Everyone I know knows I’m a Chicago Cubs’ fan, and they also know that the Cubs last season broke their epic World Series victory drought. Many of them assume I’ve been on Cloud Nine since the last out of the agonizing Cubs win over the Cleveland Indians in WS game seven last Nov. 2.
Not wanting to disappoint, I usually respond positively to questions about my supposed euphoria over my team’s long-awaited success. Yes, I say, my life has improved: I’ve lost 15 pounds, my hair is growing back dark and my step is longer and lighter. I have to carry weights to keep from floating away.
The truth is that the trophy made me happy but not in any life-changing way. I’ve never been the kind of fan who lives and dies with his teams; if I were I wouldn’t have made it past my bar mitzvah. As a kid I never collected autographs or engaged in other forms of athlete-idolatry, and my term as a sports writer taught me that good guys and jerks are pretty much randomly distributed among the big-time sports-team rosters. Even my long-time antipathy toward the New York Yankees faded when I found Joe Torre, their 1990s’ manager, to be a pleasant and civil man.
This doesn’t mean I’m not looking forward eagerly to the coming baseball season. The words “pitchers and catchers report,” which herald the start of spring training, are echoing this week through the ballyards of Arizona and Florida, and I am atingle as usual. Indeed, the older I get the more I like baseball, especially the cerebral side of it. The lulls in action between batters and pitches, disliked by many, allows the fan to scheme along with the participants and compare his or her tactical judgements with theirs. No other sport provides such a rich environment for second-guessing.
And, yes, the prospect of another brilliant Cubs’ season is bracing. Indisputably, the team is loaded, and in the best-possible way—with a roster full of young stars that promises to contend for titles for at least the next few years. Still, I recognize that repeating as champions will not be cakewalk, whatever a cakewalk is; other teams also can play and the Cubs last season were extraordinarily lucky in the injury department, especially with their starting pitching.
Fat-headedness, too, could mess things up—recall that the football Chicago Bears looked to be on the verge of creating a dynasty after their 1985 Super Bowl victory only to run afoul of the colliding egos in their locker room, not the least of which belonged to their coach, Mike Ditka. I take it as a good sign that Joe Maddon, the Cubs’ manager, spent the off season ‘laxing with his loved ones instead of making the late-night TV-interview-show rounds, and that I’ve heard of no plans to open a restaurant bearing his name in Chi-Town.
There is, however, a fly in the ointment, a cliché that requires no elaboration. The Cubs’ triumph has capped a process that has jacked the prices of their spring-training game tickets beyond the point of reason for this Arizona resident, so much so that I am pretty much opting out of the annual ritual. What used to be a pleasant interlude in the desert has become an expensive hassle, the smell of greed replacing that of suntan lotion on sunny March baseball afternoons.
When wife Susie and I moved to AZ in 1997, spring training was one of the draws. The January day Cubs’ tickets went on sale at their former HoHoKam Park base in Mesa I’d show up about an hour before the box office opened, wait maybe another 30 minutes, and buy prime seats for six or eight spring games, paying about $15 to $18 each, no problem. A few years later my pal Chuck Brusso, my main spring-game companion, developed a connection with a spring season-ticket holder that enabled us to purchase at face value excellent seats (six rows up, just to the third-base side of home plate) to a bunch games without having to queue up. That arrangement lasted until the year before last, and while the per-game price climbed to about $30 I still considered it digestible.
In 2015, though, Theo Epstein’s rebuilding plan yielded fruit with a playoff berth, and Cubs mania took full hold the next spring. The nice person who shared her tix with Chuck and me stopped returning our calls, no doubt finding better customers in the scalper websites that flourish on-line. Indeed, almost from the git-go now individual-ticket buyers no longer deal the Cubs but must buy from the scalpers, and prices of $80 and up for any decent seat at Sloan Park are common with the really good ones listed for as much as $200. Even admissions to the grassy berm beyond the outfield fences fetch $35 to $50 on-line, about three times the rate of a few years ago.
I circumvented that last year by going to Cubs’ games in other clubs’ spring parks, but a web browse shows that avenue no longer exists. Other teams have wised up and are changing almost as much for the contests as the Cubs do at their Mesa domicile.
“When you got it, flaunt it” has become sports’ byword, and the Cubs are doing at Wrigley Field what they do in Mesa. According to the Chicago Tribune the team raised average 2017 regular-season ticket prices by almost 20% over 2016, with 30% boosts for some of the better seats. A season box seat this year has a price tag of $29,089.76, if you can believe it, or an average of $359 a game. Bleacher seats will average $51; in ancient days when I was a kid they went for 25 cents. You can about double all those current prices if you deal with an Internet shark.
There’s a way around this excess, and I’m glad to share it. For about $165 you can sign up for Major League Baseball’s “Extra Innings” TV package, which will put on your home screen just about every game that’s televised anywhere during the regular campaign. That works out to about seven cents a game, and while you can’t watch them all it’s a bargain if you use it just two or three times a week.
Tell ‘em Fred sent you. You won’t get a discount but we both can feel the smart-move vibe.