CRYSTAL LAKE – With one on and one out in the top of the first inning, Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo stepped to the plate for his first at-bat of the season.
“Come on, jack one,” said Tom Witt, who was watching the Cubs' opening day game from the Buffalo Wild Wings in Crystal Lake.
Rizzo connected with the first pitch he saw, driving the ball out of the park and into the last row of centerfield seats at PCN Park.
“You called it!” yelled Joe Bersani, who was sitting three seats over at the bar. “That's how you start the season.”
Witt and Bersani are self-proclaimed lifelong Chicago Cubs fans, and aren't ashamed to admit it. They, like Cubs fans across the country, were watching Monday's season opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates with tempered optimism.
Between bites of spicy garlic wings and sips of beer, Witt and Bersani went back and forth, predicting how the Cubs will finish and debating when's the right time to bring up minor leaguers Javier Baez and Jorge Soler.
They trust Theo Epstein, love Starlin Castro, and are scared to death of Carlos Marmol.
“The infield is loaded,” Witt said. “Rizzo, Castro, Barney, all those guys are young. It's gonna come down to the closer.”
“Third base is the biggest issue,” Bersani said. “Stewart isn't the answer.”
Monday's game marks the 105th season opener since the Cubs won their last World Series. That lack of postseason success might scare off the casual fan, but that title doesn't apply to Witt and Bersani.
Bersani hasn't missed a Cubs home game in 20 years. He's had the same people sitting to his left, right, front and back at every game for the past 10 seasons. The beer vendor in his section knows him by name and buys him a cold one every year on the home opener.
Witt remembers going to Cubs Conventions as an 8-year-old boy, hiding out in the kitchen and waiting to meet players as they walk by.
To true fans, the Cubs are more than a baseball team, and Wrigley Field is more than a stadium. Rooting for the Cubs is a job, Bersani said, and one he doesn't take lightly.
“I've been taking my 23-year-old daughter to Wrigley Field since she was 6 months old,” Bersani said. “She's grown up at Wrigley.”
And true fans stick by their team, even after years of heartbreak.
“True fans will never slam the club,” Witt said. “Bandwagon fans will. They'll be negative toward the team when things get tough. Not real fans.”
Witt believes that Epstein can turn things around on the North Side, although he knows it's a long process.
“The culture is changing,” he said. “They're no longer going to be the lovable losers.”
The conversation continues throughout the game. They talk about the problems at middle relief and the first time they saw Bill Murray. Bersani remembers running onto the field in the 1960s, and the two bemoan the time when Ernie Banks was robbed of what would have been his third consecutive MVP award.
The Cubs beat the Pirates 3-1. The conversation remained lighthearted and optimistic.
But then again, it's only opening day.