Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Ben Zobrist and other Cubs are truly at home at Wrigley Field

CHICAGO — It was a step back in time for Cubs second baseman Ben Zobrist.

Before a recent game, the former Rays standout hopped on his bike in his uniform, with his glove in hand and wearing black P.F. Flyers, and rode to Wrigley Field.

"I just wanted to get that feeling," he said. "It's that feeling of you're riding to the sandlot like a kid. This place makes you feel like a kid."

Zobrist's ride a few weeks ago became an Internet sensation after his singer-songwriter wife, Julianna, posted video and a picture of him on a bike ready to leave on her Instagram account. It also fit the life-is-fun theme preached by former Rays manager Joe Maddon that has included onesie-wearing plane rides and zoo animal visits for a team that has rolled into the postseason.

Living near the workplace is one of the unique attractions of playing in a vibrant neighborhood like Wrigleyville. For the players and staff who take advantage, it means almost nonexistent commutes, more time with family and a chance to mingle with the surroundings in a way that might not be possible in other cities. For residents, well, you might have a Cub living next door.

In a sense, it puts a different spin on the term "friendly confines." Zobrist, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta all live in the neighborhood. So does president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. And general manager Jed Hoyer is just a few minutes' drive away, in Lincoln Park.

"I think guys love that," Hoyer said. "I think the neighborhood feel is great. The families like it. They can walk with their kids to the ballpark. The lifestyle stuff definitely sells a little bit."

For Zobrist, it was a big selling point when he signed with the Cubs in the offseason. The native of central Illinois and his family live about a mile from Wrigley in a home with a miniature basketball court and play area outside for their three young children.

Zobrist often takes his bike to the ballpark, though that ride in uniform was a first. But the biggest benefit is the extra time at home. When he played in other cities he had to leave around 2 p.m. for a night game. Now? Sometimes as late as 4.

"It's just a special thing," Zobrist said. "They're never going to make another venue like this in professional sports where it's basically in a neighborhood. And because of that, it has such a unique feel. I mean, it's honestly baseball heaven on earth."

For Lester, calling the neighborhood home was not the plan.

He lived near Fenway Park for a few years when he played for the Red Sox before buying a house about a half hour away in Newton. When he signed with the Cubs before the 2015 season, he was seeking some separation from home and work so he looked in the suburbs.

But he balked at the idea of sitting in traffic and eventually found a house about a mile from Wrigley. Sometimes his wife will walk to the ballpark, though he drives.

"I love being closer," Lester said. "It's nice, especially when you get in from late road trips and you're two minutes from home."

Hendricks and his fiancee enjoy hitting the shops and restaurants along the Southport corridor a few blocks from the ballpark. This time last year, he could walk the streets without any recognition. But that's starting to change thanks to a breakout season in which he — like Lester — is in the running for the NL Cy Young Award.

"Most of the time, it's middle-aged people coming up wanting to shake your hand, maybe take a picture," said Hendricks, who lived downtown when he came up to the Cubs in 2014. "Shake your hand and really just talk to you for a second — how well the season's going, how much they're enjoying all this time. That's something that you notice is a little different than other places you go, where you find many more autograph seekers."

The neighborhood around Wrigley Field has experienced its share of ups and downs ever since Charles Weeghman's Chicago Whales of the Federal League moved to the ballpark in 1914. It became known as "Wrigleyville" in the 1980s when real estate agents renamed the area to capitalize on the Cubs' popularity, and it is undergoing another transformation thanks to a multiyear renovation to the ballpark and its surroundings by the Ricketts family.

Video boards, new bleacher sections and a state-of-the-art home clubhouse have already been added. An office building is being constructed outside the ballpark and a hotel is going up across the street.

For all the bars and restaurants and construction and game-day crowds, there still are plenty of quiet tree-lined streets nearby for a small-town feel in a bustling metropolis.

It's something longtime Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster noticed when he joined the team in 2004 and moved into the neighborhood. He could walk home after a game, see people playing cornhole in their yard and stop to have a beer with them.

"There's something really special about being a Chicago Cub and to be in the neighborhood and see the passion behind all the people, from bar owners to a coffee shop to whatever it is — they really support their team and love their team," said Dempster, who works in the front office. "And there's a mutual feeling. I felt the same way about the people in the neighborhood, the businesses. The environment was great."

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