Monday, September 15, 2008

We've Seen the Best of Z, We've Seen the Worst of Z

Let's Go Z!

That's the latest phrase I have taught Pebbles, although since she wasn't with us at the game last night she does not know what she's saying.

For those of you not obsessively following the Cubs' run for the World Championship (There, I said it!), their ace pitcher, Carlos Zambrano, hit a no-hitter last night. We watched him do it, from a great vantage point just below the press box. Since I haven't really attended that many professional sports events in my life, it's a massive understatement to say this, but it was the most exhilarating sports moment I have ever experienced.

It have no ticket stub, no program, not even a snapshot to prove that I was at Miller Park last night. So I just want to record my memories of the event here while they are still fresh.

This weekend we were supposed to stay home for our block party, even though we had been invited to an annual barbecue held by good friends in Milwaukee. But when the rain started pouring down Friday, with more forcast through the weekend, the powers that be on our block postponed the party to a future weekend. We grinned and took off for Milwaukee. We could not use our regular freeway on-ramp because Irvin Park was abruptly closed right before it due to water overflowing from the river. But otherwise, the rain was not too bad for driving in. It was coming down but it wasn't really a storm.

We planned to go to the bbq, stay overnight at the in-laws, watch the Packer game and then head home Sunday afternoon. But on Saturday night, they said on the news that the Cubs/Astros games, which had been cancelled due to Hurricane Ike, would be relocated to MILLER PARK. We took a moment to process that.

But ... the tickets ... how could the ticketholders in Houston get to the game? Oh, wait, they must be selling tickets NOW. Here. I bolted for the computer and after refreshing a few hundred times was able to purchase three Cubs/Astros tickets at Miller Park. I chose the "print at home" option and we had our tickets in minutes.

We invited Epu's little sister, a Brewer's fan, along as a birthday gift, and -- this is what a good sport she is -- she happily accepted. When Epu's folks woke up the next morning, we informed them that they'd be babysitting Sunday night.

We had never been to Miller Park before, and had always meant to check it out, except that those Brewers/Cubs series tickets are always hard to come by, and it seemed like a waste of money to buy tickets for a Brewer's game when we're not fans. Epu's sister, Julia, was kind enough to show us the ropes of Miller Park: First you drive to a bar on Blue Mound Road -- we went to Kelly's Bleachers -- and have a beer. Then the bar takes you in a free shuttle to the park.

Julia showed us the cool features of Miller Park -- the kids play area, where you can race a cardboard cut-out of Cory Hart, the TGI Fridays restaurant where you can eat while looking right out at the outfield. Everyone we saw was decked out in Cubs clothes. We had scarcely brought any clothes for our quick weekend outing, so of course we had not even a Cubs cap, and there were none for sale there of course. In fact, I had borrowed a red long-sleeved shirt that said "Wisconsin" across the front, and I worried that it made me look like an Astros fan.

I don't think I saw a single Astros fan in person, but they showed a few on the video screen.

We took our seats about ten minutes before the game began. We were just below and to the right of the press box and broadcast booths, and I could see Ron Santo, who I listen to on WGN radio along with Pat Hughes every day. It's fun to be able to see Ron because he reacts with so much animation to great Cubs plays.

We were in the first deck, in line with the batter's circle. So we could see everything wonderfully: We had a good view of each batter, could clearly see who was on deck and anyone standing in front of the dug-out. And, most importantly, we could see Carlos Zambrano on the mound in vivid detail.

When we sat down, I asked the Cubs-decked guys in the seats next to us who was pitching. Zambrano. "Oh!" I exclaimed, and giggled with excitement and nervousness. Zambrano is a high-strung guy who has been acting a little crazier than usual lately.

This is the only game we were able to attend this year, and from the beginning it was more exciting than any baseball game I had ever attended. For me, this was because after listening daily on the radio for the past two seasons, I know every player and I have my favorites -- Theriot, Fukodome, Soto, Wood, and, yes, Zambrano. We watched Carlos' first few pitches intensely since he has been on a long rest after shoulder soreness and we just didn't know if we were going to get "good Carlos" or "bad Carlos."

An example of "bad Carlos": The last time I was at a Cubs game with Epu, last summer, Carlos was pitching a terrible game and getting very agitated. So he punched his own catcher in the face in the dugout. Yep.

And by the end of the night, Epu and I would have seen both the nadir and the peak (so far) of Zambrano's career. The hit and the no-hitter. The worst of Z, then the best of Z.

Big Z started off by pitching a few balls, and I was chewing on my fingers. But then, as the stats show, he got rolling, striking guys out, and letting them get off only a few pip-squeak fly balls that were easily caught.

In the fourth inning, Z got on base, and then I knew we were fine. Z loves to bat and I cannot remember a game in which he got a hit that we did not win. I also love watching Zambrano run the bases because he's a big boy and I like to see those man-boobs bounce.

We got our hot dogs and beers, and as will happen when the score is 5-0, we let our concentration wane a bit. We actually distracted ourselves talking politics with my poor sister-in-law, who made the mistake of letting us know she was undecided and therefore a ripe victim for rants about the dangers posed to the nation by Sarah Palin.

The atmosphere at this game was so much fun. There were something like 23,000 people there, and none of them had known they'd be able to see a Cub game that weekend. I know a lot of people had just made a long spur-of-the-moment drive. You have to understand that Cubs tickets are not that easy to get this year, especially at face value. And here we had these beautiful seats for $55 a pop. There was the novelty of being at a supposed Astros "home game" with a Cubs crowd. We wondered who was controlling the sound system. Like, there was certainly no incentive to get the crowd riled up by playing the organ.

