Excitement, relief and hope were among the emotions Chicago Cubs fans expressed Thursday as they returned to Wrigley Field for the first time in 18 months.
After the COVID-19 pandemic forced fans to cheer for the 2020 team in front of their TVs, 10,343 masked, socially distanced Cubs devotees watched in person the 5-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates to open the 2021 season.
Here’s a look at some of their stories — how they handled the “horrible” time away from their favorite team, their reactions to snagging opening-day tickets and their thoughts about attending a game while COVID-19 cases are still a problem.
‘I have a life with the Cubs’
Longtime Chicago Cubs season ticket holders Georgia and Jack Leese can see Wrigley Field from where they live in Lakeview.
Looking at the empty ballpark in 2020 was “very difficult,” said Georgia, 86.
So naturally they were thrilled to be returning to Wrigley for opening day.
“I think it will be cold, I think it will be exciting, and I think the Cubs are going to win,” Georgia said by phone before she left for the ballpark.
Georgia grew up in Portage Park and took the Addison bus to Wrigley, where at that time she could buy tickets for front-row seats. Jack, 89, is also a lifelong North Sider who attended the 1945 World Series, Georgia said. They attended the 2016 World Series games in Chicago. Over 30-plus years, Georgia missed only one Cubs Convention. And they usually spend March in Arizona for spring training but didn’t travel there this year because of COVID-19.
So when season ticket holders of more than 30 years found out there would be fans at the home opener, they were diligent in their pursuit of tickets, a process she said “wasn’t easy.” They don’t yet have tickets to other games this season.
“I have a life with the Cubs that I haven’t really pursued the way I would like to,” Georgia said. “As soon as it opens up, they know we want to go. They know we want our seats. But I’m grateful. There are a lot of people who can’t go today, and I’m sorry for that.”
Georgia and Jack both have been vaccinated, but she still takes precautions such as wearing a mask and staying within her family bubble.
She said it will be a new experience not sitting with their “buddies” in the usual seats because of the limited fan attendance. But it will be better than watching on TV, as they did last year.
“Everyone has a few reservations, but I would say that we’re very busy people and very active, and that’s been shot down this year,” Georgia said. “So we try to do what we can and be sensible. There are people who do more and people who do less.”
As for how Georgia believe the Cubs will do this year, she said, “I always hope and think they’ll be better than the papers say.”
Growing up with Harry Caray and Steve Stone
Angie and Ryan Schassen moved to Forest Park from Oregon last year and planned to attend every Cubs game until COVID-19 kept fans away.
On Thursday, they attended opening day — Angie’s first game at Wrigley Field and Ryan’s seventh or eighth — and they were “pretty damn excited,” Ryan said from outside the entrance to the Wrigley bleachers.
Ryan, 44, grew up a Cubs fan in Oregon because he watched the team on WGN.
“Harry Caray and Steve Stone were me and my brother’s babysitters,” he said.
The first time his father went to Wrigley Field when he was in his 40s, he cried. Ryan and Angie traveled to Wrigleyville for the 2016 World Series even though they didn’t have tickets. They soaked up the atmosphere at the bars and wrote their son’s name — Ryne — in chalk next to Ryne Sandberg’s outside the field.
“When we got married when I was 19, I told her, no matter what, when the Cubs make the World Series, we’re going to be in Wrigleyville,” Ryan said. “I don’t have to be at the game. I just have to be in the neighborhood.”
This time they were inside Wrigley Field to experience the unusual atmosphere with limited fans.
“It’s Wrigley Field. To me, it’s the same,” Ryan said.
Added Angie: “I guess we’re part of the atmosphere, so we better bring it.”
‘This is what we do’
The T-shirt stand on Sheffield Avenue that Angel Lopez runs didn’t open during the pandemic because the cost of licenses and permits would have overtaken the revenue from limited sales.
So having fans back at Wrigley Field is about more than cheering on the Cubs for Lopez and other vendors.
