This last week Tight_PP and I went to Chicago, expressly to visit US Cellular Field.
We actually visited three sites of baseball lore and legend. This is my account.
Chicago is not a rust belt city by any means. It is a vibrant city with a lively core where people not only work and play, but also live. Condo towers, office skyscrapers and pre-war office structures fit in nicely in the sprawling core. Chicago is a very, very big city. It is more than thrice the population of Toronto and probably thrice the size geographically. That said, it has a similar feel to Toronto.
We landed at O’Hare International and took the CTA or the “L” into town. The “L” is an electric train system that covers most of the sprawl – including a station at the airport! The “L” at first glance looks like a marvel of urban transportation, however, it is very slow going at times. The trains typically run 15-20 minutes apart and the stops at stations are long. We took the Blue Line from O’Hare into the city. It is about 20 stops and this took well over an hour. It is a drudge, but very cheap - only $2.25 per ride. The train is elevated at points and the train will run within metres of people’s bedroom windows. The train is very loud and it screams when you get in the tunnels.
Taxi cabs are expensive and the fare is multiplied by the number of passengers. Avoid. Once we got into the “Loop” it is an excellent place for eating, shopping and sight-seeing. The Magnificent Mile, which is Michigan Avenue, has all of the Tiffany & Co. and Niemen Marcus stores you can want, which in my case is none. For the fanatical baseball fan there is only one reason to be in this tourist area. It is the home to the Billy Goat Tavern. The Billy Goat is a little off the beaten path – but more precisely under the beaten path. The address is 430 N Michigan, Lower Level. To access the lower level there is a stair way tunnel on the sidewalk on Michigan Ave that has a non-descript sign that you wouldn’t find unless you were looking at it. The stair way leads to an underground road system that looked more like a coach bus parking lot. The only shop of any kind on this lower level was the Billy Goat Tavern. The Billy Goat is a comfortable, authentic, greasy-spoon style diner. There is a bar with a TV, but this isn’t really a tavern or a sports bar. I like to call it a “Spite Bar”. The Billy Goat legend states that the Bill Sianis, the owner of the Tavern, bought a box ticket for him and his pet goat to the 1945 World Series at Wrigley Field. Cubs’ management kicked the goat and its lunatic owner out of Wrigley due to complaints that the goat stunk. Sianis then put a curse on the Cubs, saying that they will not only lose the ’45 Series to the Tigers, but never play in the World Series again. Sianis also took this feud into politics and the local economy. The slights that Sianis and his goat faced in 1945 and the ensuing feud continue at the Tavern to this day. The Tavern is absolutely NOT a Cubs supporter bar. The newspaper clippings that make up the decorations are reaffirmations of the Cubs futilities in a spiteful way – not a “Loveable Loser” way. As much as this place is part of Chicago Cubs lore, this bar is best for Cubs haters.
You are welcomed by a guy screaming “Double Cheeseburger, Double Cheese is best!” There is a full menu but the only English that any employee understands is “double cheeseburger”. I witnessed the cooks arguing with people when they would order anything other than what the cook was shouting at them. It is funny. I ordered a coffee instead of a coke and he rolled his eyes at me. Everything is very, very reasonably priced but by far not the best cheeseburger I have had.
Onto Wrigleyville. The Cubs were out of town and the stadium was closed because Pink Floyd was playing the next night. Wrigley Field is truly the neighbourhood ballpark that you read about in Robert Creamer books and see in Ken Burns documentaries. It really does fit into the surroundings and the neighbourhood is a mix of Cubs merchandise stores, small groceries, auto shops and other things that a functional urban neighbourhood needs. To use a Toronto analogy, Wrigleyville could be mistaken for “The Beaches” neighbourhood. The neighbourhood does not appear to depend on Wrigley to function or survive. There were a couple of novelty fan bars that were mostly empty - even though the Cubs were playing on television.
From Wrigleyville, we hopped on the Red Line at Addison and headed south about 12 stops to Sox-35th Station. The one thing about the “L” is that you are very high above street level and it gives you an interesting vantage point. Both Wrigley and US Cellular Field become visible when you are still on the train. This is similar to the subway that approaches Yankee Stadium. The Red Line serves both parks, but the neighbourhoods are night-and-day different. While Wrigley sits amongst century old free-holds, US Cellular Field sits amongst parking lots. You get off at Sox-35th and there is nothing to do other than go to the Stadium. There is probably no reason to get off at the said station, unless you were going to a Sox game. There is no sport bars, stores or anything of the like in the area. Nobody lives in the area. I would describe the area as a mixed transport/light industrial area. There are some suburbs visible to the west of the stadium, beyond the rail yards, and some larger factories to the east on the other side of I-95. Unless you like murder, thievery and tweaking on meth, there is nothing to do before and after the game except run for the station.
In the parking lots that surround the stadium, Sox fans tailgate. In the parking lot on the north side of the current stadium is the outline of the batter’s box and the foul lines of Old Comiskey Park (the stadium which the Sox played in from 1910-1990). Interestingly, the site of South End Grounds, the original home to the White Sox (from 1901-1909) - as well as Chicago American Giants - is located just to the south of the current stadium. The amount of fanfare for an early June weekday game was impressive. On top of tailgating, there were two live bands playing as well as a huge parade of Little Leaguers.
