Here's a cheer for Opening Day in the good old days

Mike Royko

April 15, 1992|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

Opening Day, a great American tradition. I left the office at about 12:30 and took a cab to Cubs Park.

Then I met my host in our corporate reserved seats, which have a fine, unobstructed view of the playing field.

I wasn't sure what I'd have for lunch. As at most of today's ballparks, the food menu has become as extensive as that of a restaurant.

When the rain became bothersome, we stopped in at the stadium's private club and had a drink. Then, after the crowd subsided, another cab home.

A very nice way to spend the day at the ballpark, you must agree.

But it isn't the best way to do it. Not nearly.

The best way was to get up early, yell for the pal down the street to come on out and start walking about 7 a.m.

It was about five miles to the ball park. Five miles wasn't that much if you could save the 10 cents streetcar fare and use it later for a hot dog.

At the end of the walk, there it was: the eighth wonder of the world in the eyes of a 12-year-old.

The idea was to get there early to be near the front of the crowd of other kids at the "seat gate." At least that's what we called it.

After a while, a guy would come out and point to us, one after another. "You, you, you . . . and you, yeah, you. . . ."

I don't know how he made his selection. Maybe size. Or maybe the most pleading, yearning looks in the eyes.

But when you became one of the youse, you dashed inside. No ticket: free, on the house. Of course, it wasn't charity. Strictly business.

In those days, the box seats -- those that were truly box seats -- had folding chairs. And the stacks of chairs had to be unfolded and put in place before the gates opened and the box-seat swells arrived.

So that's what we did, setting up a few thousand seats. And we thought it was a swell deal, which it was. Of course, it was a swell deal for P.K. Wrigley. For about $10 worth of freebies, he got what a union would probably sock him $2,000 for today.

By the time the seats were in place, and we were up in the grandstands, the players had started drifting out on the field. Loosening up, playing the pepper game, clowning around, spitting, scratching. Coaches hitting fungo flies to the outfielders. The more ambitious pitchers doing a few wind sprints in the outfield grass.

Then came the best part of the day. No, not the game. Batting practice.

This was when you could study this year's prize rookie phenom to see if he hit the long ball as long here as he did in the minors. And when you would watch in terror as the visiting team's cleanup hitter drove shot after shot onto the street.

And if the ushers were nice guys, as many were, you could sneak down the box seat aisles and coax an autograph out of one of the Cubs. Free, of course. The $20 signature wasn't even a concept.

Why do I cherish Andy Pafko? Because the Kid from Boyceville, as he was known to our world, took a few seconds away from the batting cage to sign a scrap of paper. And he even smiled. I hear that a smile costs an extra 10-spot today.

Infield practice. The strong arms of the hot corner guardian and the keystone combo whipping blue darts across the diamond. (Sportswriters don't write that way anymore but I like it.)

Then the grounds crew, who I thought had the best jobs in America, raked and patted the infield, put down the chalk lines, and old Pat, the field announcer, said in that dust-dry voice: "Have your pencils and score cards ready, and I will give you the correct lineup for today's ball game. Batting first, and playing second base. . . ."

The game was on. And what made it so good was that there was nothing else. Only the game.

We didn't know what anyone on the field earned. And if we had known, we wouldn't have cared. We thought in terms of dimes and quarters, which could buy hot dogs and a pop.

But we knew the batting averages. We knew how much Bill Nicholson's bat weighed to the ounce and that he would almost always pull the ball and that he had once smashed one almost to the concession stand in the center field bleachers. We knew that Philabuck always made contact and hit to all fields and would move the runner up. We knew that Clyde McCullough had a terrible hitch in his swing, a habit we should avoid at all costs.

We didn't know if this player was moodily yearning to be traded or if that player hated the manager. We assumed that they were all happy. And how could they not be happy? They were Cubs and playing baseball in one of the most beautiful spots on the face of the Earth.

We didn't know about front office executives, marketing, TV revenue, salary arbitration, agents, contract extensions, incentive clauses or urine tests. We knew nothing of bond issues, expansion cities or congressional inquiries into the role of superstations.

But we knew that it was not a good idea to get behind in the count to Stan the Man and that our outfielders had to hustle on shots in the gap because Enos Slaughter would always take the extra base.

In other words, we knew all that really mattered. And when the last out was made, and we trudged the five miles back to the neighborhood, we had the scrupulously maintained score card to prove it.

I think they ought to change the rules for who goes to Opening Day. Only ages 12 to 15 admitted. They know the score.

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