Opening day this year was the lovely, prodigal child of two very ugly parents. When the owners' lockout goaded the players into a position where they would accept nothing less than a clear victory, several weeks of spring training were lost before a new contract agreement could be reached. Spring training started so late that opening day was pushed back from April 2 to April 9, scrapping the first week of the season. Yet with the Cubs already scheduled to play a night game on that date, and with the White Sox as well as their original opening day opponents, the Milwaukee Brewers, both scheduled for an off day, the Sox simply pushed everything back a week and made all tickets for the original opener good on April 9. It was the first Sox-Cubs, day-night opening day in the city's history. (Neither has there ever been a Cubs-Sox, day-night opening day.) The suffering had been endured, the penance had been paid, and suddenly there was a very clear reward. All was forgiven.
The gods, however, play strange tricks. The weather forecast was for scattered showers a week ago last Monday. Raindrops streaked the windows of our Howard-Jackson Park car as it emerged from the subway south of Roosevelt Road. We were rained on as we walked across 35th Street to the ballpark, and when we climbed the steps into the grandstand at Comiskey Park shortly before game time, the tarp was still on the field. So we went back down the stairs, joining most of the fans, who were milling aimlessly under the grandstand, and we got in line for a Polish sausage, and we returned to our seats with a couple of beers, and we settled in with an old friend, a former journalist at United Press International and In These Times who had returned for a long weekend's sabbatical from his new life in academia. (I got the impression that baseball offered him both a temporary, afternoon-long escape and, perhaps, the promise of a renewed sense of vision, an almost spiritual event refreshing the spirit like spring itself, and if I felt that impression strongly it was, perhaps, because he wasn't the only one noticeably under baseball's spell, which proved to be as strong as ever.) By the time we were caught up with one another, warm-up tosses were passing back and forth in the bull pens, the tarp was off the field, and the ceremonial first pitch was being thrown.
There is an odd sense of continuity to the White Sox this spring. It's almost as if the winter hadn't really interrupted anything, because the Sox are picking up exactly where they left off. In fact, missing the last month of baseball's regular season last year during a trip to Europe, I think I missed not only the most exciting month of the Cubs' season but also the most interesting month for the White Sox. The sense of loss might be more dear with the Sox, because the Cubs, after all, were still there in October for the inevitable end to their season in the play-offs; there was time to catch up with them. The Sox, however, went through dramatic changes in September, changes that are still working themselves out. Late last year, the highly touted Robin Ventura arrived from the minors, ditto Sammy Sosa, only via Texas and the Harold Baines trade, and Lance Johnson proved, once and for all, that he's a major-leaguer. And the pitching staff clarified its identity as young and talented, but erratic. The Sox won some games last September, although they still finished last; while they still look like a last-place team this season, they are not without hope, and in fact they ought to be quite interesting. They play an exciting brand of baseball, based on speed, defense, and pitching, and that's what they put on display in the opener.
Melido Perez, the starter for the Sox, looked sharp in the first inning, where he has typically had problems throughout his career. He is not an overpowering pitcher, the sort--like Bob Gibson or Dwight Gooden--who needs an inning or two just to get warmed up and then look out. He relies on control, and he can sometimes think too much at the start, pitch too fine, walk some men, and get into trouble. Yet he retired the Brewers three in a row in the first, striking out B.J. Surhoff in the middle on a hard curve. He allowed the leadoff man to reach base in the second, but pitched out of it, then ran into serious trouble in the third. The leadoff man reached again on a single and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt. Perez then enticed talented Milwaukee prospect Gary Sheffield (whom organist Nancy Faust saluted with the theme to It's Gary Shandling's Show) to ground to third, putting him on the verge of getting out of the inning. Surhoff, however, made him pay for the first-inning strikeout, driving the ball into right field for a double and scoring the runner from second.
