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.

White Sox 6, Cubs 0: Even The Seagulls Are Giving Cubs The Bird

There was a true highlight for longtime Chicago Cubs fans today during their team’s series-ending game with the crosstown rival White Sox. Unfortunately, it occurred during the 7th inning stretch, when 69-year-old Ferguson Jenkins — a Hall of Fame pitcher who starred for the Cubs from 1966 to 1972 and played for the team again 1982-83 — led the crowd in the ritual singing of Take Me Out to the Ballgame. The struggling 2012 version of the Cubs did not have nearly as good a day as Fergie did. The Cubs lost 6-0, squandering the few chances they had to score while the Sox jumped on their opportunities — which included home runs by Gordon Beckham, Adam Dunn and Tyler Flowers, the first two hit back to back starting the 4th inning to break what had been a scoreless tie.

The Cubs’ loss enabled the White Sox to sweep the three-game series at Wrigley (the teams meets again for three games at U.S. Cellular Field, aka Sox Park, June 18-20) and scratch their way back to a .500 record at 21-21. Nothing much to write home about, but mediocrity looks pretty awesome here on the North Side of town.

The Cubs have now lost five in a row, all at home. And after seeming for a few weeks to move in the right direction toward reversing their atrocious 4-12 season start, they have backslid to a record of 15-26, the worst in the National League.

It has gotten so bad that the Cubs can’t even get respect from the local seagulls. These scavengers like to invade the ballpark in search of scraps of leftover food, but they usually wait until the game is over and the players and the crowds have cleared. Not so today, when center field was invaded in the bottom of the 9th inning by a flock of seagulls. No, not the 1980s rock group who sang, “I Ran So Far Away.” A real flock of seagulls…

With the deeply slumping Cubs at the plate, the birds legitimately had little worry that they would be hit with a batted ball. And they were not.

The Cubs have certainly had plenty of bad weeks over the years, and this was one of them. I’m sure Tom Ricketts, seen here mingling with fans today as he has been wont to do since he and his super-wealthy family bought the team prior to the 2010 season, thought it would be cool to run a major league baseball team, and it probably is most of the time. But this was not one of those weeks.

Ricketts, in the blue long-sleeved shirt and khakis, schmoozing with fans behind home plate.

First, the Cubs came home for their short five-game stand, and lost the first game to the Philadelphia Phillies (another game that I attended). The Cubs actually took a 2-1 lead with one out in the 4th on a two-run homer by Alfonso Soriano… then did not get another base runner for the entire remainder of the game: 17 up, 17 down. A good starting performance by Matt Garza kept the game close through seven, but the Phils took a 3-2 lead in the 8th, and then blew the game open against the bullpen with six runs in the 9th for a 9-2 win.

The Cubs then got splashed with the controversy that broke out with publication in the New York Times of a leaked proposal, produced for a “Super PAC” founded by Joe Ricketts, Tom Ricketts’ father, who established the family’s fortune as founder of the Ameritrade investment firm. The proposal involved running inflammatory negative ads against President Obama during this year’s election campaign.

Joe Ricketts quickly disowned the plan and Tom Ricketts said he and his team have nothing to do with politics. But the flap put at serious risk any hopes the ownership had of persuading the city of Chicago to kick in nine figures worth of taxpayers’ dollars to help renovate Wrigley Field, an iconic ballpark that is nearly a century old and badly in need of an overhaul.

This is in part because the city is run by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat and former White House chief of staff to Obama, who was said by the local press to be livid about the reported ad proposal, and in part because the ball team the Rickettses bought happens to be located in a heavily Democratic section of one of the nation’s most heavily Democratic-voting city, which also happens to be Obama’s hometown. Can you say faux pas?

The Cubs then lost again to the Phillies, 8-7, with a four-run 9th inning rally falling one run short, amid reports that star-crossed Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood, off to a terrible start this season, planned to retire after pitching in one last game at Wrigley. That occurred at the opening of the Sox series Friday when Wood came in as a reliever, struck out the only batter he faced, then called it a career.

Kerry Wood on the mound during the Cubs' Opening Day game April 5 against the Washington Nationals. Though Wood pitched decently in relief last season, he struggled immediately this year. Entering that game with one out and one on in the 8th and the Cubs leading 1-0, Wood walked three batters in a row to force in the tying run.

Wood’s last hurrah was one of those moments of pure baseball magic. He walked off to a standing ovation from the crowd, with the White Sox players applauding along with his Cubs teammates. Wood’s little son ran onto the field from the Cubs dugout to embrace him. Wood went into the dugout, then re-emerged to tip his hat to the crowd.

