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Fun at the Old (New) Ballpark
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
It's embarrassing when a sixty-second commercial for a product you despise reduces you to tears, but that's exactly what I experienced when I first saw the featured spot for PlayStation's "MLB12-The Show" video game in March. In the ad, the city of Chicago erupts into euphoria when the Cubs record the final out of the World Series, and you see numerous shots of die-hard fans celebrating wildly as the most misbegotten team in American sports history finally wins its first championship in over a hundred years.
In the final shot of the commercial comes the kicker, as the camera reveals a twenty-something Cubs fan in Wrigleyville with his PlayStation controller in his hands, and you realize that the wild celebration only existed in the player's mind. The only championship the Cubs have won is the cyber one, manipulated by this one lonely gamer, in some far-away dimension. In reality, the Cubs are not going to win the World Series this season — indeed, they're a couple of light years out of first place at this point — but the tears streaming down the player's face in the commercial is all too poignant for any real Cubs fan, who is probably thinking, along with the gamer: Man, if only.
It's a sucker's game to love the Cubs, and an affliction, and it's mortifying to admit to being so moved by such an obvious, button-pushing ad, but I was and I am; I can't help but wonder what it would be like if the damned team actually won the Series. Like many Hoosiers, I've adopted the Cubs as my baseball team, and even though I haven't seen a game since the team was any good (which has been a while), a big part of me is still invested in the goings-on at Clark and Addison. I bear the scars of all the epic storied failures, and, like every other long-time Cub fan, I can recite them from memory: the horrible '69 collapse; the year of the Amazin' (F-----') Mets; the excruciating '84 pennant loss to the lowly Padres, of all teams, when Leon "the Bull" Durham booted the ground ball in Game Five; and of course, the operatic insanity of the apocalyptic "Bartman" game in the 2003 NLCS, which still feels like an improbable, perverse fable nearly 10 years removed. In spite of all this awful history, though, and in spite of the absurdity of getting so emotionally wrapped up in a sports team, I still dream big stupid dreams when it comes to the Cubs: maybe Theo Epstein, the guy who got that other snake-bitten franchise, the Red Sox, to win two baseball championships, can work his magic here in the Midwest. Man, if only.
As much as I hate the misty-eyed sentimentality that baseball aficionados invoke when talking about the sport, I have to cop to a lot of that myself. I'm a sucker for nostalgia, and baseball is the very embodiment of sports nostalgia — its heyday was a long, long time ago, back in the era when boxing and horse-racing were relevant on a national scale. It's gotten lapped by football, and basketball, and probably will get lapped by a dozen new sports in the next few decades. Most of its fan base is older and dwindling, but that's fine with me: I've always been sort of an old guy myself. So I don't care that I love a sport that is rapidly becoming irrelevant. It's still a singular experience, going to a ball game; baseball is a one of the few sports that's better to watch in person. For some reason, the grass looks greener, the yard looks spiffier when you're there. Football, conversely, is much better in your living room; it's a perfect TV sport, which is the primary reason why the NFL is so outrageously popular and why it makes so much money.
We're still a few weeks away from the start of the football season, but already you can feel the sporting world's attention getting diverted toward the upcoming college and pro campaigns. Except for the few teams in contention, most baseball teams are merely playing out the string at this point, and as the summer winds down you can feel the inescapable failure that surrounds teams like the Cubs, and the hope that was so prevalent in the glorious spring has completely faded away.
For minor-league baseball, though, it's a completely different story. Fort Wayne's Tin Caps are getting ready to close out their season, and it's hard to feel the same melancholy that you get at Wrigley Field. Baseball in Fort Wayne still feels like a celebration. Nobody in Fort Wayne lives and dies with the Tin Caps, after all, and the games are too much fun to harbor any of the angst that MLB teams regularly experience at this point in the season.
I was initially skeptical about the ball field downtown. I didn't think the city would learn to love the Tin Caps, just as I didn't see that they cared too much about the Tin Caps previous incarnation, the Wizards. Minor league ball players have no allegiance to the cities they're in; their primary focus is to climb the ladder in the organization and get out of town as quickly as possible. It seemed difficult to imagine that the transient nature of the ever-fluid roster could make the team something the city would embrace. The Komets are minor-league, too, but they're an institution here — players return, year after year, you hear names you recognize, and there's a sense of continuity with the team that doesn't exist in any other minor league sport that has set up shop in the city.
What I didn't get was that nobody goes to the downtown baseball games because they're die-hard Tin Caps fans. They go because it's a hoot, and, possibly, because they're rooting for the return of a viable downtown to Fort Wayne. For the longest time the central part of the city has been a wasteland, and it's a kick to finally have some place new to go to, some place big, some place that will draw attention. The games at Parkview Field have brought a lot of foot traffic and vibrancy to a city that had been in sore need of a destination. Virtually from the start the Tin Caps have been setting minor league attendance records at Parkview Field, and it's easy to understand why: it's cheap, the stadium is gorgeous, and it's right here. It seems obvious that for a long time Fort Wayne has had a lot of folks with discretionary income who were just itching to have some place local where they could unload some of their money. It's a funny thing: I've talked with a lot of Tin Caps regulars, and most couldn't care less how the team is doing. They just like to mix it up once every once in a while at the stadium with their fellow citizens, they like the feeling that they're actually in a city that's doing city-like things