Going The Rounds: A baseball trip worth the journey for a longtime fan

Of the many dumb decisions I’ve made, throwing away Sports Illustrated’s annual baseball editions in the late 1950s and early ’60s ranks among the worst.

Baseball was considered America’s premier sport in those days and SI’s preseason issue was always filled with detailed scouting reports on every team. It also contained some fascinating short sidebar articles.

One year, every major league broadcaster was profiled. Another edition contained short descriptions of each manager’s strengths and weaknesses.

In 1957, the first year I followed baseball, the primary sidebar featured all 16 major-league stadiums. These were not dry recitations of the park’s dimensions and seating capacity, but fan-friendly guides to the park’s accessibility by car or public transportation, friendliness of the ushers and concession items and prices.

Growing up, I dreamed of visiting such long-defunct parks as New York’s Polo Grounds, a misshapen field in which a World Series game (Game One in 1954) was once decided by a 255-foot homer and a 480-foot out, and Washington’s Griffith Stadium — a stadium so pitcher-friendly (405 feet down the left-field line and a 30-foot wall in right) that longtime Senator third baseman Eddie Yost hit only three of his first 55 homers at home.

Only two of the 1957 fields still exist. I attended a couple of games at Boston’s Fenway Park in the 1990s. Last week, I crossed Chicago’s Wrigley Field off my bucket list by joining my friend Glen Potter (a former Daily World reporter who now lives in Eugene, Ore.) on a brief road trip that also included a visit to Milwaukee’s Miller Park.

If nothing else, one lesson was reinforced. Visiting an unfamiliar ballpark may be memorable, but you can’t count on seeing a memorable game.

In its 100th year as a baseball venue, Wrigley Field has inspired several books (including political columnist George F. Will’s recently published A Nice Little Place on the North Side) and even a Broadway play, “Bleacher Bums.” It is a haven for traditionalists, hosting only day games through 1988 and still offering the fewest night contests in the major leagues.

Wrigley may be the only park in the majors — even trumping Fenway in this regard — in which spectator interest is not necessarily linked to the quality of the home team. The Chicago Cubs currently rank 11th in the major leagues in attendance with an average crowd of more than 32,000. That’s a remarkable accomplishment, given that the Cubs (who, incredibly, have never won a world championship at Wrigley) are firmly entrenched in the National League Central cellar and face stiff competition from the Chicago White Sox, Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals for the Illinois baseball entertainment dollar.

Since Wrigley Field home runs often land on city streets outside the park, I had always envisioned the park to be located in the midst of a residential neighborhood.

In fact, Wrigley is surrounded by an eclectic mixture of fast-food restaurants and bars, tacky souvenir shops, tastefully designed brownstones and apartments. The latter, according to Will, sell for up to $1 million.

These business operators and homeowners seem to be united by a distaste for motorists — at least those with baseball allegiances.

The neighborhood is dotted with signs specifically prohibiting parking when there are at least two inches of snow on the ground and during Cub games. With temperatures in the high 80s and humidity to match, there was little threat of snow last week.

Since the stadium lacks a parking lot and such neighborhood businesses as the Wrigleyville Taco Bell charge $30 to park in its lot on game days (probably discouraging patrons from consuming a burrito in the dining area while a game is in progress), the only sane mode of transportation is the elevated train that stops less than two blocks from the park.

Although Wrigley’s infrastructure, particularly its restrooms, has been criticized over the years, spectators are paying primarily for tradition. With the stadium’s legendary ivy-covered walls and old-fashioned organ music, fans at an afternoon game in particular can easily visualize themselves attending a Cubs-Brooklyn Dodgers game a half-century ago.

While box seats at Wrigley rank among the best in the majors in terms of proximity to the action, our seats — near the rear of the grandstand behind home plate — weren’t quite as favorably located. An overhang cut off our view of one of the stadium’s top attractions, the giant hand-operated scoreboard in center field.

John Baker, a 33-year-old back-up catcher who began the day batting .160, emerged as the unlikely hero of the Cubs’ 7-2 victory over the Washington Nationals on Friday. His three-run double in the seventh inning, his third hit of the contest, broke open the contest and provided a sufficient cushion for starter Jason Hammel, a towering right-hander who is considered a prime target for contenders at the trading deadline.

It is 90 minutes via Amtrak from Chicago to Milwaukee. Miller Park, where we saw the Brewers host the Colorado Rockies two days later, represents about 90 degrees of separation from Wrigley Field in several respects.

While traditionalists might not wax poetic about Miller Park, many contemporary fans might consider it superior to Wrigley.

A saucer-shaped, quadruple-decked facility built nearly in the footprint of Milwaukee’s old County Stadium (an operational Little League park is situated on the County Stadium site only a few hundred yards from the new park’s entrance) in 2001, Miller boasts a vast parking area and a retractable roof. The sight lines from our seats in the second deck near the press box were excellent.

We didn’t need a Sports Illustrated baseball edition to determine the concession meal of choice. The bratwurst, with special sauce, lived up to its reputation. A brat and a soft drink sold for $7.50 — a steal by concession-stand standards. A warning, however, to beer connoisseurs: In a stadium named Miller Park, don’t expect Budweiser or Coors to be among your beverage options.

The Brewers entered the contest possessing the best record in the National League, while the free-falling Rockies had lost nine of their previous 10. Baseball being what it is, however, the form chart took a pounding on this day.

Troy Tulowitzki, the National League’s leading hitter, stroked the first of four consecutive first-inning hits that staked Colorado to a 3-0 lead. The game’s defining play, however, seemed better suited to a youth baseball.

With the Rockies up 5-2 in the fifth, Milwaukee third baseman Aramis Ramirez booted a ground ball of the bat of Wilin Rosario, allowing two runs to score. Following a tardy throw home, Brewer catcher Jonathan Lucroy tried to nail Rosario at third base, only to sail his relay into left field. That enabled Rosario to circle the bases on the two-error combination, helping Colorado to an eventual 10-4 triumph.

This, incidentally, was Scooter Gennett Bobblehead Day, honoring Milwaukee’s second-year second baseman. I would have been more impressed with this promotion had Gennett actually made an appearance.

Platooning with veteran Rickie Weeks despite batting more than .300, Gennett never left the bench even as a pinch-hitter. Evidently operating with a short bench due to some minor injuries, Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke employed the unusual tactic of twice allowing his pitchers to hit for themselves despite deficits of at least four runs, then beginning the ensuing inning with another hurler. No explanation was ever offered, even in the following day’s newspapers.

The games themselves might have been yawners, but visiting new ballparks is always worthwhile. That’s one thing in baseball that hasn’t changed since 1957.

Rick Anderson: (360) 537-3924; randerson@thedailyworld.com


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