30 Years Ago At Wrigley, The Day I Fell For Chicago

The famous definition of insanity, credited to Albert Einstein, is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” A cynic might say that’s also the very best definition of a Chicago Cubs fan. Every spring, there is that eternal optimism that this year will be THE year. Except it hasn’t been for an epic 104 years.

But I’d like to offer what may be the second-best definition of baseball insanity: a lifelong baseball fanatic who decided well into middle age to become a devoted Cubs fan. Even though he was more than old enough to know the tragi-comic history that has unfolded on Chicago’s North Side.

Wait, there’s more. Although this fellow long regarded Chicago as his second hometown — because his wife grew up nearby — and has followed the Cubs as a fan since the 1990s, he only moved to the Windy City last July.

Allow me to introduce myself. Because I am that guy.

Ballpark. Cathedral of Baseball. Beloved House of Horrors for Five Generations of Cubs Fans. And the reason I became, defying all reason, a middle-aged fan of baseball's most star-crossed team.

So how did this happen to a reasonably responsible person who committed political journalism in Washington, D.C.,  for 30 years before relocating here?

Part of it almost certainly has to do with the fact that I developed an attachment to the underdog early on, probably when I realized that my devotion to watching sports was way greater than my ability to play them. I became old enough to appreciate baseball growing up in New York in the early 1960s, and could have opted into the dynastic Yankees of Mantle, Ford, Berra and Maris. Instead, I fell madly in love with the New York Mets, the expansion 1962 Mets, with their historically bad 40-120 record.

Yes, I was a Mets fan for a good part of my life. Don’t judge me. And, during my years living in D.C., I rooted for the Baltimore Orioles and the Washington Nationals. So you can see where I’m going with this.

But the bigger part was this: Blame it on Wrigley. Chicago ultimately became my favorite city and a place where I wanted to live out my days. But that old ballpark, with the ivy-covered brick walls and hand-operated scoreboard, tucked tightly into the surrounding residential neighborhood, was the first thing I loved about Chicago.

Today, June 3, 2012, will mark the 30th anniversary of the day that my wife Barb (then my girlfriend) and I attended our first game at Wrigley Field. I had, of course, seen the park many times on TV. Yet when I, at age 26, walked up the ramp and caught my first glimpse of the field and its urban backdrop, I had the same kind of epiphany I’d had at age 5 when my parents took me to my first game ever, between the New York Yankees and Kansas City Athletics at Yankee Stadium in 1961. The old-school charms of Wrigley had me hooked, instantly.

The game itself stuck in my mind because San Diego pitcher Juan Eichelberger, who otherwise had a rather brief and undistinguished MLB career, almost pitched a no-hitter against the Cubs, coming within a bad call by the home-team official scorer from a place in baseball’s history books. A second-inning grounder, which easily could have been called an error on the second baseman, instead was ruled a hit. It turned out to be the only one the Cubs got that day (though they later scored a run on a three-base error and a sacrifice fly).

The Padres won the game, 3-1, and how they won would be called “foreshadowing” in literature. In the top of the 6th, with the teams tied at zero, the Padres loaded the bases with two out. Batter Joe Lefevbre then lofted a long fly ball that slugging center fielder Leon Durham reached near the wall… then dropped, allowing all three runners to score.

Two years later, the Cubs and Padres would meet in the National League Championship Series, then best of five. The Cubs, after winning the first two games and losing the next two, held a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning in the decisive Game 5 when Durham, then playing first base, allowed an easy grounder to go between his legs, allowing the tying run to score and sparking a four-run rally that sent the Padres, not the Cubs, to the 1984 World Series.

Fast forward to July 17, 2011. Barb and I had just moved a couple of weeks earlier to an apartment on Lake Shore Drive in Lakeview, among street names with which I first became familiar years earlier because we used to hunt for parking there when we came in for Cubs games. The game that day was a typically dreary affair, a 7-5 loss to the Florida Marlins, in a season already lost. But I will always remember that day as the first time I got to walk HOME from Wrigley Field. (The Cubs ended up 3-3 with me in the stands last year. Not much, but considering the fact that they were 71-91 overall and 39-42 at home, it practically made me a good luck charm.)

