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: 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.

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.

The Lake Shore View: On Little Cat Feet

I’ve gotten way behind on the Cooler on the Lakeshore Chicago vs. D.C. Weather Smackdown. But catching up gives me an excuse to repost this photo I took Tuesday night of fog creeping in off Lake Michigan.

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
– Carl Sandburg

After a much-too-chilly April, the temperature today finally crept back into the 80s. One more very warm day tomorrow, then a gradual decline into the 60s. But it looks like we may at last be escaping that meat-locker weather that made my first visits to Wrigley Field this year such an endurance test.

Here’s the Smackdown. Hopefully some prettier days to photograph soon, which will encourage me to keep up better. According to Weather Underground…

On Sunday, April 22, Chicago Midway reported a high of 51, a low of 42, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 57, a low of 46 and 1.27 inches of rain. That’s a lot of rain! Point Chicago.

Monday, April 23: Chicago Midway reported a high of 58, a low of 36, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 50, a low of 42 and .10 of an inch of rain. Point Chicago.

Tuesday, April 24: Chicago Midway reported a high of 64, a low of 38, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 64, a low of 42 and no rain. Point Chicago, for good behavior.

Wednesday, April 25: Chicago Midway reported a high of 62, a low of 50, and .05 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 71, a low of 44 and no rain. Point D.C.

Last Thursday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 55, a low of 39, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 65, a low of 56 and .03 of an inch of rain. Point D.C.

Friday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 52, a low of 39, and a trace of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 64, a low of 48 and no rain. Point D.C.

Saturday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 50, a low of 44, and .20 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 56, a low of 45 and .12 of an inch of rain. Pretty crummy both places, but a little worse in Chicago.

Sunday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 58, a low of 44, and and .11 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 71, a low of 46 and .03 of an inch of rain. Point D.C.

Monday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 63, a low of 51, and .39 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 67, a low of 50 and no rain. Point D.C..

Tuesday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 64, a low of 52, and .32 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 84, a low of 60 and .15 of an inch of rain. Point D.C.

So a nice start for Chicago went south in a hurry. D.C. leads overall 150-121.

White Sox Baseball: A Day In ‘The Cell’ Was No Ordeal

No one who has been reading this blog will be surprised when I say that I’ll be spending a lot more of my baseball time and money at Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, than at U.S. Cellular Field, home of the city’s other major league team, the White Sox.

I have loved going to games at Wrigley, a quaint baseball antique, since I attended my first game there nearly 30 years ago, so much that somewhere along the way I started rooting for the Cubs. The Cell, as the successor stadium to the Sox’ old Comiskey Park is known, opened in 1991 and seriously lacks the charm that makes the nearly century-old North Side ballpark a major tourist attraction.

Then there is the convenience factor. It is sheer coincidence that we ended up moving so close to Wrigley Field, but I can take a leisurely 15-minute stroll there and go to a baseball game. Or I can walk one block short of Wrigley, get on the Red Line train at the Addison stop, and take a 10-mile schlep through downtown to Sox Park (a tag favored by many over the tongue-tying name that resulted after the U.S. Cellular phone company bought the naming rights years ago).

If I hadn’t arrived in Chicago pre-packaged as a Cubs fan, the easy access to Wrigley Field probably would have been the tipping point.

But now I’m going to say something that some might find shocking. I do not hate the White Sox, although I may be required by statute to do so if I want to call myself a Cubs fan for the rest of my life.

And I had a nice time at this year’s first U.S. Cellular experience, Saturday’s game in which the White Sox defeated the Detroit Tigers, 5-1 (though admittedly this was enhanced by the fact that it was a field trip organized by the Michigan State University Alumni Club of Metro Chicago and I was surrounded by fellow Spartans, most of whom grew up in or near Detroit and were rooting for the visiting team).

U.S. Cellular Field was the last conventional, big-old-ballpark built before Camden Yards, the Baltimore Orioles’ stadium that opened in 1992, became the template for the more compact and idiosyncratic “retro” stadiums based on old-timey places such as Wrigley and Boston’s Fenway Park. Located at 35th and Shields streets on the South Side, it looms large over the adjacent Dan Ryan Expressway.

