Gene Collier: 100-year-old home of the Cubs still holds a lot of charm


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CHICAGO -- Wrigley Field turns 100 this year and, you know, it doesn't look a day over 95.

When it's too early on the calendar for the verdant splendor of the lush ivy, the enduring charm at one of baseball's most iconic addresses remains atmospheric rather than visual, playing out year after year in that quirky rhythm where every crazy thing that happens reminds everyone of 10 even crazier things that happened at the corner of Clark and Addison.

So nobody even blinked Tuesday night when a four-run Pirates lead disappeared in about 20 minutes. When the Cubs' Starlin Castro lined Charlie Morton's 1-2 pitch into the seats in the left field corner, all the presumed benefits of a four-run first were voided.

A four-run lead in this place isn't worth the hand-painted scoreboard placard it's printed on, which is why Wrigley's timeless narrative stays so relevant even when the Cubs wander in and out of competence -- mostly out.

"Growing up in southern Indiana I was a Cardinals fan, but I always watched the Cardinals and Cubs on WGN when I could," Pirates shortstop Clint Barmes was saying just before Clint Hurdle's team started its 2014 road show. "It was just so exciting when I finally got to play here. I actually came here for a tryout the year I was drafted. I met Mark Grace and Sammy Sosa on the field.

"But then when I was in the big leagues, I mean just when you walk down that narrow tunnel to the dugout and think about who walked through here, it's so special."

The scope of it all is sometimes hard to comprehend. This is the first park to have organ music, the first to have permanent concession stands, and the first where fans were permitted to keep foul balls.

Lou Gehrig hit a ball out onto Sheffield Avenue as a high school kid. Babe Ruth called his shot here in the 1932 World Series. If you start listing these things, you might never stop.

"I'd just gotten traded to Cincinnati," Hurdle remembered about his first Wrigley encounter. "I got here early so I went outside and walked around. Walked Addision, walked Sheffield, then walked around a lot inside.

Blew me away, the size of the lockers. Then it was explained to me that back when it was built, the size of the men was a little different. It was like visiting a museum, like the first time I went to Fenway. I'm glad it's still here, absolutely.

"I remember asking the old clubhouse guy where all the original lockers were. They used to line up by number and I asked him, 'Where was the Babe's locker?' He showed where Willie [Mays] lockered when he came in. I just always asked those kinds of questions.

"They wouldn't give me that locker."

Why not, I wondered.

"Didn't think I was worrrrrthy," Hurdle said. "Or I didn't tip well enough. Both ways I was knocked out."

Some hours later, Hurdle's team did what good teams do here when they lose a big lead at Wrigley; they start building another. Andrew McCutchen's second hit of the game chased home Starling Marte in the fourth, and Travis Ishikawa's triple scored Russell Martin for a 6-4 lead in the fifth.

But if a four-run lead is patently worthless within these acres, a two-runner is a world more precarious. That the Cubs had that one wiped out before the seventh inning was over was right on script, even if the sixth run came at the expense of Tony Watson, who hadn't allowed a run in 221/3 innings.

It wasn't until Martin lifted a sacrifice fly to right with the bases loaded in the eighth that the Pirates discovered a lead they could love and nurture, the bullpen making it stand for a 7-6 victory.

But six runs worth of blown leads around here is nothing.

As it happens, the first series I ever covered here included a game for which an 18 mph wind started whipping off Lake Michigan around noon. Travelling then with the Phillies, I was stunned by the audible gasp in the press box when the wind speed and direction were announced at the time of the first pitch.

The Phillies scored seven times in the top of the first. In the bottom of the first, the Cubs scored eight times. The Phillies went on to win 23-22. In extra innings.

"I couldn't wait to get here," said Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister of his first experience. "Watching baseball on TV in the '70s, that was the baseball sweet spot for me. Then WGN came along and the Cubs were everywhere. When you think about everyone who has played here. I'm not sure a lot of these guys today even know that Babe Ruth played here.

"Once after a rainout I snuck my daughter onto the field and took her picture out by the 400 sign in the ivy. We have that in a big frame in our house. When people come over they say, "Hey, Wrigley Field.' "

The Pirates ended their 20-year absence from the postseason by clinching a wild card spot here in September, but the place is absolutely laced with swashbuckling stories. Rennie Stennett went 7 for 7 in a 22-0 game in 1975. Paul Waner had 231 hits in this place, more than any visiting player not named Aaron (242), Mays (236), or Musial (234). Willie Stargell hit 32 homers here. Just three years ago this month, Neil Walker hit the first opening day grand slam by a Pirate since Roberto Clemente walked the earth.

Were only Harry Caray still around to toast the next 100 years.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.

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