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Originally published June 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 21, 2007 at 9:08 PM

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Larry Stone

Time stands still at Wrigley Field

Tonight, for the first time ever, it will be the Mariners playing on the fabled grounds of Wrigley, where in many ways time stands still....

Seattle Times baseball reporter

CHICAGO — It is twilight as I type this, and the lights are on at Wrigley Field, even though they're not needed yet. The setting sun makes for almost an ethereal glow on the sparkling diamond below me.

It's a makeup game with Houston, not on the Cubs' original schedule, and yet the stands are filled to near capacity, the Bleacher Bums are out in force, the rooftop denizens are guzzling their beers, the ivy is green and bushy and Lake Michigan is glistening in the background.

In other words, pretty much baseball heaven in the gloaming. And tonight, for the first time ever, it will be the Mariners playing on the fabled grounds of Wrigley, where in many ways time stands still.

The scoreboard, the 1937 brainstorm of a young entrepreneur named Bill Veeck, remains hand-operated.

There are no JumboTron or Diamond Vision screens to be found. Many a visiting player still turns reflexively to watch the replay of a great catch, only to remember that there isn't any.

Nor is there a proliferation of that modern blight known as stadium signage, rampant eyesores in most ballparks, even the ones designed to be "retro" — i.e., in the image of Wrigley.

Oh, they've added two Under Armour ads this year on a set of doors in left and right field, but they are fairly subtle and, if not duplicated, tolerable.

Also tolerable is the 2006 expansion of the bleachers, in which 1,790 seats were added, along with a party suite inside the batter's eye in center field. As the Chicago Tribune's architecture critic Blair Kamin gushed, "The new bleachers are a model of elegant evolution."

And, oh, yes, they have those new-fangled lights now, which flipped on for the first time on Aug. 8, 1988 for a game against the Phillies that was eventually rained out.

Despite the outrage that poured forth at the time, replete with indignant predictions that a glorious tradition was being destroyed, the addition of 20 or so night games a year has done little to alter the essential nature of Wrigley.

"It is a special place. It's probably the most fun place I've ever put on a uniform," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said before Monday's game. "It's unique. It's got a lot of character to it, and obviously, a lot of history. It's almost a little bit of a Field of Dreams-type stadium."

Ron Santo, the beloved former Cubs star and current announcer, has had a nearly 50-year love affair with Wrigley since he signed with the Cubs out of Seattle's Franklin High School.

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Santo was enticed to sign by his worship of Ernie Banks and his infatuation with Game of the Week images from Wrigley that made it seem to him like paradise.

It still does. In fact, now, after a series of health crises, Wrigley has become his sanctuary. Santo has survived open heart surgery, fought off cancer and lost both his legs to the ravages of diabetes.

"What I've been through in my life, every time I came to this ballpark, I never thought about it," Santo said, sitting in the Cubs' dugout. "It was my therapy. I keep going because I love getting here. I love being here. A lot of people love it."

They say the Friendly Confines haven't been quite as friendly since the Cubs' collapse in the 2003 NLCS, five outs away from the World Series until Steve Bartman made his ill-fated decision to go after a foul ball.

Now fans are quicker with the boos (if not the booze), and they've already started to grumble about Lou, just as they did his predecessor, the once sainted but ultimately sullied (and fired) Dusty Baker.

"They've shown their displeasure at times this year," Piniella said. "And quite rightfully so."

No one can ever question the passion of Cubs fans, who fill the joint despite a championship drought that makes the Red Sox seem like they've had a comparative embarrassment of riches.

If the Cubs don't win the World Series this year — and little that's happened so far indicates they're headed for that elusive promised land — then next year will make a clean century since their last title in 1908.

That was six years before Wrigley Field — initially called Weeghman Park, after Charles Weeghman, owner of the Chicago Federals of the Federal League — opened its doors.

The Cubs took over the property in 1916, and have had heartache galore in the ensuing years. To make a Cubs fan cry, all you have to do is utter the years of particularly painful letdowns — 1969, 1984 and, still fresh in its anguish, 2003.

But for Cubs fans, the suffering is a badge of honor.

"It always amazes me how fans of any sport think they have a greater interest in the outcome of their team's fortunes than the people that are there competing," said Orioles coach Tom Trebelhorn, who managed a particularly weak Cubs team in 1994.

"And they do. They have a tremendous affinity for winning, and Cubs fans have a tendency to make quite a big deal over their frustrations."

Yet Cubs fans also tend to do their suffering much more good-naturedly than their Red Sox compatriots. It's no wonder that Ferris Bueller spent his day off at Wrigley.

Said Piniella with a gleam in his eyes: "It's a big cocktail party. It really is."

It's dark now, the Cubs clinging to a 2-0 lead, and time for the seventh-inning stretch.

Alas, Harry Caray has gone to the Great Broadcast Booth in the Sky, but "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" is being rousingly sung, led by tonight's guest celebrity (to use the term loosely), Larry the Cable Guy. Larry The Writer Guy has a deadline approaching, so I'll take one more loving look around this jewel of a ballpark. I've covered at least 50 games at Wrigley over the years, and each occasion convinces me that there is no better setting for baseball anywhere, though Safeco Field on a warm, summer day ain't bad.

I'll give the final word to Seattle native son Ron Santo: "I remember the first time I walked out here, my rookie year. When I stepped on that grass, I'm not lying to you, I thought I was walking on air. The electricity, the atmosphere, is unbelievable. The Mariners will see."

Larry Stone:206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com.

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About Larry Stone

Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

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