One Day at the Ballpark

Here is a good story about bleacher memories at Wrigley Field……… In 1991 I was fortunate enough to secure one of, if not the best, part time jobs in the great City of Chicago. I was hired at the Almighty Wrigley Field as a Crowd Control Specialist. I spent the better part of my summer that year, with my tail parked on the wall of the left field bleachers. I did not make a lot of money, I had no benefits but I worked for the National League Ball Club and I had a check stub to prove that.

On game days, I tried to get to the park early for two reasons, one is that I liked to sit and get my mind right, to mentally prepare for a day in the bleachers dealing with some potentially rowdy situations. I have had to escort some really decent people out of the friendly confines because they had one or two too many in the 95 degree sun and I have seen even the heartiest of fans fall victim to that. I always escorted them out with a smile and the statement; “I’m sorry sir but this is a family ball park and this is not a debatable issue”. I have seen men who were “Pillars of Industry”, virtual giants. Men with an aura around them, who commanded respect. Men with $200 haircuts. $2500 suits, $500 shoes, $25,000 dollar Rolex Presidential on their wrists, $10,000 Diamond pinky rings. One of their clients gives them a stack of tickets for the game so they grab their entourage of yes men and ditch out of work for the rest of the day. Well let me tell you, drinking 5 or 6 of those big beers in the 95 degree sun kind of levels the playing field a bit. I escorted 4 of those “Pillars Of Industry” types out of the park that summer and 3 of them were bent on taking legal action against me, you know the old; “why don’t you get a real job I can buy and sell 20 of your kind I’m gonna sue you and your family and your family’s family I will have you in harness until you are old and grey”. Some guys enjoy that kind of work and I am naturally a big guy and, at the time an in shape veteran, but I found instances like that stressful. That’s why I liked a bit of meditation before each game.

The second reason I liked to get to the park early is that I liked to watch the “Boys of Summer” take batting practice and warm up before the game. I remember admiring Andre “The Hawk” Dawson’s pre-game ritual. The stern look of determination on his face. Never playing games or clowning. Running sprints and stretching at the first base line. Some may have saw that as smug or antisocial, I saw it as man doing whatever it takes to be the best he could be every day. There is a plaque with his name on it in Cooperstown now and that is a direct result of his dedication, preparation and fortitude. I would head over to the bleachers after our security briefing and start warming my spot on the wall, waiting for the gates to open.

The first guys in the bleachers were usually the “ball hawks”, guys who got to the game early to catch batting practice balls. It was fun watching the agile “ball hawks” running the bleachers, front to back, side to side and up and down the seats and stairs to grab a ball. I was talking to one guy who told me he had 2-55 gallon drums of balls in his garage. Balls that he had caught with his father and was now catching with his son. That’s 3 generations of bleacher folks and the bleachers were full of stories of father and son and grandsons who have cheered and wept and bonded in this North side church where baseballs “Loveable Losers” gather to perform about 80 times a year, weather permitting. I remember a single mother of two boys would come to the day games periodically and her and her boys would sit in the first row right next to me each time they came. She told me she felt safer sitting next to a security person. During one especially chilly, rainy day, she bought me a hot chocolate to warm me up. Her older son, Danny, was portly kid about 11 or 12 years old and he never came to a game without his grandfathers well worn, Ted Williams signature mitt strapped to his left hand. Every time I would see them coming towards me, I would ruffle the kids hair and say, “your gonna catch a home run ball today, I’m sure of it”. He would smile and look down and say “yes sir, I hope so”. He was the only person in my tenure at The Almighty Wrigley who called me sir and believe me, working the bleachers at Wrigley I was called a lot of things, but never sir.

I grew up at Clark and Belden till 3rd grade and I had been to many games at Wrigley Field. I have seen Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins and Ron Santo play. Then we moved to Addison and Damen. I remember having my hand on a Dave Kingman foul ball but was literally mugged by grown ups and I never saw that ball again. It is every kids dream to catch a home run ball at a major league baseball game and the single mom’s son was no different than I was at his age. Well, it was an unusually cloudy day at The Almighty Wrigley and I had been warming up my spot on the wall for about 30 minutes already when I saw Danny, his mom and little brother coming down the stairs towards me. There were already two teenaged guys sitting there who kept calling Felix Jose “Jobu” like the little voodoo doll in the movie Major League. I asked them if they wouldn’t mind scooting down and letting this lady and her sons sit there and they said no problem. As the family was sitting down, I ruffled Danny’s hair again and gave him the speech. So with Felix Jose in the house, you might have guessed that the Cubs are playing the Cards and as usual, there are a ton of Cardinal fans in the bleachers and the Cubs fans are verbally abusing them to the point that I needed to issue a few warnings already.

