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Watching Spring Training in Chicago

“Chicago is actually a better sports market than Los Angeles,” said my friend Jill. “She knows what she’s talking about,” said her Cubs cap-wearing friend, a classmate of hers at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business. “She took a course in sports marketing at Kellogg.” We were sitting at the Wrigleyville Goose Island Brewbub yesterday, a huge sports bar with 20 TVs and 20 different kinds of Goose Island beer. I came to the Windy City for a rotisserie draft auction and got in touch with Jill, a lifelong White Sox fan who grew up in Evanston (Sox fans are a distinct rarity north of the city).

We agreed to meet up to watch the Cubs-Sox spring training game in Wrigleyville, the area of bars around Wrigley Field, the confluence of Addison, Clark, and Waveland streets where, in a simpler time, Sammy Sosa used to hit homers out onto the pavement. Chicago’s definitely a sports town, all right, but late March clearly isn’t baseball season.

We had decided to go to a bar called The Cubby Bear — it’s a big deal around here, Jill’s friend told me, and apparently they sometimes film parts of the Bears postgame show there. In 2005, Sports Illustrated called it one of the best 25 bars in America. It fills up on game nights, so you have to come early if you want a seat, so we showed up at 3:30 for a 4:00 game start. The place was dead. Exactly as dead as you’d expect a bar might be at 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon, if you weren’t next to a stadium and there wasn’t a baseball game on. I suggested a Goose Island brewpub down the street, because I’m a beer geek, and though they both teetotal they were kind enough to agree.

It was dead here too. There were two main TVs in our sight, one with darker colors and a fuzzier picture. In the bar, half the TVs were tuned to a pregame Jim Hendry interview; the sound and subtitles were off, and his enormous head filled around half of the TV screen. The other half of the TVs were tuned to ESPNews. So we sat down, ordered nachos and a round of IPA, cream soda, and grape soda, and waited for the first pitch. We asked our waitress to make sure the game would be on. “What game?” she asked.

Both of our TVs tuned into the game, but few people filed into the bar to watch. On the mound for the White Sox, Phil Humber didn’t have much (surprise!) and the Cubs jumped out to a quick lead, which they never relinquished. As Aramis Ramirez stepped to the plate in the first, Jill’s friend told me about the time in 2004 or so when he was in an elevator with Ramirez and was so starstruck he could barely speak, saying, “He was really nice.” Ramirez promptly hit a double to make it 2-0. The waitress brought nachos, onion rings, fried tilapia sliders, and an Irish red ale for me. Humber kept coughing them up — two in the first, one in the second, one in the fourth, and four in the fifth; he was yanked after walking the bases loaded and all of them scored — and I started complaining about how all Rice pitchers get hurt. We started talking about cricket, business school, and international politics. I couldn’t see anyone else in the bar watching the game.

Another friend of Jill’s joined us, all decked out in blue and wearing a Fukudome jersey shirt. The Cubs bullpen was determined to make it interesting, giving up four runs in four innings after the end of Humber’s nightmare fifth, but by the time she got there, there wasn’t much game to watch. The UConn-SDSU game was beginning, and the waitstaff put it on the nicer TV, leaving the Cubs game on the fuzzier one. I ordered a stout. The waitress brought us a free dessert, since we’d spent more than $15, and brought me a “Master’s in Beer Appreciation Passport,” telling me that if I had 12 more beers I’d qualify for a free 64 ounce growler. (There were free growlers at 15, 30, and 45, and after 45 they’d also give you a free t-shirt and your name on a list.) I squinted at it and realized the game wasn’t going to go THAT long.

I’m not sure any of us was watching the precise pitch that Carlos Marmol threw to Alexei Ramirez, the Cuban Missile, for a called third strike to end the game. There were more people in the bar at that point, some eating and drinking and some watching UConn or the BYU-Florida game. I met another friend of mine and went to a bar a few doors down Clark street, Merkle’s, a place with 90 different beers and 25-cent wings, to watch the end of BYU-Florida and the beginning of Duke-Arizona. The bartender was wearing a White Sox cap. No one seemed to care.

It sure isn’t April yet.