Long-lived fan throws out first pitch

Long-lived fan throws out first pitch

CHICAGO -- The Cubs have waited 100 years. Leo Hildebrand waited longer.

Hildebrand, a 104-year-old Cubs fan, received his life-long wish to throw out a first pitch at Wrigley Field on Saturday. Wearing a No. 104 jersey, he stepped out of his wheelchair, shuffled to a spot 30 feet in front of the mound and hurled a pitch that bounced once before finding Kerry Wood's glove.

Hildebrand didn't come to the ballpark ready to throw. Wood surprised him with the plan an hour beforehand, a special gesture from the longest-tenured Cub to one of the club's oldest fans.

"What a wonderful day," the 5-foot-3 Hildebrand said to Wood. "Let's make it even more wonderful by winning."

Maybe this wasn't 104 years in the making, but it certainly took hard work. A neighbor at the Bridgeway of Bensenville retirement community clamored for the wish to come true last year, but the club can't honor every request for a ceremonial first pitch. In August, a newspaper article shed light on Hildebrand's situation.

Surely, he thought, that attention would get him on the field. He practiced for three weeks and managed to throw a ball as far as 30 feet. Earlier this week, the Cubs relayed bittersweet news. Yes, he would get to come to a game. No, he wouldn't pitch.

"At first, he was disappointed he wouldn't be able to throw," said Arlene Burm, Hildebrand's 69-year-old daughter. "Still, he really got excited."

The Cubs compromised with four free tickets and a chance to meet the team. Not knowing about Wood's surprise, Hildebrand, his daughter and his son, Alan, held court during batting practice outside the Cubs' dugout. Several current and former players paid visits, signed autographs and joked with a man who, in Airwalk shoes, embodied the struggle of a Cubs fan.

"I've been waiting a long time for this," Hildebrand told center fielder Reed Johnson.

"It's gonna happen," responded Johnson, perhaps referencing a division title on the horizon, something bigger down the road, or both. "We've been waiting a long time, too."

Hildebrand doesn't remember much from 1908 -- he was only 4 years old. He holds one distinct Wrigley memory, though.

"The one highlight that I can talk about in baseball: I was watching here at Wrigley Field. I saw Babe Ruth hit the now-famous [called shot]," said Hildebrand, who was 28 in 1932. "He pointed out there, and that's where the ball went out."

Hildebrand said he once played golf with Ernie Banks, his favorite Cub. Banks and his Hall of Fame teammate, Billy Williams, greeted him before the pitch. Williams was told that Hildebrand had been a Cubs fan for 85 years, since the day he moved from Texas to Chicago.

"That's a long time to stick with the Cubs, isn't it?" Burm said to Williams.

"That's a true fan," Williams said.

Nick Zaccardi is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.