Usually, when fans see the famous numberless clock atop the Wrigley Field scoreboard reading "1:20", it's just about time for the first pitch of a Cubs afternoon game.
Monday night... or was it Tuesday morning? ... the scoreboard read "1:20" during a game, except it was 1:20 a.m., not 1:20 p.m., just about the time the bottom of the ninth inning of the Pirates/Cubs game was beginning.
Being at a major-league ballpark after one o'clock in the morning is surreal enough, but when "surrounded" by only about 200 other people, it becomes otherworldly. I know, because I did it -- yes, I did stay until Joel Hanrahan struck out Luis Valbuena at 1:28 a.m. Central time to nail down his 36th save and a win for the Pirates that allowed them to creep to within 2½ games of the second wild-card spot in the National League.
Why were the teams and fans put in this situation in the first place? Well, there are two reasons. Major League Baseball, for better or worse, wants all its teams to play all 162 games if at all possible. This is quite different from earlier years when, if a late-season game were rained out, it would be held for the end of the season if it had possible playoff implications, or not played at all if it didn't. The "playoff implications" note is the second reason; the Pirates, at just two games over .500, are still in that wild-card hunt. The teams had no remaining common off days and with the already-tight playoff schedule, I doubt MLB wanted the Cubs and Pirates to be playing a make-up game at Wrigley Field on October 4.
And thus, Monday night, we waited. Players, broadcasters, fans, team employees, though many fans left and vendors and ushers were sent home. It rained until about an hour past the 7:05 scheduled game time, then stopped. But another rain shield was behind; that didn't pass through the area until 10 p.m. It took the grounds crew about 40 minutes to get the field in shape, while players warmed up; the 10:42 p.m. first pitch was the latest in Wrigley Field history.
Perhaps 3,000 people were in the ballpark at that hour; the numbers dwindled with every inning. Not much happened in the game; the Pirates pushed across three runs on Travis Wood in the third inning, while Pittsburgh's Kevin Correia was shutting down the Cubs on just two singles, both by Darwin Barney. As the crowd diminished, the sounds of the game became enhanced. Each crack of the bat was louder than usual, without thousands of voices deadening it. Baseballs popped hard into catcher's gloves in the bullpen; individual voices could be heard heckling hitters and at one point, a few fans began chanting, "Let's Go Home!"
The oddest sound, which normally you can't hear unless you're in the center field bleachers, is the metallic "clunk" of the "eyelits" denoting the batter, ball, strike and out on the vintage Wrigley Field scoreboard. Those might look like lights, but they're not; they're round and metal, and slide in and out of holes cut in the board. During most games, you just see them. Monday night... and early Tuesday morning... you could hear them.
As noted above, perhaps 200 people stuck it out until the end of the game; once you're there for a start that late, why not stay till it's over? The 1:28 a.m. finish was the latest end to a game in Wrigley Field history (the previous records, starting at 9:48 p.m. and ending at 1:16 a.m., were both set in this 2005 game, the day Greg Maddux recorded his 3,000th career strikeout).
Worth it? Absolutely. Even Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts stuck it out in his front-row seat until the bitter end. The Cubs haven't had much of a season, and the loss was their 89th, putting them 31 games under .500 in a lost year. At least those of us who saw baseball played at nearly 1:30 in the morning at Wrigley Field were witness to history.