There is a big banner on the side of the stadium that salutes the World Series championship that the White Sox won in 2005. Granted it was the team’s first crown since 1917, and the crosstown rival Cubs are still nursing a historic streak of no championships since 1908 (and not even a trip to the World Series since 1945). But there are some folks who believe the Sox and their fans remain a little too fixated on an event that occurred seven years ago now: Ben Strauss of the ChicagoSide sports site has an interesting perspective in his piece, “Excessive Commemoration at US Cellular.”

But the Cell makes up at least somewhat for its charm deficit with a few more creature comforts than Wrigley. The seats are a bit more comfortable, the aisles a bit wider. There are fewer seats with bad sightlines, in part because, unlike Wrigley, there are no steel support posts to create obstructed views. These are among the reasons why Mrs. B — who is naturally inclined anyway to favor the Sox because she grew up in a family of the team’s fans in a town south of Chicago — prefers to go to games at U.S. Cellular than Wrigley, much as it breaks my heart to admit that.

Sox Park has been known since it opened for having one of the better food concessions among major league ballparks, and the selection of beers, including some nice craft brews, is much wider than at the Cubs’ field.

That said, the Cell is a big place and you are likely to feel farther from the action than at the Cubs’ little bandbox. Our seats in the lower level in the left field corner were perfectly acceptable, but felt really far from home plate. The following, which shows Sox pitcher Gavin Floyd throwing to Tigers leadoff hitter Austin Jackson, was as close as I could get even with my telephoto lens maxed out.

We did have a good view of the outfield play. Here’s Jackson settling under a White Sox fly ball in the early going.

Floyd ended up picking up credit for the win by containing a powerful Detroit lineup that includes the massive Prince Fielder, the slugging first baseman who they lured away from the Milwaukee Brewers with a huge contract this past off-season.

Floyd pitched six shutout innings, holding the Tigers to three hits and striking out six batters. He did have to weather some control problems, as he walked three Detroiters and hit three more with pitches.

The Sox are hardly tearing the cover off the ball — they rank 19th in batting average and 24th in run production among the 30 major league teams — but decent pitching and some timely, if very occasional, hitting has them at 5-3 in the early season going, even after the Tigers — the team widely favored to win the American League Central Division that they share with Chicago — salvaged one of the three games in the weekend series with a win on Sunday that put them back in first place with a record of 6-3.

The White Sox on Saturday got three solo home runs, from shortstop Alexei Ramirez, backup catcher Tyler Flowers, and veteran star first baseman Paul Konerko, seen here completing his tour of the bases.

Meanwhile, Adam Dunn chipped in with a double in four at-bats…

… though his performance in the season’s first week has hardly quelled concerns about the multi-multi-million contract to which the team signed him prior to the 2011 season. After averaging about 40 home runs and 100 runs batted in per year from 2004 through 2010 playing for the Cincinnati Reds, Arizona Diamondbacks and Washington Nationals, Dunn was a colossal flop in his first season with the Sox, batting .159 on the season with 11 home runs and 42 RBI.

While his .233 batting average after hitting two more doubles on Sunday looks pretty meh for a player who is being paid big bucks to carry his team’s offense, it is almost half again as high as his season average last year.

But Saturday, a day on which White Sox pitchers held the Tigers to one run on an eighth-inning homer by outfielder Brennan Boesch, was one on which the team didn’t need a ton of offense. Here’s closer Matt Thornton retiring Detroit pinch-hitter Brandon Inge on a ground ball to the mound for the game’s last out.

And the final verdict…

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.

 

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.

The Day St. Patrick Met St. Sebaldus

Abundant sunshine. Temperatures around 80. Sailboats out on Lake Michigan, beyond the still-empty harbor.

Just your average St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago.

Get real. Chicago has never in recorded history seen a stretch of weather this warm and this long in mid-March. The average high temperature this time of year is 47. For three consecutive days dating back to Wednesday, the high has cracked 80, and it may do so again today.

For perhaps the first time ever, the pipers marching in Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day parade today must have been glad to be wearing kilts for a reason other than ethnic pride. My sympathies go out to those whose marching uniforms are more calibrated to the way the weather usually is here on March 17.

