I Can't Believe They Let Us In - National League Championship Series

CHICAGO, IL -- It’s a dirty secret and a shameful admission in St. Louis to declare yourself as feeling as though you belong somewhere else. Even worse if that somewhere is the perceived rival to the north, and worse still if you’re a St. Louis native whose attachment to the city is not as strong as you may wish it was. Regardless, my attachment to Chicago is strong, and it would be pointless to try to hide that.

Even still, a midweek stroll through Wrigleyville was enough to remind me that the energy which breathes life into the city is one that’s hard duplicate, and it’s one that informs all of the baseball that unfolds at the 103-year-old park at the neighborhood’s center. But when the baseball goes flat, where does the energy go?

THE CITY

I’m always amazed when I meet a St. Louisian who hasn’t spent significant time in Chicago, and yet the frequency with which it happens lets me know that I should figure out how to keep my surprise to myself. For me, there’s promise in the first full and close glimpse of the skyline as the car comes around the bend on the exit to the westbound Dan Ryan Expressway.

On this trip, I admit that there was a welling of emotion that came with that promise. I miss my old haunts and the energy that comes with living life fully in a place with constant new discoveries, and I was surprised by the intensity that I was hit by.

Wrigleyville itself, however, was almost eerie in its stillness. My impressions of playoff baseball come from ravenous St. Louis crowds in crisp fall air, and my experiences at Wrigley for even a mid-summer mid-day game have been laced with anticipation and excitement. This week was still and quiet. The Park at Wrigley, an outdoor viewing and retail area, has been added to the park since my prior visit, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the family friendly sterility had detracted from some of the grit that previously defined the North Side.

THE WORK

Watching beat writers work on deadline is truly fascinating. I’m comfortable with my own ability to write under pressure, but I’ve never had the weight of the clock and the interest of a city bearing down on me. Even with the modernization of the flow of technology, readers depend on game stories, and the writer must deliver.

There’s no such pressure when you craft an assignment of your own design and open yourself up to an exploration without walls or rules. I knew I wanted to capture the essence of the NLCS – the “spirit of the thing,” as Slap Shot’s legendary fictitious sportswriter Dickie Dunn once put it. I wanted to wander the park, breathe in the crowd, and channel an experience outward to those who didn’t see it through my eyes.

The work takes on an international flavor when international actors are involved. With Yu Darvish starting game 3 and Kenta Maeda lurking the Dodgers bullpen, there was a sizable contingent of Japanese reporters who seemed to take a special pride in rushing to ask as many questions as possible in both their native language and broken but perfectly comprehensible English. Given the eagerness of their American counterparts to shy away from the microphone, the difference in styles was striking.

The challenge of good writing, of course, is to make the mundane seem compelling. Over three days, I saw eight home runs spread out over the first two games before a historical effort from Enrique Hernandez and an all-world drubbing. The stories around Hernandez and the Puerto Rico effort, the dominance from the Dodger bullpen, and the mighty but futile effort of Jake Arrieta all have their appeal, but the wet blanket that settled on the series ultimately snuffed it all out.

THE PARK

Wrigley Field is old. It’s been modernized, of course, but the rust, the metal, and the cramped concourses are all part of the charm. When the Dodgers won the pennant, they celebrated in the batting cage because the clubhouse is too small. The media room was converted from an area known as the “Audi Club,” into which the Dodgers’ families were also crammed.

I joked in a group text thread that I climbed more stairs at Wrigley Field in three days than I had otherwise tackled in three months. While a slight exaggeration, the count may not be that far off. Each trudge from the auxiliary box up to the main box for coffee and a brownie (and there were many of those trips) worked off a great deal of my energy and reminded me of the benefit of Busch’s more modern amenities.

A trip to Wrigley as a fan is an experience that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys baseball. Get a hot dog and drag it through the garden. Tomato slices, of course, and never ketchup. Laugh at the rust and the troughs and the whipping wind through the flags, but appreciate the history and the dogged determination to remain antiquated.

THE EXPERIENCE

Our goal in this project is to see where We Are Live! will be allowed to go and drink in the overall vibe of wherever we end up. In my case, it just so happened that Game Three of the NLCS fell 364 days after the first sporting event that I ever attended as a member of the media, and so it served as a wonderful book end to a bizarre and exciting year.

To say that I was able to be in close proximity to a pennant is something I’ll revel in. I witnessed Tommy Lasorda lumbering down Wrigley steps, I began to understand why Joe Maddon carries the reputation and aura he does, and I saw Clayton Kershaw beam with pride while surrounded by his young family and celebrating his first pennant.

I saw baseball history, and I wondered what the hell I was doing there. I wondered about being a part and yet apart, and I wonder still if others are more accustomed to the feeling of responsibility and sense of grandeur or if it never truly does go away.

Most of all, I was there. Cubs fans will try to forget, Dodgers fans will force themselves to cherish, and journalists will pack messy scorecards and battered chargers into road-worn bags and move to their next stop.

I can’t believe they let us in.