Wrigley Field’s Stairway to Heaven

It’s a long haul up to the press box in Wrigley Field, and Bus Saidt of New Jersey’s Trenton Times felt every step. “This is pretty tough on me,” he told the Sun-Times’s Joe Goddard during one of their climbs last April. And when Saidt paused to catch his breath, Goddard, who felt concerned about him, also stopped.

Sportswriters do a lot of slogging in Wrigley Field. Before each game they stash their laptops and briefcases in the press box, then head down to the field to talk to players. The game itself sends them back upstairs; once it’s over they’re racing down through the departing crowd (on deadline, if it’s a night game) to collect the clubhouse quotes their readers will expect the next morning, then pounding up the ramps a third time to write their yarns and ship them into their papers.

Every stadium in the National League provides baseball writers with an elevator to take them up and bring them down. Every stadium but Wrigley Field. And when the Cubs this spring moved the press box that had been hanging beneath the upper deck to the pinnacle of the stands, the writers despaired.

Bus Saidt, 68 years old, followed the Philadelphia Phillies into Chicago for the first series of the ’89 season. For two days and a night he took his punishment. A couple of days later he came home from dinner with his wife and died in his sleep of a heart attack.

Saidt was a well-liked man, and friends who were angry that he died found themselves angry at the Chicago Cubs. Phil Pepe, a columnist for the New York Daily News and president of the Baseball Writers Association, wrote a “formal appeal” to Cubs president Don Grenesko. “I am not suggesting that this climb caused the heart attack,” Pepe told Grenesko, “but neither can I be certain that the climb was not a contributing factor. Already several of our members have informed me they have informed their papers they won’t cover games at Wrigley Field.”

Pepe’s letter rubbed Grenesko the wrong way. He did not appreciate the inference that his handsomely remodeled ballpark had killed a man. His reply was intemperate and laced with irrelevancies.

“We have thoroughly reviewed the possibility of installing an elevator or escalator at Wrigley Field,” he answered Pepe. “Because of limited space, it would be difficult to construct either an elevator or an escalator to the upper deck, while maintaining the aesthetics and architectural appearance of the ball park. However, we have started running a golf cart to the upper deck for the media prior to the opening of the gates to the general public.”

Well and good, although writers argue that the cart is there primarily for Harry Caray, isn’t available after he’s ascended, and is of no use to anyone once the gates open and the public clogs the ramps.

But Grenesko then made a series of unfortunate points.

“Interestingly, the fans who occupy the 10,000 upper deck seats accept and love our ball park for what it is and they have not accused us of possibly contributing to anyone’s heart attack.”

He went on, “I was also disappointed that you failed to note in your letter any mention of your organization’s appreciation for the state of the art press box and dining room which we built for you as well as for the upgraded quality of food.”

And he counterattacked. “More and more . . . members of the media look disheveled wearing sweat shirts, shorts and T-shirts. We view the press box as a workplace, as I am sure you do, and the attire and appearance of many in your profession reflect poorly on all of us.”

Pepe wrote back in a conciliatory tone, but he sorted out the apples from the oranges. “Your mention of a state of the art press box and dining room is far from the point. . . . Your point about the dress of many of our members is well taken but again is not germane to the issue mentioned in my letter.”

And there the matter rests.

No one with an ounce of respect for the visual integrity of Wrigley Field can mourn the unbuilt elevator shaft, which architects from Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum said would have had to go up outside the ballpark’s walls. The Cubs are still toying with the idea of installing a lift inside, from ground level to the foot of the upper deck, cutting the hike in half. But Grenesko says such a shaft would slash through ramps and offices and therefore it’s “a long shot” to get built. (No longer a shot, we hope, than the Berlin Wall Grenesko says may go up to foil the roof-dwelling Lakeview Baseball Club.)

After calling around, we think Phil Pepe overstated the case with his claim of various baseball writers vowing never to cover another game at Wrigley Field. But some have taken lesser measures.

“You get to where [the press box] was before and you’re pretty well exhausted by then, and you have another 40 percent to go,” said Rick Hummel of the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch. “It does break your spirit.” When the Cardinals came into Wrigley, Hummel made the usual three climbs the first day. After that, he stashed his gear in the visitors’ clubhouse and asked the guard to watch it. When he finished his pregame interviews he collected his laptop and only then headed up.

Bob Hertzel of the Pittsburgh Press said screw it and stopped going back up to the press box from the clubhouse. He decided to write his stories in his hotel room instead.

“They’re going to have to get younger sportswriters, I guess,” says the Tribune’s Jerry Holtzman. “But for overweight guys like me it might–might–be good exercise.”

(Is it worth noting that Holtzman, Grenesko, and Phil Pepe all work for the same company? Sure it is.)

“I’m not saying the Tribune has to put an elevator or an escalator in–that’s up to them,” Holtzman grumbles. “But I do think Grenesko’s impertinent in telling the writers they dress poorly.”

Joe Goddard turned out to be as nonchalant on the subject as any baseball writer we talked to. “I’m winded by the time I get up there,” Goddard told us, “but I feel better for it.” Goddard’s in his 40s. We asked him what business a 68-year-old man had covering a baseball team in the first place, and he wondered if anything could be more natural.

“First of all,” Goddard reminded us, “it’s the newspaper business, and you know how it gets in our blood. And Bus was a good solid reporter. He hadn’t gone senile or anything. And baseball is as addictive as the newspaper business. You can’t walk away from it.

“Bus was a workaholic,” said Goddard. “He went the way we all want to go.”

There’s Nothin’ Happenin’ Here

A few days before the army opened fire in Tiananmen Square, the New Republic went to press with a peculiar lament. Jeering President Bush for his tepid support of the massed demonstrators, senior editor Morton Kondracke wondered:

“Why could he not have said ‘China, listen to your children. They are not trying to destroy your country, but to fulfill your own dreams of progress. You will not lose face if you heed them. You will gain the awe and respect of the world’?”

Merely by posing the question, Kondracke should have seen why Bush didn’t. Does Kondracke actually think that one of the lessons life has taught George Bush is that when students mass in the streets, governments should stop what they’re doing and join the crusade? A Republican of George Bush’s pedigree cannot say “Listen to your children” without sounding ridiculous.

Maybe Kondracke was just feeling nostalgic. God knows there’s reason to be: 1989 is the most astonishing year to come along since 1968. It’s exciting, fascinating, and appalling; when would you rather be alive? There is, however, one painful difference between the two times: In 1968 America felt itself dead center. This year, we’re barely tangential.

In 1968 demonstrators chanted “The whole world is watching” in the streets of Chicago actually believing the whole world was, actually believing that conscience had collided with state in Paris and Prague merely to set the stage for Michigan and Balbo.

Today the president’s words, whatever they are, barely matter; and whatever the rest of us might think or feel or do matters not at all. It is possible to observe Chinese students rallying and feel at least a witness to the larger passions at work in the world. But they are not our passions. They’re China’s, Poland’s, the Soviet Union’s, Iran’s; they belong to the Europe that attempts to deconstruct the cold war while transforming itself into a united economic state. History has become a sport we can only watch on television.

And it’s not even a popular TV sport. It’s more like golf, with its coterie of aging, moneyed, ardent fans. James Warren reported in the Tribune that the networks’ attention to China was not rewarded in the ratings; millions of Americans just didn’t care. Perhaps the networks’ mistake was to trust their news to producers and anchors with the stamp of the 60s on them who don’t understand how uninteresting these displays of sweet idealism are to everyone else.

The United States treasured its isolation from the world when the century began, and as it ends the country is returning to its roots. The one thing that puzzles us about our country now is that we can’t quite see the point of being young.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.