In between were many other memories, including these:

* A game on June 8, 1987, in which the Cubs beat the Mets, 4-2, on a two-run, two-out walk-off 9th inning homer by infielder Manny Trillo, who had a long and effective career but was no one’s idea of a slugger. (I then was still a Mets diehard and would remain so until the early ‘90s, when potential Hall of Famers Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden dissipated their careers through hard living while the team dumped spark plugs like Wally Backman and Len Dykstra and replaced them with clubhouse head-cases like Bobby Bonilla, Vince Coleman and Bret Saberhagen.)

* The Aug. 13, 1993 game, a 4-1 win for San Francisco, in which I sat right behind home plate in seats I’d gotten from a friend of a friend and watched Giants’ star Will Clark slam a foul ball off his knee so hard that he was sidelined for a week.

* The Cubs’ surprise 12-0 skunking of the World Series-bound Atlanta Braves on Aug. 30, 1996, which I attended after covering the 1996 Democratic National Convention at the United Center.

* Sammy Sosa, fresh off his record-setting “home run derby” with the Cardinals’ Mark McGwire in 1998 and still a hometown hero, belting an eighth-inning homer off St. Louis reliever Heathcliff Slocumb to help the Cubs score a 6-3 victory on May 28, 1999. That was, to my recollection, the only time I saw the Cubs play the arch-rival Cards live at Wrigley until I caught an early-season game this year that produced one of the team’s extremely rare come-from-behind 9th inning victories.

* An early-season game on April 11, 2005 — before the Cubs jacked up the ticket prices — when a friend and I walked up prior to the game and got reasonably priced seats three rows behind home plate. I remarked during the game, which the Cubs lost, 1-0, that it was the first time I’d ever felt compelled to say “Down in front” to the batter standing in the on-deck circle.

* And a mild summer day on Aug. 22, 2010, when I had time on my hands, bought a nose-bleed seat in the upper reserved… and ended up watching Lou Piniella’s last game as Cubs manager.

That game, a 16-5 Braves clubbing of the Cubbies, was one of several I’ve attended — including a couple already this year — that challenged the motto I’ve had about Wrigley Field for many years: It is the only stadium I’ve been to where I can watch a really bad game and still feel like it was one of the best days I had that year.

To steal a line from late blues singer Albert King, this Cubs season was born under a bad sign. The Opening Day loss to the Washington Nationals was the first of five Cubs games I've seen this year. They have lost four of them.

The crosstown rival Chicago White Sox celebrate a 6-0 win on May 20 that completed a three-game sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

It very quickly became apparent that this was going to be another one of those years for the Cubs. Their 2-1 loss to the Washington Nationals on windy, cold April 5 — my first Opening Day game at Wrigley Field — sent the home team off to a 4-12 start. For a couple of weeks, they appeared to turn it around, playing better than .500 baseball. And then… the deluge, a gruesome 12-game losing streak that included a three-game sweep at home by the rival Chicago White Sox.

Yet Cubs fans are holding out an unusual amount of hope for the future. The team’s new president, Theo Epstein, has two World Series championship rings from his recent stint as general manager of another team that long lived under a baseball curse, the Boston Red Sox. If Theo manages to build a winner at 1060 West Addison Street, he will deservedly be hailed as one of Chicago all-time sports legends.

But I’m prepared to grab some of the credit too. After all, the Cubs never went to the World Series when I didn’t live here.

Chicago Summer in the City: Lake Michigan’s Stormy Beauty

There is nothing I find more relaxing that the sound of a gentle surf hitting the shore. Though I lived fairly near the Atlantic Ocean growing up in a northern suburb of New York City and then in my adult life in Washington, D.C., it wasn’t close enough to make a habit of visiting, and the long drives to get there were anything but relaxing. So stumbling into an apartment when we moved to Chicago last year that is just yards from Lake Michigan was truly fortunate, and I take every opportunity I can to sit on a pier or nearby beach to take it all in.

But there is the other side to this Great Lake, the one we are experiencing today, a much-needed rainy day in what has been a very dry spring in Chicago. Peaceful, it isn’t, but it is pretty amazing to watch.

