When the season begins each spring, the ivy on the outfield wall at Wrigley Field is not a lush green, but a vine-bare patch of brick and brown. Botany is not among my hobbies, and I do not know whether this condition results from some half-intentional negligence, or the natural distaste of Parthenocissus tricuspidata for the cool Midwestern spring. But in either event, the effect is unsettling: that feeling you get in a dream when you see a place familiar but vaguely and profoundly incomplete.

That was the feeling I had on Friday night when I walked through Gate F at Clark and Addison Streets and into the nation’s most beloved ballpark. Though the architecture of Wrigley Field is the same as always–an array of ascending ramps, chain-linked fences, city vistas, and dank inner concourses pierced by streaks of evening sunlight–the atmosphere is palpably different. Gone are the rowdies, the drunks, the tourists; present instead is the eerie timbre of quiet before battle.

It is the playoffs, the third game of the first series against the Atlanta Braves, and whether owning to the somber, rainy weather, the melancholy brought on by raised expectations, or, more likely, the Trans-Atlantic airline fares that have passed as market rates for scalped tickets, these fans were here to win.

* * *

After wandering the aisles and snarfing down a soda and an Italian sausage (the picnic lunch provided to members of the media somehow seemed unfit for the occasion), I take my seat in the Auxiliary Press Box, also known as Section 523. There are a lot of perks you get by being in the Press Box: a decent view, game notes, scorecards, and media guides, prompt announcement of all lineup changes and scoring decision, ready access to TV monitors to check out replays, free pop, and, theoretically at least, the opportunity to shoot the bull with a reporter from another media source.

The one perk I don’t have, sitting in Section 523, Row 8, Seat 4, and not the Press Box itself–is a window that closes in front of me. And so I, like the rest of the 40,000 gathered, I sit shivering in the drizzle and 40-some temperatures as Cubs PA announcer Paul Friedman goes through the too-formal process of announcing the names, one at a time, of every man on the expanded roster. The crowd is into it from the start, cheering every Cub from Augie Ojeda to Carlos Zambrano, and booing every Atlanta Brave. It isn’t the irreverent, sarcastic kind of booing brought on a couple of Old Styles, either. These guys are serious, and they boo each opponent in inverse proportion to his probable impact on the game, the loudest jeers reserved for opposing starter–and money-grubbing traitor–Greg Maddux.

Just as Mark Prior‘s name is announced, the wind shifts, the sprinkle becomes a shower, and the fluorescent blue tarp is laid like a blanket over the field. The fans initially remain in their seats in a spontaneous show of defiance–to have been waiting all this time for this, and then, at the moment of climax, to have it undermined, not by the road grays but by Mother Nature? Not hardly. Chicagoans are a tough lot. But when the shower proves to be persistent, they scurry for the shelter of the concourses. Rain delay, one half-hour.

Fortunately, the Cubs, if lacking a top pinch-hitter or an elite reliever, have kept one ace in the hole: tenor Wayne Messmer, who sings the Star Spangled Banner once the rain stops to a growing crescendo of cheers. It is a Chicago tradition, though not one normally practiced at Cubs games, to cheer through the national anthem, and Messmer, used to having the same thing happen when he sung at old Chicago Stadium, hits the high and low notes undaunted.

* * *

The first symbol recorded on my scorecard, next to Rafael Furcal‘s name, is ‘4-3’, groundout to second. The second is a ‘K’, strikeout swinging, Marcus Giles against some cheese. The crowd is focused intently on the game. In contrast to the usual flurry of movement that characterizes the top of the first inning at Wrigley Field–fans arriving late, sitting down in the wrong seats, getting back up to grab beers and dogs–the park is unusually still, as though trapped in a still photograph. But Wrigley is also unusually loud, extraordinarily loud, reacting to every ball and strike with a gusto normally reserved for a political convention or a college basketball game.

And this is just the top of the first.

* * *

Every pitcher needs a way to reconcile the solitude of his chosen profession with the weight of the expectations thrust upon him. Hitters and fielders are differentiated by their ability to react to the situation that presents itself to him. A great hitter anticipates the curveball, times his swing, and connects–or doesn’t. But the pitcher is out there in the void, at school without any clothes on, left to initiate the action. There’s no other position in sports quite like it, and that’s perhaps one reason that the performance of pitchers is so difficult to predict. The pitcher need not merely adapt to these adverse conditions, but if he’s going to be successful, he must master them.

