Summering in the aisles at Wrigley

Kirk Wessler

Bill Collier could do the MasterCard commercial.

He is footing one-third of the rent for his daughter's 13th-floor apartment that overlooks Lake Michigan from Chicago's North Shore. His gasoline bill for all the round trips between Peoria and the Windy City could fund free pop for every student at Dunlap High School and a healthy tip to the vendor. And that's to say nothing of food and other incidentals.

All of this to work a job that pays Collier about $35 a day.

'I'll probably make about $2,500 from this,' Collier says, 'and spend four times that much. But it might be once-in-a-lifetime.'

Working as an usher at Wrigley Field, in other words, is priceless.

Collier, 60, retired after 20 years as superintendent of Dunlap schools, got this wild hair talking to — who else? — ushers at sporting events.

'I'm not overly bright,' he says, 'but I can tell people where to sit.'

So Collier applied for a job at Wrigley, home of the Chicago Cubs. He interviewed in January, got a call back and was training in February. That's when he found out the job was about more than matching tickets with seats.

There was a session with Homeland Security. Another covered how to deal with drunks. Ushers need to know how to handle the loudmouth whose vocabulary is overloaded with four-letter words, and how to help younger kids get through the crowd to the prime autograph spots by the field. It helps if they can answer questions about where to find good Thai food after the game, or the best shortcut out of the city.

'One thing that impressed me right off the bat is the way the Cubs organization takes care of its fans,' Collier says. 'One reason they play to 98.8 percent capacity at Wrigley is because the fans enjoy themselves. The Cubs could take their fans for granted, and they don't do that at all.

'As ushers, you come to understand, you may be the only employee a fan talks to. They're spending a bundle of money, and they have an absolute right to enjoy themselves.'

There's no doubt Collier enjoyed this season. Every bit of it. He bicycled the mile from his apartment to Wrigley every day, getting a kick out of parking his bike adjacent to the Cubs players' luxury vehicles.

At the ballpark, he took note of the little things. Hall of Famer Billy Williams, for instance, can pull a ballcap down on his head and pretty much walk around the Friendly Confines unrecognized, Collier says.

He notes that most visiting managers don't spend much pregame time on the field, but St. Louis Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa unfailingly totes a fungo bat and hits groundballs to his players during warmups.

Collier shook his head in July as he watched Cubs pitchers frolic about the field playing Frisbee before the fans showed up.

One time, Collier stole down close to the field to listen in as Cubs manager Lou Piniella told a visiting group of inner-city kids before a game that the most important thing they could do was 'pull your pants up and go about learning how to be a better person.'

But the biggest thrill, he says, was interacting with the fans.

One guy Collier met was a lifelong Cubs fan who brought his wife and half-a-dozen kids. They sat in the high-priced field boxes.

'This was their vacation,' Collier says. 'He was so pleased and proud to have his family and their friends sitting in the top seats at Wrigley Field. The guy said he could take his family for a week to Florida every year, but you can't see the Cubs having a winning season every year.'

After two consecutive sub-.500 campaigns and only eight winning seasons in the past 34. this is not something Cubs fans take for granted. When they beat Philadelphia on Aug. 1, to take over first place in the National League Central Division for the first time this season, 3,000 to 4,000 fans hung around the ballpark, Collier says.

'We kept saying, ‘Folks, let's go!' ' Collier says. 'But it turns out, they were waiting to see the Cubs flag raised to the top in the outfield. They waited half an hour, maybe 40 minutes after the game, just to see that.'

If ever there were a temptation to lose track of his surroundings, Collier needed only to people-watch when the gates opened.

'Once they walk into Wrigley Field, it's like a serenity takes over people,' Collier says.

'The little kids don't really know where they're at, but the 80-year-old guy who's there for the first time ... I see that kind of person almost every day. He's watched the Cubs on TV his entire life, and for the first time ever, his son or grandson takes him to Wrigley Field. You see them climb those stairs (from the concourse underneath the stands) and the outfield ivy come into their view for the first time, and you think some of them could just die and go to heaven, right there.'

Of the Cubs ushering crew, Collier doesn't travel the farthest to work. That honor, he says, goes to an 80-year-old fellow from Alton, who takes the train from St. Louis to Chicago before each homestand and stays with a daughter. And that guy's not the oldest usher. That distinction, Collier says, is held by a 94-year-old man.

'If you want to grow old and just sit around and mope, you can do that,' Collier says. 'But if you want to be 80, and take the El and work a job where you stand for six hours at Wrigley Field, you can do that, too.'

This week, the Cubs are playing their final homestand of the season. And Collier makes his last trip to work there — unless the team reaches the postseason.

'I don't know if I had fun,' Collier says, 'but it was one of the most enjoyable summers ever.'

KIRK WESSLER

is Journal Star executive sports editor/columnist. Write to him at 1 News Plaza, Peoria, IL 61643, call (309) 686-3216 or e-mail kwessler@pjstar.com.