By Lou Melgarejo
One of the exciting things about working in the media is that there is a chance you are going to witness history. It is seldom the way in which you would have imagined it, and Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series was no different.
I was hired as the audio technician of a camera crew for a sports television network to cover the NLCS that year. As a lifelong Cubs fan, the opportunity to be at Wrigley Field inside the clubhouse of the World Series-bound Chicago Cubs was a dream come true. The Cubs were coming home up 3-2 on the Florida Marlins and Cubs Nation knew that this year was the “next year” we had been talking about for 58 years and that the 95-year drought was coming to an end.
Despite being so close to the action, I watched the game like most of the extra media there that day; on small televisions in a dank and cold storage area that had been converted into a “media room.” There were still bags of limestone, piles of dirt with shovels jabbed into them and some wheel barrows in the one corner. But despite the atmosphere of the room, the media huddled inside were buzzing, and the feeling was electric. Cubs pitcher Mark Prior was pitching a gem of a game and had a three-hit shutout going through seven innings.
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It was at top of the eighth inning when the liaison from MLB came over to our crew and instructed us to follow him. As I scrambled for my audio bag and boom pole, I remember thinking to myself, “This is it!” I was going to be in the locker room of my favorite team when they broke the decades-long absence from the World Series. As we left the media room, Mike Mordecai flied out to Moises Alou on a Prior fastball. The Cubs were five outs away from the World Series.
We walked up to the ramp and onto the concourse and the scene was unreal. A combination of pandemonium and exuberance was exploding before our eyes. Grown men were misty eyed with tears of joy; strangers were hugging each other as cheers filled the air. We squeezed through the masses as my thoughts were with my dad back home who just two days previous I had called and boasted, “Don’t worry dad, we got this! There is no way the Marlins are going to beat Prior and (Kerry) Wood at home in back-to-back games! We are going to The Show!”
The photographer I was working with doesn’t remember this so my memory might be sketchy, but in my mind I clearly remember walking past a souvenir stand as the vendor was putting up “Cubs National League Champions” T-shirts. I even remember the vendor telling eager fans that she could not sell the shirts until the game was final.
We turned toward the hallway to the Cubs’ clubhouse, and as we did, I could hear the roar of the crowd and feel the frenzied energy that they were exuding. We hurried into the cramped and bare concrete hallway to the clubhouse and waited to cover what was surely going to be history — a story that I would be able to tell my children.
There was a flurry of activity and traffic in that little hallway. As the door to the clubhouse swung open, I caught a glimpse of something that drove home the magnitude of the event. In the clubhouse were tubs and tubs of champagne and beer. Plastic was up over all of the lockers, it appeared as though a tiny staging area was being set up. I took that as my cue to prepare as well, so I threw my audio bag on and draped myself and equipment with my poncho.
It was about that time the crew I was with started to notice a distinct change in the rumble that was coming from the Wrigley Field stands. A loud groan was heard and then the unmistakable low pitched booing and feet stomping filled the hall. We weren’t sure what was going on, but clearly Cubs’ fans were not happy. The noise built into a frenzy of nervous energy that was apparent even from our position. We could not see anything. There were no televisions in the hallway, no speakers in the ceiling from which to hear Pat and Ronnie. We were blind.
Occupying the hallway with us and standing ready to charge out onto the field to keep the peace after the inevitable Cubs’ victory were a dozen or so of Chicago’s finest. Not long after the noted shift in mood of the Wrigley faithful, several officers got calls on their walkie-talkies and dashed off. The remainder of the officers huddled together and listened carefully for updates or orders while muttering to one another and shaking their heads in disbelief.
Our producer started to become concerned and asked me to approach the officers to see if they would tell me what all the commotion was about. When I asked the cop he smirked, “Some (expletive) kid interfered with the game, and now the crowd wants to kill him.” I repeated back the information to our producer and we tried to understand how a whole crowd could turn against a little kid. We had no idea that the “kid” was in fact a 26-year old man, nor did we know how serious the officer really was about the threats against him.
Our conversation was broken up as a flurry of workers rushed into the clubhouse. A man whom I could only assume was in charge of the clubhouse was screaming at the workers as they rushed in pulling down plastic and trying to roll out tubs of booze. “Not one person sets foot in this clubhouse until I give the all clear!” shouted the man in charge, and he rushed into the clubhouse and out of view.
“All right guys,” said a frustrated voice. We turned and our liaison from the MLB was standing at the other end of the hallway. “It’s not going to happen today so let’s head back to the media room.”
We went back up the ramp to the concourse, and the tears of joy were now tears of sadness, people were distraught for other reasons and there was a great deal of what sounded like yelling and booing coming from the direction of the concourse that would take you to the left-field seats. As we walked back to the media room, the same vendor that was putting up the shirts was now taking them down. We caught a quick glimpse of a replay of Alou trying to field a foul ball down the third-base line and getting interfered with when it all became clear. We were now aware of what the sporting world already knew, so the producer and photographer decided that they would head towards the commotion coming from the other end of the concourse and directed me to wait for them in the media room.
As I continued to the media room, TVs in the concourse were being turned off so as not to show the replays of the incident. I went down the ramp and turned left into the media room, and the entire group was standing and gathered around a couple of televisions. The local media looked stunned, the national media looked like Christmas had come early and the Florida media looked giddy. I just stared at the television dumbfounded, and the confidence that I once had in my favorite team melted into doubt and resignation.
“This is what it means to be a Cubs fan,” I lamented to another friend working that day.
I hate to say I expected it, but I can say that it didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was finding myself where I was, when I was. I just hope that the next time I find myself in a situation of historical significance with the Cubs it comes in the form of a celebration. We deserve it. To be so close and have it taken away seemed particularly cruel. All we needed was five outs.
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