In Chicago’s South Loop, the Walls Can Talk
Art is transforming the neighborhood
Imagine having a deep, maddeningly persistent love for something that seems destined to disappoint you. For 108 years, Chicago Cubs fans didn’t have to imagine—they knew the feeling all too well.
Sure, the angst probably wasn’t too sharp in 1909, one year removed from a championship. But as the decades passed, perpetual failure coalesced into a cruel mythology that even the youngest fans could recite by heart. The most famous subplot was the “Curse of the Billy Goat,” which was allegedly placed by a local bar owner after his aromatic pet goat was ejected from Wrigley Field during the 1945 World Series: “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more!”
Later, particularly crushing years like 1984 and 2003 became seared in the collective memory of Cubs fans, a haunting montage highlighted by a hand emerging from the crowd to disrupt a crucial catch. Them Cubs, it seemed, really weren’t gonna win no more.
And then, just like that, they won.
On November 2, 2016, after a do-or-die Game 7 featuring all-too-predictable unpredictability, the wait was over. As is now proclaimed on the high-priced T-shirts in the souvenir shops surrounding Wrigley Field: It Happened.
So what now? Here, we speak to five excessively devoted fans about their hopes, fears and Cubs-themed tattoos.
“I built the second-best place to watch Cubs baseball,” says Stewart McVicar of his basement, an ivy-festooned shrine for which the term “man cave” feels woefully inadequate. Among the many souvenirs cluttering the space is a Cubs logo-shaped bar, the organ that played “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at Wrigley (signed by team organist Gary Pressy) and an oversized bobblehead of first baseman Anthony Rizzo that was a personal gift from Cubs owner Tom Ricketts.
Even for a longtime season ticket holder, this sort of treatment is unusual. So how did McVicar pull it off?
McVicar’s preferred status has its roots in a 2014 fundraiser he held in his basement—or, as he calls it, Club 400—for a friend who’d lost parts of three limbs to bacterial meningitis. He’d managed to convince Ricketts to attend the event (which raised a very respectable $30,000) and he was impressed by what he’d seen.
Ricketts has since helped McVicar in his efforts to get other Cubs heroes to host charity events (it helps to have the boss’s stamp of approval when you’re asking Hall of Famers Fergie Jenkins and Andre Dawson to hang out in your basement). Former pitcher Kerry Wood has also put in an appearance, and former second baseman Ryne Sandberg is set to come soon, along with the World Series trophy.
“Some people have dreams and they never accomplish them,” McVicar says. “The stuff that has happened to me is surreal.”
As a zealous Cubs fan born and raised in Chicago Heights, a southern suburb dominated mostly by White Sox fans, David Eagan is accustomed to standing out. These days, Eagan makes his devotion known via an impressive collection of tattoos. The inking started in 2009 with a Cubs logo on the back of his head (the result of a bar bet). More recent additions include an autographed, halo-topped “10” in honor of late third baseman Ron Santo (one of his father’s favorites), a “14” for late Hall of Famer Ernie Banks and a halo-less “26” for former outfielder and current team ambassador Billy Williams.
And that’s just above the neck. Eagan has transformed his back into a full-on home plate view of Wrigley Field, a creation that’s consumed thousands of dollars and, Eagan estimates, at least 100 hours over the past two years. “I wanted to do something that, to my knowledge, no Chicago sports fan has done.”
The funds for this ongoing personal art project come largely from Eagan’s job working the night shift at Bernard Welding in nearby Beecher. Sadly, he was at work during that fateful, reality-shifting Game Seven, receiving periodic updates before stealing away to the break room for the last couple of outs.
As disappointing as missing the game may have been, Eagan believes there will be other opportunities to watch his team win it all.
“If you don’t think the Cubs have a shot at a repeat,” he says, “you’re just a hater.”
“Wait ’til Next Year,” a familiar mantra for Cubs fans accustomed to decades of doing exactly that, took on added meaning for Jim Striblen in 2015, when the Cubs were playing the Mets in the National League Championship Series and hoping to reach the World Series.
