CHICAGO – At 7:55 a.m. Friday, a man wearing a generic hat stepped onto Red Line train No. 903 and ushered himself to the back. He sat down, tucked his chin into his chest and spent the next 15 minutes or so wondering if anybody would notice him. Nobody did.
This is still a baseball town, if by only a slim margin, and the Chicago Cubs are the city's preferred team, in spite of themselves, and it nonetheless registered a bit odd that Mike Quade – the behatted gentleman and also the manager of the Cubs – could make it all the way to Wrigley Field without a single person stopping him. He didn't even need a mustache or wig.
"I've watched enough detective movies. I can disguise myself," Quade said. "I saw a guy wearing a Cardinal hat, so I sat next to him. I knew he wouldn't recognize me.
"I can throw a hat and jacket on, sit in the back of the train and do what I do. Keep my head down. I almost have to do it. I don't want to be inundated on a day when I've got so much on my mind. But I can't help trying to get the flavor of the ballpark and the neighborhood. Especially on a day like this."
This was Quade's first opening day as a big league manager. He replaced Lou Piniella toward the end of last season, went 24-13 and had the interim tag excised from his job title. Though it wasn't the most popular move in Wrigleyville – the fan favorite, Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, ended up decamping to the Philadelphia Phillies' organization when told he didn't get it – Quade's Chicago bona fides tempered real anger.
He is a born-and-bred North Sider, a Cubs fan from birth, and the train thing: It's not some ploy to endear himself to fans. He has taken the El his whole life. He understands, too, what it means to root for the Cubs, something that comes only from experience, because rooting for them has meant a lifetime on the treadmill. There is not a Cubs fan alive that remembers the last time the team won a World Series. The oldest known Cubs fan is 106 years old, and she was 3 at the time.
Quade knows what opening day means here: not just the first time inhaling the unique smell of Wrigley – a potpourri of beef and peppers offset by the old-cheese funk of a building approaching its 100th birthday – or the Old Style-lubed excitement in the bleachers or the beauty of box seats so close you can hear the tobacco juice ricochet off the ground. And not Eamus Catuli – the sign on one of the 15 rooftops overlooking Wrigley that, loosely translated, means: Let's go, Cubs – and not the planes circling overhead because they know the pulse of the city shifts to Lakeview once baseball starts and not the ivy that hasn't started its brown-to-green transformation yet and not even Robert Redford throwing out the first pitch.
It means hope. So many Cubs seasons are dead by May, the promise and possibility opening day offers can tide over a disillusioned fan base. The Cubs' degrading from a 97-win season in 2008 to last year's pre-Quade implosion served as a stark reminder that no matter how good things can look, in Chicago they come studded with caveats.
"Hope is good," Quade said. "Excitement is good. And in my situation, given my path here, just perseverance. You can get it done. You can find a way to get to this point."
Quade is 54, not old for a first-time manager but not young, either. He spent more than a decade managing in the minor leagues before joining the Oakland A's as a coach. On his first major league opening day, his name was mispronounced. It's KWAH-dee, not Kwade.
One time last fall, Quade was on the Red Line, taking his normal route, head tucked in the back, when someone approached him. "Mike Quade?" the man asked. He even pronounced the name right. Quade was impressed. He then listened to the man suggest how Quade could turn the Cubs around.
Managing the Cubs is baseball's equivalent of "The Hurt Locker," a job with landmines and hazards and a remarkable ability to rob your sanity. Quade is the Cubs' 51st manager. Nobody since Leo Durocher has lasted more than five years. Durocher last sat in a Cubs dugout in 1972.
Quade wanted it anyway. It’s a beauty of Wrigley: The place makes everyone a believer. The Great Chicago Fire would be nothing compared to the blaze of excitement that would swallow the city if the Cubs actually won a World Series. The payoff makes faith easy.
If this is their year – an unlikely-at-best prospect – Friday certainly wasn't their day. Pittsburgh's Neil Walker(notes) mashed a grand slam off Ryan Dempster(notes). Andrew McCutchen(notes) bopped a two-run homer. The lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, with their under-.500-season streak threatening to reach two decades, came into Wrigley and spoiled Quade's big day. His parents were there, as was his brother, and the 6-3 tally on the rain-soaked scoreboard left one piece of Quade's perfect puzzle missing.
It's about hope, though, and excitement, and especially perseverance, something Cubs fans keep reminding themselves is a virtue. They may not recognize their manager yet, but they believe in him simply because he's the manager. And they'll come to know him soon enough.
Quade is moving to the neighborhood this week. He'll leave his train rides behind and walk to the ballpark, hat on, head down, incognito as Chicago will allow. If the Cubs really do start winning, he may need that mustache and wig after all.