Monday, April 4, 2011

The Third New Year's Day

I celebrate three New Year’s Days annually: January 1, Rosh Hashanah and Opening Day at Sox Park (or the first game attended). All affirm the passage of time in distinct ways: the calendar, religion and tradition.

The third home game of this season, on April 9 vs. Tampa Bay, will mark either 58 or 59 years of uninterrupted ballpark visits. I may or may not have attended a game in 1953 and can’t say for certain which game in 1954 was my first. Some years I’ve attended 20 games or more, while others just one. During this span, I missed attending a game in Chicago only one year – 1970 – but saw the Sox at Fenway Park during their miserable 56-106 season.

Comiskey Park 1990 and U.S. Cellular Field 2008

The first trip to the ballpark means a new year for several reasons. First and foremost is being inside a familiar venue for the first time in five or six months and live action on the field. If you’re lucky, it’s relatively warm after a cold winter and the grass is greener than in your neighborhood. Usually very little has changed – 1991 and 2005 notwithstanding – and your eyes pick out favorite spots that reinforce the continuity of life. Another is the people, notably the vendors (the toothless ice-cream guy in my youth; Kenneth my beer hawker today) and concession-stand workers, who never seem to age. And, of course, there’s all of the tradition and memories from childhood through to Social Security age.

Kenneth, 2009

My first Opening Day wasn’t until 1977. At least for the Sox, Opening Day tended to draw the crazies and casual fans who wouldn’t show up again. Frigid temperatures also discouraged attendance. In fact, my uncle and his family after shivering through too many openers began to sit in the right-field grandstands for game 1, figuring if the sun were out the game would be bearable. They took their usual season seats in Box 45, Tier 6 (later Box 39, Row H after the Golden Box renovation) for the 1977 opener versus the Red Sox, and I accepted their invitation to attend. Given the poor 1976 performance (64-97), predictions of a last-place finish behind an expansion team and rumors the team would be sold and moved, I figured I’d better go to one Opening Day before it was too late. Luckily, the day was sunny and in the 70s, and a barrage of hits chased starter Rick Wise in the 2nd inning on the way to a 5-2 White Sox victory. Robust hitting continued, as the team came to be known as The South Side Hit Men and stayed in the pennant race until early September.

View from Box 45, Tier 6, 1990

My next two Opening Days were historically significant: the last one at Comiskey Park in 1990 and the first one at the new Comiskey Park in 1991. Although the ticket stub below states April 2, the last Opening Day at the old ballpark was played on April 9 because of an owners’ lockout that wiped out spring training and pushed back the season by a week. This was only game I attended in a suit and tie, coming from the office and leaving after the 5th inning (the game’s start was delayed by rain, during which the Stones' “Mixed Emotions” and Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town" blared on the stadium speakers) to get home for the Passover Seder. I didn’t miss anything, as the Sox held on to a 2-1 lead and beat the Brewers. Thanks to my friend Bill, I also attended the final game at Comiskey Park.

Opening Day 1990 ticket and final 7th inning stretch, 1990

My most memorable Opening Day featured impressions starting before entering the new Comiskey Park. Walking west from the L, the brand-new ballpark loomed on the south side of 35th Street but the opposite side featured an expected but nonetheless tragic sight: the ballpark of my youth being demolished. Only the huge tree with the “RESALE OF TICKETS AT ANY PRICE IS PROHIBITED” sign would remain by the end of the summer (and still stands). My seat was higher than I’d ever sat (Section 535, Row 27, one row from the back) and will ever sit at Sox Park, as that row was eliminated during the renovation after the 2004 season. Regardless of where one sat, it was still disconcerting to watch the Sox in a new venue after so many years across the street and became more so after the Tigers scored 6 runs in the 3rd and 10 runs in the 4th inning on the way to a 16-0 shellacking.

Opening Day 1991 (demolition and first pitch)

I’ve been to eight Opening Day games, the most recent being last season versus the Indians. The game featured what turned out to be the ESPN's Web Gem of the season, when pitcher Mark Buehrle threw out a runner by tossing the ball between his legs to first base. Even more exciting was my only second game of the season, when 10,520 fans showed up in 2005 to see the White Sox wipe out a 3-0 Indians lead in the 9th and win on a Jermaine Dye walk-off home run. The rest of the year, of course, is history.

Opening Day 2010 (scoreboard replay)

As noted, the first game of the baseball season is special because it brings back many unforgettable memories. Those include the treat of getting our uncle’s box seats for a Sunday doubleheader (despite losing 3-1 votes, mom always decided when we were leaving), the first game of the 1959 World Series (, Bill Veeck’s Twins Night (, ditching school on a frigid day and seeing Whitey Ford win his last road victory (, sitting behind the Yankees dugout on a hugely sold-out Bat Day (, taking Marisa to her first Sox game, the last game at Comiskey Park, three walk-off home runs and Game 1 of the World Series in 2005 and Mark Buehrle’s no-hitter and perfect game ( For the last one, Seat 4 next to me sat vacant. As the game reached its exciting finish, I felt my father’s presence there. A transcendent experience, seeing that he hadn’t been to the ballpark in 37 years.

With cousin Jim, Game 1 of the 2005 World Series

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