As you can see, when the waves hit the serrated breakwall with sufficient force, it creates natural geysers that put Grant Park’s Buckingham Fountain (beautiful though it is) to shame.

The fact that these natural wonders are occurring within the shadows of the downtown skyscrapers is the ultimate hat tip to the founders and planners of this city, who had the foresight to preserve virtually the entire lakefront as open public space.

More photos below. The rain today was ushered in by a cold front. You never know with Chicago weather, but even so, the dropoff from record high temperatures of 97 on Sunday and 94 on Monday to 50 three days later is a bit extreme. Yet even though June is coming in like one of these cats at the Lincoln Park Zoo…

… it’s supposed to be back up well into the 80s next week.

And it’s not like we don’t need the rain, as this cracked earth in Lincoln Park near Belmont Harbor this morning underscores.

The preciptation for the year so far is 8.8 inches, or 5.5 inches below average. Through yesterday (May 30), rainfall for the month was just more than 2 inches or about half the normal rate. So bring it on. Better on Thursday than Saturday!

More lake photos as promised…

The same indentations that cause the crashing waves to turn into geysers also create a cool waterfall effect when the waters recede.

Chicago Summer In The City: Come On, Let Your Colors Burst

No matter how booster-ish you are about your hometown, there is one thing about Chicago that brooks no argument. This city knows how to do summer. Take for instance, Saturday night’s fireworks display over Navy Pier — seen in the photos below — that marked the Memorial Day weekend and the unofficial start to summer. Now this would have been fun enough if it had been a one-off. But instead, every Saturday and Wednesday night between now and Labor Day (weather permitting), we will be able to look out the window of our apartment five miles away and see… this.

We happened to arrive in Chicago on a Wednesday when we moved here last year, totally oblivious to the Navy Pier’s schedule. Since almost all of our belongings were on a van taking the scenic route around the Northeast, we were sitting in the only furniture in the living room — a pair of those canvas folding chairs that you take to picnics and outdoor concerts — when suddenly… fireworks!

It reminded me of the final scene in Barry Levinson’s movie “Avalon,” about a first-generation Jewish family in Baltimore, which ends with a flashback of the now-elderly patriach arriving on a boat on July 4, 1914, and disembarking under a mantle of fireworks. Even under the far less dramatic circumstances of our move to Chicago, it was quite a welcome!

The way in which Chicago comes to life when the weather warms was one of the first things that struck me during one of my early family visits with Barb, as this city started to exert would became a magnetic pull.

We arrived in town, appropriately enough, on Memorial Day, and it had been one of those years in which winter’s chill had only reluctantly released its grip more than halfway through spring. We meandered down Lake Shore Drive and got off at Fullerton, smack in the middle of Lincoln Park, and sat for a while in a traffic jam made up mainly of people headed to the zoo and the nearby beaches. And we noticed that there were people everywhere. Walking, running, rollerblading, biking, with many of them wearing as little clothing as they could get away with.

Now the Drive and the park are practically in my “front yard” and I am alternately writing this and staring out the window at the lake, liberally dotted with sailboats and motorboats and jet-skis. I’ve got issues, like everyone else, but I’d really have to try in order to be unhappy here.

So I’ve decided to add a feature to the blog that I’m calling Chicago’s Summer in the City. Yes, borrowed from the song released in 1966 by the Lovin’ Spoonful. I’m sure I could have strained to come up with something more original than that, but seriously, when you’re writing about summer in the city, why bother?

Along with the fireworks, the last signs of spring verging on summer have fallen into place. Our rooftop pool is open for the season, as are the Chicago Trapeze School, located at the south end of Belmont Harbor near our apartment, and Fullerton Street Beach, a pop-up place that serves wood-smoked barbecue at a spot yards from the lake. And this city known for its street festivals held its first one this weekend. Next weekend, I’ll be attending Sausage Fest (yes, I know this is a double entendre) outside Wrigley Field, because the food sounds great, of course, but also because it is a fundraiser to fight prostate cancer, something with which I’ve had an unfortunate acquaintance.

My wife Barb has been incredibly busy with family matters since we moved, so we’re determined to make this the Summer of Barb (and to make it more successful that the Summer of George on the old Seinfeld show). So the fireworks show last night was the nightcap of our Summer of Barb kickoff.