And we cracked up watching Zambrano act like he was going to break his bat over his knee when he struck out. That's something he's done before, but this time he just acted like he was going to, then shook his head and laughed.

They mentioned on WGN radio as we drove home that getting 9,000 people in walk-up sales for any sporting even is considered an excellent take. So even though Miller Park did not sell out, selling 23,000 tickets with 24 hours notice, 100 miles from the fans' home base, was pretty phenomenal.

So with our just enjoying ourselves, it wasn't until after I returned from a bathroom break during the stretch (by the way, the speakers in the bathrooms were playing the Astros' radio commentary, which was weird but of course correct for this "Astros home game") that we realized that people were getting more excited during the Astros' at-bats than the Cubs'. In fact, people were starting to stand up as soon as Z came out to the mound. I was just excited that Zambrano was STILL pitching so far into the game and, of course, doing so well.

It was exciting to see how happy Zambrano was, how he pointed up to heaven after each inning and pumped his fist.

And here's when I confess how clueless we are: It was not until the eighth inning that Epu asked me, "Do you think Lou's going to let him come back for the 9th and try for a no-hitter?" Since I had seen two guys walk, including one who got hit by a pitch, it did not really register with me until that moment that the Astros had not gotten a single hit. I probably did not really understand that a walk does not invalidate a no-hitter. But there was that 0 on the scoreboard in the Astros' hit column.

And then of course we were violating a rule of baseball superstition by discussing it. No wonder no one around us joined in the conversation during our belated clue-arrival.

When everyone stood for Z, I noticed something cool about the fans of this Cubs team: You didn't see a single duplicate jersey out there on the fans. I saw "Zambrano," "Lee," "Ramirez," "Theriot," "Fukodome" -- the guy in front of us even wore a "Samardzija" jersey. This is what I love about this team: It's such an ensemble act. OK, last night belonged to Big Z (and let's not forget the almost-certain league Rookie of the Year, catcher Geovany Soto), but the team is one talented team player after another.

Once we boarded the clue train, of course it was all too exciting to bear. The Cubs' last at-bat was thankfully short, although I was excited to see Fukodome come in to pinch hit. Then I had to change seats, because Julia was standing between Epu and me and I wanted to be in my beloved's arms for the historical event that was hopefully about to occur.

We could see Zambrano so well, all his body language. We could tell that he was nervous because instead of adjusting his jock in between batters, he was doing it a couple times between each pitch. The crowd of course was chanting "Let's go Z, let's go Z" but after one inning of that, I just worried that we were distracting him too much and I stopped. Couldn't we just be quiet and let the man work? The other 23,000 people in the stadium assured me that we could not.

While he pitched to that last batter, I was having one of those crystal-clear adrenaline-fueled moments where you are living 100 percent in the moment, then suddenly can see yourself from the outside. I thought, I am 34 years old, I am seeing one man make history, and I could practically fly out above this crowd and swing from the dome if I wanted to. It sounds so trivial, loving a baseball team, but at that moment I felt that I loved the Cubs the way one loves ones country and ones children. And if I felt like this, I cannot imagine what kind of high Carlos was experiencing right then.

When the second to last Astro was out, I was jumping up and down and screaming. But when the final Astros batter swung and struck out, I didn't do any of that. I felt kind of paralyzed, not wanting to move or make a sound to risk missing any part of the moment. The crowd went wild, high fiving everyone in reach. Zambrano dropped to his knees and got up and was then completely covered by teammates and staff members and God-knows-who. People in Cubs uniforms streamed out of every corner of that field, even out of the outfield and I had to wonder, where were those guys during the game because some of them seemed to come out of nowhere.

After a few moments I recovered enough to participate in the second round of high fives all around. And then everyone stood still, watching Carlos do interviews on the field. Fans were making phone calls and reliving the moment. Someone said that Ron Santo was completely freaking out in the booth when it happened, but I don't know how they could have taken their eyes off the field to see that.

Today, it's been fun to be back in the Chicago area and run into fans wearing their Zambrano jerseys, and to tell them that we got to be there. It was the first Cubs no-hitter since 1972, the 257th regulation no-hitter in the history of major league baseball. With the number of games I get to, I certainly don't expect to see another in my lifetime.

Just as we left the stadium, we realized that we had nothing to commemorate the event. We had no ticket stub, just an Internet print-out. There were no programs for sale for this ad hoc game. We hadn't even thought to bring a camera.

So this is my scrapbook, and this is the story that I'll tell my grandkids. I was there, and I'm so happy and grateful for the weird series of weather-related coincidences that made it happen.

My heart goes out to all those for whom these storms brought less happy unexpected events. The world is a strange, strange place, and I spent yesterday evening in a place that was, for two hours, one of the stranger corners of it.


Sara said...

Man, if I knew the Cubs were playing the Astros at Miller Park, I would have tried to snag a few tickets. Glad you guys were in Milwaukee already so that you had the opportunity to go to the game--sounds like a blast!!

margaret said...

yay, Carrie! Thanks for writing the best sports story I've read all year. At first I was thinking that if Epu was/is "homes," you're a homer. All those years I lived within earshot of Wrigley and nothing this exciting ever happened. Enjoy, and go Cubs! (Also thanks for your continued efforts on the dangers of Sarah Palin.)

Carrie said...

Sara -- We TOTALLY should have gotten more tickets! I didn't even realize you guys would have been interested!

Margaret -- Aw, thanks. Coming from my former editor, that means a lot.

Anonymous said...

Yay! I'm so glad you made that game!

I had read your previous post about going to one of the games in Milwaukee, but I knew there were going to be two.

So when I heard about the no-hitter on the radio, I thought how cool would that be for you if you got to see THAT one. And you did!

Go Cubbies!