US Cellular Field is a massive stadium despite holding about 42000. It is mostly pink in colour and is very distinct in the vacant parking and rail yards that surround the park. We arrived as the gates were opening. Outside the stadium there are several monuments to White Sox greats and the various great events in White Sox history. All-time favourites are Minnie Minoso, Frank Thomas, Nellie Fox and Luke Appling. Current White Sox Paul Konerko is probably the all-time favourite White Sox and his number 14 will likely be retired the day after he retires.
As the Billy Goat Tavern is a place that is connected to the Cubs, the 1919 Black Sox and Joe Jackson are not amongst a point of pride for the White Sox. While many baseball fans would know Joe Jackson there is very little mention of him and other Black Sox amongst other White Sox legends. It is here you realise the stigma that the Black Sox scandal has left and the South Siders remember that those implicated Black Sox remain banned from baseball.
You enter the stadium at street level and have to take an elevator up to the first level concourse. The field is at ground level. This is different from most parks I have been to in which the field and lower level have been excavated, allowing fans to enter at the top of the lower level. As soon as I entered the concourse it reminded me of old Tiger Stadium – it smelled delicious. The steel and brick scheme and the very low headroom were also reminiscent of Tiger Stadium. The first level concourse was open to the field but very narrow. The games were far from sold out and the concourse was very crowded. You are able to walk completely around the top of the lower level. The concourse opens up in the outfield and there is a walk of fame with life sized statues of Chicago White Sox greats.
This is similar to what I have seen in Detroit and Cleveland and is a rip off of Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. In left-centre field there is also the transplanted shower from Old Comiskey Park. The shower was installed by Bill Veeck to let fans on hot days soak themselves. It was a little too brisk when I was there to partake.
The concourse has every kind of food you could imagine. The fare is extensive and not cripplingly expensive. Cuban Comet Sandwiches, tacos, polish sausages, bratwursts, Balkan hotdogs, churros and nachos-in-a-helmet are available just to name a few.
The famous Comiskey Dog stand in right field is lined up the early innings. I had to try one. You get a foot-long Coney Island style wiener with jalapeno, dill pickle, tomatos and fluorescent green relish. The bun fell apart, probably the worst thing I have ever eaten at a ball game.
I remember very little about old Comiskey Park but I remember watching as a kid that the seats were fluorescent green, the same colour as the relish. I had to wash it down with a huge variety of mid-west microbrews from all over Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Iowa. There are lots of guys selling things in the aisles, and the worst call I heard was “Get your Red Ropes, 3 feet of sugar for $2”. No wonder America is the fattest place in the world. Diabetes anyone?
There are many souvenir stands and several stores. They all sell the same swag, nothing special or unique to be seen. The White Sox were notorious for uniform changes throughout their history. It is cool to see how all the uniforms, logos, hats etc are being sold.
Once you enter the seating area you notice the impeccably manicured field. You also get the feeling that something is looming over you. Our seats were in the lower box along the first base line. There are three levels of suites and then the massive upper deck. There is almost no overhang between the decks. I counted that only the top 4 rows of the lower bowl were covered by the upper levels. There is a mini club level of 4-5 rows that juts out along the third base side and part way down the first base side. We went upstairs to the upper deck and the pitch is very, very steep. It reminded me of the upper deck at Old Yankee Stadium. You have the feeling that you may tip over.
There is an exposed steel roof that is supported by old-style steel pillars that obstruct the view of the top 5 rows in the upper deck. US Cellular Field was renovated extensively in the early 2000’s and several rows were removed from the top of the upper deck. They say the front row of the upper deck is the same height as the top row of the upper deck at the old stadium. The sightlines are great throughout, however the upper deck is really high and you get a case of vertigo. There are many private suites, many were full and they are very close to the action – probably some of the best private suites in MLB. Another positive of US Cellular Field is the stadium is spectacularly clean. No gum stains, the seats are clean and the cement looks like it was poured yesterday.
The unique gimmick is the exploding scoreboard. It is a carryover from the original stadium.
The Chicago fans are apathetically quiet. I was at two games and the only time they cheered was for White Sox scoring plays. You will hear quiet applause when each player is announced. There is no booing of the opponent or their own players, despite their slumps or if they commit errors. After hearing some nightmare stories of rowdy, obscene, feloniously violent White Sox fans, I was surprised at the general sleepy nights at the ballpark.
Overall, US Cellular Field is cosmetically similar to retro ballparks I have been to. The renovations played a part in that, I am sure . Lower deck sightlines are great; the upper deck is close to orbit. Tickets are expensive from the box office but can be had after market for half of face value. Getting to the park is pretty easy. The ballpark neighbourhood is the worst I have been to. The food and drink selection is excellent. The fans are quiet but knowledgeable. I have a mixed opinion of US Cellular Field. I think they have done what they can with what they have, but the issues that detract from the US Cellular experience are beyond the White Sox powers to addess (save for building a new stadium in a different part of town on a train line that is more dependable).