Insofar as personalities go, great pitchers fall into one of three categories. First, you’ve got your Maniacs. These guys are intense and demonstrative. So long as the game is going well, they can be as quiet as sleeping crocodiles. But cross their path, get on their bad side…hell hath no fury like a pitcher scorned, and these guys have a mean streak like Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. Roger Clemens is the flagship pitcher for this group. Pedro Martinez belongs here. Drysdale. Gibson.

Next you’ve got your Wackos. The coping strategy for these guys is not to direct their frenzy outward, but to diffuse it through a combination of humor, irreverence, and ritual. Barry Zito is perhaps the best contemporary example, though he’s really more of a post-modern wacko, a little too aware of his own wackiness. Dizzy Dean is a classic case. David Cone. Sidd Finch.

Finally, there are the Quiets. This is perhaps the most common personality type among great pitchers. Guy doesn’t say very much, especially not to the media, doesn’t show a lot of emotion on the mound. When he’s running bad, he’s likely to have others speak for him; he might even be mistaken for indifferent. But make no mistake: he’s every bit as intense as the Maniac, if not more so. The only difference is that his rage is directed inward. Tom Seaver was a Quiet. Steve Carlton. Mariano Rivera. The Quiet has a samurai’s intensity.

* * *

Mark Prior is a Quiet, a severe Quiet, and the thing about a Quiet is that it’s hard to know when he’s rattled, sometimes until the situation is beyond remedy. Even though it’s the first inning–only the first inning–it’s unlikely that Prior has had to face a situation quite so intense before.

The other thing about Mark Prior is that he’s consistent, severely consistent. Mark Prior’s usual velocity reading is 94: a good two-thirds of his fastballs come in at exactly 94 miles per hour. He can dial it up a notch or two when he really needs to, but Prior is smart enough to know that an extra 2% of velocity is not worth a loss of 20% in command (if only Matt Clement and Kerry Wood could heed the same lesson).

Gary Sheffield is the next hitter, and Prior walks him on four straight pitches, none of them particularly close. Walks are unusual for Prior; four pitch walks especially so.

The first pitch that Mark Prior throws to the four hitter, Chipper Jones, registers at 98 miles per hour. I’ve tracked Prior’s velocity from start to finish at least a dozen times over the past two seasons, and I’ve never seen him throw faster than 96. This pitch was 98, and it wasn’t a good pitch, but high and outside, with none of the usual movement. Chipper lays off of it, as he does the next two, and soon he’s aboard with a five-pitch walk. Mark Prior, the quiet warrior, is pumped. And rattled.

But Prior comes back to strike out Javy Lopez on four pitches–strike looking, ball one, a 350-foot, opposite-field foul ball, swing and miss at a curve–and the crisis is averted.

* * *

Kenny Lofton leads off the bottom of the first with a base hit to right, and Mark Grudzielanek follows with a bunt single that Maddux doesn’t handle properly. Two men on, and none out.

This fast start propels the Wrigley faithful to new heights of creativity. Some anonymous man or woman in some anonymous section begins, in mockery, to chant the Tomahawk Chop song…ohhhhhhhh oh, wa-ah ohhhhhhhh. By the time Randall Simon has come to the plate after a Sammy Sosa strikeout and a Moises Alou fly to center–with Lofton and Grudzielanek advancing a base on a double-steal attempt–the chant has spread to the entire ballpark…ohhhhhhhh, oh, wa-uhoooooo…and is accompanied by a motion inspired by the Tomahawk Chop itself.

Instead of the normal Tomahawk Chop, however, this version consists of a deliberate asynchrony, the fans flailing one arm and sometimes both at any time and in any direction. The yellow and orange windmills of the sleeves of winter coats are distracting even from the upper deck. Like any oppressed minority group, Cubs fans have co-opted the symbols of the ruling class, turned them on their head, and made them their own.

Simon, meanwhile, is in the business of turning Maddux’s game plan on his head. With his propensity to swing at everything–but also to make contact with everything–Simon is a nightmare counterpart for Maddux, incapable of being bluffed out by Las Vegas’ favorite son. With two strikes on him, Simon swats a single to right. 2-0, Cubs.

* * *

Prior starts off the second inning as shakily as he ended the first, issuing a five-pitch walk to Andruw Jones. But the next hitter, Robert Fick, undercuts a 0-1 pitch that turns into a 4-6-3 double play. The event seems to remind Prior that he isn’t alone–he’s got a whole defense behind him, even if it isn’t a great one–and for the next several innings, he settles into a groove: 94, 94, 95, 94, and one out after another.

