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Finding Community—and Resolving Conflict—in the Bleachers at Wrigley Field

Nicole Schnitzler

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Graphic: Well+Good Creative

On a beautiful Thursday afternoon in August, I decided to do what any Chicago North Sider in their right mind might do—I closed my computer, donned a cap and some sunscreen, and headed to the Cubs game at Wrigley Field. When I purchased my ticket that morning, there was only one section I checked for availability—the bleachers.

Bleachers seating at Wrigley Field, for me, was a no-brainer. They were where my friends and I had stationed ourselves for the better part of our adult lives, ever since we were old enough to navigate the “L” train to Addison Street and walk the single block to hometown revelry. We’d grab hot dogs, nachos, and peanuts, find seats, and, elbows on knees, spend the next three-plus hours mesmerized by Sosa’s swings, Farnsworth’s fastballs, and Alou’s sans glove batting style. It was all it took for several of us to later rent an apartment two blocks from the stadium, which served as home base for us for our first year out of college.

If prime sun and an unhindered vantage point drew us to the bleachers, it was the fans that caused us to stay. In every Wrigley Field outing, it seemed as though my friends and I left with new game-day acquaintances, whom we had befriended somewhere between the home run high fives, 7th-inning stretch singalong, and requisite, post-win chanting of “Go Cubs Go.” The bleachers beckoned camaraderie.

It didn’t matter the fronts we were trying to put on at the corner of Sheffield and Waveland, or the lengths we all went to ensuring the color-coordinated ensemble declaring our support for the day: Inside of these gates—but particularly between sections 501 and 515—we were in this together. In the bleachers, there are no assigned numbers to distinguish our spending levels, no arm rests separating you from the body heat and spilled beer of another—all to mean more room for shared nachos and verbally held seat perks when bathroom breaks were due.

It’s not to say there was no room for competition—surely, that is why we were there. But it is to say that the stressors of outside life seemed smaller in here, and what seemed bigger than all of them combined was the chance to be together; to be a part of something; to understand, often viscerally, that the strife you feel when your team strikes out is the same that I feel—and the rapture you feel when your star player slides home? I feel that, too.

When the Cubs beat the Cardinals in game four of the 2015 division series, my friend Sara and I stood—no, danced—in the bleachers alongside newfound friends, realizing we were all one step closer to breaking the then 107-year curse that had dangled a World Series pennant always within sight but out of reach. We’d have to wait one more year, of course, for that to happen, and when it did, something peculiar—magical—happened. Amid citywide Cubs fan celebrations, several encounters with Cleveland Indians fans who tipped their hats in our direction. An effort to help us recognize our moment, to help us remember our revelry was not unwarranted, and, more importantly, that in it, we were not alone.

Seeing as I was attending this particular game solo—a result of having friends with day jobs who couldn’t pull a Ferris Bueller with just an hour’s notice—I figured that, in recalling this safety and familiarity of the bleachers, I would find good company. I would find new friends.

And for some time, I did. Two women in their mid-60s, who, upon my asking if the spot in front of them was taken, gestured vehemently for me to take it. I had a hot dog in one hand, beer in the other. The sun was shining. At the bottom of the fourth, it remained a no-score game against the San Francisco Giants. I closed my eyes, breathed in, and wondered if, beyond a home run right this second, this moment could get any better. That’s when I heard it.

“Hey, Kevin!” A shout from my right that was so loud, it seemed that it could have reached every outfielder who stood in front of us. But there was no mistake—it was meant for Giants center fielder Kevin Pillar. The words that followed were so jarring, so unexpected, that I had to swivel around to see their maker: A twenty-something holding a beer that he had stacked atop several empties, cupping his other hand around his mouth to project his message forward.

“Did you know you were gay before you moved to San Francisco, or after?”

He was quick to follow up these words with others, all starting with, “Hey Kevin,” all ending with something to the effect of “You suck!” or “Go back home!”

Moments later, when Heyward hit a fly ball to short center, his chanting continued—this time, with the repetition of three particularly effective words.

“I got it! I got it! I got it!”

