Snow flurries fell on the Cubs as they took batting practice before Monday's home opener at Wrigley Field, as if to reinforce the notion that the championship chill that's gripped the franchise for 99 years will last another season. For all the money they spent over the winter, this was a notion the Cubs had done nothing to dispel on the road in their first week. They'd been decidedly average, splitting six decisions in Cincinnati and Milwaukee. Sometimes they hit well; sometimes they pitched poorly. Even ace Carlos Zambrano won one and lost one. Opening day at Wrigley didn't revise anyone's thinking; the game just made the 41,338 shivering fans in attendance more miserable.
They did get to welcome new manager Lou Piniella and the new star center fielder, Alfonso Soriano. In the festive introductions, with both the Cubs and the visiting Houston Astros lining up on the field, only Zambrano, Derrek Lee, and second-year starter Rich Hill, who had already pitched a one-hitter against the Brewers, were cheered as loudly. To build drama, Piniella's introduction was delayed until just before the starting lineup was announced, and the fans went "Looooo!" They've clearly pinned their hopes on Piniella to mold the Cubs' new big-budget roster--a misshapen amalgamation of power hitters, poor fielders, and doubtful starting pitching--into a contender.
But for all his savvy, there was only so much Piniella could do Monday--and only so much he'll be able to do. Newcomer Ted Lilly, with his prideful, leaning-back motion, pitched about as expected. He gave up two leadoff doubles to Craig Biggio, who scored both times, and another double to Carlos Lee, who also scored, and while three runs over six innings qualified as a "quality start"--again, as to be expected--they left the Cubs trailing 3-0. The Cubs scored two in the bottom of the sixth off Houston's Woody Williams, then tied the game in the seventh when the fleet Soriano got on with two out, stole second, and came around to score on a hustle play: Jacque Jones bounced an infield single to Biggio at second, and he skipped his throw to first in the dirt, which gave Soriano just enough time to round third and scurry home. But reliever Bobby Howry gave two runs right back on a homer by the Astros' light-hitting shortstop, Adam Everett, and that was it as Houston won 5-3.
The stands were packed with fans in blue jackets to ward off the 42-degree cold, and they got no warmth from the sun. The cloud cover was unbroken, the wind turned in off the lake, and there were more flurries during the fifth inning, as if dropped by misguided stagehands in the rafters. By the end, fans were blue in every way--in dress, in spirit, in body temperature--and Howry was booed as he came off the field in the eighth. Surly drunks lurched menacingly in the grandstand after the final out, and as I headed for the locker rooms someone threw a fist.
The afternoon made quite a contrast with the one at White Sox Park the day before. The Sox had already enjoyed their home opener--and squandered it. Yes, it's hard to recall now, but the Sox had kicked off their season the Monday before in brilliant weather that brought 38,088 out to the game. Ace Jose Contreras was bombed by the Cleveland Indians and the Sox lost 12-5. The next day's warm weather was wasted because there was no game, and then the cold set in. The Sox staggered through the first week with a couple of losses to the Tribe and then a victory, called off last Friday's game against archrival Minnesota simply because of the cold and surely in spite of healthy ticket sales, and beat the Twins Saturday to even their record at 2-2. The wheel spinning was all right by me, as I was in Mexico on a family vacation. But fresh off a red-eye, I finally celebrated the return of baseball on Easter Sunday.
The weather was clear and crisp, with the temperature hovering around 40, holding attendance down to about 15,000 (there must have been more than 10,000 no-shows, as the announced gate was 27,653). "It's cool to be cold," said a fan behind me in the upper deck, but it actually turned out to be quite toasty in the sun down the third-base line, even if you could see your breath. Every clap and shout could be heard throughout the park, giving the game a quaint, minor-league feel, and the result was a wonderful day of baseball even if it didn't go well for the Sox.
Disregarding the extra off day, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire hustled his ace, Johan Santana, back onto the mound on schedule, while Sox manager Ozzie Guillen kept his five-man rotation intact and sent rookie John Danks out to make his big-league debut opposite the two-time Cy Young winner. In typical fashion, Santana gave the Sox a chance to get him early, before he found his rhythm. The Sox left two men on from bases on balls in the first, then another two with a hit and a walk in the second, and then Santana retired 17 batters in a row. Danks matched him for a while with his simple rock-and-fire motion, but he gave up a couple of hits to open the fourth and grooved a first-pitch fastball to last year's AL MVP, Justin Morneau, who swatted it into the right-field seats. But Danks settled down again, displaying remarkable composure for a 21-year-old, and the way he pitched to Morneau the next time around was impressive. He challenged him again with a first-pitch fastball and got this one by him, then followed with a curve for a strike, and then froze him with another fastball to strike him out looking.
Morneau's earlier homer stood up, though a solo homer by Juan Uribe made the final 3-1. But Sox fans who'd spent the afternoon in the sun didn't seem to mind the loss. The Sox had played well against one of the best pitchers in the league, and there's still a lot more baseball to be played.
It's a long season, after all, and hopeful fans sometimes put too much emphasis on opening day. "It was fun, it was fun," Piniella insisted after Monday's game. But he seemed to capture the prevailing mood when he added, "Let's hope we don't have any more opening games this year."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.