There are few things in life more exciting than walking into a ballpark.
Every time I walk onto a concourse and get my first peek of the green diamond past it, I feel a tangible thrill throughout my body. This happens at every park -- even the Metrodome, which is just about the most awful baseball stadium imaginable. More often than not, the thrill comes at 35th and Shields, where Jerry Reinsdorf and Co. have transformed the cold, barren "New" Comiskey Park into the bustling, beautiful U.S. Cellular Field. I usually enter the park from Gate 5, go up the escalators, and take a quick lap around the concourse, taking in all the sights and sounds. (Is there a more satisfying smell than that of Polish sausage and grilled onions at the game?)
It wasn't always this way. I used to shun baseball as that slow, boring game where nothing happens. That was easy for a kid who turned 12 the year Michael Jordan and the Bulls won their first of six titles, or a kid who got to see Belfour, Roenick and Chelios in their prime at the old Chicago Stadium. There was excitement in the Stangland house when the Sox won the division in 1993, but it became an afterthought when MJ announced his first retirement amid the Sox playoff series with Toronto. My newfound love for Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura, Ellis Burks and Wilson Alvarez stood no chance against the thought of losing Jordan. I remember a flock of us Wheeling High kids piled into Elliott Dennis's living room the next day to watch MJ's press conference on our lunch hour.
But I found my way back to baseball in 2001, when I started working at the Daily Herald. Everyone at the Herald is a baseball fan. Don Friske, the night Sports editor, is an official scorer at The Cell and Wrigley, for cryin' out loud. If I didn't know baseball, I wouldn't be able to carry on a conversation with most of my colleagues. So I reinvested myself, and baseball has become a large part of my life ever since.
Some of my most indelible memories of the last eight years revolve around baseball. One would assume that I'd count the 2005 World Series among the best, but what I remember most about that series is missing the final out because my boss told everyone to stop watching the game and get back to work. If she had waited 30 seconds, we all would have seen history made. But she didn't, and I spent most of that night shaking my head in what felt like defeat. After deadline, I went into the men's room for about 10 minutes and broke down -- I missed the final out of a Chicago World Series! I could have been watching it with my dad and sharing the moment, but instead I'm HERE.
But tonight, under similar circumstances, I've enjoyed one of the best memories. Mark Buehrle was mowing down hitters in the final three innings of the game today while a conference room full of Sox fans attempted to have a Page 1 meeting; we mostly failed. The newsroom's collective joy over Buehrle's perfect game has put me on Cloud Nine all day, even though I didn't see it. I scrolled through the pictures offered to us by the Associated Press a few times today, and got a little choked up each time. Seeing this player -- this wonderful, humble, likable player -- achieve something this historic just gets me. No other sport affects me in quite the same way (although I did nearly destroy my coffee table when the Blackhawks lost in OT to Detroit earlier this summer).
Something about baseball feels so welcoming, so perfect. George Carlin's famous routine about the differences between football and baseball is a favorite of mine because it also feels so perfect. When I sit in the bleachers at Wrigley, with the sun going down and a beer in my hand, it feels perfect. When I drink in the Pittsburgh skyline from a seat at PNC Park, it feels perfect. And yes, even when I'm sitting in the cheap seats, 927,000 feet away from home plate at the Metrodome, it just feels perfect.
I'm not scheduled to return to U.S. Cellular Field until Sept. 19, when my dad and I will watch the Sox take on the Kansas City Royals. What memory will I come home with that night?