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Opening Day

By Donald G. Evans

*Note: This is the final installment in Don's Cactus League Trilogy.


I deliberately did not schedule our return flight home from Arizona on Monday, because I didn’t want to be in the air during Opening Day. Flights were too expensive over the weekend, and we didn’t want to cut short our trip too dramatically, so I pushed things back a day. I had this in mind: let the Cubs battle miserably cold and wet conditions in Chicago whilst I set myself up on the sunny patio in Casa Grande, with a front row view of WGN on the living room set beyond.

Then four days ago, as we snaked our way towards The New Season, my dad came home in a huff. He’d picked up the mail at the neighborhood mailbox bank (they don’t deliver directly to your house in their subdivision), opened his bills, and upon noticing a three-dollar a month upcharge drove directly to the cable company and canceled all but the most basic channels. WGN had been taken out back and shot.

I pleaded WGN’s case, though I knew it was a unilateral and irreversible decision. My dad is still without long-distance service due to a dispute over the definition of “local.” Had I been consulted, I’d have gladly donated $20 to cover the season, but it was too late for that now. As I scrolled through the channels it was mostly blackout broken up by paid advertisements and the Hallmark Channel.

The thing is, that’s what my parents do: watch TV. (Okay, they go to the casino once in a while, too, but predominately: TV). Not to be dismissal of their retirement years, but what’s left?

“You’re going to run out of Perry Masons,” I said.

“There’s a bunch I haven’t seen yet,” he assured me.

“Raymond Burr’s not coming back any time soon.”

Opening Day, growing up in Chicago’s Belmont-Cragin neighborhood, was an unofficial civic holiday. Most kids had their parents’ blessing, but it didn’t matter much one way or another: we were going. In those days, you got tickets at the game, and only on Opening Day would you even worry about getting there early to ensure admission. This was the most anticipated day of the year, barring Christmas: a day when hope preened and primped in sunshine not yet obscured by the clouds.

“Listen to it on the radio,” my mom consoled.

“Same issue,” I said.

A cigar, too: I was going to smoke a nice Rocky Patel I’d brought with me. Not anymore. I was fully into Plan B. It’s a household in which the TV is never off, from the moment my parents wake up until the moment they go to bed. I contemplated my dilemma to the soundtracks of Gunsmoke, Walker, Texas Ranger, and The Price Is Right. My mom and dad would take Dusty—that part was done. I’d borrow their car, if need be—good. Now, where to go?

“There’s a special Diagnosis Murder on tonight!” my dad exclaimed. “Hour and a half special.”

I held my bitterness. My dad, too, is a big Cubs fan, though to my knowledge he’s yet to witness a player, much less a manager, he thought would amount to anything more than a spectacular flop, Ernie and Billy and Ron and Randley excepted. I remind myself that when I’m 71 I’m going to pop for whatever is the going rate at that time, and I’m going to give these guys credit where credit is due.

“Try the 300s,” my mom said. “I think we get some stations in the 300s.”

A one twenty weekday start is eleven twenty here, and that presented the first problem. A sports bar—the prime candidate to accommodate my needs—might not open until lunch. Then I got the weather report from Chicago, and that presented my second problem. Wherever it was I wound up, I’d being paying rent in Guinness. Long rain delays could be costly in several ways, plus a bunch of Diamondback fans might want to switch off the channel rather than stick through This Week In Baseball reruns with me.

I made a call to the nearest sports bar: Famous Sam’s. I asked about WGN, and the woman on the other end responded as though I’d asked if I might bother her to turn on a public access channel from Borneo. But after several long pauses, and a multitude of conferences with Famous Sam’s workers and finally the manager, it turned out, indeed, they had WGN and would be willing to switch over to it for me.

Now to get the timing right. I was trying to write, while I had a rare opportunity of full-time babysitters at hand, but I obsessively checked weather reports and ESPN. It didn’t look as though the game would start on time, and the trick was to get to my barstool around first pitch and not so soon that I’d drink away six hours.

ESPN.com reported that Zambrano had retired the Brewers in order in the first, and I made my break. Famous Sam’s is less than a mile, and with only one full day left in Arizona I didn’t want to relinquish an opportunity for a nice walk, though I was anxious about time. I hurriedly got to the dirt path that ran parallel to Florence Boulevard, a route that allowed me to duck the unsightly and unending conveyor of new developments, chain stores, and traffic. It was farther than I’d remembered, adding urgency to my walk, but finally I spotted the dollar store I remembered being next store to the bar. I walked the final few steps: huge car detailing shop.

I come once a year, and so it had been that long since I’d last been here. Things were changing rapidly in the dessert, but why hadn’t Famous Sam’s given me a heads up? Why hadn’t my dad? I flagged down a guy with a newly clean car and inquired after Famous Sam’s. He said he’d never heard of it, which made me think Famous Sam’s might be a misnomer. I was prepared to call my dad with scorching criticism on a variety of topics; I actually had my phone in hand to make the call. It rang.

“It’s on here,” my mom said, as if indoor plumbing had just come to Casa Grande. “We got it right here.” Actually, I was as excited as though for the invention of indoor plumbing. My original plans, minus a few innings, were going to be carried out, after all.

Hurrying back the less scenic way, I passed Famous Sam’s—I’d overshot it-- and then another dollar store—do you really need two dollar stores on the same two-block strip? No matter, I had to get back to that patio. I was no longer enjoying the walk, and in fact it was beginning to seem a little fucking hot for my tastes.

“They were playing, but they stopped,” my mom reported.

For some unknown reason, Fox Sports had decided, apparently, to give free access to all its broadcast stations this Opening Day. I waited out the rain delay. I prepared my spot. Play resumed, with me out there on the patio, puffing away at my Rockey Patel, sipping a cup of tea, the weather just right, and for the next two hours I reveled in the pitcher’s duel. Then came the three-run ninth, in which Kerry Wood plunked the leadoff hitter and proceeded to give up three runs, a scenario which seemed to indicate that this year, in fact, was no different than all those years past.

My dad, at this point, was full rant: the curse that is Kerry Wood, the waste of space that is Felix Pie, the laziness of Aramis Ramirez and the idiocy of Lou Pinella. I couldn’t totally track it all, but I was in no position to disagree with all my dad’s conclusions. Then it happened. Eric Gagne fell behind to D. Lee and served up a belt-high fastball that he hit for a single. Then he missed badly on four pitches to A-Ram to put the tying run on base. Up stepped Fukodome, not yet a single game’s major league experience under his belt and already, with two hits and a walk, ascending to icon status. He worked the count to his favor. He hit it. Hard. And Far.

TIE GAME! TIE FUCKING GAME! See, this is why you don’t miss the opener; you want to be on this ride from the very beginning, when all the angel dust is just beginning to pollinate, when everything is possible. You want to see it real time—there’s no way a replay or newspaper account could give you the same rush. You want to say you were there when history was made.

murdershewrote.jpgTen minutes later, and it was over. The home run had been a tease, and The Cubbies were 0-1 and eerily about the same as their last 100 predecessors. I sat stunned in the Arizona gloom. My mom stuck her head outside, and said, “You still watching this?”

“Put on whatever you want,” I said, and then I heard, “Get ready for ANOTHER episode of Murder, She Wrote.

Donald G. Evans, author of Wrigleyville sports gambling novel Good Money After Bad, is the Lovable Losers emcee. His stories have appeared in StoryQuarterly, Pinyon Review, The Journal and Narrative Magazine, among others.

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