Batting practice is one of baseball’s strongest allures. The name itself has a pleasant association: as almost everyone who has played or plays baseball likes to hit, what could be better than practicing it? The rhythmic pock pock of bat on ball–from both the cage and coaches hitting fungoes–creates a soothing sort of music, especially as it echoes around a mostly empty stadium. The prevailing mood is of relaxed concentration. Pitchers stand in groups in the outfield, and infielders toss their mitts at line drives sailing over their heads. To my mind, there is almost no point in going to a baseball game if one can’t get there in time for batting practice; it initiates the steps that lead to immersion in the sport. Hockey has a similar pregame ritual but basketball and football do not–unless one counts basketball’s early afternoon shootaround, which takes place long before a game and sometimes in a different location. There’s something too regimented about football warm-ups, which after all are called drills and rouse military associations. Besides, football is best seen on television, where its intricate patterns and line play are revealed through replays. The pregame drills aren’t enough to make attending the games worthwhile.
But all that said, I’m a convert to the pleasures of football training camp, which has a welcoming feel like batting practice, only sustained for weeks. Where batting practice prepares one to enjoy a baseball game, training camp prepares both players and fans to enjoy the entire football season. The Bears’ camp is newly accessible, having moved this year from remote Platteville, Wisconsin, to Bourbonnais, Illinois, which has christened itself “Summer Home of the Chicago Bears.” So announces the town’s water tower, which is visible from the practice facilities at Olivet Nazarene University.
Platteville was a three- or four-hour drive and required a commitment of days. Avid Bears fans swore by the trip–it bordered on an annual summer hajj for some–but as a committed baseball fan I never found time to make it. But with the Cubs and White Sox offering only frustration, I dropped off my daughter at her day camp in Wrigleyville a couple of weeks ago and traveled down to Bourbonnais in just over an hour. Traffic was breezy under a high blue sky, and I hopped off I-57 at the route 50 exit, navigated the nuisance stop signs the locals have newly installed, and followed the arrows to the parking lot. Led onward by the sound of whistles, I was at the practice fields within minutes, joining thousands of other fans.
Football training camp, like batting practice, is a sort of organized chaos, and it’s not merely difficult but dangerous to draw much of a conclusion about a player’s abilities from how he practices. One of the first things a fan notices is the cameras mounted on cherry pickers: football is no less a tangle during practice than it is during games, and even coaches and management can study players better on tape. The players are just working themselves into shape, getting used to the idea of hitting. The quarterbacks wear loud red practice jerseys–the football equivalent of a stop sign–to make the defensive players pull up before whacking them, and everyone seems to be pulling his punches. Not that veteran defensive linemen don’t mind showing up rookie offensive linemen now and then by scooting around them and wrapping someone up tight.
The Bears’ practice session offered subtle pleasures. Early arriving fans claimed the best spots, which were on a slight rise at the far end of the three parallel fields. (Access to that end was blocked during practice to allow the players a corridor for entry and exit.) I joined the fans on the parking-lot end of the fields–which were a well-watered green compared to the worn and dehydrated brown grass on our side of the ropes. The Bears practiced on the middle field. Watching the players at ground level and at relatively close proximity made their amazing size and speed even more impressive. Cornerback R.W. McQuarters, his distinctive braids flapping out behind his helmet, raced from one side of the field to the other to push a ball carrier out of bounds. James “Big Cat” Williams prowled the sideline. Most identifiable was middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who trotted onto the field carrying his helmet–the bristles on his shaved head bleached by the sun. A huge left tackle, number 75, made an immediate impression as he lined up, and I knew in an instant it must be Marc Colombo, the team’s top draft pick out of Boston College. Quarterbacks Jim Miller, with his familiar hunched shoulders, and newly acquired veteran Chris Chandler shuttled in and out with the first and second teams against the first- and second-string defensive squads. They practiced running plays and passes in the flat in midfield, then moved into the red zone at my end of the field and practiced spiking the ball to stop the clock. Then someone raced on and kicked a field goal, the ball soaring through the goal posts and over our heads.
“You catch it, you keep it!” yelled one fan. “Keep it, keep it, keep it, keep it!” A bunch of boys scurried after the ball. But a few minutes later a kid in a yellow T-shirt and a Bears cap sidled up to his dad and said, “I got it, but they made me give it back.” He smiled at his accomplishment, however–as if he’d known all along it was a long shot that he’d get to keep the ball.
