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: Cobbling Together An All-American Holiday Dinner

I am in the process of opening a new avenue in my freelance journalism career that will emphasize personal passions such as food, drink and photography. This makes me wonder if they shopping run I made Monday, to Binny’s (a big Chicago beverage store chain, for those who don’t live here), Best Buy and Trader Joe’s is tax-deductible.

At least I can buy all the eats and drinks and camera equipment I want here on the Third Coast. I worked covering elections in Washington, D.C., for 30 years, and just never amassed the resources I would have needed to buy a politician.

We had a second consecutive day of record-setting heat. After getting the walk by the lake out of the way in the morning before it became too unbearable, I decided to spend some more time outdoors at the rooftop pool, addressing my long-term Vitamin D deficiency. Unfortunately, the stiff breeze at ground level was like gale force more than 400 feet off the ground. Having to deal with turbulence is bad enough when you’re flying, but it’s pretty weird altogether when you are laying on a chaise lounge. Half an hour of that turned out to be quite enough.

Monday, of course, was Memorial Day, a day to remember my father, who passed away at age 90 four years ago. Milton Benenson served in the Army Air Force as a navigator during World War II. He must have been pretty good at it, and he certainly was fortunate, as he flew 36 missions over Nazi-controlled Europe and lived to make, among other things, me. I’m not sure how much of the world is grateful for that latter part, but I am.

I decided this would be a good occasion for an all-American dinner. Cooking out isn’t an option, as our apartments have no balconies, but the wide range of cast-iron cookware that I have provides as close to cookout taste as you can get indoors.

Hot dogs (a brand of all-beef organic franks carried by Trader Joe’s), corn on the cob, onion rings, a homemade peach and rhubarb cobbler, washed down with a mint julep. Hard to get more American than that.

The cobbler is worthy of a close-up, if only because I do a lot more cooking than baking as a norm.

I actually had the more traditional strawberry-rhubarb combo in mind when I hit the farmers’ market on Saturday, but I ended up with a bag of peaches that I bought because I thought it was so unusual to see peaches this early in the year. Also, we ate too many of the strawberries that I brought home to make a cobbler out of them.

Anyway, I found a lovely, easy recipe on the Web that had this added benefit: the syrup in which the fruit is briefly cooked to soften before joining the batter in the oven is made of sugar and… bourbon. The alcohol cooks off, of course, but the bourbon adds a nice little vanilla/butterscotch flavor. You have to trust me, but it came out great. And since the instructions say the batter can be the base to any combination of fruit, I need not worry too much about going overboard at the farmers’ markets this summer.

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

Saturday, May 19: Chicago Midway reported a high of 91, a low of 64, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 84, a low of 56 and no rain. The 90s, for me, are a bit too hot. Point D.C.

Sunday, May 20: Chicago Midway reported a high of 92, a low of 65, and .14 of an inch of rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 81, a low of 59 and .01 of an inch of rain. Point D.C.

Monday, May 21: Chicago Midway reported a high of 65 — yep, a quick transition back to spring — a low of 54 and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 75, a low of 66 and .03 of an inch of rain. Point Chicago.

Tuesday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 68, a low of 49, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 81, a low of 66 and .01 of an inch of rain. Having experienced a lot of days in the 80s in D.C. that felt like they were in the 90s, I’ll give that one to Chicago.

Wednesday: Chicago Midway reported a high of 82, a low of 49, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 81, a low of 66 and .33 of an inch rain. That’s a lot of rain. Point Chicago.

Thursday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 90, a low of 65, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 83, a low of 69 and a trace of rain. Edge D.C.

Friday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 80, a low of 67, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 86, a low of 71 and a trace of rain. We’ll give this one to Chicago.

Saturday, Chicago Midway reported a high of 82, a low of 63, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 86, a low of 71 and a trace of rain. We’ll give this one to Chicago, too.

Sunday, a record-setting sizzler as Chicago Midway reported a high of 97, a low of 73, and no rain. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 87, a low of 70 and .05 of an inch of rain. We’ll give this one to D.C.

That brings the overall score to 162-135 in favor of D.C.

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.

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.

 

The Lake Shore View: Blessed Relief From The Heat — In March?

Busy day today, so my review of Chicago Whiskey Fest 2012 will have to wait until tomorrow. Having gone to bed last night feeling much more tired — from being on my feet pretty much non-stop for four hours — than intoxicated, and having woken up this morning completely none the worse for wear, I believe I can say after my eighth Whiskey Fest in the past nine years that I’ve got this thing pretty well nailed.

