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It was a bleacher bummer

October 02, 2008|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- It's 52 degrees and getting colder at Wrigley Field as Manny Ramirez, waiting for the next Cubs hitter, shoves his right hand into his back pocket to keep warm.

Suddenly a man in the bleachers behind the Dodgers' left fielder stands up, cups his hands around his mouth and yells, "Hey Manny! Take your hand out of your pocket! Get ready to run!"

Ramirez either doesn't hear him, or pretends he doesn't hear him, but the Chicago fans are just getting warmed up.

"You look real cute from the back, Manny!" yells one fan while holding his cup of beer in one hand. Another quickly chimes in: "Hey Manny, be Manny!"

Welcome to the legendary Wrigley bleachers, home of the Cubs' "bleacher bums," the die-hard fans who spend each game bonding with friends, taunting opposing outfielders and soaking up the game and team they love most.

The bleacher bums also are famous for their suffering, with the Cubs going 100 years without a World Series title. And they suffered a tad more Wednesday as the Cubs opened postseason play by losing to the Dodgers, 7-2.

Before the game ended, though, several bleacher bums said they're confident of finally seeing a championship.

And just behind the bleachers, on Waveland Avenue, several buildings all had the same placard in their windows that read, "It's Gonna Happen."

"This is without a doubt the best Cubs team I've ever seen," said Al Yellon, a 51-year-old Chicagoan. But he pointed to his friends in the bleachers and added, "it's about the people you're with, in addition to the ballgame."

One of his friends, Jeff Heimert of Chicago, said "we've all been coming here a long time."

"Even though none of us knew each other before, we've all grown up together since we stated coming out here," he said. "Now we go to each other's weddings, we go to funerals we go to bar mitzvahs."

Many ballparks have bleachers, of course, but there long has been something distinct about Wrigley's bleachers and the community of fans who have gathered there to endure year after year of heartache.

They were celebrated in the long-running play "Bleacher Bums," which not only was an ode to the game in general and Cubs fans in particular but also stood as a metaphor for how life often produces more strikeouts than doubles.

Even on a more prosaic level, Wrigley's bleachers "really capture the beauty of going to a place that kind of takes your cares away," said Tammy Lechner, author of "Our Team -- Our Dream," a book also filled with her photographs of 15 seasons spent with the Cubs and its fans.

"The bleachers at Wrigley are as exciting as getting behind home plate," said Lechner, a former Los Angeles Times photographer who lives in Laguna Beach.

"There's a community there" in the bleachers where many fans sit in the same spot game after game, she said. Groups organize among themselves to decide "who runs and gets the beer, who is in charge of the bets, things like that," she said.

On Tuesday, the community briefly included Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano. After the Dodgers' second out in one inning, Soriano turned to the bleachers and flashed the "two out" sign to the crowd that he normally exchanges with teammates.

As the inning ended, Ramirez trotted back out to replace Soriano in left field, and the bums started back in.

"Hey Manny! You look cute with that hairdo," yelled one. Another man stood, opened his cellphone, held it toward Ramirez and shouted, "Manny! You've got a phone call!"

But Ramirez also had his admirers. A group of Californians came to Chicago to sit in the front row of the left-field bleachers, reveling in being vastly outnumbered by Cubs fans.

The group included Tammy Donald of Long Beach and Jesse Franco of San Francisco, who waited until Ramirez glanced back at the bleachers so he could open his jacket and show him his Manny Ramirez T-shirt.

Cubs fans then jeered them as "Manny Lovers!" But Bob Krause, a bleacher bum from Bartlett, Ill., said most of the bums are respectful.

"A Cub fan is a humble fan, because we don't have a lot to throw back at other fans" in terms of successful seasons, Krause said. "They are the true fans through thick and thin."

No doubt the Cubs' long struggle has contributed to the camaraderie among Wrigley's bleacher bums. "Over all these years, the fans have had to find what else there is about baseball they like besides winning," Lechner said.

So does that mean the bleachers' appeal would ebb if the Cubs dispense with the Dodgers and then win the World Series?

"No," she said, "because they won it before and when they win it again, the dream begins anew."

In the meantime, the Manny Ramirez they love to hate got the last word. He hit a homer -- into the left-field bleachers -- in the seventh inning to help secure the Dodgers' win.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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