As summer arrives in Chicago and the city continues to reopen, we're experiencing many places, pastimes and events again for the first time in more than a year. Throughout the coming months, Time Out Chicago editors will be chronicling their experiences returning to beloved haunts through a series we're calling Back At It. As we immerse ourselves in places and events that we once regularly frequented, we'll let you know what has changed, what's stayed the same and how you can get in on the fun.
A few days ago I tried to pinpoint the last time I was in crowd of more than 30,000 people. It could have been in September of 2019 when I saw Slayer headline Riot Fest, or perhaps it was earlier that summer when Ariana Grande closed out Lollapalooza. I only asked myself this question because last Monday I found myself sitting among the largest crowd I've been in the midst of since pre-pandemic times, watching from the nosebleeds at Wrigley Field (where attendance was 32,934, according to Baseball Reference) as the Cubs were handily defeated by the Cleveland Indians. Full disclosure: I'm more of a White Sox fan.
While the Sox only began welcoming fans back to Guaranteed Rate Field at full capacity last Friday, the Cubs have been packing the stands since June 11—coinciding with date that Chicago entered Phase 5 of its reopening plan and removed all capacity restrictions. The game I attended wasn't sold out, but even at about three-fourth's of Wrigley's full capacity, entering a mass of tens of thousands of cheering people for the first time in more than 18 months took a bit of getting used to. But after just a couple of innings perched high above the field, the experience felt like being transported back to a time before wearing face masks was commonplace (they're only required at Wrigley for the unvaccinated, though it's an honor system approach) and cardboard cutouts briefly replaced fans in the stands. I'm happy to report that going to a baseball game hasn't fundamentally changed, though there are a few new wrinkles to the experience.
The modifications begin as you enter the park, moving through a touchless screening process that does not require you to remove keys, phones, wallets or crumpled-up chewing gum wrappers from your pockets. In my decade of occasionally attending games at Wrigley Field, this visit was likely the fastest I've been able to get into the park. I have no idea how the new screening system (which looks like regular old metal detectors) works or how effective it is, but if it's getting folks into the stadium quickly and safely, I hope it sticks around.
One of the biggest changes at Wrigley this season is that cash is no longer king—in fact, it's not accepted anywhere in the park. The roving beer and hot dog vendors will pass you a device that accepts credit cards. The majority of the concession stands throughout the park are offering mobile ordering, allowing you to place and pay for your armful of sausages, nachos and domestic beers on your phone, texting you a QR code that you can present at the stand to collect your order. That certainly hasn't stopped people from lining up to order and pay for their food the old-fashioned way, but those lines seemed to be longer on the evening I was in attendance, so there's a definite incentive to embrace mobile ordering.
And while we're on the topic of concessions, I was surprised to see that hot dog topping stations are still present throughout the park. In a world where many salad bars and buffets are still sitting empty, the presence of a serve-your-own assortment of sport peppers, raw onions, neon green relish and pickle spears was unexpected. But these open tubs of condiments were always an implicit "use-at-your-own-risk" situation, so I opted to not think about the possibility of folks grabbing handfuls of pickle with their bare hands and topped my dog using the provided tongs.
No matter which of Chicago's ballparks you choose to visit (and consume hot dogs inside of), sitting in the stands on a warm summer night has a tendency to make you feel like you're a part of something larger than yourself. And after so many months spent in relative solitude, returning to these communal experiences is a reminder that an evening of baseball is about more than the crack of the bat, the bags full of peanuts and the plastic cups filled with lukewarm beer. One of the most important aspects of the ballpark experience is espoused via song during the seventh inning stretch: "Take me out to the ball game, take me out with the crowd." And even if it's a bit intimidating at first, it's nice to once again be around other people at the old ball game.