First, I made breakfast: scrambled eggs with light havarti cheese, sauteed ham and red peppers. I popped over to the recently opened Saturday farmers’ market a few blocks away at the Nettlehorst School, where I picked up some local lettuce, asparagus, strawberries, cherries, peaches, green onions, cheese (including some Cajun-flavored cheese curds – yes, we live close to Wisconsin) and a bag of dandy pretzel rolls. Everything is delicious, though getting peaches and cherries this early kind of raises my worries about the whole global warming thing.

Then Barb and I took the short bus ride to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Unlike today, with temperatures in the mid-90s, yesterday was actually a bit on the cool side. Nonetheless, we made a mental note to come earlier in the day next time, because most of the animals were pretty lazy. I love watching the big cats. But the tiger, while a magnificent and potentially terrifying beast, is a cat, after all, and here’s a photo of one taking a midday snooze.

The lion was awake, but not exactly active either.

One exception was the jaguar, spending the afternoon indoors and gnawing on a bone with great determination to extract every last bit of meat.

The ducks, at least, were alert, but they don’t seem to care much what the weather is like.

After the zoo, we made a short visit to the nearby Notebaert Nature Center, then home, where I fixed a dinner of barbecue-sauced tri-tip roast beef with roasted asparagus and a salad made up mostly of stuff I’d gotten at the farmers’ market (including a cranberry cheddar that’s already on next week’s shopping list). My (successful) cocktail experiment for the evening was a Hemingway daiquiri with Death’s Door white whiskey from Wisconsin subbing for the white rum. Then bloody marys and fireworks.

Not a bad first day of summer. More adventures to come. I hope you’ll come back and join me.

Spring in Chicago: A Long, Long Walk For Asparagus

After the chilly weather of April that stretched into the early part of May, it looks like spring has finally arrived for real. Chicago had an official high temperature of 90 today, a first this year, though — as the name of this blog reminds — it was cooler by the lake shore.

Signs of spring are all over. The air conditioning, thank goodness, has been turned on in our apartment building. The rooftop pool likely is a week away from opening, but the deck is open. Here what Wrigley Field looked like this afternoon, through the haze and the scratchy plexiglass that is there to prevent the kind of bad things that can happen when you’re hanging out on a roof 400 feet off the ground.

There is lots of baseball (this photo taken Wednesday night at the game between the Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies), most of it bad, but that unfortunately is also a sure sign of spring in Chicago.

The boats are back in on the lake…

… and so are the birds.

And now, the farmers’ markets around the city are opening up. Possibly the best known is the Green City market, located at the south end of Lincoln Park (the actual park, not the neighborhood), and since I never got there after we moved last summer, I wanted to make a point of getting there early to check it out this year.

I also have a few pounds accumulated from the winter and the sedentaries associated with a big writing project I am just wrapping up, and since I’d already taken some pretty good strolls, I figured I’d walk down there and earn the barbecue brisket dinner I’d put on the menu for tonight.

I did, because it’s kind of a long walk. Two and a half miles, according to my best GoogleMaps estimate.

I can see this market is going to be a very big deal as the growing season progresses. For right now, it’s still mid-May in the Upper Midwest, and produce was a bit scarce.

I don’t regret the trek because I need the exercise, it was a beautiful day and there was little reason for concern that the NATO protestors would make a priority of Occupying Lincoln Park. Still, under normal circumstances, that would be a pretty long walk for a couple of pounds of asparagus, a bag of spring mix lettuce and a couple of containers of admittedly delicious feta cheese from (guess where) Wisconsin.

They did have stands selling fresh local meats and fish, though I decided that I needed cold packs for that given the temperature pushing 90. I will remember that for the future, because truthfully, when you’re walking that far on a hot day, cold packs are not a bad thing to have.

I will be back, for sure. But on the bus ride home (no, I didn’t do the five-mile round trip on foot), I passed what looked like a thriving farmers’ market in a schoolyard just a few blocks from where we live. For the next few weeks, at least until there’s a bigger choice of produce to be had, I think I’ll stick to the market closer to home.

