I remember there were supposed to be pretzels. Not the crunchy sticks or rounds that crush into a million crumbs but those big, soft-baked pretzels, fresh out of the oven, with tiny bits of salt dusted on top. My mom’s plan was to bake and serve the pretzels in the middle of the fifth inning, when the game was half over and the new Wrigley Field lights had fully taken effect.
I was 11 years old that night, Aug. 8, 1988. Skinny, awkward and I’m guessing still convinced I would someday play for the Chicago Cubs. I was too young to understand Chicago politics and the closed-door fights that had led to this moment. Too young to fully appreciate the historical significance of lighting a 40,000-seat stadium that, since its inception in 1914, had been illuminated by only the sun.
My youthful eyes had seen Wrigley Field only one way. With each visit to the park I’d climb the cement stairs until reaching the top step. My eyes would briefly squint, then stare at the baseball canvas stretched before me, bathing in the midday summer sun. The ivy. The old scoreboard. The perfectly manicured infield. This night — and those massive, white light towers — would reveal a never-before-seen side of the 74-year-old ballpark.
And so that night, my mom, dad and I gathered around the TV as if the Cubs were in the World Series. It felt like the biggest Cubs game in my lifetime. Sure, the Cubs had hosted the National League Championship Series against the San Diego Padres four years earlier, but without lights — that was in the middle of the afternoon. I was in school (and in fact got in trouble for sneaking a radio into second grade to listen.) This was prime time. The world was watching (or at least it felt like it was). Some of the broadcasters wore tuxedos.
I don’t remember much about the game itself, which was against the Phillies. I know Rick Sutcliffe was the starting pitcher and my mom complained about it. She wasn’t a baseball fan and wanted the game over sooner rather than later. Sutcliffe’s deliberate pace likely meant a long night. I also remember the drama around the elderly man pressing the button that supposedly turned on the lights. I know Ryne Sandberg hit a home run. And I know the weather was terrible. I remember that vicious storms attacked our house and I was worried about the line of torrential downpours reaching Wrigley. Sure enough, in the middle of the fourth inning, the rain began. And so did the wait.
At just about every Cubs game I attended as a kid, my parents would buy me a pretzel in the middle of the fifth inning. It had become an unspoken tradition. On this night at home we would make our own pretzels. When the rain delay began, my mom asked me when I wanted my pretzel. I told her in the middle of the fifth. And so we waited. And waited. But the rain never let up. Eventually, I fell asleep on the family room floor. My mom covered me in a blanket. And the pretzels were put back into the freezer for another time. I don’t remember if we had them the next night or not. In fact, I can’t tell you much about 8-9-88 beyond the fact that the Cubs played the Mets. I always hated the Mets.
It was 8-8-88 that mattered. I carried those four eights with me forever. When I was older, it was my code to the alarm in my parents’ house. It was my first ATM PIN (long since changed — nice try). After college, a friend of mine dated a guy who was the grandson of the man who had pushed the button. This was about as exciting as someone who knew Andre Dawson. When I found this out, I peppered the poor guy with questions about his grandfather.
Still today, I have the program my dad bought me from that night’s game. It survived my parents’ retiring, moving twice and eventually dying. I pulled it out this week and instantly went back to boyhood Wayne, staring in awe at the photos of helicopters dropping the massive, white light towers onto the Wrigley roof. (And laughing at the advertisements for Zenith camcorders and Blockbuster video.)
The date will never leave me. What we first saw that night was something that our eyes have adjusted to, something that has become perfectly normal in the almost three decades since: Wrigley under the lights. Now when I think about it, some of my greatest memories as a Cubs fan have taken place under the stars. Game 163 in 1998. Winning the Division Series over the rival Cardinals in 2015. A year later, beating the Dodgers to clinch the team’s first NL pennant since 1945. And earlier this year, sitting next to my best friend as we watched the raising of the 2016 world championship banner.
A few months ago at a sports collectible show outside Chicago, my colleague Darren Rovell showed me a check he had purchased. It was signed by then-National League president A. Bartlett Giamatti and made payable to the Chicago Cubs. On the notation it says “four tickets for 8/8/88 (Comm. Ueberroth).” It was being sold as an authentic autograph of Giamatti, the man who banned Pete Rose from baseball.
But to me, this was way more.
“Dude!” I told Rovell. “This is the check for Commissioner Ueberroth’s tickets to the Cubs’ first night game!”
Rovell smiled. “Yes, it is,” he said.
I was beyond jealous. An hour or so later, unable to find anything remotely as unique, I meandered to the snack bar at the convention hall and surveyed the menu’s various options. Without even thinking about the significance of the words about to come out of my mouth, I stepped up to the counter and placed my order.
“One soft pretzel, please.”