Jason Kaestner is a long-time contributor to The D & Davis Show and WARR who is now based in Washington D.C.
After a prolonged road trip to start the season and a (somewhat) unexpected snow day, baseball returns to a further rejuvenated Wrigley Field as Opening Day has finally arrived to Clark and Addison.
If the weekend results from Miller Park are any indication, it will have been well worth the wait for Chicago Cubs fans. After what ostensibly amounted to an extended spring training across two disjointed series in Miami and Cincinnati, the Cubs won three of four against the Brewers and were competitive in the sole loss to their northern neighbors. For now, let’s assume the most recent series at Wrigley North served to set the tone moving forward.
In addition to the timeless uniforms, winter-browned ivy, and cold temperatures, much about Opening Day will feel familiar to fans tuning in and coming through the turnstiles this afternoon. Familiar faces will be abound around the diamond and in the outfield as essentially all of last season’s position players return.
Julianna Zobrist and Wayne Messmer again have been tapped to sing “God Bless America” and the national anthem respectively. Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies return to the television broadcast as do Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer in the radio booth.
Several things, however, will be noticeably and appreciably different. In the Ricketts/Epstein era, unveiling stadium improvements have become an annual rite of spring. This year is no exception.
The most visible difference has to be more spacious dugouts that are set further down the foul lines. New box seats ring the field in the lower bowl along with mandatory protective netting past both dugouts. American Airlines 1914 Club opens as well, and fans will benefit from wider concourses thanks to the elimination of food carts. Outside of Wrigley itself, Hotel Zachary has opened across Clark Street with a replacement McDonald’s clearly the least exciting amongst several food options there.
Though the Cubs active roster will look largely familiar to any fan who hasn’t paid attention since the NCLS, the exceptions could prove significant over the course of the season. Fifth starter Tyler Chatwood is still scheduled to make his home debut for the Cubs today.
In stark contrast to last year’s fifth starter, surly veteran Texas hurler John Lackey, the 6’0” 185 pound California native’s nickname is “Chatty.” If Chatwood can provide anything close to his impressive career numbers (0.69 ERA) at Wrigley Field over the course of a full season, he will undoubtedly be the talk of the town.
Gone are Jake Arrieta and Wade Davis. In their place, are Yu Darvish and Brandon Morrow. Darvish is not set to make his Wrigley Field debut as a member of the Cubs until Thursday in the first of three games against the Braves.
Cubs fans likely won’t have to be so patient awaiting Morrow who is tasked with reasonably filling the void left by Davis and proving he can build off of his 2017 playoff dominance. Lanky righthander Steve Cishek rounds out a partial bullpen revamp. Those four new faces are equaled on the coaching staff, as Chili Davis, Jim Hickey, Will Venable, Brian Butterfield provide new voices to a young yet established roster.
The possibility that back issues keep Anthony Rizzo out of the home opener looms large and the most important news out of Monday’s postponement proved why as the clubhouse leader is scheduled to sit for 10 days. Should his absence from the lineup persist, Cubs fans will already have genuine cause for concern in early April. Hopefully the cautious handling of Rizzo is rewarded and soon.
What does this stability and progress mean to Cubs fans? Certainly, enjoyment. Championship-level success may prove more allusive though. Besides the “is Rizzo healthy enough?” questions remain that it is hard to believe that they are better than the perceived World Series favorite New York Yankees or even their toughest National League competition including the Dodgers, Nationals and maybe those pesky Brewers. This Cubs team feels on par with last year’s Divisional winner rather than with the pace-setting 2015 club.
Should fans expect championship caliber play? Yes. Should they literally bet on an actual championship in 2018? Probably not. Then again, as the saying goes, that’s why you play the games.
Either way, this is exactly what Theo Epstein promised us all — a place at the table year in and year out — when he joined the organization. Once again Cubs fans, enjoy this.
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