The No. 14 of Paul Konerko seems to be everywhere at the White Sox home opener except on the field. Souvenir stands hawk the beloved first-baseman's jersey, which is the fashion choice for many Sox fans. But the 38-year-old Sox star, the last player remaining on the roster from the 2005 World Series championship team, starts his final season on the bench after 16 consecutive Opening Day starts.
"And that's OK," says Frank Witkus, a 53-year-old lifelong Sox fan from Des Plaines. His wife, Tracy, talks about her Joe Crede jersey, honoring the former Sox third-baseman who hit two memorable homers in that 2005 World Series. In the rush to tailgate on a 65-degree March day, Frank forgets to wear his No. 72 jersey honoring former Hall-of-Fame Sox catcher Carlton Fisk.
New additions to CellThe five new players on the field for the Chicago White Sox weren't the only things new at U.S. Cellular Field on opening day.
Tech toy: All luxury suites included a computer tablet to order food, buy Sox gear, and use the MLB At-Bat app.
New foods: Adobe mango chicken sausages, Beggars Pizza and bacon on a stick for sale in 100 and 500 levels.
Specialty brews: Revolution Anti-Hero IPA and Veteran Beer Co. Blonde Bomber Ale among many new choices.
Sweet tooth: Fans in 300 Club Level seats, Diamond Suite or Stadium Club can try a 3-pound banana split sundae in a Sox helmet.
Xfinity Zone: This restaurant in the right-field corner offers made-to-order carved sandwiches. Next to it is a cellphone charging station.
Game at the game: Across from the Xfinity Zone are several flat screens showing other sporting events.
K-Zone: Every section 154 fan will get a 'K-card' for games when Chris Sale pitches.
ChiSox Sports Bar & Grill: That's the new name for the bar near Gate 4. Like last season, it will be open only on game days. No game ticket required.
Other fans sport Fisk jerseys and those of past Sox heroes Frank Thomas, Mark Buehrle, Bo Jackson, Harold Baines, A.J. Pierzynski, Scott Podsednik and even a No. 45 jersey of former minor-leaguer Michael Jordan. As for the Sox players on the field against the Minnesota Twins, only four of them started Opening Day last year.
"It's time to rebuild," proclaims Mike Mele, 39, of Mundelein. Mele grills up everything from Italian sausages and burgers to pizza during the pregame tailgate with a suburban crowd of 20 friends from high school, honorary dads and uncles and other members of his Sox family who have come to Opening Day together for the past 14 years. Mele praises the contributions of Konerko, reminisces about the World Series and conjures up a team slogan from 2000, when Konerko was a young contributor on a team led by Hall-of-Famer Frank Thomas.
"We're hoping we can go back to those 'The Kids Can Play' years," Mele says.
"Last year was the worst year ever," says Rob Hofmann, 56, of Rolling Meadows, recalling the 99-loss 2013 season Sox fans hope to forget. Hofmann notes that Sox fans hope new players, such as Jose Abreu, who doubles on the first pitch he sees as Konerko's replacement at first base and singles in the go-ahead run in his second at-bat, and center fielder Adam Eaton, who singles his first two times up, will be the building blocks for the next championship team.
Familiar face Alejandro De Aza hits two home runs in a game for the first time in his MLB career and becomes the first Sox player to do that in a home opener since the legendary Minnie Minoso in 1960. Ace Chris Sale gets the win, and reliever Matt Lindstrom records his first save as a Sox. But fans don't expect this kind of success for this season.
"I'm hoping for them to be four games over .500," says John Madejczyk of Rolling Meadows, who adds that he listened "to the 1959 World Series on the radio in my 8th-grade class."
Wearing a great-moments-in-Sox-history shirt that he bought at a recent sports show in Rosemont. lifelong Sox fan Patrick Nelson says that shirt doesn't reveal what is in his heart.
"Build for the future," says Nelson, 29, of Elmwood Park. "That's what I'm excited about."
Attending his 52nd consecutive Opening Day on the South Side, 60-year-old Howard Jaffe of Libertyville doesn't get caught up in Opening Day homages to the past or predictions about the future.
"It's Opening Day. It's really not nostalgia or the future," Jaffe says. "It's more of a celebratory day. It's the start of baseball, and I like baseball."
New players and new devices, such as a tablet in the luxury suites that allows fans to order food and merchandise, call up statistics and log onto social media, might prove popular, but the Major League Baseball security requirements searching for weapons irk some fans. "Everybody gets wanded," says Sox spokesman Mary Maloney. "That's new this year."
As game time approaches, lines develop and some fans don't get into the ballpark until the third inning, says Maloney, who adds that staff directs fans to different gates to alleviate the crush of an announced sellout crowd of 37,422.
Even though Konerko doesn't get in the game, Sox fans enjoy the 5-3 win and fan Frank Witkus, 53, lets his expectations rise a bit.
"Konerko's got 161 more games to go," Witkus says, pausing before adding with a smile, "and the playoffs."