Then its time for the National Anthem and all rise. As a crowd control Specialist in the bleachers at Wrigley, you don’t get to watch the game, you get to watch the people. If you have a few games under your belt, you can just look at the crowd and know what’s going on in the game. If you hear that familiar “crack” of hickory hitting cowhide stuffed with who knows what, and everyone in the bleachers goes “oooohhhhh” and then stands up, you need to crouch down without taking your eyes off of the crowd. It is a move of self preservation that has been learned year after year at the Friendly Confines, and learned the hard way. Every year a Crowd Control employee gets plastered by a line drive into their head.

Well, I was very busy that day with the usual bickering between rival fans and if you do not deal with that immediately, it usually escalates into a peanut throwing incident. That’s when one fan disrespects a rival fans team, then the words become harsher and often of a personal nature and then it happens. Someone throws a peanut at someone else and then it’s on. I have seen it turn into a fistfight in the blink of an eye. Usually the severity is directly proportionate to the amount of beer consumed and how hot it is.

Well, I always managed a minute or so to speak to the people around me and I was asking Danny how he was doing when I heard that “CRACK”! As I went down I happened to break my golden rule and I took my eye off of the crowd and looked right at little Danny who was leaning over the wall with his glove out, eyes closed, lips and mouth pursed up like he had just sucked on a lemon and his head tucked as far down on his shoulders as possible, like a turtle. Life is kinda funny sometimes because of all the people in those bleachers that day, I felt that he was the least likely to catch anything but a virus. Then it happened, I heard a pop and looked into his mitt and there was a home run ball, still smoking but there it was, plain as day, right smack in the trap of that old, worn Ted Williams signature mitt. Danny boys’ eyes opened and he inhaled so deep and held it for what felt like an eternity. I smacked him on the back, partly to wake him up to breathe but also to congratulate him on what I had 30 seconds ago, thought so improbable that I would have bet my paycheck on it. I could see the joy on his brothers face and on his moms face too. It was an awesome moment for me to witness as well as for any little boy who had ever had that dream, to catch a home run ball at a major league ballpark. It was a home run ball hit by “Jobu” himself, Felix Jose. A treasure for any boy and a ball to give his son and so on and so on! Then it started. It was just a murmur at first, a chant from the crowd, low and hard to understand. Then as it gets louder you can make some of it out. Before you know it there are 12,000 people chanting at the top of their lungs “THROW IT BACK, THROW IT BACK!” It was accompanied by a foot stomp at every word, “THROW IT BACK, THROW IT BACK!!!” It is like a thunderous earthquake and I could see fear and confusion on Danny’s face and I told him that he didn’t have to throw that ball back, that he caught it he can keep it. I was scrambling around looking on the ground for a paper cup to crumble up and throw out into the field when out of the Cubby Blue, steps a hero! An every man who could be any man but it was not, it was “The Ball Hawk”! The guy who I usually made small talk with, the guy who has 2-55 gallon drums of balls in his garage! He ran right up to little Danny Boy and hands him a batting practice ball and says, “here ya go little man, throw this one back”. Danny had been standing there with his mouth hanging open since the chanting started and when he was handed the ball, he closed his mouth, turned and barely managed to clear the basket but when it flew back onto the field, the whole stadium erupted into hysteria. Everyone around Danny was patting him on the back and shaking his hand and I even saw a little tear of pride slip out of the eyes of Danny’s mom.

I spent another month as an employee of The Chicago National League Ballclub when I was offered a job I could not refuse. I hated to leave but I will always havesome great memories of my days as a Crowd Control Specialist. Happy 75th Anniversary to the greatest scoreboard in pro sports and to the modern bleachers, the only way to stuff 100 people in a space meant for 50!

With the fondest of memories,

Wayne Baker

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