By the way, the brisket, seared on the stovetop, then slow roasted in the oven with a late slathering of barbecue sauce, was delicious. I served it with a home-concocted version of elote, a corn dish that is a Mexican street food and which I first sampled at the White Sox ballpark when we attended the game last Tuesday. Nothing fancy about it: corn (on or off the cob) seasoned with salt, pepper, butter, a little mayonnaise, lime juice, and if you like (and I do) a sprinkling of chili powder. Comfort food to the max, and totally addictive.

I’ve gotten way behind on the Cooler on the Lakeshore Chicago vs. D.C. Weather Smackdown, so I guess this is as good a place as any to catch up. According to Weather Underground…

On Wednesday, May 9: Chicago Midway reported a high of 60, a low of 46, and a trace of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 75, a low of 59 and .58 of an inch of rain. That’s a lot of rain. Point Chicago.

Thursday, May 10, Chicago Midway reported a high of 65, a low of 45, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 70, a low of 56 and no rain. Virtual tie, but edge to D.C.

Friday, May 11, Chicago Midway reported a high of 78, a low of 48, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 73, a low of 52 and no rain. Point Chicago.

Saturday, May 12 Chicago Midway reported a high of 67, a low of 51, and .25 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 78, a low of 52 and no rain. Point D.C.

Last Sunday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 69, a low of 53, and and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 80, a low of 62 and no rain. Beautiful day in Chicago, but to be fair, point D.C.

Monday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 78, a low of 46, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 73, a low of 62 and .24 of an inch of rain. Point Chicago.

Tuesday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 84, a low of 56, and a trace of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 79, a low of 67 and 1.22 inches of rain. Easy one for Chicago.

Wednesday: Chicago Midway reported a high of 63, a low of 52, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 83, a low of 62 and no rain. Point D.C.

Thursday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 71, a low of 49, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 77, a low of 61 and no rain. Edge D.C.

Friday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 85, a low of 57, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 76, a low of 55 and no rain. We’ll give this one to Chicago.

That brings the overall score to 158-130 in favor of D.C.

 

Storm Photos: Gotta Work On Those Lightning-Fast Reflexes

Our weather here in Chicago has been pretty crummy lately, with most of the past few days interrupted by rain, including some pretty hefty thunderstorms. On the other hand, this has given me an opportunity to feed my latest obsession, which is trying to catch lightning, if not in a bottle, then at least with my camera.

I have managed, though patience and a bigger portion of dumb luck, to capture a few lightning bolts in still photos. But this dandy Sony NEX-3 camera I have also takes HD-quality video, so I decided during last night’s storms to see what I could catch with that. The results are pretty interesting.

The following are stills captured from the videos I took. Most of the lightning while I was at this was cloud to cloud…

… but I did manage to capture this bolt from the black…

The problem with capturing lightning is, of course, that it comes and is gone in a flash. In this sequence, the sky is dark…

…. then is totally ablaze with white light five one-hundredth of a second later…

…. but this faux-daylight is gone in one-hundredth of a second, replaced again in very short order with complete darkness.

I plan to keep working on this. This being Chicago weather, I am sure that I will have ample opportunities.

Chicago ♥ Craft Brews: A Day At The Beer Fest

I’m a little tardy at posting by thoughts about Chicago Beer Fest. Okay, two weeks late. But when it comes to craft-brewed beer, it’s always better late than never.

It’s not surprising that there was a block-long line of craft brew lovers waiting for the doors to open for the three-hour afternoon session of the Chicago Beer Fest, held in the main hall of Union Station on Saturday, March 31.

The city’s long but once sepia-toned history of beer making has been revitalized in recent years, by the rise of the pioneering Goose Island “microbrewery,” and more recently by the rapidly growing field of competition that includes Revolution, Half-Acre, Finch’s and Metropolitan, to name just a few.

And taps around town have been taken over by craft brews from around the Chicago metropolitan area and across the country. These beers offers a palette of styles and flavors (and alcohol clout) as an alternative to the same-old, same-old of the mass-brewed American lagers.

The participants at Chicago Beer Fest, which concluded with a separate three-hour session that night, were a mix of local producers and national breweries such as Lagunitas of Petaluma, Calif., and New Belgium (maker of the popular “Fat Tire” brand) of Fort Collins, Colo.