Striblen, who still has the ticket stub from his first game in 1984, wanted to dress up as star pitcher Jake Arrieta for Halloween, which in 2015 fell during the World Series. His full beard and lanky frame made him passable as Arrieta, but he wanted a twist. So he dropped $180 on a custom jersey, got some face paint and transformed himself into “Jake Scarrieta,” a zombie version of the 2015 Cy Young award-winner.
One snag: The Cubs didn’t hold up their end, losing to the Mets in four games. Striblen quietly packed the costume away and waited for next year.
After the Cubs lost Game One of the 2016 World Series, he made a snap decision to travel to Cleveland to see Game Two in person—and to unveil his Jake Scarrieta to the world. He was subjected to a non-stop barrage of high fives and photo requests at the park and, with Jake Arrieta on the mound, the Cubs won 5-1 and evened the series.
Striblen watched the next two games on TV, and the Cubs lost both—another defeat and it would be curtains. So he sprung again for tickets, donned the costume and saw another victory in Game Five. Convinced now that Jake Scarrieta was a good luck charm, he decided he had no choice but to spend a small fortune to attend the final two games in Cleveland. And while the decision may have lightened his wallet and strained his marriage, he insists the investment was worthwhile: The Cubs went 4-3 in the 2016 World Series, but Jake Scarrieta was 4-0.
This year, Striblen plans to use his powers sparingly. “Maybe Jake Scarrieta’s motto will be ‘Wait ’til October’” he says. “Once it’s October, if the Cubs are playing, then Jake will come out and play too.”
When the Cubs finally recorded the last out in the 2016 World Series, Jean Wenzel was one of many fans whose thoughts drifted to a loved one who wasn’t there to see it. For Wenzel, whose suburban home is guarded by a concrete goose sporting a sign that says “Cubs fans nest here,” that person was her mother, Rose Di John, who died in 2008 at age 93.
“The last words the priest said when the casket was about to leave the church was, ‘We know you’ll be watching the World Series in heaven one day with Gabby Hartnett,’” Wenzel says, referring to the former Cubs catcher.
Hartnett was Rose’s favorite player, and both have items on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York—a bronze plaque for Hartnett, and for Rose a photograph of her as a 16-year-old, attending a 1932 Ladies’ Day game with her own mother, which is part of a Women in Baseball exhibit.
Wenzel owns several copies of that photo, including a reproduction in a 1992 team calendar, which is on display in her own mini Hall of Fame—a home that’s filled with keepsakes like signed books and decorative tea towels.
She has also maintained her mother’s tradition of having girls’ days out at the ballpark, habitually attending Cubs games with the same group of girlfriends since 1980. Wenzel calls herself the most intense fan of the lot, as evidenced by the Cubs ankle tattoo she got two months to the day before Game Seven.
Known to Cubs fans as “Ronnie Woo Woo,” Ronald Wickers has been a Wrigley Field fixture for decades. In fact, his signature “Cubs, woo! Cubs, woo!” cheer has become as much a part of the gameday experience as the postgame beer at Murphy’s Bleachers. “I was always told you could make as much noise as you wanted, and that was okay to do,” he says. “I just took it to the extreme.”
Wickers’ extremely audible devotion began with a trip with his mother to Wrigley in the ’40s, to see Jackie Robinson play. Later, his early morning job as a custodian at Northwestern University allowed him to leave work and head directly to the park for a day game (clad, as always, in his team uniform). In 1984, he endured a painful time in his life—he lost his grandmother, girlfriend and job in the same year—but says the Cubs got him through it.
Health issues have lowered Wickers’ decibel levels in recent years, and a 2016 fall at Wrigley required knee surgery that still had him in a brace when the World Series came around, but that didn’t stop him from attending two of the home games or posting up at Holiday Club in Wrigleyville to take in Game Seven.
“I was hurting, but the joy, the fans,” he says, “I forgot about my pain.”
The same can surely be said of Cubs fans everywhere, for whom generations of disappointment were washed away the moment first baseman Anthony Rizzo gloved that final out on a rainy night in Cleveland. Woo woo.