But it also was a bittersweet moment, a reminder of great athletic promise derailed by injuries. Wood came up with the Cubs at age 20 in 1998 and set the baseball world on fire in his fifth start, at Wrigley against the Houston Astros, in which he struck out a record-tying 20 batters while pitching a one-hit shutout — regarded by some experts as the greatest one-game pitching performance in major league baseball’s history. But after going 13-6 with 233 strikeouts in 166 innings, Wood turned up injured during spring training the next year and needed the elbow ligament replacement known as Tommy John surgery.

Wood came back and had a few more good years, especially in 2003, the year the Cubs almost got to the World Series, in which he had a modest record of 14-11 but led the major leagues in strikeouts with 266. But more injuries and more trips to the disabled list  led to a sharp decline. By 2007, he was a full-time reliever. He had some success as a closer for the Cubs in 2008 and for the Cleveland Indians in 2009,  and pitched very well during an end-of-season stint with the New York Yankees in 2010.

He was just okay, though, in his return to the Cubs last year, and he got off to such a poor start this year — 0-2 record, 8.31 earned run average, 11 walks to just six strikeouts in 8 and two-thirds innings — that he uncharacteristically lost his temper, threw his glove and hat into the stands after a brief rough outing on May 8, and cursed at a reporter who brought it up after the game.

And as you already have figured out, the Cubs lost Wood’s last game to the White Sox, 3-2, then lost on Saturday 7-4 (scoring all of their runs on a pair of two-run homers in the bottom of the 9th), and then got blanked Sunday with the win going to Jake Peavy, a former ace for the San Diego Padres who is making a strong comeback after a couple of injury-plagued seasons with the Sox.

The Cubs now go on the road for three games each against Houston and the Pittsburgh Pirates, both sub-.500 NL Central teams who they must be better than if they are going to escape last place this season.

Here are some additional photos from Sunday’s game.

Cubs starter Pat Maholm deals the first pitch to Alejandro De Aza of the White Sox. Maholm, obtained from Pittsburgh during the off-season, had been one of the Cubs' most successful pitchers of late, but three loud homers Sunday contributed to a five-run, nine-hit performance over 6-1/3 innings.

Gordon Beckham, the Sox' second baseman, has struggled at the plate this season, batting .207, and he grounded out to short in his first at-bat.

But leading off the 4th in a scoreless tie, Beckham blasted a long home run just inside the left field foul pole. With another round-tripper he hit on Friday, Beckham now has half of his four homers for the season at Wrigley.

White Sox slugger Adam Dunn then made it back-to-back by connecting with this mighty swing for his 14th homer this season. Dunn is looking so far like a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year. After leaving the Washington Nationals -- where he'd hit 38 homers each in consecutive seasons and batted better than .260 -- and signing a big free-agent contract with the Sox, Dunn had a disastrous 2011 debut in Chicago, hitting .159 with just 11 homers and 42 rbi. Over 42 games this year, Dunn already has topped last year's hr total by three, has 32 rbi and is batting .247.

Wrigley Field's famous hand-operated scoreboard tells a tale sad but all too common for Cubs fans.



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.


Cubs 3, Cardinals 2: Staying Until The Better End

The Chicago Cubs on Monday night were one strike away from tormenting me with their third 2-1 loss in the three games I have attended so far this season at Wrigley Field. Though the Cubs had the potential tying run on 3rd base and the potential winning run in scoring position on 2nd, the situation wasn’t promising.

On the mound for the Cards was closer Jason Motte, a fire-balling right-hander who had saves in all three of his previous opportunities this April. At the plate for the Cubs was backup third baseman Joe Mather, a journeyman (and former Cardinal) who has played nearly seven times more games in the minors than the majors during his 12-year professional career.

After taking the first two pitches for strikes, Mather battled the count to 2-2. And then this happened…

…. and then this happened…

Mather made solid contact and drove the ball up the middle, well out of reach of any of the Cardinals’ infielders. Bryan LaHair and Geovany Soto raced around with the decisive runs that gave the North Siders a 3-2 win.

The victory, the Cubs’ first walk-off win this season, was made sweeter by the fact that it came against the archrival St. Louis Cardinals, the defending World Series champions. It didn’t instantly erase the fact that the Cubs are off to an awful start to the 2012 season, with a record of 5 wins and 12 losses, or that they still are in last place in the National League Central Division, 6 games behind first-place St. Louis (11-6).

Still, for one night, a clutch hit by an unexpected hero gave fans who had endured yet another chilly April game a chance to sing the team’s victory anthem, “Go Cubs Go.”

Apart from Mather’s game-winning hit, the game’s most important at-bat is not something that will jump out of the box score. LaHair, whose .361 average makes him one of the few Chicago hitters who is not struggling in the early going, had the night off as the regular first baseman because he bats left and the Cardinals started tough left-hander Jaime Garcia. Batting as a pinch-hitter with one out and none on in the 9th, LaHair worked out a walk on a 3-2 pitch by Motte.