“This is what we do. If we don’t do this, we don’t do nothing,” Lopez, 55, said. “Bringing it back is bringing life back to us, to our families. It’s been pretty hard. Everybody here has kids in college and all this other stuff, and it’s pretty hard to need something at home and not be able to get it for your kids.”
Lopez said he has lived in Lakeview his whole life and started working for apparel vendors as a kid, so being without it for a year “put a big dent in our heart.” They had to let some employees go, he said.
“Last year was kind of depressing for everybody,” he said. “It does take a toll on people.”
Lopez said the stand was open Thursday as a trial run to see what kind of business came in. He hopes they can keep it running.
“We really don’t know how long we are going to be here now,” he said. “We’re just trying it out and will see how it goes. If it goes good, then we’ll come back out. If not, we’ll have to go into retail stores and do business with them.”
A ‘refreshing’ return
With limited fans in attendance, the entrance to the bleachers had no line in front of it for most of the hour leading up to the game.
Outside the right-field entrance, Teena Moore waited as her boyfriend tried to download their tickets onto his phone, a necessity for fans this season with the Cubs using only digital tickets.
Moore, a South Side Cubs fan, said she wore multiple pairs of pants and socks on the chilly afternoon to be comfortable. When fans were kept from the ballpark last season, she watched on TV.
“It was horrible,” she said. “To try to watch them on TV without any fans was horrible, but I still hung in there and I still watched them because I’m a die-hard Cubs fan.
“(This game) will be refreshing. I’m just so ready to hear ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.’ "
Moore, 51, said she wasn’t too worried about COVID-19. She is vaccinated and was double-masked to be extra careful. She thought the pod seating, cashless operations and delivered concessions would help make it safer.
Steve Grolmus, 57, a season ticket holder from the Quad Cities in Iowa, said he would feel better attending if he was vaccinated but believes games can be held safely if everyone follows the rules.
Grolmus still came to Chicago, where he also owns a place, a couple of dozen times during games last season.
“It was hard,” he said. “It was sad to come up here and not see people around. It was a tough season.”
He expects the fans that are in attendance to be high energy.
“It won’t be the same, but I think everybody is so excited, the excitement level is going to way up there for everybody,” he said. “So I’m really looking forward to it.”
The return of ‘Mai Tai Guy’
As the Cubs-Pirates game crawled along, several people took seats at Gallagher Way to watch the TV broadcast on a giant screen.
Inside the paid attendance area, a few children ran around and fans milled about.
One fan who has grown used to spending Cubs games on the outskirts of Wrigley Field is Christopher Sorley, a 40-year-old Portage Park resident some might remember as “Mai Tai Guy.”
Sorley went viral in 2019 when he was accused of swiping a home run ball from two boys, igniting the debate about the etiquette of such situations. That, of course, was the last season Sorley, who said he usually attends about 50 games a year, was inside Wrigley Field.
Last year, when he realized he wouldn’t be able to go inside, he became a regular visitor to the ballhawks crew that sits at Waveland and Kenmore avenues.
“When they redid the season, we were like, all right, we can’t be inside, but we can still be around the park,” Sorley said. “There are no restrictions for that. … Opening day (in 2020), people were itching to get out, and everyone was ready to go, so we had 40-50 people at the highest point.”
Sorley often passed by veteran ballhawks such as Moe Mullins and Dave Davison, but over time he has gotten used to doing what it takes to compete for home run balls.
“When you see it for the first time, it’s intense when the ball comes out because everyone is running,” he said. “These grown men are chasing after this little 9-inch sphere of yarn and thread. No one is out here to hurt anybody, but the point is to get the ball. You’re going to have some body contact. You’re going to have an elbow to the ribs here.”
Sorley and a few other ballhawks were gathered on Waveland on Thursday because opening-day tickets were too expensive, but he said he has tickets for other games this homestand.
He’s hoping he’ll spend less time on the street during games this season.
“It’s kind of getting back to normal is really how I feel,” Sorley said. “Getting back in the swing of things, and hopefully by the playoffs, if we make them, God willing, we all can be in the ballpark — 40,000 of us.”
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