In the hot seat

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:25 AM ET

CHICAGO -- Mark Bowen had not yet deposited his hind end in the most famous seat in sports before the usher, an ever-helpful woman named Betsy, told him this was his lucky day.

Aisle 4, row 8, seat 113, the Steve Bartman seat, bears 75% of a Chicago Cubs sticker. The rest was taken by souvenir hunters when they found the seat wouldn't come out of its moorings.

Bowen arrived only in the top of the second to sit in the most famous spot in sports. "Couldn't be helped," he said. "We were in the pub."

Bowen arrived in Chicago 12 months ago to work in a bank. He'd come to the ballgame with his wife and a couple of mates.

Just a year in Chicago, Bowen nodded gravely when told of his Bartman connection.

"I didn't know who Steve Bartman was before I came but I've heard a lot about him since," he said.

There is no other bench in America like Aisle 4, row 8, seat 113. There hasn't been since the deck chairs went down with the Titanic.

It's lore skyrocketed after the only other comparable American losing streak, the Red Sox 86-year drought came to an unlikely end last fall and made the Cubs the most winning collection of perennial losers in the nation.

There is a need for grinding, soul destroying, inevitable defeat and there always will be. It's what makes winning or the thought of it so appealing.

Hope is why Charlie Brown always believed that Lucy would tire of pulling the ball away from him and sending him cartwheeling in the air. Lucy, standing in for the Almighty, just kept on knocking Chuck down and we loved them all in equal measure.

Likewise, there is a need for a place for all this stuff to be played out.

Mark Bowen understands this on an instinctive level, for the prospect of certain defeat, long since written, is ingrained in all of our DNA. Mark Bowen and his dad and his dad's dad were fans of Portsmouth, God's gift to the English second division.

"About fifty years of it," he said, "before they made it to the Premiership last year.

"It's the suspense of losing," he said. "You absolutely believe that this is going to be the year but at the end, it goes off the rails."

The Cubs have been going off the rails since 1908. Two years ago, you may remember, they came back to lovely Wrigley with a 3-1 lead over the Florida Marlins. They had their two aces, Kerry Wood and Mark Pryor, on the mound. The pair hadn't lost back-to-back games all season but when Bartman deflected a foul ball hit by Luis Castillo away from leftfielder Moises Alou, the worst single inning in the history of the franchise was kick started.

An Alex Gonzalez error soon turned a 3-0 lead into an 8-3 defeat. Bartman had to be escorted from the stadium by security. The Cubs blew a 5-3 lead in Game 7 and lost 9-6.

The Cubs won their last title in the West Side Grounds and so while it is 89 years old, Wrigley Field has never seen a baseball championship.

It has been the scene, of course, of countless indolent afternoons and it is every bit as picturesque as you have heard, right down to the stands on neighbouring roofs at Waveland and Sheffield Avenues.

The Blue Jays rummaged about the place like tomb robbers yesterday. To get to the field from the clubhouse, you have to go out a door, pass over the concourse and the paying customers, turn left, right, then left and right again, before finding light and the way out.

At 3 p.m., the place smells of cotton candy. At five, it's boiled hot dogs and like most places, the farther the folks are from the action, the earlier they come to watch.

ATMOSPHERE

The ballpark is remarkably clean. Every fan in the lower bowl sits on a freshly shammied seat, just as Mark Bowen and his three friends did.

"I like this because of what it is," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said, leaning back in an ancient chair in his stark, cinderblock office."There's something about Wrigley Field."

Or, as Cubs manager Dusty Baker said yesterday in summing up why Wrigley Field remains an indispensable stage, "the highs of winning aren't nearly as low as the lows of losing."

It makes no sense, of course. But you know what he means.


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