In this week when many suburbanites celebrate deeply religious holy days, we fervent Cubs fans treat Opening Day as if it is a religious holiday.
We pray for the first World Series championship since 1908 and hope that our long-dead franchise can be resurrected by those newly hired miracle workers in the front office. After seeing our Cubs wander aimlessly through the Major League Baseball desert only to be passed over by the baseball gods for the last 103 years, Cubs fans can't be blamed for going into the start of the 2012 campaign asking, "How is this season different from all other seasons?"
But even in this era when cynics talk about money, contracts, urine tests, rap sheets and off-field player shenanigans, Opening Day for Cubs fans is about faith.
"Opening Day is the one day it's still baseball, whether it's 1912 or 2012," says Sean Hruby, 39, of Geneva, who ditched grade school in 1985 to take in his first season opener at Wrigley Field with his mother, Debra, of Wheaton. That pair, generally accompanied by a supporting cast of other loved ones throughout the years, has been a staple in the left-field bleachers for every Opening Day since.
"I love Opening Day," says Debra, 62, as she stands near her collection of magnetic schedules the Cubs give away to fans on that first game of the season.
"You can spout that cliché Cubbie line about how 'this is next year' and 'everybody's got a chance,' even if we don't," Sean says. "Anything can happen."
"That's why Opening Day is the best day," Debra says.
The boy who carried his homemade, heartbreakingly pathetic and prophetic "Wait Til Next Year" sign to the first game of 1985, Sean has expanded the Opening Day tradition to a third Hruby generation. His 7-year-old son, Cal, will play hooky from first grade today to attend his third straight opener.
The Cubs won Cal's first game in a sun-drenched Wrigley Field in the 2010 opener. Last year, the Cubs lost on a cold, wet and miserable April Fools' Day.
"It was rainy," remembers Cal. "And Kevin caught a home run."
That memory elicits laughter for Sean, Debra and Mike, her husband of 43 years, who picked up the Cubs habit while watching games on TV with Debra's dad in Westmont in the 1960s while he waited for his teenage girlfriend to get ready for dates.
Last year, Kevin Riemer, a 16-year-old family friend from Wheaton who has been part of the Hruby clan for every Opening Day since he was in grade school, endured soggy inning after soggy inning before he finally caved and donned a pink rain poncho, Mike remembers. Then the pink-clad Kevin made all the TV highlights by catching an opposing Pirate's home run and immediately whipping it back onto the field in the Wrigley tradition. While weather, such as the snow-out in 2003, often dominates the Opening Day recollections, game memories also come pouring out.
"Fukudome's home run," says Debra, recalling new right-fielder Kosuke Fukudome's bottom-of-the-9th-inning three-run homer that tied the 2008 opener. The Cubs went on to lose in the 10th and the never-that-good-again Fukudome is now a backup outfielder for the White Sox. That Cubs team won the division, but got swept out of the playoffs.
"Mitch Williams loading the bases and striking out the side," Sean says of the reliever nicknamed "Wild Thing" in his 1989 Wrigley debut. Williams made that year's All-Star team and his Cubs won the division, but the Cubs lost their playoff series and Williams went on to become best known as the Philadelphia closer who gave up the walk-off World Series-winning homer in 1993 to Toronto's Joe Carter, who began his career as a Cub but made five All-Star teams and played in two World Series as a Blue Jay.
"Tuffy Rhodes," Debra says, recalling the 1994 opener when the Cubs outfielder hit three home runs in his first three at-bats against New York Mets phenom pitcher Dwight Gooden. Of course, the Cubs lost that game and Rhodes ended up hitting just eight homers all year before opting for a much more successful career in Japan.
"The year we threw 'Oh Henry!' candy bars on the field and almost got tossed out," Debra says of the 1998 welcome for new Cubs' slugger Henry Rodriguez. Rodriguez smacked 31 homers and the Cubs made the playoffs, but (stop me if you've heard this before) the Cubs got swept out of the playoffs and Rodriguez hit fewer homers the next year and even fewer the following year.
In 1986, Sean answered a pay phone outside Wrigley Field and won a WLUP radio trivia contest hosted by Jonathon Brandmeier by noting that Shawon Dunston (the favorite player of 13-year-old Sean) had cracked a game-winning homer in the last road game before the home opener. Brandmeier is now the morning man on WGN, the home of the Cubs, and Shawon Dunston Jr. is a teenage center fielder in the Cubs minor league system.
The Hrubys (this year's gathering features Mike, Debra, Sean and Cal) have Opening Day rituals to get into the park and their seats in the bleachers. Cal has an excuse to skip first grade. Sean, a contract painter, worked his schedule around today. Mike, who says he would prefer to be a "fair-weather fan," will dress warmly. Debra, who has an ivy tattoo on her right ankle, promises to expand that scene up her leg if the Cubs win it all this year. The Hrubys all have painful memories of last year and other disappointing seasons. Yet, they all have hope.
"On Opening Day," Debra concludes, "we are born again."