The Cubs and Diamondbacks play Wednesday as part of the 100-year festivities at Wrigley Field, where long-suffering fans don’t want too much to change. | Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
Updated: May 28, 2014 6:41AM
The smartest baseball person I know was typically spot-on with an assessment of Cubs fans he offered a few years back.
They want improvement, he said, but not change.
That description could have been the slogan for events held to commemorate Wrigley Field’s 100th birthday last week. The nostalgia was sweet, tasteful and abundant, but it couldn’t quite dispel the reality of an implacably stalled ballpark upgrade or an on-field rebuild that appears to be running in place for a third successive season.
Can a team that has gone without a championship over the lifetime of everybody you know have good old days? Evidently. WGN found enough ‘‘good old days’’ vignettes to produce a charming two-hour special that illuminated why so many people feel so gooey about the old-geezer ballpark and the star-crossed team that plays there.
One recurring theme: the exhilarating color of the place. Members of my generation who hustled home from school to catch the final few innings of a Channel 9 Cubs broadcast did so via primitive black-and-white TV sets, on which the grainy hue of the ivy was indistinguishable from the drab surrounding buildings. But to walk into the park for the first time, age immaterial, and experience that dazzling expanse of green, in the midst of a gritty, semi-seedy, unmistakably urban setting . . . the memory is timelessly enduring, like a first kiss.
Nothing, though, sums up a Cubs fan’s peculiar discernment better than his or her fascination with the ’69 team. It’s best known for inglorious failure, and yet only the ’85 Bears claim a stronger presence in the hearts and minds of most of Chicago.
The collapse that followed Ken Holtzman’s near-mythical no-hitter pretty much defines the Cubs, then and now. But the dozens of fun, memorable games they played after Willie Smith’s Opening Day magic energized a long-dormant fan base so thoroughly that what might have been came to be viewed as an acceptable outcome.
That has sort of been the Cubs’ norm ever since. Only in Chicago?
And from April into August, the ’69 Cubs were a good team, with four Hall of Famers forming the nucleus of a group that stayed together for nearly a decade. There was comfort in knowing some seven positions were in the capable hands of familiar faces, with a gnarly, no-nonsense skipper running things. And if we ever find a center fielder, look out.
Such stability is unheard of in today’s more transient game. The ’03 Cubs got closer to the World Series than their ’69 forebears, the ’04 club collapsed just as jarringly, and the ’07 and ’08 squads achieved back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time in 100 years. But none of those teams comes close to matching the wistful mystique of the ’69 Cubs, in part because the ’03 roster had scattered to the wind by the time the Dodgers’ division-series sweep in ’08 ran the postseason losing streak to eight games and 102 seasons.
Advantage: Good old days.
One night after the WGN birthday special aired, I found myself at Ground Zero of modern Cubdom: on a rooftop, as a guest at a charity event. The building has been converted from simple tenement to lavish private club, and with most visitors staking out big-screen TV sets to watch a Blackhawks-Blues playoff game, the wet, dreary matchup of last-place teams taking place across the street was a minor part of the ambience, like softball at the company picnic.
The ballgame is usually more of a main event, and rooftop owners have gone to great expense to build a certain panache around it. That their views will be compromised by signage and video boards is a given; the shed housing a center-field TV camera already obscures a good chunk of the outfield from the roof of the Sheffield Avenue building I visited.
It’s easy (and tempting) to dismiss their outrage as just desserts for greedy speculators, but there’s this contract, see, and the Cubs’ current boss of business operations had a hand in negotiating it . . .
Lost amid the 100-year Wrigley hoo-hah is a lesser milestone: the 30-year anniversary of the 1984 Cubs, a charismatic comet of a team that changed everything. Tribune Co., in its third year of ownership, faced the same challenge the Ricketts family faces today: Make things better, but keep them the same.
Dallas Green certainly got the baseball part of it, but he didn’t last — his know-it-all bombast wore thin after a while.
Not a problem for the pleasant, well-meaning Ricketts crew. They don’t know enough.