The Bears were gracious about the added attention they were getting for leaving the spartan old surroundings in Wisconsin. The team finished with a stretching session and a final meeting in the middle of the field. Then the players headed toward the gauntlet–the small corridor between lines of fans that led toward what must be locker rooms and dining rooms. Some of the veterans piled on the few available golf carts and rode them in. Urlacher stood on the back of his cart the way migrant workers are often seen standing and leaning on the cabin from the back of a pickup truck. Yet other players trudged in, dutifully signing autographs all down the line, and even Urlacher came back out and signed for a while.
With his speed, agility, and playfully rambunctious style, Urlacher embodies the spirit of the Bears, just as Mike Singletary did the 80s Bears and Dick Butkus the Bears of the late 60s and early 70s. “Urlacher’s over there!” shouted one fan, and soon a crowd had gathered in the area. A woman leaning over the fence got him to sign her training-camp program (bought at the entrance for a reasonable $3), and when he handed it back she held it aloft and shouted, “Woo hoo!” Nearby, a guy sitting on his buddy’s shoulders yelled “Urlacher! Sign my shoe!” and waved it to no avail. Some players were called by name, including Colombo, who had to answer to shouts of Coluuuuummmmbo! Others, like Joe Tafoya, had their numbers called out: “Ninety-nine! Ninety-nine!” Dez White, a veteran but not exactly a household name, worked his way methodically down the aisle. He signed one kid’s half-white miniature football in an indecipherable script–it’s not easy signing a football–and when the kid brought it back to his mother she asked “Who is it?” and he shrugged. (It seems as if NFL style is to sign both your name and number, so he no doubt figured it out from the “80” later on.) Some players I didn’t know, such as a number 77 who wasn’t on the roster. No taller than most of the fans, he looked like a football player, with a prominent brow and nose and huge biceps–the left one tattooed “Peterbilt,” after the truck company. He signed everything handed to him, but caught himself when he accepted a program for the second time. “I got you already,” he said with a weary smile. Back on the field, Phillip Daniels gave autographs to fans who had lingered and posed for pictures with them along the ropes before getting on a last cart for the ride in. Away from the ropes, kids and their parents threw their own footballs back and forth, and a few groups made a point of walking over to the Bears’ water tent, where with the touch of a button coolers with pumping devices spewed water into your mouth like a backyard hose. Some fans went off to the souvenir shop set up between the parking lot and the practice fields; others took folding chairs and claimed spots near the fields where they thought the Bears would practice in the afternoon (the padless session in the two-a-day routine). I walked back through the shop and along the kids’ area the team had set up to entertain younger, less feverish fans; it included a Jolly Jumper and a giant inflated obstacle course. There seemed to be something for everyone.
Well, maybe not everyone. As I stopped to gas up before leaving town, the woman in front of me, clearly a local, chatted with the cashier. She was not amused by Bourbonnais’ new guests. “My husband wants to take the girls,” she said, “but I’m not enthused.”
“Well, it’s free,” the cashier responded.
That it is, which makes it pretty hard to beat as sports entertainment. I’m not sure how long the camp will last in such an idyllic state; it might already be over. Estimates of the crowds were around 7,000 to 8,000 the week I was there, but had ballooned to 12,000 by the end of last week, thanks to word of mouth and news reports of how pleasant the whole affair was. The experience probably will compare well with the Bears’ games themselves this season, which will take place another hour down I-57 in Memorial Stadium on the University of Illinois campus while Soldier Field is being rebuilt.
Fans who made the trip for the first “home” game last Saturday weren’t rewarded. It was a typical exhibition game, with the defenses ahead of the offenses and the outcome decided by whose second- and third-stringers were better, which turned out to be those of the visiting Denver Broncos. The Bears scored first, the result of a great play by, of course, Urlacher. He shot the gap on a blitz from the left side late in the first quarter and tackled a running back in the backfield, then blitzed from the right side on the very next play and blindsided quarterback Brian Griese. Urlacher got his hand in to jar the ball loose, then leaped over Griese to pounce on it. The Bears went nowhere, Paul Edinger kicked a field goal, and that was it for their night, as only the Broncos scored the rest of the way for a 27-3 victory. The result meant nothing, of course–or so fans and players told themselves–and it barely diminished the good vibes from Bourbonnais. Yet if the loss does foretell a future that sees the Bears fall into step with the Cubs and Sox as yet another disappointing Chicago sports team this year, Urbana-Champaign and the high spirits of training camp are going to seem far away indeed.