The Cold Facts About Opening Day At Wrigley

Before the start of Thursday’s season-opening game at Wrigley Field between the hometown Chicago Cubs and the Washington Nationals, I posted a photo of the beautiful little antique ballpark with the note: I don’t often have opportunities to feel like I’m five years old again, but my first Opening Day at Wrigley Field was one of them.

That took on a somewhat different spin a couple of hours later, when a brutal north wind on an already chilly day completed its work of knifing completely through my body. At that point, my inner five-year old started whining, “It’s too cold. I wanna go home.” But my grown-up, baseball-besotted self told my inner child that he’d have to tough it out, because it was a close game with an uncertain outcome, and we were staying to the end even if hell froze over.

I won’t take offense at this point if you conclude that it’s probably a good idea that I never had children.

Yes, it was that cold at the ballpark on a day when the high temperature only flirted with 50 and winds gusted up to 30 miles per hour. And Mr. Weather Junkie, who has spent numerous days outdoors watching games in weather conditions ranging from inclement to bizarre, wore four layers, none of which was a heavy wool sweater. That turned out to be only about three layers short of what was needed for anything resembling a comfort zone.

My predicament was that my seat was near the top of the upper deck. I’m not sure why, but the upper deck at Wrigley has its own climate zone that, when the wind is howling, is straight outta Yukon. I swear, I started hallucinating snow.

So put another 40-something-degree Opening Day at Wrigley in the books. Here are my top takeaways.

1) Strangely enough, I will remember my first Opening Day at Wrigley with great fondness. Now that I’ve recovered feeling in all of my extremities, it really won’t be the three-hours-in-a-meat-locker sensation that I will carry with me to the end of my days.

I really do have a thing about this ballpark. I was still a relatively stranger to Chicago when Barb and I went to my first game at Wrigley, a weekday matinee 30 years ago this June, and it was the first thing I feel in love with in a city where I would later feel so at home. And even though I’ve been there dozens of times since, it’s like a fresh start every time I walk in for the first time in a year and see this:

And I still haven’t gotten over the kick that after years of making pilgrimages to Wrigley from hundreds of miles away, I now live a lazy 15-minute stroll from the old ballpark. The fourth high-rise from the left, partially obscured by the roof of Wrigley Field, is our apartment building.

2) I won’t forget how cold I was, though. Okay, so maybe I got a little cocky. I have tickets to three more games in April: daytimers at Wrigley next Wednesday and at the White Sox’ second scheduled game a week from Saturday, and then my plunge into night baseball — and the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry — on the 23rd. And unless that freakish beach weather we had last month makes a comeback, my thick green Aran sweater is going to be part of my uniform.

During the March heat wave, I noted on this blog that I had an Opening Day ticket, and asked, “While I, like most Chicagoans, am relishing this wholly unexpected stretch of weather bliss, I have this one creeping worry: Am I being set up?”

Yes. I was.

3) This team will self-destruct in five seconds. I really do believe that better days are ahead for the Cubs and the end of the curse — this team hasn’t won a World Series since 1908 or even been to one since 1945 — is almost nigh. The arrival last winter of Theo Epstein from a stint as general manager that saw the Boston Red Sox break their own curse and win the World Series twice has restored hope to fans better known for their brief springtime bouts of hopeless optimism. (The ChicagoSide website has an excellent piece on Theo’s three-year plan to make the Cubs a National League powerhouse.)

Still, for at least the first game of 2012, the Cubs showed they have not lost their well-weathered capacity for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

The Cubs couldn’t gave gotten a better gem of a start than the one they got from veteran right-hander Ryan Dempster. After pitching out of trouble in the first inning and then loading the bases with one out in the third, he retired 15 Washington batters in order. When he left the game after 7-2/3 innings with a 1-0 lead, he had given up just two hits and three walks while striking out 10 Nationals.

But he left with a runner on first base because, with one out in the seventh, first baseman Jeff Baker had let an easily playable grounder by Washington’s Ian Desmond slide past him into right field for what was generously scored a hit.

In came reliever Kerry Wood, who was forced years ago to cut short a potentially brilliant career as a starter because of injuries. Cubs fans greeted him warmly upon his arrival on the mound, but not so much when he left several torturous minutes later after he issued consecutive walks to Nationals star Ryan Zimmerman, cleanup hitter Adam LaRoche (who had struck out in all three of his previous plate appearances), and Jayson Werth (who also had gone 0-for-3 before his eighth inning free pass).

Wood did manage to get former Cub Mark DeRosa to ground into a force play to end the madness, and regular closer Carlos Marmol retired the first two batters in the top of 9th. But then… veteran rightfielder David DeJesus, a career American Leaguer who the Cubs picked up from the Oakland Athletics in the off-season, got schooled that a windy day at Wrigley Field is outfielder Hell. Circling a high drive by Washington pinch hitter Chad Tracy like a light plane struggling to make a landing, DeJesus got as far as Wrigley’s famously unpadded brick wall — and missed the ball, with Tracy trotting into second base for a double. Desmond then sliced a single to right, scoring pinch-runner Brett Carroll with what would be the game winner.

Still, the Cubs had one more chance to blow a chance to win, and they seized it. The Wrigley wind giveth and taketh away, and with one out in the bottom on the ninth and veteran reliever Brad Lidge trying for his first save as a National, Cubs third baseman Ian Stewart hit a drive to right that Werth, Washington’s rightfielder, similarly couldn’t track while Stewart dashed to third with a triple. But with pinch-runner Joe Mather just 90 feet away from tying the game, Baker smacked the first pitch right to Zimmerman at third, and he tossed the ball to catcher Wilson Ramos to nail Mather at the plate. The game was capped when Cubs center fielder Marlon Byrd worked the count full … then took a called strike for the third out.

Oh, well, I’ve got a chance next Wednesday to get back to .500 as fan. The extended forecast is again for a high around 50. Think I’ll practice wearing that Aran sweater again.

You can find my game photos at Nationals 2, Cubs 1: The Opening Day View From The Cheap(er) Seats. My photos of actor Bill Murray’s antics during the pre-game ceremony are at Maybe the Cubs Could Have Used Bill Murray DURING the Game.

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