I decided to focus almost entirely on beers brewed in Chicago or elsewhere nearby in the Midwest. One exception I made was for Lagunitas, because I like their beers a lot, and because I spotted that their regional brand ambassador, whom I’d met at some previous events, was pouring. My decision to include Lagunitas along with my lineup of local micros turned out to be unexpectedly prescient: Just this past week, news broke that the company is planning to build a new production in Chicago, which will be the city’s biggest current brewery upon completion.

Rule #1 of any “open bar” tasting event is to pace yourself. Still, I managed to squeeze 10 pours into the cute little 5 oz. plastic mug that each attendee was handed upon entry, which is the equivalent of three pint glasses, or four 12 oz. bottles or cans. So, you’ve got to be careful out there.

There’s Good, and Then There’s OMG! With so many well-established successes in the craft beer world, it seems to be getting harder and harder from anyone to make a really bad beer. So one of the best things about these sampling events is that the great beers stand out from the merely good.

I had sampled a couple of modest beers when I decided to take a quaff of the Dragon’s Milk Stout from New Holland, which is producing a fine line of beer and distilled spirits in Holland, Mich. This was a bit of a cheat, because I’d had Dragon’s Milk before at my favorite local tavern, and I’ve long been a fan of bourbon-barrel aging and the unique flavors that the wood imparts to beer.

But it was the comparison to what I’d already tasted at the beer fest (and most of what I tasted after) that made the Dragon’s Milk pop as my best in show. Rich, complex, with a great mouth-feel, New Holland’s description of this beer as its “crown jewel” is justified. A great sipping beer, which is a good thing, because at 10 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), it packs about twice the punch of the yellow beers most people drink by the gallon.

This undoubtedly gives away my preference for strong, dark beer, but my runner-up favorites were the Satin Solstice by Central Waters of Amherst, Wis., a beautiful, pitch-black Imperial stout (7.5% ABV) with a chocolate malt flavor profile, and the 5 Vulture Oaxacan-Style dark ale by the new (established 2011) and relatively tiny 5 Rabbit brewery of Chicago, a nicely balanced and subtly spicy beer with a copper-ruby color.

Uno Nuevo Cerveceria. Because the market is getting more and more crowded with microbreweries experimenting with different blends of hops, grains, spices, botanicals, fruit and other ingredients, it is becoming more of a challenge for them to claim their own niches. That is not the case for 5 Rabbit, whose claim as the nation’s first Latin American craft brewery has not been disputed.

In a phone interview a few days after the beer fest, Issac Showaki — a native of Mexico who co-founded the brewery with Andres Araya, a native of Costa Rica — explained there is no single Latin-style of brewing, but they are adapting ingredients common to regional cultures to their beer recipes. For example, the 5 Vulture ale I tried includes ingredients typical to the Mexican region of Oaxaca, such as dark-brown piloncillo sugar (which is used to soften the bitterness of the chocolate used in mole sauce) and a hint of ancho chile.

Showaki said that as 5 Rabbit seeks to establish itself and grow, its first target will be craft beer geeks looking for something new and different, but he says he and his partners see a long-term opportunity in cultivating the nation’s rapidly expanding Hispanic demographic, “because there is no craft beer for Hispanics.”

Was It Worth It? The event cost $40, so if you calculated the cost per amount consumed, it would have come to about $13 a pint (a very expensive glass of beer). But I got to sample 10 different beers; got some face time with brewers and their reps; and unexpectedly ran into a friend.

Of course, I could have brought down my per-unit cost by drinking a lot more. But that would have been wrong.

 

The Cubbies Stay Cold: Another Game, Another 2-1 Loss

I went to my second Chicago Cubs game of the season on Wednesday afternoon, though apart from the lack of season-opening ceremonies, it was a bit too close to a re-run. The Cubs lost to the Milwaukee Brewers, 2-1, which was the same score by which they lost to the Washington Nationals on Opening Day last Thursday. Veteran pitcher Ryan Dempster again gave the North Siders an excellent start, and again was betrayed by a near-total absence of offensive support.

