Tradition says you mark a 50th anniversary with a present of gold, but Howard Jaffe of Libertyville happily celebrates his 50th straight White Sox home opener with a cheeseburger, beer and the chance to break even.
"A .500 record. That is fitting," Howard says of his lifetime Opening Day record of 25 wins and 25 losses after his Sox hold on for a 5-2 victory against the rival Detroit Tigers.
Howard's Sox streak got off to a shaky start on April 16, 1963, when his father, Dick, got him out of grade school to watch the Sox lose 7-4 to the then-Kansas City Athletics in old Comiskey Park. One of Howard's most-memorable openers is another loss -- the first game in the new Comiskey Park, on April 18, 1991, when Detroit Tiger Cecil Fielder (father of current Tigers slugger Prince Fielder) smacked the first home run in the new stadium en route to handing the home team a 16-0 loss. Of course, the magical 2005 World Series season started with Sox hurler Mark Buehrle's 1-0 gem against the Cleveland Indians.
But the notes on Howard's tally sheet are about so much more than wins and losses. The 1971 win against the Minnesota Twins marks the year Howard graduated from Deerfield High School. When he married Bev in 1975, the Sox lost the home opener to the Texas Rangers ("And we're still married," Howard says). The White Sox beat the Red Sox to open the 1978 season, in which daughter Vicki was born. Daughter Katie arrived three years later, when the Sox opened the season by roughing up the Milwaukee Brewers.
"Baseball is a game for family," Howard, 58, says just as daughter Katie arrives for the pregame feast.
"That's how we bonded," Katie, 31, of Grayslake says. "I knew how much he loved baseball, and I know I now love baseball."
Her boyfriend, Jon Wisner, grew up in Libertyville as a Cubs fan, but he dons White Sox gear and roots for Katie's team.
"I'm not one of those guys who gets into fights in bars about whose team is better," says Wisner, who acknowledges cheering for the White Sox in the World Series.
"I root against the Sox six times a year, and 13 if I'm lucky," Wisner says, referring to the team's annual six-game series against his Cubs and fantasizing about a potential seven-game crosstown World Series.
Howard, who has no problems wishing the Cubs success now that he's seen his team win a World Series, says his daughter Vicki's boys, Nate, 3, and Zack, 1, are on their way to being full-fledged Sox fans.
"When it's in the DNA, it's in the DNA," Howard, a longtime season-ticket holder, says of his family's White Sox gene.
The opener is also about friendship for Howard. For the last 35 years of his streak, Howard has been coming with his first boss and longtime buddy Mike Cuccinelli, who drives in from his home in Roscoe near Rockford. Tom Miller and Steve Risley, who are active in the Libertyville Sunshine Rotary Club with Howard, boast nearly 20 straight and a handful of consecutive openers, respectively.
The chairman and CEO of Inland Bank, which is headquartered in Oak Brook, Howard has endured rainouts and snowouts, and sat through vile conditions such as last year's 37-degree win against Tampa Bay.
"It's still fun coming," Howard says as he and his buddies pose for a 50th anniversary photograph. "We always manage to have fun."
The White Sox mark Howard's milestone by presenting him with a White Sox cooler packed with goodies.
"He's a walking billboard for us," says Jeff Bogacki, manager of group sales for the Sox.
"Mickey Finn's provided the wings, beer and burgers," adds Howard, who calls the Libertyville brewery "the official sponsor of Howard's 50th Opening Day."
He's only come close to missing an opener twice.
"I had to hitchhike my first year in college," Howard says, noting he caught a ride from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb to see his Sox put a 14-0 pounding on the Texas Rangers in the 1972 home opener. When labor woes threatened to wipe out the 1995 season, Howard already had plans for a Lake Erie fishing trip with friends when the sides settled and the home opener was hastily scheduled for April 27.
"I made them stop here and I ran in for three innings," Howard says of his effort to catch the 9-4 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers. "I bought them hot dogs and then we went on our fishing trip."
He jokes with Katie about the day when she'll have to wheel her ancient father into U.S. Cellular (or whatever Sox Park is called then) as he attempts to push his consecutive game streak into triple digits.
"Getting out of school was a big deal," Howard says of the start of his streak. "I've blown off classes (high school and college), business trips and even blown off board of director meetings. Opening Day is my favorite day of the year."
Next year, Howard can do something he's never done during his half-century of home openers -- finish the day with a winning record for his Opening Day career.