CHICAGO – Greg Fizdale is about to become a father.
Fizdale’s wife, Leslie, is eight months pregnant with the couple’s first child. If her pregnancy were any further along, it might have interfered with Fizdale’s annual guys trip from Indianapolis to see the Cubs’ home opener Friday at Wrigley Field.
“I was telling her it was good timing,” Fizdale, 35, said with a grin before his eighth consecutive home opener. “Because I probably would have missed the birth.”
Fizdale was kidding. At least, I think he was kidding.
The only certainty is that the party has returned to Wrigleyville after one of the most miserable winters in this city’s history. And judging by the packed bars, crowded sidewalks and filled stadium before Friday’s game, Cubs fans will party regardless of whether their team finishes first, worst or somewhere in between.
Granted, those fans might leave a few innings earlier than they used to, as was the case during the Cubs’ quiet 7-2 loss against the Philadelphia Phillies. But every game on the North Side draws a crowd, and Opening Day continues to be extra special.
Across the street from the stadium, hundreds of people filled Bernie’s Tap & Grill. Eric Bonano arrived at 9 a.m. and found a spot in the outdoor beer garden, where he drank Budweisers in wind chills that crept to 28 degrees by game time.
“We don’t have a Mardi Gras here,” said Bonano, 37, who marked his 14th consecutive home opener. “And this is about the closest thing that there is to it.”
You want to know the depth of Bonano’s dedication to the Cubs?
“I actually dropped out of school in 2003 because I was following that 2003 season so much,” said Bonano, who was pursuing a political science degree at Northern Illinois. “I fell some credits short because I just missed class after class after class.”
Bonano wasn’t kidding. At least, I don’t think he was kidding.
Elsewhere in the noisy bar, passion teamed up with poignancy.
Juliann Atkinson of Winthrop Harbor wore a button with a picture of her late brother-in-law, Chuck Gesky. Atkinson sat beside Sara Ames, Gesky’s daughter.
Gesky attended 30 consecutive Cubs home openers before his death in 2009. His family has preserved the tradition as a happy remembrance of their loved one.
“We come out for him,” said Atkinson, 59. “Every opener. And we won’t miss it.”
Nobody was going to miss it, not at Bernie’s or any of the other establishments in the neighborhood that were buzzing long before the first pitch.
Long, long, long before the first pitch.
“I was getting here at 7:30 in the morning, and I was getting poured on by the rain, and the visitors’ gate was locked,” said Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg, who played 15 seasons with the Cubs. “So I stood there and then I figured out I had to go in through the Captain Morgan Club, which was packed with fans and cameras.
“So, that was my entrance to the ballpark. It was a little tough entry, but just the memories of driving up and getting close to the neighborhood and seeing the ballpark every year, I always felt the excitement when I saw the ballpark.”
The Captain Morgan Club was jam-packed, but I did manage to squeeze in to the Cubby Bear at the corner of Clark and Addison after visiting Bernie’s. There, I met Scot Gibson of Glenview and his brother-in-law, Chris Hemp of Poplar Grove, who huddled over a table of Miller Lites, tater tots, Buffalo wings and Chicago dogs.
Gibson, 52, arrived at 7 a.m. to celebrate his 10th consecutive home opener.
“My dad used to take me down here when I was a little kid,” Gibson said. “I’ve been watching these guys since the ‘60s. I would never root for another team.
“There’s no better place to watch a ball game, anywhere, ever.”
Other stadiums offer way better amenities than the 100-year-old Wrigley. However, like Sandberg, new Cubs players do not take Wrigleyville’s atmosphere for granted.
Relief pitcher Justin Grimm grew up in Bristol, Va., which has a population of about 17,000. He’s gratefully adjusting to the Cubs’ behemoth fan base.
“When you’re on your way to the park and you’re driving through Wrigley, you kind of get this feeling that comes over you, like, ‘It’s go time,’ ” said Grimm, 25. “You see all the people, you start to get excited. Honestly, I can’t really describe that feeling.”
It’s part expectant-father excitement and part in-memoriam bittersweet. It’s part skipping-school devotion and part since-the-’60s tradition.
“I love the team, I love the neighborhood,” Bonano said before heading to the park. “It’s very welcoming and open to having a party.
“And if you’re going to have a party about anything, why not have a party with the team that you cry and bleed with, year after year?”
After year, after year, after year …
• Shaw Media sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.