In my visits to Wrigley Field in recent years, I have enjoyed a wide variety of vantage points.
I had the pleasure of watching the great Greg Maddux pitch from a second-row club box seat. I've also sat in the field boxes, terrace boxes, terrace reserved seats, and upper deck boxes - behind home plate and down both lines. I've even watched a couple games from rooftops across the street. But I had not sat in the bleachers since 2004 - two years before the seating area was renovated and named the "Bud Light Bleachers."
It was about time I paid a visit, and so I did when the Cubs hosted the Colorado Rockies on April 26.
I generally shy away from the bleachers for a plethora of reasons. To wit:
* Since the seats aren't reserved, I feel compelled to enter the ballpark as soon as possible to insure that I nab a good seat. By doing so, I sacrifice the opportunity of grabbing a burger and enjoying the atmosphere of the many establishments around the ballpark. I also expose myself to the elements 90 minutes before I would have to with a reserved seat.
* The scarcity of seat vendors insures that I will have to make several trips to the concession stands, possibly enduring long lines, in order to purchase food and beverages.
* There is only one men's room for the entire seating area and it's possible that a long line there will cause me to miss substantial amounts of the game.
* Bleacher patrons aren't permitted into the grandstand area, cutting them off from many of the ballpark's amenities.
* The bleacher benches are not very comfortable.
* The bleachers are populated by far too many people who are not there to watch the game and such people have a knack for annoying the hell out of me.
And the bleachers are no longer the best bargain in sports. When I lived in Wrigleyville, right down the street from the ballpark, during the 1997 and '98 seasons, a bleacher ticket cost just $12. Back then, the bleachers were my ideal setting for a fun, cheap date. I also recall that in those days, a bleacher seat would set me back just $6 on the many weekday "bargain games" the Cubs would offer in April and May. A beer costs more now, for God's sake.
The April 26 game was designated as a "bronze game" - the 2011 equivalent of the "bargain game" - and cost $20. The price for a bleacher ticket to a "marquee game" is $72.
I worked at Wrigley Field for a couple of summers, in 1987 and '88, as a seat vendor. The vendors' locker room was located beneath the bleachers in the left-field corner. Back then, the bowels of the bleachers were frankly quite dumpy. It was like walking through somebody's unfinished basement, always dark, damp, dusty, and depressing.
What a difference a couple of decades make!
As I entered the bleacher gate below the center-field scoreboard, near the intersection of Sheffield and Waveland, I was struck by how much more attractive the area has become. It was clean and the large black-and-white photos that have been hung on the bleacher concourse, commemorating the history of Wrigley Field, were a nice touch. I particularly enjoyed looking at the picture of the old "Doublemint Twins" scoreboard. It confirms that advertising was present inside the ballpark long before the arrival of Tom Ricketts. Somehow, the mystique of Wrigley Field endured despite the encroachment of the "Doublemint Twins. It supports my theory that the Friendly Confines were never quite as pristine as some would lead you to believe. Another cool picture showed action from a Bears-Packers game in 1934, with the Bears players sporting white helmets.
After entering the park, I was informed by an usher that if I wished to purchase beer, I would need to obtain a wristband. There were wristband stations on the right-field side of the lower concourse and left-field side of the upper concourse. Patrons who sport wristbands are permitted to purchase a limit of two beers at a time and only those with wristbands may drink alcoholic beverages.
Wes, a security guard I spoke with, told me that the wristband policy was instituted on Memorial Day last year after a rash of alcohol-fueled incidents early last season. Wes deemed the policy to be effective.
I struck up a long, pleasant conversation with Wes who works primarily in the bleachers and sometimes in the players' parking lot. He shared with me stories about enduring the poor weather the first month of the season, fans behaving badly, and how some Arizona Diamondbacks decided to work out after a game and left him waiting outside the ballpark long after the final out.
I was impressed by the friendliness and approachability of the ballpark staff throughout the evening.
I like when the ticket taker tells me to "enjoy the game" with a smile on his face. It's great when the concession stand worker tells me that she "hopes I'm having a great time." I shared laughs with ushers, security guards, and even the "Fan Photo" girl. They all behaved like they enjoyed working at the ballpark. That kind of atmosphere enhances the fan experience. I tip my cap to event operations and security director Mike Hill and ballpark operations supervisor Bill Scott and their staffs. They are doing a terrific job.
Even though we dodged rain Tuesday, the tarp remained on the field until shortly before the first pitch. There was no batting practice on the field, but several players from each team ventured out to the batting cages that are now located below the right-field bleachers. It was cool to see Marlon Byrd, Carlos Pena, Todd Helton, Jason Giambi, and Dexter Fowler up close. A cool feature of the renovated bleachers is the one-way glass on the lower concourse that enables fans to watch players hit in the cages.
Former Oakland Athletics teammates Jason Giambi (left) and Carlos Pena share a moment outside the right-field batting cage before the Cubs-Rockies game on April 26.
My wife, Denise, is almost eight months pregnant and shortly before the game began, she was craving something sweet. Off I went on a Cracker Jack run. I took my first stroll across the upper concourse behind the bleachers. It was much wider than I expected it to be. It provided a nice view of the buildings across the street on Waveland and Sheffield and included concession stands that offered beer, mai tais (a woman seated near us told me that her mai tai was awful), peanuts, D'Agostino's pizza, and Wrigley footlong hot dogs. There was also a chicken wing stand, but it was not open. The concourse was a miniature version of the outfield concourse at Baltimore's Camden Yards.
But I couldn't find any Cracker Jack. It was very nice of Wes, the security guard, to tap Denise on the shoulder a couple of innings later when the Cracker Jack vendor was coming down our aisle.
When Denise popped open the bag of her long-awaited treat, she was not exactly bowled over by the prize - a pencil topper.
"Remember when Cracker Jack prizes were cool?" Denise asked."Why are the prizes so lame now?"
"Lawsuits," Wes said.
The seats in the front row are low. I am 6 feet tall and my eye level while seated barely clears the top of the 11 1/2-foot outfield wall. The security officers strictly enforce a "no standing" policy for front-row so it would behoove fans who are vertically challenged and those who bring children to sit in the second row.
I was pleased with our view of the field from our seats in right-center. The entire field was visable and when I paid close enough attention, I was able to gauge whether a pitcher had delivered a fastball or a breaking pitch. It was also a cool view of the outfielders, especially on deeply hit balls and gapers. Helton's first home run of Tuesday's game landed in the third row, one section to our left and we had a wonderful view of his majestic second homer that landed with a thud on top of the center-field batter's eye.
The fans - a noticeably younger crowd than in the grandstand - were very well behaved, but were somewhat distracted throughout the night by Game 5 of the Bulls-Indiana Pacers series and later in the evening by Game 7 of the Blackhawks-Vancouver Canucks series.
Reports like "Bulls are up eight!" and "Bulls are up by 16 at the half!" were shouted out by fans throughout the evening. And when the 9 o'clock puck drop of the Blackhawks game neared, the crowd in the bleachers and in the grandstand thinned considerably.
Those who stayed until the end sang along enthusiastically with the guest conductor, new Northern Illinois football coach Dave Doeren. They were treated to a ninth inning home run by Alfonso Soriano, but the Cubs came up short, dropping a disappointing 4-3 decision.
Wrigley Field, as it so often is, was the star of the show. Even when the Cubs lose, a visit to the Friendly Confines is well worth the trip.