Steve Green is right in the thick of the Cubs’ playoff run. But he’s not on the roster. Green, a longtime Oak Park resident, is the team photographer, has been for the last 34 years. He’s having fun, and he’s also exhausted.
“It’s a lot of hours,” he said, “but it’s a lot of hours I like.”
Currently, he’s in L.A. shooting the National League Championship Series. He was in San Francisco on Oct. 11 when the Cubs came back in the ninth with four runs to vanquish the Giants. In fact, when Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford made that terrible throw which bounced into the dugout, it bounced off Green’s noggin first.
“That was not fun,” he said. “I’m looking through a long lens, so I didn’t even see it. It just banged me in the head. I got a little concussion. The trainers came out and bandaged me up, got the blood off me. I’ve got a big red lump. But it was the ninth inning, so I wasn’t going anywhere, especially with all that was happening.
“At that point, I was on pure adrenaline. I was just so pumped. From there to the field to gather all the guys together and shoot the team picture, and then to the clubhouse to try to avoid all that champagne and get those pictures, and as soon as I got enough of that, I really let down, and then I was woozy.
“I was lucky it didn’t hit my eye or my jaw. It bounced off the top of my head. My wife, Lisa, said, ‘It still didn’t knock any sense into you.'”
People envy Green his job, and he admits that when he goes out on the field, as he frequently does, he still thinks, “I can’t believe I get to do this.” But people only envy him “until they find out all of what I do,” he said. “In everybody’s mind, it’s June 20th, a night game where it’s 70 degrees at game time and the sun doesn’t set till 8:30 and there’s no humidity and it’s perfect. They forget about April and May when it’s 40 and drizzling.”
This all started back in 1982. Green, with a degree in art history, had been working at the Portland Art Museum. He came to Chicago to study photography at the Art Institute. A longtime Cub fan, he planned to do his thesis on Wrigley Field, “this last daytime, family-owned ballpark.” The Wrigley family thought it was a great idea, so they invited him to spend the season taking photos. But he couldn’t get a scholarship and couldn’t afford the Art Institute, so he applied for, and got, at grant from the Illinois Arts Council.
“The Wrigleys gave me credentials and access to the team for a year,” Green recalled. Then they sold the club to the Tribune Company. “They asked me if I wanted to stay on and become their team photographer.”
He did indeed.
Green is not part of the “press.” He’s part of the Cubs organization. Originally he was a full-time employee of the Creative Services Department. Now he’s an independent contractor and oversees a team of five independent photographers. Fans can see his work on Cubs-centric media such as Vine Line, club websites and social media.
When he started, he was roughly the same age as the players. Now at 64, “I could be their dads, easily, even their granddad. You earn your trust with these guys. I know the protocol. I know more what not to do. It’s relationships. You need to read it right. It helps a lot that (manager Joe) Maddon accepts me. I get along well with him.”
The personality of the team has changed with the changes in personnel, but this team, he said, is unique.
“They’re all for each other,” he said. “There’s a community feeling. They’re really young. They’ve come up together. It’s a team that’s been conceived by Theo Epstein and by Maddon. They have gone out of their way to put together quality individuals. Obviously excellent athletes, but the quality of the people involved is really important to them. They didn’t just go out and get the best athletes. They got the type of athletes and the type of person they wanted.”
Winning helps, he admitted, but this team had a really bad streak before the All-Star break. “And it wasn’t like, ‘Get out of here. Go away.’ But I know when not to be around during that period. There’s a real fine line. I’m part of the organization. I’m not part of the team.”
Green doesn’t cover the team. He documents the season, photographing each home game, along with some road games, the Cubs convention, etc., but also having the freedom to roam, looking for interesting angles and feature shots.
“Wrigley is such a big part of the Cubs, the place,” he said. “A large part of my job is to document the whole scene at the ballpark, the beauty of it, as well as the game. … What I have is the luxury to go anywhere at any time. I’m not confined to media spots. I’m not telling the story of each game. I’m trying to tell the story of the team and of the ballpark. I look for more iconic shots.”
His favorite place to shoot from is the old scoreboard.
“It’s really cool to see the way it all works up there,” he said. “And it’s a unique angle, either to shoot a very wide angle on the ballpark or a sunset or a long lens shot of guys diving in the outfield. I also like shooting from the upper deck, down on the field. For straight-ahead action, [it’s] right next to the dugout at first and third, and then I can shoot into the dugout, too.”
The most photogenic players, he said, are Addison Russell and Javier Baez.
“They are extraordinary athletes. I just love the way Javier Baez plays.” But it’s more than athleticism. “A guy like Kris Bryant has such good form. His results are stunning but he’s not that flashy. His swing is so pure and so easy as opposed to Javy who whacks the ball.”
And it’s more than just action.
“I’ve shot so many double plays and home runs, pitches coming off the pitcher’s fingers, balls off the bat,” he noted. “That’s the entry point for shooting sports. But it’s also a little mind-numbing after a while. Capturing the personality of the team and the players is really why I got into this. That’s really where my heart is.”
He takes a fair number of shots at the beginning and the end of games, but during the middle innings he roams the park, trying to find things the fans would like to see. And he tries to be in the right place at the right time.
“I used to do some work with a wonderful photographer named Walter Yost,” he recalled, “who I learned quite a bit from. He said people talk about lucky pictures, but really you make your own luck. Think of your background. Be aware all the time. I think ahead about where something could happen. And then it usually happens someplace else. But occasionally it clicks. I can look at that shaft of light coming over the dugout and wouldn’t it look awesome if Lester walks out through that shaft of light?”
He also has the freedom to go out onto the field when something happens and getting a different angle, like when someone hits a homer and comes out of the dugout to acknowledge the fans.
As consuming as the job is, he said, it’s only 120 days a year. The rest of the year, he does work for corporations like Gatorade and Nike. He also shoots for Sports Illustrated and has worked World Series, Super Bowls and NBA championships.
“I know that world,” he said. “I just don’t know it from our perspective. So I can’t embrace that yet.”
He describes this team’s attitude as “beyond positive. It’s very confident. Maddon really sets the tone. He’s just magical to observe and be around. And the veterans Theo has brought on, guys like Lester, Hamel, Lackey, with them not winning is not OK. Competing is not OK. Winning is what’s OK. The older guys on that team are all about winning.”
Normally he works mostly at Wrigley, but during the post-season, he goes on the road, too. “I’m with them till I’m not,” he said.
If and when that magic moment Cub fans all fantasize about arrives, however, Steve Green won’t be cheering.
He’ll have his work cut out for him.
“I hope we can talk again in November,” he said. “We can talk about what that was like.”
To see more, visit www.sgreenphoto.com.