COVID-19 puts Sox fan's Opening Day streak on hold
Arriving at Guaranteed Rate Field hours before Chicago White Sox ace Lucas Giolito fires a first-pitch strike past Kansas City Royals center fielder Whit Merrifield to open the 2020 baseball season, fan Howard Jaffe of Libertyville tailgates with his usual buddies. He tells me how this is the 58th straight year he's been to Opening Day on the South Side.
I check in with him during the 7th inning, after slugger Eloy Jiménez hits his second home run of the day to give the Sox a lead that holds up for a victory, and a smiling Jaffe says he's pleased but practical enough to avoid any premature talk of a World Series or even the postseason.
That's how I figured today would go.
But the spreading coronavirus and the shelter-in-place orders have scuttled everything. There is no Opening Day. Baseball is in limbo. If Giolito is throwing, it's probably at home, tossing balls to his dog, Louie. Jiménez can only imagine smashing dingers that count.
As president of the Inland Bankcorp in Oak Brook, Jaffe is working from his home office to help clients manage during this fiscal crisis. And I'm sitting at my kitchen counter, tethered to my cellphone.
"The subject of Opening Day is hardly worth a comment," says Jaffe, who was recently elected to the board of the American Bankers Association, which is the voice of the nation's $18 trillion banking industry and has bigger issues to manage. "There are higher priorities."
Jaffe notes that even Daily Herald football guru and his old childhood buddy, Hub Arkush, wrote a football column recently about the need to adhere to the COVID-19 recommendations, practice social distancing and help others. "This is for the safety of humanity," Jaffe says.
The lifelong Sox fan has endured rainouts, snowouts and even an Opening Day in 1995 delayed until April 27 as a result of the lingering strike that scuttled a 1994 season and still haunts some Sox fans. "They could have won," Jaffe says of his '94 Sox team, which sported a lofty 67-46 record as the season shut down. "They were in first place when the strike began."
With the strike canceling the 1994 postseason and any chance of a Sox World Series, fans knew the owners and players could have worked together to save the season. "People's angst over baseball was directed at baseball," Jaffe says. "This is 100% different."
People are dying. People are losing jobs. People are watching their savings dwindle away.
"Sure, the White Sox will be better," Jaffe predicts when pushed to talk baseball. "They win 10 more games than last year, they're a .500 team. Could they win 20 more? Sure, it's possible. But our focus and attention shouldn't be on baseball."
Embarking on a fishing trip to Lake Erie in 1995, Jaffe made his buddies drop him at the new Comiskey Park for the rescheduled opener just so he could see the Sox lose 9-4 to the Milwaukee Brewers and keep his streak intact. He would have missed the 1972 home opener, a 14-0 win over the Texas Rangers, if not for the accommodating driver who picked up the hitchhiking student from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.
America's pastime has to come second to Americans, Jaffe says. If Hall-of-Famer Ted Williams could miss three seasons to be a pilot during World War II, and most of the 1952 and 1953 seasons because of the war in Korea, optimistic White Sox fans can survive an interruption of this 2020 season.
"If the season is lost, there are good and valid reasons for the season to be lost," Jaffe says. "I read the sports page. I'm still a fan. You know I love baseball, but other things are really important."
Jaffe's streak isn't going anywhere.
"Yes, I will go to the first game," Jaffe says. Even if it doesn't happen until 2021.