Que Sarah, Sarah

Monday, March 24, 2008

Cubs Spring Training Road Trip: Old Style & Happiness

Cubs Spring Training Road Trip
By Sarah Spain

Lugging a blue Cubs blanket, a squishy seat cushion and not a hint of a smile, a heavyset, tired-looking, middle-aged woman trudged out of the front gate of Hohokam Park, reluctantly following her husband. He paused to let her catch up and said, exasperated: "It’s an experience. Nobody ever said you were gonna have fun. I said it’s an experience."

At that moment I realized that a Cubs Spring Training game in Mesa, Arizona, wasn’t everyone’s idea of Heaven on Earth. But it was sure mine.

For a few days the second week of March I was deliriously, blissfully, totally and completely happy. It wasn’t just the baseball—I’ve been to plenty of ball games. It wasn’t all about the sunshine—I live in Los Angeles, where sunny days are a given. It wasn’t just the beer—though there is something wonderful about a cold can of Old Style delivered right to you. It wasn’t even about the people—in fact, I went to all three games by myself.

It wasn’t any one thing, it was everything.

Some people find baseball to be too slow. The stretches between hits can seem like hours and teams sometimes win by scoring just one measly run. I have a few friends that could even find a way to hate Game 7 of the World Series. Just imagine dragging one of them to a bunch of pre-season games that mean absolutely nothing. So there I was, on the right field lawn for three days straight, joined only by a bag of peanuts, a pen and paper, and the occasional Old Style. Oh yeah, and about 12,800 other people.

See, that’s the thing about baseball lovers. Instead of being bored by the meandering pace of a ball game, true fans relish it. There’s time to admire the vast stretches of lush lawn interrupted by the strict angles of dusty base paths. There’s time to smell the unique blend of hot dogs, freshly cracked peanuts and newly mown grass—a bouquet that can only be found at a ballpark or a summer picnic. There’s time to watch a young father proudly teaching his son how to score a game or catch a fly ball, all the while hoping one day he’ll share his dad’s passion for the game. There’s even time to grab the glistening knee and kiss the flushed cheek of someone special—even if she’s wearing the other team’s ball cap.

Of all baseball lovers, none are more passionate nor more tortured than Cubs fans. For them, baseball on a sunny spring day in Mesa is as pure and simple as it gets. Lawn seats are just $6, there are no ushers checking to see if you’re in the right seat and most of the games aren’t even televised. Superstars sign autographs before the game and some lucky fans on the lawn can even get the outfielders to chat it up mid-inning. Most of the players save the histrionics and showboating for the regular season, allowing fans to focus on their swings, catches, pitches and slides.

Of course, Spring Training isn’t just about gauging how the big guns look and getting to know the newbies, it’s also about soaking up the untainted hope promised by the pre-season. Before the first pitch of the season is ever thrown, before the first out or the first loss can be posted, fans can still believe that this is the year their team wins it all.

In just over a week, when the Cubs take the field at Wrigley to open up the 2008 season, Northsiders will be hesitant to pull out the ol’ standby: "there’s always next year." It just feels like the waiting is over. It feels like it’s time. To win it all again exactly one hundred years later would be the only salve for a century’s worth of heartache.

This time around, next year is this year. I know this much: it will be an experience.


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