Maddux has settled into a groove, too, and the Cubs manage few good at-bats against him, failing to take advantage of a series of defensive miscues by the Braves. Lopez throws a ball into center field; Vinny Castilla and Furcal muff easy grounders; Sheffield and Chipper Jones have trouble tracking flyballs in the dim Wrigley lighting. No matter; the Cubs seem content to let the score stay the same so long as the innings keep passing.

* * *

In the bottom of the fifth, a peanut vendor walks by. He picked the wrong section to solicit: one guy has already been asked to leave the Press Box for cheering, another for drinking, and so everyone is exercising extreme caution when it comes to carrying themselves in an “appropriate, professional fashion,” or whatever it says in the small print on the back of my lanyard.

Seeing the rows of lacquered tables and rotary telephones that distinguish the Auxiliary Press Box from the cheap seats, the peanut vendor says:

“What is this, the Cub-a-Thon? I’ve never seen so many phones except for Jerry Lewis!”

He walks away to a few suppressed laughs and no customers.

* * *

Somebody turns to me as the sixth inning starts and asks how many hits Prior has given up. It’s an understandable question: the electronic scoreboards along the third and first base lines are going haywire, flashing nonsense numbers, and the manual scoreboard in center can be hard for the uninitiated to interpret. “One, dude,” I say, checking my scorecard. After five innings, Atlanta has no runs, one hit, and four errors.

Prior has been cruising along just as smoothly as those numbers imply, but against Sheffield, the second batter of the inning, a fastball gets away from him and hits Sheff directly on the hand. The slugger jumps from the box in pain and a trainer springs out of the dugout to meet him. Sheff’s whip-like swing is all in his hands and wrists, so any injury in that area is potentially devastating. He stays in the game, though, accompanied by the trainer and a smattering of boos as he walks to first base.

* * *

In the eighth, Prior’s velocity is down a notch to 92/93, and pinch-hitter Mark DeRosa leads off the inning with a double. But the crowd remains behind their hero, cheering him as he gets ahead of Rafael Furcal two strikes to none, eventually yielding a grounder to second. When the inning is over, Prior has allowed one run: DeRosa came around to score on a sacrifice fly. His pitch count stands at 114.

The Cubs get the run back in the bottom of the inning when Moises Alou singles, steals second, and is driven home on a double by another of the suddenly beloved ex-Pirates, Aramis Ramirez. I keep waiting to see Joe Borowski warming up in the bullpen, but there’s no sign of him until Alex Gonzalez, the seventh-place hitter, follows Ramirez’s double with a walk, bringing up the possibility that Prior’s spot could come up with men on base.

But when Damian Miller steps up, Prior is on deck, and when the ninth inning starts after Miller grounds out, Prior is back on the pitcher’s mound. I think for a moment that Dusty has him out there only to pull him out and give a much deserved round of applause. Borowski has been a reliable closer, Prior looked tired in the eighth, and the lead is now two runs. But when Chipper Jones digs in, and 40,000 stand on their feet chanting “LET’S GO PR-IOR,” it’s clear the kid isn’t about to come out.

Dusty Baker isn’t thinking about pitch counts. I’m trying not to, either.

* * *

Three outs, no runs, and 19 pitches later–including a couple thrown to the backstop–Prior pumps his fist as the crowd goes wild. Second time now he’s shown some emotion out there. The kid is pumped, but he’s no longer rattled.

I hop out of my seat not more than five seconds after the last pitch, trying to avoid the rush to the exit gate, most of the faithful having remained on their feet, cheering in captivated awe. It’s to no avail; I get caught in a jam of human traffic on the way out of the ballpark.

The party continues all the way down Clark Street as I walk my way home past the neon-lit pubs, dives, and late-night eateries that make up the avenue. People are yelling, honking horns, and slapping hands indiscriminately; this, of course, is just a sneak preview of what is to come two days later, when the Cubs will clinch the series with a Game 5 win in Atlanta.

People ask me sometimes why I invest so much energy in understanding baseball, instead of some other, presumably more noble concern. My responses range from the defensive (“What, you really think you’re making a difference as an investment banker?) to the brutally honest (“Because I enjoy it!”).

But sports do matter an awful lot to an awful lot of people. Having a team to root for matters. And when that team wins a big game, there is, sometimes, a moment of transcendence of the kind that’s hard to achieve in an urban universe that thrives on a stale mix of cynicism, individualism, and indifference. The folks on Clark Street are enjoying one such moment now, and everyone is free to partake of it, so long as they aren’t wearing Braves or possibly White Sox colors.

As I turn at the corner of Clark and Sheffield to head home, someone sees the laptop bag I’m carrying, and shouts to me:

“You’re just gettin’ back from work, dude! That SUCKS!”

Well, yes and no.

You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe