WRIGLEYVILLE — Opening Day baseball came back to a full capacity Wrigley Field Thursday for the first time since COVID-19 swept across the globe, filling the neighborhood with hopeful fans and grateful business owners who suffered through reduced crowds over the past two years.
The Cubs hosted the Milwaukee Brewers for the first game of a season delayed a week by the Major League Baseball lockout. Bitter winds were blowing out inside the ballpark as fans braved 44-degree temperatures for the 1:20 p.m. start.
The winds sent the pennants flying as fans checked out the new-look Cubbies, who featured a vastly different lineup than the start of last season. With most of the stars from the 2016 World Series championship team gone, new faces like outfielder Seiya Suzuki greeted fans.
And the team didn’t disappoint — with Suzuki getting his first Major League hit and run and the Cubs holding off the Brewers 5-4 to send fans home happy.
Ted Chekos, 85, entered the ballpark with his daughters in tow – rekindling a family tradition that stretches decades and generations.
“I’ve suffered a lot of years,” Chekos joked. His Park Ridge basement is a Cubs museum of sorts – free admission and adorned with all sorts of team memorabilia collected through his years of fandom.
He used to take his daughters, Tammy and Debbie, to see the Cubs. As kids, they’d climb the fence in hopes of scoring an autograph. It’s been quite some time since the trio has been to Opening Day as a pack. And the weather wasn’t a deterrent.
“We like to come and freeze our asses off,” Debbie Chekos said.
In advance of the early start, Cubs fans were imbibing plenty in the face of the cold.
Down the street from Wrigley Field, the number of Malört bottles consumed is weather dependent, according to the establishment’s director of beer and baseball operations Pat Odon.
If the weather is bad, business gets better. Cubs fans could drink up to 10 bottles of Malört on an inclement day, and roughly half that if the weather gets better.
“If the wind’s blowing in, they’ll leave before the seventh inning stretch,” Odon said, and head over for a drink at the local watering hole.
As Odon predicted Nisei’s prospects, he poured a shot of the local liquor for a patron. Across the bar, a couple drank Old Style beers while donning custom Cubs jerseys with “Old” and “Style” on the backs.
Memorabilia store Sports World, 3555 N. Clark St., was booming with customers buying T-shirts, hats and jerseys ahead of the game.
Sean McNeill, a partner at Sports World, said it was nice to see all of the customers after two years of the pandemic and weeks of the MLB lockout.
“We’ve had opening days, but this is the first one in a few years we’re at full capacity,” McNeill said. “It’s great to see 40,000 people coming out, we’re not in a lockout and contracts were signed, so we’re doing good.”
“The neighborhood lives and dies by the fans and the baseball season, so it’s great to have them back,” McNeill said.
The Gman Tavern, 3740 N. Clark St., opened early Thursday and was packed with Cubs fans before the game. Customers toasted the season ahead of them and mingled as a live band played in the back room.
“We always come to Gman or Nisei because they feel like an old-school Wrigley spot,” said Cubs fan Mike Kennedy. “It’s more fun and not as batsh– crazy as it is in some places around here.”
Ryan Swartz, Kennedy’s friend, was celebrating his first Opening Day game since 2019. He’s been a season ticket holder for a few years, but wasn’t able to make Opening Day in 2020 because of the pandemic or in 2021 because of Wrigley Field’s capacity limits.
“I’m excited to be back,” Swartz said. “It’s cold as hell in Wrigley Field in April, but there’s something about the atmosphere and vibe of being around all these other people who are also cold and miserable yet having such a good time.”
Swartz’s favorite part of Opening Day is that it feels like a “new beginning,” Swartz said.
“On Opening Day, there’s always hope,” Swartz said. “We’ve got the whole season ahead of us and it’s a fresh start. There’s excitement in the air and an adrenaline rush of everything we have to look forward to this season.”
Opening Day is like a homecoming for the regulars. Familiar faces are found outside and inside Wrigley Field, underneath the heavy jackets, hats and blankets.
Wrigley staples Richie Gracia and Angelo Hernandez were instantly recognizable in their fuzzy hats and oversized Cubs chains.
Gracia grew up in Bridgeport, right behind “US never sellout Field,” he said. He and Hernandez, childhood friends from Kelly High School, got the chains while watching the Cubs play a spring training game in Las Vegas.
“I went down the zipline in Vegas with the big ‘W’ sign, all the way down,” Gracia said. “And I got banned for life.”
“It was worth it though,” Hernandez said. “The pictures were priceless.”
Gracia’s regular crew — featuring Neil Williamsen, who sported a Cubs tattoo — gathered under the marque for their ceremonial Opening Day photo. Gracia said his hopes for the Cubs this year are bigger than his medallion.
“I think they’re going to be better than everyone thinks. We got a lot of contact hitters. I enjoy watching the young kids. The game means something to them,” Gracia said. “They’re hungry. I love that. Because I’m hungry, I’m fat, I’m always hungry.”
Another fan, William Gonzalez, shares his Cubs fandom with his father in Mexico City. This year he sent his pops an authentic Cubs jersey to turn into a luchador mask — stitched with a Cubs patch and the “W” he hopes his team gets today.
Gonzalez couldn’t hide behind his mask in front of the marquee as fans clamored for pictures. The Gage Park resident has been wearing them to games since 2011.
“Every season, every mask is different,” Gonzalez said. “This year it would not surprise me if we made the playoffs, but it also would not suprise me if we didn’t. It depends.”
Thursday’s opening day pitcher Kyle Hendricks autographed a Cubs mask and tried it on once, Gonzalez said.
“Some people get Cubs tattoos, stickers on their cars, doormats. But I do the masks,” Gonzalez said. “That’s my thing.”
Baseball buddies Ryan Lewis and Aaron Koszyk hung out at Sluggers before the game in matching, mostly unbuttoned Cubs Hawaiian shirts. Koszyk said “Sluggers censored me” and it’s now “mandatory that two buttons need to be buttoned.”
They got their garb on Clark and Addison and now wear them to every game, Koszyk said.
Lewis said the shirts are a big hit in the bleachers, even with the cold elements.
“This is our usual, always wearing Hawaiians. It felt like the right time. We’re drinking having a good time,” Lewis said. “And when we’ll get in the bleachers, we’ll rip them right off.”
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