It’s as though the patron saint of Ireland decided to take this year off, and had St. Sebaldus  stand in for him. “Saint Who?” you ask. Sebaldus was an 11th century German who is the patron saint against cold weather.  He also happens to be the patron saint of Nuremberg and of Bavaria, in case you were still wondering.

And no, not being of the faith, I didn’t know that until a few minutes ago myself. Amazing the stuff you can learn from the Internet.

Seems like a good place to catch up on the Cooler on the Lake Shore Chicago vs. D.C. Weather Smackdown. According to Weather Underground…

On Wednesday, Chicago O’Hare reported a record high of 81 — that’s 35 degrees above normal —  a low of 46 and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 81 (26 degrees above normal), a low of 54 and no rain. Holy virtual tie, Batman! But because this was so unprecedented for Chicago, it gets the point.

On Thursday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 81, a low of 48 and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 82, a low of 54 and a trace of rain. Same thing, folks.

On Friday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 82, a low of 46 and no precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 59, a low of 51 and .02 of an inch of rain. No brainer on this one. So Chicago finally shows signs of making a comeback in the overall contest, cutting D.C.’s lead to 125-100.

And, yes, I’m a homer, even at this, and I will, when it’s feasible, put my thumb on the scale for Chicago. As I’ve said before, if you don’t like how the game is played, start your own weather contest.

 

The Lake Shore View: 3.14 x 81 Degrees = A Perfect 10

I’m sure innumerable people have taken photographs of the Chicago skyline just like the following one I took at the lakeside between Diversey Harbor and Fullerton Beach this afternoon. But this one has a special distinction: It is one of the very few ever taken when it was 81 degrees on March 14 in Chicago.

And all of those pictures had to be taken today.

Today’s high temperature not only broke the standing record, it shattered it: The previous warmest March 14 was 76 degrees in 1995. Here are a few comparisons to illustrate how incredibly unusual this was:

* Today’s 81 degree high exceeded the average for this date by a mere 36 degrees.

* Last year on “Pi Day” (as 3.14 is known), the high temperature was 42, or slightly below the 45-degree average.

* The average high in Chicago does not reach 81 degrees until June 21, or right about the first day of summer. On March 14, it is still technically winter, with the first official day of spring still six days away.

The extraordinary thing about this pre-vernal heat wave is that it’s not a one-day fluke. In fact, according to the National Weather Service forecast, the high temperatures between now and the end of next week are expected to range between the low 70s and low 80s.

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? You see, as I’ve mentioned, I have a ticket for the Chicago Cubs’ season-opening game on April 5, which is still three weeks from Thursday. While the average high for that date is actually 53 degrees, it has been known to be much colder on Opening Day at Wrigley Field.

It has also been known to snow.

So let’s turn this into a little contest. Make your prediction of what the high temperature will be on April 5, and whether there will be precipitation, and post it as a comment. I will buy the person who comes closest a drink of their choice.

I’ll let some more photos of my outing today carry the rest of the story, and finish by catching up with the Cooler on the Lake Shore Chicago vs. D.C. Weather Smackdown.

Shorts weather in Lincoln Park on March 14. Go figure.

The waterfowl are usually happy enough when there's no ice in Belmont Harbor this time of year.

A brisk breeze actually kept it from feeling too hot.

What's wrong with this picture? By the time it usually first hits 80 degrees in Chicago, this marina is full of boats.

Think this guy was loving life today? Throw me the ball!

Leafless tree, shirtless guy. Summer in March. Not a lot of shade out there, not that anyone cared.

Now in the Smackdown…. according to Weather Underground…

On Friday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 40, a low of 28 and no precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 67, a low of 41 and .01 of an inch of rain. Point D.C.

On Saturday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 60, a low of 27 and no precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 50, a low of 34  and no precipitation. A clear win for Chicago!

On Sunday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 69, a low of 41 and a trace of precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 63, a low of 35 and no precipitation. Point Chicago.

On Monday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 65, a low of 52 and .19 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 72, a low of 45 and no precipitation. Point D.C.

On Tuesday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 70, a low of 45 and no precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 81, a low of 56 and .01 of an inch of precipitation. This kills me, because yesterday was outrageously beautiful in Chicago, but I have to give this one to D.C. Overall score in the contest is D.C. 125, Chicago 97.