Energizing atmosphere fuels Chicago Cubs win in Cactus League opener
MESA, Ariz. -- Saturday had the feel of a special day even before the sun came up in the desert.
Traffic controllers were out around Sloan Park, and some of the streets were closed to traffic.
Tailgaters began streaming into the parking lots not long after, as revelers lit grills and played bags.
The occasion was the Cactus League opener for the Chicago Cubs, who were playing their first baseball game of any kind since winning the 2016 World Series in November.
Even though the game -- won by the Cubs 4-3 over the Oakland Athletics -- didn't count, the anticipation was high, and the World Series trophy was on display behind home plate as the sellout crowd of 14,929 streamed in.
"The rally (Friday) was pretty significant," said Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of the pre-preason pep rally. "I think it was the 1,557th largest gathering in history of humankind. But it was really cool, everybody there. It was a nice vibe. Our guys came on out. I had my family out there, my kids, my grandkids.
"So my point is that's what just a rally looked like yesterday. Just driving in this morning, they're already blocking off the 202 (highway). You already see Cubs signs everywhere. The anticipation is going to be pretty large. It's great."
As far as the game goes, it was pretty much a spring-training opener. The regulars got a couple of at-bats and then scooted home.
Mike Montgomery, who got the save in Game 7 of the World Series, was the starting pitcher for the Cubs. He worked a scoreless first inning and was done after throwing 24 pitches.
He couldn't help but notice the festive atmosphere in and around the place. The players have to walk from the clubhouse across a path to the stadium and on Saturday that path was lined with fans.
"I had some adrenaline going today," he said. "It was something different. I hadn't had that for the last few months. It's fun. These fans are great. First time in that stadium. It was cool to see that, be back in that atmosphere and competing, and that's what we love.
"I've been in a few spring trainings now. It was definitely a different experience. It was actually hard to control the adrenaline today a little bit. It's a different feeling usually in spring, a little bit more laid-back. Today, and here especially, it was a lot of energy in there."
Right fielder Jason Heyward described the atmosphere succinctly.
"Second to none," he said. "This is preseason, so to speak, but that's what's great about spring training out here. Our fans don't take it for granted. Everybody wants to be a part of it. It's a fun ride, obviously as far as Cubs baseball goes. It's just Day 1 of another year. It's always fun being able to kind of translate this atmosphere into your regular-season atmosphere because it's not far from it."
In other words, look for this about every day the Cubs are at Sloan Park this spring.
"I guess we're sold out for the most part here," Maddon said. "Even though it normally is, I would imagine even more are just folks wanting to be around the place. It's going to be exaggerated. It's great. It's great for us. It's great for the organization. It's great for the city of Mesa. I've lived here for 20 years in the past. I know how closely tied this city is to the Chicago Cubs."
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