With Surhoff, a catcher, on second, and last year's American League MVP, Robin Yount, at the plate, the Sox should have changed pitching signs here, but they didn't on the first pitch. Then, with Surhoff doing some extra wiggling and primping--looking almost like a third-base coach misplaced in the center of the field--catcher Carlton Fisk caught on and trotted to the mound to set up new signs with Perez. The reasoning was so simple that any third-grade baseball fan knows why, but it struck me with the impact of an epiphany. Surhoff, a catcher, well versed in the various pitching signs, hoped to crack the code and signal an upcoming fastball to Yount, or, at very least, to rattle Perez into thinking he might be able to do so. He continued touching the bill of his cap, rubbing the sleeve of his shirt, even on the next pitch, which he couldn't possibly have known, as the signs had just been changed. It was an affirmation of the endless wealth of detail in baseball, the simplest fact made large and important, emphasized when Fisk reached base in the bottom of the fourth inning and went to second on a wild pitch, prompting Surhoff to trot dutifully to the mound to arrange new signs with Milwaukee pitcher Chris Bosio. There was a sense of release in recognizing these old baseball practices and the reasoning behind them, to crawl into the game as usual on opening day and pull it in after oneself and then to be not confined but freed into a new world.
(Last Saturday, in Mike Harkey's first start of the season for the Cubs, a runner reached second base and catcher Rick Wrona signaled a change in signals for Harkey before signaling the next pitch. Harkey missed the change, however, and where Wrona was expecting a fastball he got a curve. Wrona all but jumped out of his chest protector, chasing up, then down for the pitch, the way a parent chases after a giggling two-year-old. With a visual sigh of exasperation, he lifted his mask and trotted to the mound to reestablish the social order.)
The Sox got the run back in the fifth, on a triple by Ozzie Guillen and a wild pitch by Bosio. Then, in the seventh, the Sox loaded the bases on a walk, an error on a bunt, and a trickling grounder off Johnson's bat that came to rest just fair along the third-base line as the Milwaukee pitcher stood and watched. Scott Fletcher then gave the Sox the lead with a sacrifice fly, and that's where the game ended, 2-1, with Bobby Thigpen pitching the ninth for the save. While both runs for the Sox were a little doubtful, they had earned the win with good defense (no errors) and good pitching, especially from the bull pen, which did not allow a hit in the final four innings. In fact, the first Sox pitcher out of the pen was Scott Radinsky, a hard-throwing left-handed rookie. We'd first become acquainted with the "Rad Man" on a trip to South Bend to see the Sox' Class A minor-league team last summer, and while we figured him for a major league reliever, we had no idea he'd make the jump this spring. He got out the one left-handed batter he faced, before manager Jeff Torborg went to a righty, giving Radinsky a brief but noteworthy spotless debut.
Our friend headed back to Union Station to board a train for academe, while we boarded another Howard-Jackson Park train, northbound this time, for Wrigley Field. We picked up our brother on the way and walked the last few blocks to the ballpark in a steady drizzle. The majority of the fans may like night baseball at Wrigley Field, but the gods continue to frown upon it. The first night game was rained out in 1988, and the same fate awaited the Cubs' first night opener. Still, the game started on time. The Cubs' Greg Maddux, however, picked up where he left off in the play-offs last year and got into trouble directly. He pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the first, then got the first two Philadelphia Phillies out in the second before Ken Howell, the opposing pitcher, hit one over Jerome Walton's head in center field for a double. Lenny Dykstra followed with a home run to right, but that's where it wound up, because after the Cubs batted in the bottom of the second the umpires halted the game because the rain had increased to a full downpour.
We were in the second row of the upper deck, not actually under the roof but, with the wind wafting from the south, protected. The rain never touched us. We had put on a down vest underneath our jacket, we had a little of the right sort on the hip and a cigar case fully stocked, and so we sat back and, once again, caught up with one another. In the distance, the rain drew a veil across the apartment lights of the high rises, and above--in the brightness of the lights--the pennants waved and the raindrops curled over the edge of the roof, out of range. Time stopped. We weren't really thinking about baseball but we were conscious of it, of its endless pleasures and its lovable foibles, like rain delays. The prodigal returneth, and when they finally called the game some 90 minutes later, it was just about right.