Cheers!

I recently stopped in at a local dive called Ritz Klub in Michigan City, Indiana. I had heard their burgers were the best thing ever to happen to dead cattle, so I had to see for myself. I had also heard the place was something short of a spectacle for the eyes, and I love a place that’s not too fancy.

Trust me, Ritz Klub is not too fancy.

This wasn’t a hole in the wall; it was a rented-out nook in the far dark corner of a hole in the wall. It smelled like beer and grease with faint wispy reminders of an age when smoking wasn’t merely legal but practically mandatory in such establishments. Smaller than some walk-in closets, the room was shabbily divided into four quadrants: the seating area, the pool table, the jukebox, and the bar.

No two of the 7 or 8 tables in the place were alike. They may very well have been the remnants of 7 or 8 different cafeteria fire sales. My friend and I sat down at the one in front of the two giant tanks of carbon dioxide. We weren’t handed menus. They were printed on a half-sheet of paper (one side) mounted in a clear plastic tabletopper. Burgers. Three varieties of fries. A couple options nobody ever orders. That’s your menu.

The pool table was small. The jukebox was gargantuan. The bar sat about eight, and six of the stools were occupied. Before our arrival, the rest of the less-than-cavernous environs was deserted.

The lighting was extremely dim except for the overpowering glow of a few really nice widescreen TVs mounted around the place. Clearly the primary investments poured into this place over the last decade were for entertainment purposes.

This was a place where you come to watch the game. They’ll even give you the remote to the screen nearest you.

“They” are a brother and sister team who run the place. Sam works behind the bar, serving up colossal steins of beer and half-pound (at least) cheeseburgers on toasted sesame-seed buns. No joke, they serve a 5-WAR burger. The sister comprises the entire wait staff. I assume her name is Margaret . . . because she really looks like a Margaret. She needed a full two minutes to examine my ID under the glow of the lamp in a nearby popcorn machine, even though all I drank was a Pepsi. She’s really cute in a way only Margarets can pull off.

But the raison d’être of this joint is the bar and its assorted viewing options. And that’s really the raison d’être of this post: the phenomenon that took place there during my visit (and, I presume, the one that takes place just about every night).

The men sitting at the bar came to watch the White Sox game. Or they came to commiserate, and the game gave them an excuse to stay for three hours. They sat together and barked at the screen. When Hawk uttered his catchphrases, these six Sox fans recited them in unison (He gone!). When the Orioles started breaking out against Jake Peavy and the Sox bullpen, these guys filled Hawk’s long, frustrated silences with wisecracks and red-blooded advice (Hit ‘em. Open up a can of whoop ass. Whoop ass! Whoop ass!). And during commercials, they’d pass the time with political analysis (I heard that if Obama gets reelected, the Amish are gonna move to Canada).

It was fantastic. It made me think of that question Aisley asked earlier: What does it take to get White Sox fans to the ballpark? The answer seemed so clear. No, not “a designated driver” or “the short bus.” For Sox fans to go to the game, it has to make more sense for them to go instead of hanging out with each other in front of the big screen and cheap beer.

And really, that’s not all that different from the reasoning of Cubs fans. We just tend to hang out at a much more expensive bar.

And let’s be honest, at it’s best, Wrigley was a family-friendly bar. In the ’70s, the cover charge was a quarter. In the ’80s, when I first started attending games as a kid, there wasn’t a single time I didn’t have to (get to?) pass a couple rounds of beer along my row at least every other inning. Ever since, the atmosphere of the place has fluctuated between frat house and upscale(ish) pub.

Wrigley and the Cell have both raised their cover charges inordinately. Cubs fans still flock to the Northside dive in droves, but most Sox fans (and, let’s be honest, a ton of Cubs fans) seem to recognize with greater consistency that the ambience, thrill, and camaraderie can be replicated elsewhere.

But this post isn’t really about attendance. This is a post about us, the fans. We the people, I guess. The teams we watch are the excuses we use to come together as friends, especially if we’re uncomfortable considering each other friends.

Take this blog, for example. Commenters drop by when there are a lot of others joining in the discussion, not necessarily when there’s a game on. The Cubscentric posts are basically a front to excuse discussion about anything. (Side note: the tagline for this site could easily be “A Cubscentric Circle of Hell.”) Cubs news draws more of us out of our holes, but the range of topics covered in this site’s comments is broader and more diverse than my Facebook feed ever is. The Cubs are our excuse for showing up so we don’t ever have to admit that we really just like each other. And please, don’t. I don’t want this to get awkward.

My point, if I even have one, is that it’s nice to have a place to get together and converse without taking ourselves too damn seriously. But, at the risk of taking this too damn seriously, it’s pretty cool to have a place to go where everybody knows your fake name.

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