains more or less the same, but when a team goes to the postseason, the enthusiasm becomes contagious, swelling to consume fair-weather fans, bandwagoners, tag-alongs, and ultimately the entire city.
Over the weekend, Chicago’s North Side was nearly devoid of people wearing casual clothes. In three days covering the World Series, the overwhelming majority of people I encountered fit one of four categories: people of all ages dressed for work, shitfaced young twentysomethings in Halloween costumes, slightly less drunk older twentysomethings dressed for the club, and people in Cubs gear.
Judging by their attire, Chicago’s citizens lived for three things: work, sex, and baseball.
Early Friday afternoon, the Red Line was already overflowing. I thought heading up to Wrigley Field five hours before first pitch of Game 3 would’ve allowed me to beat the public transit rush, but I soon realized just how badly I’d miscalculated.
There was so much blue pressed against the windows that you could’ve exsanguinated half a dozen Smurfs and nobody would’ve noticed. It was back-half-of-Snowpiercer crowded, stage-rush-when-the-headliner-comes-on crowded. So I squeezed up against the door, my sternum inches from a stranger’s head.
Probably because we were in such uncomfortably close physical proximity, a middle-aged woman struck up a conversation. She wasn’t going to the game — heading up to Wrigleyville for a few minutes to take some pictures of the crowd. She was fizzing with excitement, her eyes sparkling as she went on about how this World Series is a once-in-a-lifetime event.
After a stop or two, she trailed off midsentence, like you do when you’re just too excited or astounded to keep talking. Then she looked me in the eye and said:
“And I’m not even a Cubs fan — I’m a White Sox fan.”
Former Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee supposedly once said that when he got called up to Boston for the first time, he accidentally drove past Fenway Park because he thought it was a factory. I had that story in mind as I walked up to Wrigley for the first time. Having been raised on modern ballparks — the concrete islands in a sea of asphalt of the 1970s, or the retro McMansions of the 1990s and 2000s — I was unprepared to behold a tangle of concrete and brick, its scaffoldings and flags resembling those of an old seaside amusement park, wedged into one city block among townhouses and bars.
The carnival atmosphere extended from the ballpark like the remains of a watermelon that had been dropped off a tall building — dense at the center and thinning out the farther away you got. A police cordon about a quarter mile down Sheffield Avenue separated the makeshift parking lots from merchandise stands and buskers. There were half a dozen guys dressed as the ghosts of the 1908 Cubs, walking down the block with a dog that was painted in Cubs colors.
You could buy red or blue T-shirts featuring a variety of slogans. Or you could pay to have your picture taken with a goat, which seems like tempting fate to me, but others might say it’s best to just confront your fears directly.
By the time you could see the park through the trees and townhouses, the streets were choked to near-impassability with Cubs fans, most wearing blue sweatshirts or jackets, others wearing jerseys from Arrieta to Zobrist, with a few conspicuous Kosuke Fukudome fans in between.
These thousands of fans congregated around the statues of broadcaster Harry Caray and Hall of Fame shortstop Ernie Banks and the famous red Wrigley Field sign on the facade at Addison and Clark behind home plate, pausing to take pictures as proof they’d seen some religious artifact. They gathered in groups of dozens as security guards pulled curtains across Waveland Avenue so Cubs players could cross the street to the gate unmolested — though someone would invariably shout “Heyward!” or “Arrieta!” through the mesh, prompting a ritualistic raising of cellphones to take pictures.
The streets surrounding the ballpark would’ve been congested by sheer force of numbers, but construction of new team offices and a hotel adjacent to the stadium choked Clark Street down to two narrow lanes bordered by fences and Jersey barriers to protect pedestrians, though walking through it single file, the experience felt more like being herded through a cattle chute. On Waveland, pedestrians spilled from the sidewalk onto the road, occasionally necessitating that they be shooed back to the sidewalk to allow a vehicle to pass.
To help with crowd control, the Chicago Police dispatched as many as a thousand officers — definitely more cops than I’d ever seen in one place in my life. Most were on foot, some on bicycles, and about half a dozen or so on horseback — so if the crowds and the goat didn’t make it feel like a carnival already, the smell of the horses put it over the top.
For Game 4, I tried to avoid the human crush of the Red Line, so I took a Lyft to the park. My driver, a self-described bandwagon Cubs fan, said the city was rallying behind the team in much the same way it had when the Blackhawks made their Stanley Cup runs in 2010, 2013, and 2015, but that it wasn’t like this when the White Sox won the title in 2005. I brought up the now-infamous SportsCenter graphic that omitted the 2005 World Series from Chicago’s list of titles, to which he said: “It’s a segregated city. The South Side is like the cool stepson, and the North Side is like the favorite daughter.”
Certain cities’ sports identities are wrapped up in the veneer of the working class. We talk about Boston, Philadelphia, and most Rust Belt cities like the people themselves are made of pig iron, and they demand that their athletes play like they wear Dickies coveralls to the park. The Cubs’ team identity is to some degree founded on humble roots, from the team’s 102-year-old stadium to the bleacher bums to the lovable loser moniker. But almost every team in North America tries to wear that cloak to some degree — even as they take in hundreds of millions of dollars a year from taxpayers and customers. Coaches, players, and owners fetishize hard work, because the fiction that force of will is the decisive factor in sports (if not life itself) is a useful one — if it’s true, then it means that the people who come out on top deserved it.
