Column: A long wait — and miserable weather — couldn’t dampen the mood of fans at the Chicago White Sox home opener

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Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune
·5 min read
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There was no way a little rain was going to deter Chicago White Sox fans from enjoying themselves at Thursday’s home opener on the South Side, not as long as the beer was cold, the sausages were properly grilled and the Sox were on the field again.

Miserable weather at a Sox opener is a tradition even older than Tony La Russa, the 76-year-old former Sox manager who returned to the dugout 35 years after being fired.

“Heartbreaking” was La Russa’s description of how he felt after the Sox let him go in 1986, before most of his current players were born. But that also could describe the emotions of Sox fans for most of the last decade as they supported teams that were either underachieving, rebuilding or simply dead on arrival on opening day.

This year feels much different, and even an opening 3-4 trip that ended with La Russa complaining about, well, La Russa, couldn’t dampen the spirits of 8,207 Sox fans who had waited more than 18 months for a chance to see a game up close and semi-personal at Guaranteed Rate Field.

The Connelly brothers of suburban Riverside were among the first fans in the ballpark, having purchased box seats behind home plate for $325 apiece. The three brothers were in Glendale, Ariz. on March 13, 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly suspended the season.

“We made a pact,” said Charlie Connelly 23. “As soon as baseball started again, we were all going to go to a Sox game on the first game back.”

The Connelly boys, of course, didn’t realize it would be another year until fans would be allowed back inside the ballpark for the home opener against the Kansas City Royals. But they kept their promise and were not worried about paying an exorbitant price to wait in the rain for a couple of more hours for the game to begin.

“Worth every penny,” said George Connelly, Charlie’s twin. “It’s great to be back home.”

Ron Kessler, a 65-year-old season ticket holder since 1982, said nothing would’ve prevented him from being back at 35th Street and Shields Avenue to welcome his Sox. Watching the team on TV in 2020 helped make up for the thrill of being there, but as he watched head groundskeeper Roger Bossard receive a golden rake from La Russa during a pregame ceremony, many of the great memories of the last 40 years flooded his mind.

“The ballpark looks great,” Kessler said. “I was in Arizona for eight games. Just to hear the sounds again and be back at the ballpark, it’s such a dream.”

The crowd was mostly well behaved through the rain delay and 6-0 win and complete-game shutout by Lance Lynn against the Royals. There were were many scenes of mask-less fans congregating together in the bleachers and on the concourse and even some vaping going on in one of the men’s rooms. But security didn’t seem to get in anyone’s face, perhaps knowing opening-day crowds are always a little more raucous than the other 80 home games, and like everyone else, they also were thankful to be back.

Fans were busy getting used to the new norm, which restricts access to areas around the park not close to your designated seating area. The water fountains were shut down because of COVID-19 protocols, so the only option was buying water from a concession stand.

The first churros of the new season were purchased by a lucky customer in the concourse, but not every stand was open and not all the food options were back. A concessionaire said the Sox will not be selling tamales and elotes (grilled Mexican street corn) for the first few homestands at least.

“We’re going to see how it goes and hopefully bring them back in May,” he said.

But some of our favorite things did return, including grilled onions with hot dogs and sausages that gave the ballpark a familiar aroma. The Sox also pulled off a spring surprise by bringing back fireworks for the game after ditching the tradition in 2020.

Yoan Moncada and rookie wunderkind Yermin Mercedes decided to test them early with back-to-back home runs off Royals starter Brad Keller in the first inning, including a 485-foot shot to left by “the Yerminator,” the third-longest in the history of the ballpark. The fireworks worked fine.

The biggest pregame cheers were reserved for Tim Anderson, Jose Abreu, Lucas Giolito and Luis Robert, while Governor J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot were booed vociferously, giving Lightfoot a daily double following her booing last week at Wrigley Field.

La Russa received a warm welcome and only a smattering of boos, in stark contrast to the harsh reception he received online and on Twitter the day Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf hired him.

This day was much different than La Russa’s last home opener as Sox manager, on April 7, 1986, when the White Sox lost 5-3 to the Milwaukee Brewers at old Comiskey Park. Sox starter Tom Seaver, who spent all spring asking to be traded, struggled in his 5⅓-inning outing and was booed all day, while his fellow future Hall of Fame teammate, Carlton Fisk, spent the day in left field after general manager Ken “Hawk” Harrelson forced him to switch positions.

“I waved and people took pictures,” Fisk said afterward. “They’ll tell friends, ‘Look where I was on opening day.’ Friends will probably tell them, ‘Look where (Fisk) was on opening day.’”

No one knew then that Comiskey Park had a future date with the wrecking ball, that La Russa would be fired by June or that Fisk would outlast them all.

Life goes on, and 35 years later, La Russa was back, and Sox fans were taking pictures of the “Yerminator” on their iPhones.

It’s a strange, new world, but some things never change.