In Chicago, south of Madison Ave. is White Sox territory. Growing up in Stickney, Ill., close to Midway Airport, Aaron Nieckula spent his childhood dealing with White Sox fans. As his friends were touting the credentials of Frank Thomas, Harold Baines and Carlton Fisk, Nieckula was the best ballplayer in town rooting for the enemy team.
"I grew up a Cubs guy, so I kind of grew up in the minority, in enemy or hostile territory," Nieckula said.
Now employed by the Oakland A's as manager of the Class A Kane County Cougars, Nieckula has an American League and a National League team. While Nieckula calls himself a "company guy," his heart has not so quickly forgotten his first love.
"I've gone to many a Cubs game throughout my life, and I still do with my wife," said the 32-year-old. "She's an avid Cubs fan, too."
On Tuesday, Nieckula will lead the Cougars into an unprecedented Minor League game at Wrigley Field against the Peoria Chiefs. While the game will notably be Peoria manager Ryne Sandberg's return to the Friendly Confines, and a chance for Cubs fans to see their Peoria affiliate, it will also be a chance for an Illinois lifer to live out his lifelong dream.
"I haven't really thought about it yet, haven't put it into perspective," he said. "It's Wrigley Field, it's the best ballpark in the Major Leagues. Biased opinion, of course, but it's how I feel."
After high school, Nieckula didn't stray too far from home, going to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. The A's picked him in the 22nd round of the 1998 First-Year Player Draft, which then began a five-year career in the Minor Leagues. Nieckula would reach Triple-A in 2002, but he would hang up the spikes following that season, before he could get a taste of the Major Leagues.
In 2004, "Nuke" -- as he has long been nicknamed -- received an exciting assignment in his first year as a hitting coach in the A's system: head back to Illinois. While, ultimately, the catcher says it is "absolutely" his dream to coach in the Major Leagues, coaching just miles from his former stomping grounds is a nice first step. It has allowed Nieckula, wife Renee and baby daughter Ariyana to make a home in Aurora, near Nieckula's family.
"That's another thing that's a blessing," he said. "I've taken full advantage of this opportunity in terms of spending time with friends and family, and time with my wife and now my daughter. To be home and sleep in your own bed, have your morning coffee on the porch, read the paper. Just to spend quality time with family and head out to the ballpark, it's a great situation."
The manager will ask his wife to make a longer drive than usual on Tuesday, to join a crowd that will shatter the Midwest League's single-game attendance record in christening Wrigley Field as a Minor League stadium.
"To have the opportunity to play on Wrigley Field ... in a professional, albeit Minor League level, in front of however many fans show up, it's an exciting opportunity to manage or play."
Nieckula said it will be impossible to be in the dugout and not think about the historical significance of the event. He related it to the recent All-Star festivities in New York.
"It'll be like players or coaches going into Yankee Stadium, and all the history that's there. If you're a visiting player, I'm sure it can be overwhelming."
However, more than anything, it will be enjoyable for the young manager. His players praise the manager for being easy to relate to, but he says he won't be able to say much to them before the game in Wrigley to sum up the experience. Many of the Cougars hail from other parts of the country, so for the manager from Illinois, it's hard to tell who will regard the experience as more significant than him.
"Obviously, for some people, it might be a little more special than others, being a Chicago guy, growing up in the Chicagoland area," Nieckula said. "I'll do what I need to do and enjoy doing it."
As far as pregame pep talks, Nieckula doubts it will be necessary.
"I don't know if you can. You talk to them about it, but you let them go out there and enjoy the experience, see how they respond," he said. "You certainly don't want to get in the way of a positive experience."
Nieckula will wake up on Tuesday morning in the comfort of his Aurora home. He will have his coffee, read his newspaper and see his wife and daughter. The bus likely won't pass Stickney as they head to the North Side, but it will be on Nieckula's mind. The boy that was once chastised for his boyhood fandom will live out his dream on Tuesday, though he hopes it's just a sign of things to come.
"All these guys have dreams to play or coach at the big league level someday, so to have a taste of it while in the Minor League level, it's going to be a great experience."