And yes, it was cold again, cold enough to make that stretch of 85-degree beach weather we had in the middle of March look more and more like a cruel joke. Wrigley Field did sparkle under a perfectly cloudless sky, and I did dress more appropriately this time, with my big green Aran wool sweater and my winter jacket. This did not prevent my knees from locking when I stood up to leave at the end of the game.

While Theo Epstein, the new club president imported from the Boston Red Sox, and his hand-picked lieutenants did a good job pre-season of dampening expectations that this would be anything but a rebuilding year, the 1-5 start (at all home) that the Cubs have experienced is pretty close to their fans’ worst-case scenario. A big part of the reason is that striking out is the only thing  most Cubs batters are doing really well as the Opening Week concludes.

It’s true that the Cubs on Wednesday faced a trio of pretty good pitchers in starter Yovanny Gallardo and relievers Francisco Rodriguez (known as “K-Rod” for his proficiency at striking batters out during his heyday a few years back in Anaheim with the Angels) and John Axford. Still, 12 strikeouts in a game is a lot — especially when they included nine of the last 10 outs recorded by the Brewers. The last out in the 8th inning and the game-ending final out in the 9th came via strikeouts, and both occurred with the potential tying run on second base, just a bloop single away.

The Cubs have now struck out 53 times in just six games while batting just .221 as a team, with a total of three home runs and 19 runs scored. The Brewers aren’t exactly tearing the cover off the ball, batting .237 as a team, and they came this close to matching the Cubs on Wednesday by striking out 11 times, giving them 54 empty at-bats of their own in six games. But they have scored 30 runs, a total boosted by their 10 home runs — including a two-run blast with one out in the top of the 7th that provided Milwaukee with all the runs they needed (and all they got).

Dempster had one of those days in which the announcers say he only made one bad pitch. But the Cubs, in the still very-early part of the season, are a team whose pitchers can’t afford any mistakes, and the one Dempster made collided with the bat of Milwaukee backup catcher George Kottaras, and landed several seconds later like a missile in the upper rows of the rightfield bleachers.

Yet it wasn’t all bad news for the Cubs. On Opening Day last week, veteran reliever Kerry Wood came on in the 8th inning and proceeding to walk three batters in a row, forcing in the tying run, and pitched badly again in Game 2, picking up the loss. But today, Wood came in to pitch in the 8th inning, and blew away the three batters he faced on strikeouts. And closer Carlos Marmol, who own shaky start contributed as much as Wood’s to the Cubs’ 0-2 start, also looked sharp pitching the 9th.

The Cubs will try to prevent a four-game sweep by the Brewers, a National League Central Division rival, when they play another daytime contest on Thursday.

The following are photos I took from my excellent borrowed seat in the upper box right behind home plate (thank you, Virginia Mann!). When I reviewed the dozens of pix, I realized, without any surprise, that many of them showed batters swinging and missing.

It was a beautiful -- though chilly -- day for baseball at old Wrigley Field.

Novelist/lawyer John Grisham, who threw up the ceremonial first pitch (and later joined Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks in leading the crowd in "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" during the 7th inning stretch.

Dempster fires the first pitch to Brewers' leadoff man Norichika Aoki

Nyjer Morgan lays down a sacrifice bunt for the Brewers in the 1st.

Dempster firing the pitch that induced Aramis Ramirez -- a longtime Cubs hitting star who signed during the recent off-season with Milwaukee -- to hit into a rally-killing double play in the 1st.

Dempster getting called for a balk that put runners on 2nd and 3rd with one out in the 2nd. But he pitched his way out of the jam by retiring the next two batters, and retired the side in order over the ensuing three innings.

The Cubs' Bryan LaHair swings late for strike three during a 4th inning at bat.

Geovany Soto had a rough day for the Cubs, going 0-for-4 with a double-play grounder and two strikeouts.

Ramirez, whose line was virtually identical to Soto's, flails at a pitch in the 6th inning.

Pretty much the whole ball game here. Kottaras rounds the bases behind teammate Mat Gamel after hitting the decisive two-run homer in the 7th.

Wood fires one to Brewer Rickie Weeks in the 8th.

Rodriguez exhibits his extreme pitching motion en route to striking out Darwin Barney of the Cubs in the 8th.

