In the Cubs Bleachers, A Loss Means Little

Where peanut earrings and wackiness are standard fare

It's a cloudless Saturday afternoon at Chicago's Wrigley Field, where the hometown Cubs have battled the Montreal Expos to a ninth-inning tie.

As usual, the bleachers are brimming with people, only half of whom seem to be paying attention to the game. The atmosphere is, in a word, irreverent.

One group of fans has attached peanuts to their earlobes. Others are wearing ridiculously oversized glasses or singing the Canadian national anthem. One bleacherite stands in the aisle displaying a T-shirt that says: "Federal Witness Protection Program."

As the Cubs emerge from the dugout, right fielder Sammy Sosa enjoys another burst of adoration from the bleachers. Fans rejoin their game-long conversation with the superstar.

"How many outs, Sammy?"

Sosa holds up a closed fist, eliciting cheers from the grandstand.

"Hey Sammy, can I borrow five bucks?"

Sosa reaches for an imaginary wallet, and the bleachers erupt with laughter.

Several pitches and one out later, the Expos' Andy Stankiewicz knocks a home run into dead center, giving Montreal the lead. Fans in the bleachers begin chanting "throw it back," and the offending baseball is promptly returned to the field.

To the uninitiated, the size of the bleacher crowd here, and its constant parade of wackiness, belie the game's close score and the fact that the Cubs have the second-worst record in major league baseball. It's difficult to imagine that a team that lost its first 15 games this season could have already drawn 1.7 million fans to the ballpark.

It's a contradiction all too familiar to Chicago Tribune sports columnist Jerome Holtzman, who has watched the Cubs fail season after season - often in spectacular fashion - to bring Chicago a World Series championship. They haven't won one since 1908.

"Somebody once asked me if I'm emotionally affected every time the Cubs lose," Mr. Holtzman says. "If I was, there would be nothing left of me."

Although this season has become another exercise in futility, he adds, it has reinforced one truth about Cubs baseball, one that stands in stark contrast to the experiences of many major league clubs - particularly in the wake of the 1995 players' strike. "Cubs fans don't care if the team wins or loses," Holtzman says. "They just like to have a good time."

In the bleachers, despite the prospect of another loss, fans continue their antics. As relief pitcher Kent Bottenfield takes the mound, attention returns to Sosa.

"Sammy, can you pitch?"

Sosa lowers his glove and pantomimes a blistering fastball, driving the faithful completely bananas. A woman in a bikini top blurts out a marriage proposal. Sosa is encouraged to run for governor, and one man offers to mow his lawn "for free, dude."

Y all accounts, the Cubs' enduring appeal has less to do with winning than with the charm of Wrigley Field, known locally as "the friendly confines," or "the baseball palace of the free world." There are no billboards or instant replay screens here, and most of the home games are still played during the day. Lights weren't added until 1988.

This is more like going to a baseball game in 1950 than 1990," says Mike Blume, a Philadelphia attorney on his first visit to the bleachers. "It's more of a community experience, with the players and the fans interacting. There's nothing corporate about it."

Yet even Cubs fans have moments of frustration.

The next two Expos batters knock home runs into the bleachers, sealing the loss and prompting fans to shower the field with souvenir cups, sunscreen bottles, and more than a few items of clothing bearing the team logo. The impromptu protest ends only when umpires threaten to declare a forfeit.

As the game resumes, Sosa turns to the crowd and shakes his head in a lighthearted expression of dismay. "Sorry about that, Sammy," answers one fan. "Can you buy me another Coke?"

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