Wrigleyville has the semblance of tradition — its landmarks are venerable and familiar to even casual fans — but what do those landmarks look like now? Wrigley Field itself is in the process of a half-billion-dollar renovation. Its famous analog scoreboard is now supplemented by two enormous video screens, and it stands beside a glowing white advertisement for a wealth management company. The famous rooftops on the surrounding buildings that look down onto the park are now commercialized. Getting a free peek at a ballgame by peering over the fence is now big business, the most obvious symbol of gentrification that stretches well into the surrounding neighborhoods.
The 2016 team itself was built by a family of billionaire investment bankers who bought the team in 2009, then went out and stocked it with the best front office and the best manager, then empowered them to go buy high-priced free agents in bulk.
The fans who couldn’t purchase tickets from the club directly were forced to go through the secondary market, which priced seats in the multiple thousands of dollars. Halfway through each game, the Cubs circulated a sheet of notes to the press that included a list of celebrities in attendance, ranging from Bill Murray to Jon Hamm to Lady Gaga. The party scene outside the stadium crossed racial and class boundaries, but once inside, it looked like a corporate golf outing — rich white men and their families living out baseball’s interpretation of Pulp’s “Common People.” Are these Cubs fans tormented by years of losing? Only in a strict baseball sense.
The greatest class and racial diversity in all of Wrigleyville could be found in line for the box office on the west side of the park, where the Cubs released a limited number of face-value tickets before each game. The line, at least hundreds long, stretched out onto Clark Street and through the cattle chute, and while people who could shell out $4,000 for a seat sang and cheered in the street, most of the nonwhite faces in the crowd sat in folding chairs or leaned against a wall for up to 12 hours, waiting patiently for a shot at tickets they might be able to afford.
Once inside, Wrigley feels small. The ground-floor concourse isn’t very wide, and the ramps up to the second deck are narrow and have low ceilings, a nightmare for people who fear both heights and enclosed spaces. On Friday, I got lost because I ignored the path up to the auxiliary press box, thinking it was a service catwalk.
But packing more than 40,000 fans into such a tight space creates a powerful energy. The crowd was loud and excitable, but not particularly hostile. I imagine this has something to do with the fact that in three days I saw fewer than two dozen Indians fans — not only is it hard to hate an enemy that isn’t visible, but the crowd’s unity of purpose shone through at all times.
The other remarkable thing about the crowd is that the excitement of the World Series, and the confidence of supporting a 103-win team that came into the series as nearly a 2-to-1 favorite, was tempered by 108 years of disappointment. So the fans latched onto any positive outcome and hung on for dear life. In Game 4, John Lackey’s easy first inning and Anthony Rizzo’s RBI single elicited cheering so loud you could feel it in your innards, and when Jon Lester struck out the side in the first inning of Game 5, it got even louder and more desperate.
But there was an understood caution to the cheering. Frequently, the crowd would not applaud when an infielder picked up a ball cleanly, but wait until he’d delivered it safely to first base. Whenever Cleveland scored, particularly to tie the game or take the lead, those cheers fell silent instantly.
After losses in Games 3 and 4, Wrigleyville wasn’t exactly silent, but the party atmosphere dried up quickly, as did the crowds. Those legions of police officers directed traffic and kept an eye on the odd loiterer, but when the Cubs lost, the fans mostly went home.
When the Cubs finally beat the Indians in Game 5 on Sunday, the fourth-inning rally against Trevor Bauer drew the loudest cheers of the weekend, a cathartic ruckus that set the entire upper deck of the stadium to wobbling. But the nerves never went away until Aroldis Chapman set down the Indians in order in the top of the ninth.
Being around these fans for three days felt like witnessing someone else’s pilgrimage, as if the Cubs winning a home World Series game was a long-foretold miracle that was nearly at hand. When it finally happened, the duration of the celebration was like nothing I’d ever experienced in a baseball stadium. I’d seen parks erupt just as loudly for a split second for a big play, but when José Ramírez struck out to end Game 5, the noise broke out and just stayed there, through “Go, Cubs, Go” and “Sweet Home Chicago,” and for several minutes after that.
Although the stadium had mostly emptied out, for almost an hour after the game, the noise cascaded back over the left-field wall and into the park. The crowd, which had re-formed on Clark, was singing, cheering, and banging drums as the fans filed home. It was a celebration either three days or 71 years in the making, depending on your perspective.
When I left the park after Game 5, it was 1 a.m. local time. For the last time, I shuffled out of the media gate, navigated oncoming traffic on the side of Waveland that has no sidewalk, and turned left into the cattle chute. By this point, the crowd had moved on for the most part, leaving only a few stragglers, a few cops, some litter, and the faint smell of horses.
By that time of night, only one thing had changed from Game 4 to Game 5: The white W flag was flying over the scoreboard in center field. But you could tell that without even looking.