But the reason LaHair was able to stroll to first base was that he engaged in a classic, 12-pitch battle with Motte, fouling off six consecutive fastballs with the count full before drawing ball four on a 98 mile per hour heater. Although Soto, the Cubs’ starting catcher, is struggling mightily at the plate — batting .128 with one home run and one run batted in over 13 games played — Motte walked him on four pitchers. Pinch hitter Steve Clevenger grounded out to first, but the runners moved into scoring position, another key “little thing” that made a big difference in the outcome.

Until the winning rally, the highlight of the game may have been this…

…. the flags hanging limply on a virtually breeze-less night. Compared to the two previous games I attended, when gales blowing off Lake Michigan turned Wrigley into a walk-in freezer, it was almost comfortable Monday night. Almost.

The Cubs grabbed a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first with a small-ball rally made up of infield hits by Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro, and a sacrifice fly by Alfonso Soriano.

Castro legs out a single in the 1st inning.

Matt Garza, the Cubs’ pitching ace, threw well enough to win, giving up just four hits and three walks in seven innings. But unfortunately, two of the hits — an infield single by Skip Schumaker and a double down the left-field line by Matt Holliday — put runners on second and third with no one out in the 4th.

The Cardinals didn’t exactly bring out the heavy lumber, but a slow groundout to the right side of the infield and a sacrifice fly were enough to cash in the runners and give the Cards a one-run lead that held up almost to the end of the game.


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 Lake Shore View: Brewing Up Another Cold One

I’ve allowed the Cooler on the Lake Shore Chicago vs. D.C. Weather Smackdown to get a little dusty — perhaps it’s pollen — so I’ll take a sec here to get caught up. And to use this as an excuse to reprise the full moon photos of the other night.

The moon itself is a tad blurry in these photos because they were shot from our living room through the thick window glass necessitated by the gale-force winds we get with some regularity here on the 30th floor. But the moonlight bathing Lake Michigan is, I think, something to really behold.

Now you’ve already gotten a blogful of my whining about how frigid the wind chill was at Wrigley Field when I attended the Cubs’ Opening Day game there this past Thursday. So I thought I’d better prepare you for the fact that I have a ticket for another daytimer this Wednesday afternoon, when the Cubs are scheduled to play the Milwaukee Brewers. And the forecast high again is a robust 50 degrees.

At least they aren’t predicting the 30 mile per hour gusts that made Opening Day such a three-hours-in-a-meat-locker experience. At least they aren’t predicting that yet.

Here’s the rundown on about a week’s worth of weather…

On Saturday, March 31, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 50, a low of 39 and no precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 64, a low of 48 and no rain. Point: D.C.

Last Sunday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 57, a low of 42 and .06 of an inch of  precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 64, a low of 47 and .07 of an inch of rain. A close call, but a slight edge for D.C.

On Monday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 62, a low of 47 and no precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 62, a low of 47 and .08 of an inch of rain. Dry weather is the tie-breaker for Chicago.

On Tuesday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 70, a low of 48 and no precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 73, a low of 42 and no rain. Close enough to call it for Chicago under the spring “well above normal” rule.

On Wednesday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 58, a low of 46 and no precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 76, a low of 53 and no rain. Obviously, a point for D.C.

On Thursday, the aforementioned Sheffield Avenue Freeze-Out at Wrigley, Chicago Midway reported a high of 49, a low of 38 and no precipitation.(At least it didn’t rain!) Washington Reagan National reported a high of 63, a low of 47 and no rain. Point D.C.

On Friday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 53, a low of 33 and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 62, a low of 42 and no rain. Point D.C.

And on Saturday, the weather bounced back smartly for the Cubs’ second game of the season (grrrrr…). Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 67, a low of 34 and a trace of  precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 65, a low of 42 and no rain. Point: Chicago.

A slightly better weather week in D.C. builds its overall lead to 135-112.

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…

Guess It Will Be The Beer Barrel Parka For Cubs’ Opening Day After All

So if you read my post last week about the Chicago Cubs’ Opening Day weather prospects and thought that the eight-days-out forecast of 64 degrees was overly optimistic — you’re a genius. With every day that has passed, the prediction has gone down… and down… and down. And now, the National Weather Service predicts a high of 45 degrees for Thursday’s opener; the Weather Channel pegs it a bit more generously as 52 degrees.

But sunny! Sunny is good. The Cubs’ opening game in 2003 was postponed. By snow.

Temperatures in the 40s are actually pretty much the norm for Cubs’ home opener. I trained for this game, my first Opening Day ever at Wrigley Field, by sitting outside in a cold rain for four hours at the Michigan State-Northwestern football game late last November. So 45 degrees and sunny? Ha! Bring it on!

I’ve got to keep this short, so here are some pretty spring pictures taken on the streets of Chicago yesterday. Yes, D.C., we have flowering trees, too.