WRIGLEY IN THE WINTER : To Cub Fans, Cold Fact Is Chicago Lost, Padres Didn't Win

Times Staff Writer

Wrigley Field is quiet these days, lying as dormant as its occupants' 1984 pennant hopes under a blanket of snow.

However, the Chicago Cubs' fans do not hibernate.

They cannot be found stalking the streets on stilts with their bodies painted Cub-blue. And they are not mobbing vendors to buy Cub hats with blinking lights for ridiculous prices.

That was the way it was last October, when hearts were high and the Cubs were atop the Padres, 2-0, in the National League Championship Series. On an icy February day, Wrigley Field very much looks the part of a ghost town with a snow-covered boot hill for yet another summer of unfulfilled hopes.

Even the streets are quiet, because most residents are staying indoors and out of the bitter cold.

But while it's cold outside, the Cubs are still a hot topic at surrounding indoor hangouts.

And those Cub fans are unlikely to change. They are convinced the Padres were the interlopers in the playoffs, rather than the local heroes. So what if the Cubs had gone 39 years without a National League pennant?

Larry Buhl, vice president of a food products company, sat in Bernie's Tavern and lamented the "injustice" of the Padres playing in the World Series.

"Most Cub fans are of the opinion that San Diego was a one-year mistake," Buhl said. "They'll never beat the Cubs or whoever wins the National League East again. The only thing I can say is that the Padres embarrassed all National League fans in the World Series."

Bernie's was located behind the left-field stands, and the sentiment was the same beyond the center-field stands at Murphy's Bleachers.

"San Diego isn't that good," said Karen Gardner, an accountant. "They'll need help this year. Experience will help the Cubs this year. If they get that close again, they won't choke."

As she spoke, a touch of doubt could be detected in her voice. But such is life for die-hard Cubs fans. Would it occur to them that other teams, such as those villainous Padres, will also benefit from experience?

Obviously, Cub fans are willing to forget the past and look optimistically to the future.

Local taverns have posted the number of days until Opening Day, and Cub schedules are available by the handful.

At the Murphy's Bleachers, Wally King was reflecting on Game 5 of the National League Championship Series one recent afternoon. King, an account executive, still winced at the memory of how the Padres beat the Cubs, 6-3, in that deciding game.

And Cub fans, as might be expected, focused more on Chicago goats than San Diego heroes. After all, in their eyes, the Padres didn't win. The Cubs lost.

"When the ball went under Leon Durham's glove to tie the game, I punched a hole in my wall," King said. "I swore off the Cubs for life. When I got up the next day, I said 'wait 'til next year.' "

King's thoughts summarized the reactions of Cub fans. The team may break people's hearts year after year, but those same people keep coming back for more.

The Cubs had to cut off season-ticket sales at 20,000 for this season so that enough tickets would be available for the commissioner's office and other major-league teams if the Cubs make the playoffs again.

Fans had waited in line for up to four hours when the wind-chill factor was 20-below zero to get season tickets.

King was among those who withstood the cold to purchase season tickets.

"I live in Chicago, so I'm used to this stuff," he said. "You don't live in this climate unless you learn how to live with the cold. I felt warm that day because I got my season tickets."

On a recent afternoon with the chill factor at 4-below zero, John Fraser was alone in line for tickets. Fraser, a fast-food restaurant manager, purchased upper-deck tickets for all Tuesday games.

He was not among the fortunate ones to get Opening Day tickets for April 9 against Pittsburgh but said he would pay up to $50 for a good seat that day. A top-priced seat is $9.50.

"It's worth it," Fraser said. "I know the Cubs are gonna win it all this year. When they lost last year, I didn't talk to anybody for days. I had a great summer come to a quick end. I felt great after the Cubs won the first two games against San Diego. Words could not describe their fall."

Across the street at the Cubby Bear Lounge, bartender Cathy Lee, who had worked the night of Game 5, described the atmosphere.

"A lot of people were in here watching TV and drinking champagne," she said. "There was a lot of optimism until the end. When the game was over, people cleared out of here real quick. One girl who worked here was crying out of control. A lot of people were visibly moved."