Deja vu, all over again.

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.

Nationals 2, Cubs 1: The Opening Day View From The Cheap(er) Seats

I’ll be writing up my reflections on my first Opening Day game ever at Wrigley Field, but I figure some folks might be more anxious to see some photos from the game. My nine-game plan is in the upper reserved seats, so these look a bit long-distance even with my telephoto. But the nice thing about digital photography is that these enlarge nicely, with practically no loss of definition.

If there are any you particularly like, please let me know.

The teams during the pre-game introductions, with the Cubs along the third base line and the visiting Washington Nationals along the first base line.

Wayne Messmer, well-known in Chicago for his powerful renditions of the National Anthem, performs at Cubs' Opening Day. To his right, behind the camo-wearing serviceman, is Dale Sveum, the Cubs' new manager. To his left, in the blue jacket, is Nationals manager Dave Johnson.

Ryan Dempster, the Cubs' starting pitcher, in the 1st inning. Dempster pitched a gem, giving up just two hits and striking out 10 in 7-2/3 innings. But the Cubs' bullpen failed to protect the 1-0 lead he handed off to them.

Nationals star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman batting in the 1st inning. Zimmerman walked twice and had a couple of long fly-outs on a day when a gale was blowing in from the north.

Dempster fires a 1st inning pitch to Adam LaRoche, the Nationals' first baseman and cleanup hitter. LaRoche, who struck out in his first three at-bats, and right fielder Jayson Werth, batting fifth, stranded two runners in the 1st and left the bases loaded in the 3rd, but each drew a key walk that helped the Nats tie the game in the 8th.

 

 

Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg pitches to Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro in the first inning. Strasburg, a highly touted pitching prospect, made an astounding debut for Washington in 2010 but suffered an arm injury that required "Tommy John" surgery. But he pitched very well when he returned toward the end of last season, and his line today had to reassure Nationals fans: 7 innnings, 1 run, five hits, five strikeouts, 1 walk.

Werth takes an awkward cut in a 3rd inning at-bat.

Focusing in on Strasburg.

Starlin Castro, who had a strong season last year, is regarded as a rising star at shortstop for the Cubs.

Once a star starter, Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood had to move to the bullpen years ago following a series of injuries. He mainly pitched well for the Cubs last year, but his 2012 debut was a mess. Brought in which two outs and a runner on first in the top of the 8th and tasked to protect a 1-0 lead, Wood walked the first three batters he faced to force in the tying run.

Carlos Marmol, the Cubs' closer, entered in the 9th inning to try to keep the game tied at 1. He retired the first two batters, but a wind-blown double by back-up first baseman Chad Tracy and a single by shortstop Ian Desmond plated the go-ahead run.

 

The Nationals took a chance this past off-season by signing Brad Lidge, once one of baseball's top closers but hindered by injuries during his last years with the rival Philadelphia Phillies. Lidge got the save in his Nationals' debut, surrendering a wind-blown triple with one out in the Cubs' 9th but pitching his way out of the game.

Wrigley's famous old-school hand-operated scoreboard tells the tale.

The sad truth, electronic version.

 

Maybe The Cubs Could Have Used Bill Murray DURING The Game

I’m a big fan of Bill Murray — I can practically recite the dialogue to his movie “Groundhog Day” — so one of the biggest treats of attending the Chicago Cubs’ Opening Day was seeing the actor-comedian throw out the ceremonial first pitch and hearing him lead the crowd in singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the 7th inning stretch.

Wrigley Field has actually been a frequent destination for Murray, a native of the Chicago suburb of Wilmette and a diehard Cubs fan. And Murray made the most of his moment in a Cubs jersey, running the full 360 feet around the bases and sliding into home before throwing the first pitch to Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood.

(Unfortunately, his pitch was more accurate than many thrown later in the game by Wood, who came in with two outs and a runner on first in the top of the eighth inning and the Cubs trying to hang on to a 1-0 lead, and walked three Washington Nationals in a row to force in the tying run. The Nats then scored a run with two outs in the top of the 9th off Cubs closer Carlos Marmol and held on to win, 2-1.)

The following of photos I took of Bill Murray from my perch in the nosebleeds…