CHICAGO — Evan Longoria, and a bunch of the others, have watched admiringly on TV. A few, such as Joel Peralta and a 7-year-old Kevin Kiermaier, have sat in the stands. Chris Archer was there to receive an award with Brandon Guyer, who also got to take part in a minor-league exhibition. Joe Maddon, natch, has ridden his bike around it. But only a handful of Rays have actually played a major-league game inside historic Wrigley Field, and when the rest excitedly get their first chance today, the veterans say they are in for quite the experience. "It's … awesome," said Rays bench coach Dave Martinez, a Cub twice during a 16-year career. "It's the best place I've ever played." There's a lot that makes Wrigley special, beginning with the storied past.
"I guess I'm a sucker for history and tradition," said former Ray (and former Cub) Sam Fuld, "but I couldn't help but think about all the great players that played in that place."
"And all the nostalgia," added first baseman James Loney.
The setting is unique, from the extensive — though no longer exclusive — schedule of day games; the neighborhood location, with the game's-a-party atmosphere and seats atop adjacent rooftops; and the actual physical structure, most notably the iconic ivy-covered brick outfield walls and centerfield scoreboard.
"It's definitely an experience," said reliever Jeff Beliveau, a Cub in 2012. "That whole community, it's crazy. You get to the ballpark at 9 in the morning and the places are packed, lines out the door for restaurants and bars. It's a big party every day, like a huge celebration. It's pretty cool to see."
For most of the Rays, it will seem like the National League equivalent of Boston's Fenway Park. Which means that in addition to the romantic tales of lore, Wrigley also will present as old, and small and somewhat uncomfortable, lacking in creature comforts though not necessarily furry creatures.
The workout facilities are spartan; the clubhouse cramped and lacking the usual plush accommodations, and an extended maze-like trip from the field; and the dugouts narrow and sunken, providing an awkward view.
"It's a much nicer place to watch a ball game and have a beer," said Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, a Chicago native and childhood Cubs fan, "than it is to get there six hours early and go to work in the friendly confines."
Blowin' in the wind
Back when Don Zimmer used to manage the Cubs, he would say he could tell on the walk from his condo to the ballpark what kind of day it would be as soon as he saw which way the flags were flying.
That's because the wind, probably more than at any other stadium, determines how Wrigley will play.
"It's like two parks in one," said Rays TV man Dewayne Staats, who used to work Cubs games. "It can be a hitters' park and it can be a pitchers' park — and sometimes both in the same day."
If the wind is gusting out, there's not much the pitchers can do but chuck and duck. But on most days, despite the intimate setting, the park isn't the launching pad it's sometimes known as.
"That's kind of overblown, no pun intended," said Hickey, who coached there with the Astros. "It gets that reputation that the ball can carry, and the alleys are short, but it's actually very deep down the lines. So that's a little misleading. If the wind is not blowing out, it's not just a band box, it's not just home run derby there."
Plus, Fuld said, "More often than not it blows in, and then it can be a real pitchers' park."
What makes it unique?
For a long time, Wrigley's most unique distinction was not having lights, meaning all games were played during the day. That changed in 1988, and they've been able to play a limited number of night games — they've averaged about 20 a year — ever since (though not on Fridays.)
Then there's the outfield walls, made of brick (with no padding) and covered with the famous ivy, first planted in 1937, and with baskets on top.
Martinez plans to warn the outfielders, especially Kiermaier, of the hazards of going back too hard. But Fuld said it's not as bad as it seems.
"I've survived a couple collisions with the brick and ivy," Fuld said. "The ivy is thicker than I think most people give it credit for."
It also can be entertaining when a ball gets stuck in there.
"It's funny," Fuld said. "You'll be out there for BP and a guy will hit a ball into the ivy and two balls will pop out. (Former Cubs star) Andre Dawson is not coming out of there like in the (State Farm) commercial, but there are baseballs there from I don't know how long ago."
The scoreboard, built in 1937, remains under manual control, with the score-by-innings and pitchers numbers still changed by hand.
Two Rays broadcasters are quite familiar with Wrigley. Staats spent five seasons in the '80s calling their games, while radio guy Dave Wills visited while working for the rival White Sox. Not surprisingly, they have totally different views:
Staats: "I think it's the greatest venue there is for baseball. … It's a national treasure. And it's all you'd ever want in terms of maintaining contact with baseball's past."
Wills, noting his "hate-hate relationship" with Cub fans and their ballpark: "I've never been too enamored with the fact that that place has some interesting smells and the weeds on the wall. And I think there's a good reason why they're getting ready to spend a billion dollars to fix that place up — because it needs it."
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays