Roger Whitman is a man pushing 50, hair receding and gray on the sides, and quite possibly the most infectiously optimistic person you will ever meet. He clutches his broom like a powerful elixir and smiles at anyone willing to make eye contact. His cheeks turn bright red. You've probably seen him around Wrigley Field - he's the guy everyone is trying to buy a beer for. He politely declines all requests as we sit down to take in Sunday's game against the Diamondbacks. The Cubs are trying for their third series sweep of the season.
"It takes a special kind of asshole to bring a broom to the ballpark," Roger tells me. "You see a lot of ridiculous things; grown men wearing gloves, foam fingers, dresses made of bed sheets. The broom is something entirely different. You have to really own it. We're a special breed. Very few can do what we do."
I'm about to realize just how special Roger is.
He gets in on his act early. Anthony Rizzo singles home the first run in the bottom of the 1st and is promptly tagged out trying to advance to second. Roger doesn't seem to notice. He's already leaped out of his seat. His broom, previously fashionied as some sort of trident, has now been converted into a child's horse. He's placed the broom between his legs and pretends to ride it. The surrounding fans get a kick out of this. Roger implores me to join him but I stay put, unsure of how I would have fit into his comedy sketch.
"Sometimes you have to let it ride," he says. "Especially when something good happens right away."
Roger attended his first game sometime in the 1970s, he cannot remember the year. "My mom used to drop me off," he says. "The Cubs will disappoint just like your father, she used to say. But at least they're around six months out of the year."
To this day, Roger has never met his father. He used to show up at the ballpark expecting him to be there. Instead, Roger could not escape from the all too familiar scenes - father and son, hot dogs and soft drinks, gloves and Cubs hats, always enjoying the game. Together. He gravitated towards the men who sat alone. They were fat, loud, and drunk on beer. But they were the ones who were nice to Roger and he wished one of them could be his father.
"I noticed how those guys used to really whoop it up," he says. "They'd say anything to get a reaction out of the crowd. I admired their work, but there was something missing."
In the sixth inning, a young boy approaches Roger sheepishly. He wants to see the trick. Roger is more than happy to oblige. He picks up the broom and starts to twirl it, around his head, body, and then in front of his face. I've never seen a broom move this way before. Everyone stands back a safe distance and watches in amazement. I can see that Roger is in his element. He focuses on the broom as he makes it dance. Then, for his encore, he tosses the broom in the air like an oversized baton. A woman gasps. The child's face lights up. The broom floats whimsically through the air and falls perfectly into Roger's outstretched hand. I join in on the applause.
Roger poses for a picture with the child in what seems to be his first unscripted moment of the afternoon. It's hard to tell which one is the kid in the picture.
"Anytime you can bring a smile to someone's face," Roger says, "You have to do it. Especially for a kid. I've never turned down a request from a kid." He takes great pride in the latter statement.
It hasn't always easy for Roger's particular brand of entertainment. He isn't received well on the road, as evidenced by his trip last June to US Cellular Field. The Cubs had been swept by the White Sox in May and were looking to return the favor. Roger knew he needed to be there with his broom. Tickets were easy to come by, as they always are. He brought the broom and obliviously smiled at all the Sox fans.
The Sox fans in his section became increasingly brave after their team took a 6-0 lead in the 6th inning. Feeling confident, a fan behind Roger yelled to him, "Hey buddy, I know where you can stick that broom!"
"Where?" Roger inquired, honestly believing the man had a nice spot for the broom. He would know better than Roger, who was unfamiliar with the park's intricacies.
"Up your ass! Sideways!"
"You have to expect that sort of stuff on the road," Roger told me matter-of-factly as we approach the bottom of the 8th.
What happened next almost led Roger to contemplate a new path in life. At the conclusion of the Cubs-Sox game, a pack of rabid, shirtless Sox fans surrounded him. He waved his broom around wildly, hoping to fend them off. They didn't relent. The biggest of the bunch and clear leader was able to secure the broom. He broke it in half over his thigh and threw the mangled pieces ten rows back. They laughed and scurried off. Roger dropped to his knees and mourned the loss of his most prized possession. It wasn't the first broken broom and it wouldn't be the last, but it held special significance. Roger and that particular broom had been together for six series sweeps, a personal record.
"I made sure to reinforce the wooden handle after that," Roger explains. "Sponge-material works best, wrapped in duct tape. It's really perfect because it saves me from the rowdier fans and myself. Like when this guy is on the mound."
Roger points to Carlos Marmol, who has walked a man and given up a single trying to close the game. He reluctantly admits to cracking "a few brooms" in the midst of a blown Marmol save opportunity. Before Roger can explain further, Marmol takes a liner off the ribs and runs the ball up to first base. The Cubs have won. Roger holds his broom up to the sky and waves it back and forth as he sings 'Go Cubs Go.' Fans gather around for the opportunity to touch the broom.
Everyone has left. I watch as Roger begins to sweep up some of the garbage left in the stands. He seems to really enjoy this. I haven't seen him so genuinely happy since he posed for the picture with the young boy. Stripped of an audience, I'm finally seeing the real him. "What are you sweeping up for?" I ask.
"Oh this?" he says, somewhat embarrassed. "I just like to help the guys out. They don't pay me or anything."
I sit silently for a moment while Roger continues to sweep. Unsolicited, he continues:
"You know, these guys who clean up, they call themselves a family. They really care about each other and help each other out when they need it. They're always there for each other, you know? It's nice to be a part of that for a while."
I say my goodbyes, just as I feel I'm beginning to understand the man who enhances the game day experience for so many. "Wait," he yells to me and I turn around.
"Some people just don't appreciate what they have. Look," he bends over and grabs the plastic cup he has swept up, shakes it around and shows me the contents inside. "There's still some fries in here."