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Appetizing Opening

It might have been my 1959 replica Sox jacket and cap, but as soon as Ron Finke spotted me loitering among the Opening Day tailgaters, he invited me to join his group. Then I committed my only mistake of the day. I declined.

Finke, a resident of Lemont and a Sox fan for 27 years, may have set an Opening Day record: Most items grilled and consumed by 11 a.m.

"We've had garlic shrimp, prime sirloin, brats and burgers, and a few cocktails," he beamed amidst the myriad of fellow barbecueists on this most delightful of Opening Days. I'm not sure what possessed me to turn down the food and drink, a decision almost as stupid as enrolling in Latin as a high school freshman.

Later I made a sensible choice by heading for the exit - within 30 seconds of entering - at Bacardi at the Park, the Cell's answer to Wrigley's Captain Morgan Club. The place was mobbed and the food paled in comparison to what Finke prepared.

I walked out onto 35th Street, gazed across the pavement at what now is the Cell but used to be home to McCuddy's. Unlike Bacardi at the Park, there were no monstrous TV screens on the wall at the venerable old saloon. Instead Babe Ruth's bat hung above the bar while vintage photos of the Old Roman, Charles Comiskey, at his hunting retreat in Eagle River, Wisconsin, adorned the walls. Beer-drinking Sox fans spilled out of McCuddy's on Opening Day, but were kept close to the curb by mounted Chicago police. I miss those horses.

The sports apparel palace, Chicago Sports Depot, which opened in November on the north side of 35th, displays Sox, Bulls, Blackhawks, and Bears logos above the entrance. I saw no visible evidence of the Cubs, but, hey, the Sox get no respect at Addison and Clark so I suppose it's tit for tat. Nevertheless, I asked one of the sales assistants if they had any Cub gear. The young guy pointed me to the youth section where a few lonely, puny North Side T-shirts hung from one rack.

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Returning to the parking lot, I found a more forthright approach to the Cubs. Playing bag toss, the game of choice for all tailgaters, was a guy who probably paid upwards of $100 for his "Cubs Suck" jersey. No doubt inspired by his attire, the guy was a truly spectacular bag-tosser.

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Since I had seats in the very last row of the upper deck, I figured I had better get to the game since I haven't been going to the gym lately, and I knew the climb would be challenging. I carefully navigated the 21 rows to the roof without incident, but aside from one trip to the men's room, I remained in my wind-blown seat the remainder of the afternoon.

Being Opening Day, there was no shortage of over-served fans. The 20-something ladies sitting a row in front of us also set an Opener record. Most falls descending the steps from the 20th row: Five. The only casualty was one almost-full beer which was lost during a mid-game tumble. Of course, there may have been a few bruises and hangovers Saturday morning, but the Elias Sports Bureau doesn't track those.

The Sox have implemented an important improvement for the beer vendors. Gone are those god-awful plastic bottles being replaced by aluminum. Years ago vendors carried cases of cans and poured your beer into a nice Sportservice cup. This was a convenient feature since drinkers could stack the cups and make quite an impression by the time the seventh inning rolled around. This aluminum is shaped like a bottle, and the vendor simply opens the beer and hands it over. It's not perfect, but it sure beats plastic.

Of course, the fan exchanges the beer for $7.75. This 2012 pricing is pleasing to the vendors since only a serious tightwad would ask for the quarter change. Six dollars in tips per case is a fitting reward for a vendor climbing those daunting stairs.

Despite the post blocking our view of the left side of the infield, we were treated to one helluva game. A year ago Juan Pierre was dropping fly balls in left field leading to a string of losses, but on this day on that same turf Dayan Viciedo made a diving, tumbling catch to end the Tiger seventh with runners at second and third and the Sox leading 3-2.

If that didn't save the victory, then Alexi Ramirez ranging behind second base to turn Miguel Cabrera's hard grounder into a double play certainly did. Again, the Tigers had two runners on, and history indicated that the Sox probably weren't going to win this one. However, the pitching of Jake Peavy and four relievers kept the fearsome Detroit crew in check, and - get this! - three of the Sox runs scored after two outs. These kinds of events have been missing from the South Side in recent years.

The beat writers and columnists have documented the surprising start of the Sox, noting the combination of solid starting pitching - the four starters have a combined 3.78 ERA - dependable bullpen support, timely hitting, and the above-mentioned defensive gems.

Tending to his cache of food and beverage, Ron Finke pointed out, "I'm looking for a better White Sox season than people think." Then he paused, surveyed the parking lot full of fellow Sox fans, took in the warm breeze and proclaimed, "I'm just enjoying the day."

We all were.

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Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox beat. He welcomes your comments.

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