This, as Pillar and left fielder Alex Dickerson both ran for the ball. This, as Pillar shaded his eyes to gauge the distance between him and the ball, between Dickerson and the ball, between Dickerson and himself. This, as Pillar fumbled with the ball until it ultimately fell to the ground—a motion that signals an uproar of celebration in the stands—the loudest cries of which seem to come from the shouter and his friends.

We had a hit. We were one step closer to a run. I should have been celebrating, too—but I sat motionless, my gaze still on Pillar. I was paralyzed by the means by which we got there as a fanbase—how we could go from hurtful slurs to gleeful home team pride in an instant. And by the possibility—however slim—that this shouter’s efforts had an effect on the play.

Perhaps not understanding the notion of adding insult to injury, or perhaps understanding it all too well, he continued. “Aw, Kevin! You dropped the ball, man! Kevin, do you want to talk about it?”

This moment could have been better. We could have been better.

I looked to the women behind me, who looked at the man, shook their heads, and looked at me. “It’s getting old, wouldn’t you say?” they said. It was their second game of the season—they had planned it for weeks, driven in from the western suburbs. Two guys around my age were seated next to me, and they, too, shook their heads and sighed at the man’s persistence. They had traveled from Champaign for the game. They did it often, no matter if traffic caused the drive home to run upwards of four hours. “For us, it’s worth it,” one of them said to me.
These were the fans I remembered.

At the top of the eighth, if by divine intervention, the shouter stood to leave. I closed my eyes in relief, understanding that this might be the chance to enjoy what was left of the game, a mere two innings of peace and quiet—the kind of quiet that I now had come to understand as not actual quiet, but sportsmanship. I enjoyed this—until he returned, 10 minutes later, two beers in tow.

It was then, at the first utterance from his lips of the word “Kevin—,” that I stood up, dusted off hot dog poppy seeds from my shorts, and walked the 20 paces over to his seat.

Maybe I was thinking of my brother, whose name is Kevin. Maybe I was thinking of my gay friends. Maybe I was thinking of my own grade school days of being bullied. I realized this could backfire. I realized that he might start shouting even louder, meaner. But I also realized that me saying nothing was, in effect, saying everything. So instead, I said this:

That it was my first game of the season. That all I could hear for the past four innings was his voice. And that the things coming out of this voice were breaking my heart. Wasn’t this a place of community? Of kindness? Heck—at the very least—one of respect?

There was a moment of silence as he and his five friends stared back at me. It was his friend who spoke first—and who said what I imagine some readers might be thinking.

“Um, it’s a baseball game.”

Exactly, I thought. Also, I thought: he’s a human.

I know. I know he’s a human who is paid millions of dollars to do what he does. I know he’s a professional. And I know that this might be part of what he has come to expect in playing the outfield. But—should it be?

“I just feel,” I started, then started over. “I would just appreciate, if, for the two innings we have left… if you could just try to be a little kinder.”

The group was silent as I walked away; and as I did, a yell from behind me.

“Hey Kevin! We’re sorry, man—so sorry that you’re gay and that you lost the game,” I turn to see that it’s not the same group, but another that has now engaged in the monologue. For an instant I wonder if my efforts were in vain, if this was just how it was now; if people came to the Wrigley Field bleachers less to celebrate and more to denigrate, using their elevated platform as a way of voicing anger, disrespect, and hatred in a world that, outside of stadium doors, is already seething it in every direction.

Moments later, the original shouter walks up to me. I steel myself.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “You were right. I was being a total jerk, and I want to apologize.” I looked up at him, and, with his sunglasses off, I could tell that he was being sincere. The words were not said loudly enough for Pillar to hear, but accompanying their presence was an absence of the words that came before. Maybe he heard that.

Perhaps I was propelled to speak to him for this very moment, for a shot of what I remembered to be true: that a baseball game could still be a place of peace. That we could root for either team and do so amicably; that we could champion the home team without slandering the visitors; that we could remember that, no matter who wins or loses, we could feel united in one commonality: We were here to celebrate others, whoever those others might be.

He extended his hand. It wasn’t a high five, but as the stadium started its rounds of “Go Cubs Go,” I accepted, realizing it was the next best thing.

In any community, accountability is important. Nervous about speaking up? Here’s how to handle conflicts based on your personality type, and how to stay calm after a big blowout. 

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