So, do we turn this into more than it was? More than a smattering of fans in the seats at a baseball game? More than a quiet turning of the page Thursday afternoon as Opening Day arrived at arctic weather station Wrigley Field?
We probably should. For the first time in a year and three weeks, there were people on hand at a pro sports game in Chicago who weren’t working. People who weren’t playing, coaching, reporting or keeping the building running but were simply being entertained. People who were eating hotdogs, drinking beer and being mirthful insofar as a polar wind that surely made them question all their life choices allowed.
Wrigley wasn’t crowded as the Cubs lost 5-3 to the Pirates — with an announced attendance of 10,343, close to the 25% capacity allowed for now at each of the city’s ballparks — but it was pregnant with something resembling normalcy. It wasn’t at full buzz, but it was alive. What a difference from the solitary, sad, almost spooky scenes of a season ago.
No foolin’, April 1 was the day fans came back. It was a moment to be savored.
But we’re still in a pandemic. We’re still caught somewhere in between the way things were and the way we want them to be. We’re still just beginning to practice at this back-to-normal thing.
Curt Marquardt, 67, came from South Elgin to give it a shot. A former season-ticket holder, Marquardt has been to so many season openers at Wrigley — over 30, he reckons — that he has a collection of giveaway magnets on his refrigerator from those games alone.
Retired and on spring break — he works part-time as an aide on a school bus route for physically challenged students — Marquardt said yes when his wife discovered a pair of upper-deck tickets for sale. By the time she was ready to pull the trigger, though, there was only one ticket to be had.
“I had to do it,” he said of coming, even by his lonesome. “It’s a tradition.”
Jeremy and Felisa Feign came from Louisville, Kentucky, in celebration of their 25th wedding anniversary. Jeremy — a lifelong Cubs fan whose family moved from Chicago when he was five — wasn’t thinking in 30-degree terms when he hatched the plan weeks ago. This was his first visit to Wrigley in a decade and his first Opening Day.
“Sitting at home not doing anything has been hard,” he said. “However cold it is out there today, I’ll be happy.”
It was harder to be sure about Felisa, who, as her husband was being interviewed, sat across Waveland Ave. — on the bench outside the Engine 79 firehouse — in an apparent effort to squeeze an extra ray, and perhaps even an extra degree of warmth, from the sun.
Felisa’s mother is in the hospital with a blood-related illness. While there, she learned she was positive for COVID-19.
“She was pissed as hell,” Jeremy said. “If she can deal with that, we can be cold.”
But enough about the Cubs’ bats, right? Speaking of cold, the Cubs mustered all of two hits against the team most commonly pegged for the very bottom of the National League. Where have we seen this not-hitting thing before? Is there a fan alive who needed more time in the flesh watching such swing-and-a-whiff fruitlessness?
Something more unusual was the performance of starting pitcher and presumed staff ace Kyle Hendricks. Typically composed and in command — especially on his home turf — Hendricks looked lost from Pitch 1. He opened the game with a walk to Adam Frazier. He followed that by surrendering a home run to Ke’Bryan Hayes. He didn’t last long after that.
Jeez, it wasn’t supposed to unfold that way. But Hayes’ blast reached high into the bleachers in left field, and the sight of a couple of fans here and a couple there scrambling to close the spaces between themselves and the ball’s eventual landing spot was like a trip back in time. This was what it looked like most days at Wrigley in the years leading up to announcer Harry Caray’s arrival in 1982 — back before the name “Wrigleyville” was even a thing.
This was what it looked like when swaths of empty seats and rows at Wrigley were due to team futility and fan apathy, not a deadly virus.
Until the stands are full again, until the buzz is back and the masks are off, we’ll probably all feel stuck in an unsatisfying place; betwixt and between; sort of back to normal, but not really.
Opening Day was at least a step toward that. It was nice to take it.