The calendar says summer doesn’t start until June 21. But after having to endure another gray, grim winter, nothing signals the start of the season in Chicago than the sound of that first pitch hitting the catcher’s glove on Opening Day.
In recent years we’ve been blessed with perennial title contenders in the Cubs — and, of course, that 2016 World Series win — and a White Sox team that’s been focused more on the future (though many of us still hang to those glorious memories of 2005).
Indeed, summer is when Chicago’s sports scene truly comes alive. In addition to the return of baseball, there’s the sweet sound of pads cracking together as the Bears return to training camp to prepare for their season.
But there are plenty of other ways to take in a sporting event and enjoy a nice afternoon or evening out while you’re at it. A look at some:
While our two MLB teams have been at opposite ends of the standings the last few years, both give fans (diehard and casual alike) plenty of reasons to head out to the old ballpark to catch a game or two.
On the North Side, the Cubs don’t usually need help drawing fans, but there’s more than just the chance to watch Bryant and Rizzo and gang in action to get you in the stands. The ongoing improvements to the ballpark and surrounding neighborhood continue this year, and fans can enjoy giveaways like free hats on June 20, 29, July 4, Aug. 3 and Sept. 4. And while the free Cubs Hawaiian shirts on July 3 look cool, we’re guessing the 1979-81 replica away jerseys on July 24 are going to be a big hit. Wrigley Field, 1060 W. Addison St.
The White Sox also have a full lineup of promotions to draw fans as they continue their rebuild this season. That includes $1 hotdogs Wednesdays, free T-shirt Thursdays, fireworks shows most Friday nights and Family Sundays, which offer discounts on tickets and parking and allow kids to run the bases after the game. Special this year will be events honoring retiring Sox broadcaster Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, including Hawk Day on Sept. 2. The always popular Elvis Night is on Aug. 17. Guaranteed Rate Field, 333 W. 35th St.
If the two big league teams aren’t enough to fill your baseball jones, the Chicago area is now home to six minor-league clubs:
• Making their debut this year are the Chicago Dogs, who will play their inaugural season in the new $63 million Impact Field in Rosemont’s entertainment district. The independent club will play in the American Association. Impact Field, 9850 Balmoral Ave., Rosemont, thechicagodogs.com.
• Just down the road are the Schaumburg Boomers, who are defending champions in the independent Frontier League. They also won back-to-back league titles in 2013 and 2014. Boomers Stadium, 1999 S. Springinsguth Road, Schaumburg, boomersbaseball.com.
• Also playing in the Frontier League are the Joliet Slammers, who used to be known as the JackHammers and whose current name is an ode to the area’s role in the state’s prison industry history. Silver Cross Field, 1 Mayor Art Schultz Drive, Joliet, jolietslammers.com.
• The third Chicago-area team playing in the Frontier League is the Windy City Thunderbolts, who are based in south suburban Crestwood and who used to be the Cook County Cheetahs. Standard Bank Stadium, 14011 S. Kenton Ave., Crestwood, wcthunderbolts.com.
• Like the Chicago Dogs, the Gary SouthShore Railcats are members of the independent American Association and play their home games just over the Indiana border. U.S. Steel Yard, One Stadium Plaza, Gary, Ind., railcatsbaseball.com.
• The only area team that’s affiliated with a Major League Baseball organization is the Kane County Cougars. The Cougars are the Class A team in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ farm system, and they play in the Midwest League. Fifth Third Bank Ballpark, 34W002 Cherry Lane, Geneva, kccougars.com.
Chicago has a long history with professional soccer, including the fondly remembered Chicago Sting, who won North American Soccer League championships in 1981 and 1984 and helped soothe a bruised professional sports fan base that hadn’t seen a title of any kind since the 1963 Bears.
Since 1997, the Chicago Fire has represented the city in Major League Soccer, playing their home games in south suburban Bridgeview since 2006. The Fire have won one MLS title (1998) and four Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cups, and last year broke a playoff drought after the addition of German star Bastian Schweinsteiger. Toyota Park, 7000 S. Harlem Ave., Bridgeview, chicago-fire.com.
Toyota Park is also home to the Chicago Red Stars of the National Women’s Soccer League. Among their stars is Julie Ertz, the 2017 U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year. chicagoredstars.com.
True, football is really a fall sport, but the Bears provide something to tide us over when they open up training camp in July on the grounds of Olivet Nazarene University, an hour or so south of Chicago in Bourbonnais.
The low-key atmosphere of the camp experience gives fans a shot at rare up-close interaction with the Monsters of the Midway. It features an area with fun activities for kids, special autograph sessions, giveaways and seats so close to the action you’re practically on the field with Mitchell Trubisky and gang. Olivet Nazarene University, 1 University Ave., Bourbonnais, chicagobears.com/events/training-camp.html.
NASCAR returns to Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet on July 1 with the Monster Series NASCAR Cup Series Overton’s 400. The big race actually caps four days of races at the speedway, with includes the ARCA Racing Series Scott 150 on June 28, the Camping World Truck Series Overton’s 225 on July 29 and the Xfinity Series Overton’s 300 on June 29. The speedway also hosts other events throughout the year. 500 Speedway Blvd., Joliet, chicagolandspeedway.com.
Adjacent to the speedway is the Route 66 Raceway drag-racing venue. It will host the NHRA Route 66 Nationals May 31-June 3 as well as other events throughout the year. route66raceway.com.
Once the annual home to the Western Open in Lemont, the Chicago area will not host a PGA tour event this year. But it will still be home to big-time golf when the Kemper Lakes Golf Club hosts this year’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship June 26-July 1. The event is one of the LPGA’s five majors. The field will feature 156 golfers, and by winning the 2017 event, Danielle Kang has already qualified for this year. 24000 N. Old McHenry Road, Kildeer, kpmgwomenspgachampionship.com.
Thoroughbred racing runs Fridays through Sundays through Sept. 22 at Arlington Park, along with a number of Thursdays in July, August and September, plus Memorial Day and Labor Day. The track hosts a number of promotions for families, including “value day” discounts on most Thursdays, plus other dates featuring promotions for young adults with drink specials and food trucks. The track’s premier event, the Arlington Million, is Aug. 11. 2200 W. Euclid Ave., Arlington Heights, arlingtonpark.com.
Hawthorne Racecourse hosts harness racing Thursdays through Sundays through September (along with Monday, July 2). It will also host a series of thoroughbred dates in October, November and December. The track also features a number of promotions on live racing days, and also offer simulcasts of races at other tracks on other days. 3501 S. Laramie Ave., Stickney, hawthorneracecourse.com.
Oak Street Beach will be hopping even more than usual Aug. 30-Sept. 2 when the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) brings The Championships tournament to the lakefront. The event is part of the AVP tour’s Gold Series and attracts the sport’s top athletes, potentially including former Olympians, to the shore of Lake Michigan. 1000 N. Lake Shore Drive, avp.com/event/gold-series-championships-in-chicago.