Meanwhile, when I last wrote about Chicago weather on Tuesday, we were still in the thick of a historic March heat wave. The streak of days in which the high temperature set at record of 79 degrees or above ran to nine, an event totally without precedent in Chicago’s record weather history before the clouds, showers and fog (seen in this photo yesterday) dropped the high temperature into the lower 60s.

Now, this may sound strange considering that “hot” usually is a weather description rarely used in Chicago before May… maybe June in some years. But the clouds and cooler weather really provided a bit of a blessed relief for us.

The problem is not that the weather outside was almost perfect, but that indoors, most of Chicago is not really equipped for a heat wave hitting in the middle of March. Because it is so much more typical that it would be too cold than too hot this time of year — and because there is a city ordinance that building owners say requires them to provide heat rather than cooling until around Memorial Day — it is really hard to find non-commercial place in the city that is running AC.

Our particular problem is actually the flip side of the biggest asset of the apartment in which we live. The photos above and several hundred others on this blog were taken here in what I call our observatory, which gives us a southern view from the Michigan shoreline across the lake and the downtown skyline and then all the way to the western horizon. The problem is that the great big windows that give us this glorious view also can turn this place in a total hothouse — a place better suited for growing tomatoes than working or sleeping — when the weather gets warm. Especially this time of year, when the sun is still working its way north from the Equator to the Tropic of Cancer, and we have exposure pretty much from dawn to dusk.

To put a finer point on it, the wall thermometer in the bedroom that doubles as my office topped 90 degrees the other day.

So I’m rather grateful for a couple of days of cloudy skies and cooler temperatures (even though we’re still 10 or so degrees above normal). In fact, I’d settle for this big time on Cubs’ Opening Day, which is now just 12 days away.

Catching up on the Cooler on the Lake Shore Chicago vs. D.C. Weather Smackdown… according to Weather Underground…

On Tuesday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 85, a low of 63 and no precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 72, a low of 62 and .11 of an inch of rain. Even if it was a bit sultry, I have to give the edge to Chicago.

On Wednesday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 87, a low of 61 and no precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 70, a low of 59 and a trace of rain. I sure someone in D.C. will remind me of this when it a gorgeous spring day in Chicago and I give it the point because the temperature in Washington was prematurely hot. But there were people on the beach. In Chicago. In March. Sorry.

On Thursday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 83, a low of 60 and .16 of an inch of precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 78, a low of 59 and a trace of rain. Okay, I can’t get away with this one. Point for D.C.

On Friday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 63, a low of 55 and 1.25 inches of precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 83, a low of 59 and no rain. See, it’s already too hot in Washington!

Nah, better save that for a day in which it didn’t pour in Chicago. The split puts the overall score at D.C. 127, Chicago 105.

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.

 

The Lake Shore View: Just Another Chicago Sunset

Got behind on the Cooler on the Lake Shore Chicago vs D.C. Weather Smackdown. So I’ll use it as an excuse to post these photos of yet another beautiful Chicago sunset. (For those of you who are kind enough to read this blog regularly, these were taken from the living room. From my old perch at the kitchen window, the sunset has already gone north behind our building.)

The weather spiel will follow the pix.

In the Smackdown… according to Weather Underground…

On Tuesday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 41, a low of 33 and .07 of an inch of precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 50, a low of 32 and no precipitation. Point for D.C.

On Wednesday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 42, a low of 32 and a trace of precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 63, a low of 43 and no precipitation. Point for D.C. [I have to remark here that while Chicago had incredible fall-like weather last August, D.C. has had crazy spring-like weather this February. Just have to tip my hat to that.]

On Thursday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 39, a low of 28 and .11 of an inch of precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 67, a low of 47 and a trace of precipitation. Point for D.C. Fore!

On Friday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 35, a low of 25 and .24 of an inch of precipitation. [This is a bit deceptive, because this was the day when the suburbs got a bunch of snow and we got a dusting by the Lake Shore. But it is what it is.] Washington Reagan National reported a high of 57, a low of 46 and .32 of an inch of precipitation. Pretty crummy, too, but way warmer. Point D.C.

On Saturday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 29, a low of 19 and no precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 47, a low of 35 and a trace of precipitation. Point D.C.

On Sunday, Chicago O’Hare reported a high of 52, a low of 22 and no precipitation. Washington Reagan National reported a high of 49, a low of 34 and no precipitation.Finally, a point for Chicago, prevented a sweep. That brings D.C.’s overall lead to 114-93. Well, we knew the winter — even though it’s been unusually mild by Chicago standards — would be rough in this contest.