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PHOENIX, Arizona -- At last back at the ballpark after five and a half months, I was sitting there minding my own business, not expecting to see anyone I knew today, when my friend Joe, who used to sit with us in our section of the bleachers years ago, walked by.

He's out here for a week or so, and there weren't any open seats next to me so we went down about six rows, found an empty one, sat down and talked about everything from the game, to getting tickets, to weird coincidences like running into someone you know where you least expect it.

It was beautiful today -- 72 degrees with a few wispy cirrus clouds that overtook the sky and made a high overcast by game's end -- and the Cubs put in a solid performance, defeating the A's 6-4 behind some very good pitching from Greg Maddux, Mike Remlinger, LaTroy Hawkins, Chad Fox (whose hold on the open bullpen slot is getting more solid each outing) and Mike Wuertz, who finished up for his second save of the spring.

The crowd, a sellout of 9,361, was about half Cub fans and half A's fans, the A's fans using their team garb to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. There was a beer vendor who painted a really sad-looking green beard on his face, and put way too many necklaces of green Mardi Gras beads around his neck. But what really irritated me was this: the two seats in front of me were empty. Two men came by and said they'd sit there till the ticketholders showed up. The guy sitting in front of me was very tall, so I had to crane my neck to see the batter (17 rows back, just to the 3B side of the plate). Then the real ticketholders showed up -- at 2:00, an hour after game time. Why would you even bother?

Anyway, the guy whose seat it really was -- was even taller than the guy who left. Which was why I was glad when Joe showed up.

Maddux was very sharp today -- two of the runs he allowed were due to misplays by Jerry Hairston Jr. in LF. Hairston missed a fairly easy fly off the bat of Mark Kotsay in the 3rd. Maddux then hit Jason Kendall.

Kendall has made a career of this, but I thought Maddux was being really smart, trying to set up a DP. The strategy blew up as he walked Erubiel Durzao and then Eric Chavez singled in a run.

In the next inning Hairston lost a ball in the sun, leading to another run.

So when the next hitter hit a routine fly which Hairston caught, the usual sarcastic cheering followed.

In response to which, Hairston waved breezily to the crowd.

I like this guy!

Maddux also made prized A's prospect Nick Swisher look silly, striking him out three times, all swinging at pitches way out of the strike zone.

Meanwhile, the Cubs were lacing into Rich Harden. Hairston got one of the runs back himself by homering, a laser line drive that barely cleared the wall in left, and then four straight singles scored two more, all in the third.

Corey Patterson looked really bad again today, striking out twice on pitches that you should really sniff at, and no, it doesn't have anything to do with his batting order position (hitting 2nd today), it's the fact that Corey still has nothing even remotely resembling plate discipline.

There weren't a lot of decent souvenirs to be had, and food selection was mediocre and it was overpriced, so I didn't have any. I did buy a $5 program, just to have the rosters and as a souvenir.

The PA announcer didn't announce any of the defensive subs until the seventh inning, though the A's had switched out three starters in the sixth.

Man, it's good to be back at the ballpark!

Tomorrow, I will not make the drive to Tucson. Instead, if the weather holds up (it's supposed to rain, but not till evening), I may head over to the Cubs' minor league complex at Fitch Park and report on some of the prospects.

UPDATE [2005-3-17 20:53:25 MST by Al]: Well, you can tell it's the first day at the ballpark. I forgot something important. I saw quite a few people -- enough that I think it's significant -- wearing Washington Nationals gear. And this is 2500 miles from Washington.

The Nats may sneak up on some people this year. Remember where you heard it first.