Bob Smith, a grocery store manager, had been more composed about the situation.

"How many years weren't the Cubs a winner?" he asked. "They become a part of you. You accept what happens. No matter what happens this year, I'll be back again next year."

The Chicago fire station across the street from the left field bleachers had proclaimed itself the Official World Series Fire Station last year. However, there was no World Series across the street, and the firemen bemoan the fact that Cub manager Jim Frey did not go to his firemen a bit earlier in that fifth game.

"We were just talking about how Rick Sutcliffe and Jim Frey blew the last game," Lieutenant Mike McDole said. "Frey should've pulled Sutcliffe after he gave up two runs. If I would've had World Series tickets, I would've been even more frustrated. There's always next year. Remember, the Cubs had not even come this far in 40 years."

And the Cubs' futility through those 40 years has captured the fancy of fans nationwide. Indeed, they come from all over to watch the Cubs.

Doc Reznick, manager of the Sports Distributors souvenir shop adjacent to right field, said he probably met people from every state last year.

Things are much quieter in February. Reznick only hopes to bring in enough revenue to pay the heating bill at this time of year.

During the playoffs, it had been a different story. People waited in line to get in the store.

Among the favorite items was a Padre Busters T-shirt. It depicts three growling bears in Cub uniforms with the message: "We Ain't Afraid of No Padres."

"These sold well when everything was happening," Reznick said. "Now, a person might want one once in a blue moon."

According to Reznick, souvenirs sold well for a month after the playoffs. Sales slowed down until the Christmas rush, he said, and they have come to a nearly a standstill since.

One issue in the neighborhood is not seasonal--Wrigley Field's lack of lights and whether they should be installed.

Commissioner Peter Ueberroth added to the controversy earlier this month when he threatened to move future Cub playoff games out of Chicago unless the team played at night. In a letter to the Cubs, Ueberroth cited lost television revenue as the reason for wanting prime-time night games rather than afternoon contests.

"I think the commissioner is an idiot," said Fritz Kraly, a toolmaker. "As long as the Cubs were losing, nobody said anything. Now that they're winning, people are putting conditions on them. If lights are so important, why weren't they installed 30 years ago? People are just attacking the Cubs because they are a successful team."

As Kraly spoke, he was sitting in the back corner of Murphy's Bleachers.

Since he only lives one block from Wrigley Field, Kraly has special interest in the lights issue.

Kraly gave two reasons for not wanting night games--lack of available parking at night and increased security problems in the neighborhood.

"Last summer after a day game, my girlfriend and I came home and saw guys taking a leak in the back yard," Kraly said. "If you had 30,000 people here at night, problems like that would be worse than during the day."

On Feb. 28, Citizens United for Baseball in Sunshine (CUBS) will have a rally near Wrigley Field. They expect nearly 1,000 people to attend.

Phil Eickhoff, a theater production manager who lives near Wrigley Field, is on the no-lights committee.

"It's really a very simple issue," he said. "There's not enough parking around here. When we are at work during the day, fans park in our spaces. When we come home, and there is a 3 o'clock game, people are still in our spaces. If they play at night, there won't be parking spaces for the fans."

During the 1984 season, in fact, the citizens' group successfully supported local and state laws prohibiting lights at Wrigley Field. In the aftermath of Ueberroth's letter, the Cubs themselves have taken legal action to overturn the anti-light laws.

Art Sagel, a maintenance worker at Wrigley Field, suggested lights were a solvable problem.

"Things could be a lot worse," he said. "They have enough property around here to build parking lots so they can play at night. What if the Cubs move? Those buildings across the street won't be worth anything."

At this time of year, a maintenance worker probably spends most of his time keeping the pipes from freezing in Wrigley Field.

Both dugouts and the playing field were covered with snow. The stadium tunnels were blockaded to keep snow from blowing into the main concourse where stadium employees sometimes walk during the day.

Above each of the dugouts, a sign warned fans to stay off the field. No one was disobeying. Not in February in Chicago.

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