Constable: Banners rise, bullpens fall
Since that first Chicago Cubs Opening Day at Wrigley Field in 1916, the season's home opener has subjected Cubs fans to blizzards, monsoons, sleet, freezing temperatures, hail and a century of regret that last season wasn't "the year." Monday's Opening Night treated those fans to a first -- that dream-come-true of raising the 2016 World Series Championship banner.
Given how those 2016 Cubs benefited from a rain delay in Game 7 of the World Series that allowed them to refocus, it seemed fitting that Monday's ceremony at Wrigley was delayed almost two hours by sprinkles. When the Cubs raised banners for championships in 1907 and 1908, last year's National League pennant and the 2016 World Series Championship on new flagpoles next to the old scoreboard in center field as fireworks exploded, the crowd reacted just as they did during last year's postseason. They hugged, cried, cheered and captured it all on cellphones.
If those championship banners don't erase all the bad memories, the addition of those four new rows of seats down both foul lines obliterate one particularly haunting specter. Gone is the seat where a fan (I prefer not to use his name, which has become synonymous with Cubs' failure) reached for a ball down the left field line that Cubs left fielder Moises Alou was trying to catch during Game 6 of the 2003 playoffs. Since that fateful moment when the Cubs collapsed, blew a lead and the game and the series, fans have visited Aisle 4, Row 8, Seat 113, and posed for selfies or even given interviews to reporters. Now there is no Seat 113. It's been swallowed up by progress.
"And that's a good thing," said a veteran usher. "We didn't want to talk about that, and now we don't have to. But we can still point out the 'Ferris Bueller' seats."
That iconic 1986 movie proves that not everything from the old days are gone, and one forgotten relic is back. The Shawon-O-Meter, a folding, cardboard sign used to keep track of the batting average of Shawon Dunston, the popular shortstop from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, is proudly on display in a glass case labeled "Cubs Legends." You can look at the case of Cubs history that starts in 1876 while drinking a gluten-free beer.
During the rain delay before the ceremony, the giant video screen towering above the left field bleachers showed last year's catcher, David Ross, performing live on TV's "Dancing With The Stars," and Game 6 of last year's NLCS, when the Cubs beat the Dodgers to earn that trip to the World Series,
"I was here when they clinched the pennant. That was wild," Bernie Nash, 53, a lifelong Cubs fan from Glen Ellyn who considers the banner-raising a nice bookend to the last time he was at Wrigley. He's sitting in a seat that used to be right next to the opposing team's bullpen.
"These are still good seats, and those seats up there," he says, motioning to the four new rows in front of him, "cost $150 more."
Fans John Conenna, 57, and his 29-year-old son, Vince, of Elk Grove Village bought seats online in the first row, which used to allow fans the thrill of practically sitting with the bullpen pitchers. "That's what I was hoping for," admits the younger Conenna, who coaches junior varsity hockey at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights. "But I read that they cut out the bullpens."
The Cubs said it was for safety reasons. Players in the bullpen sometimes got hit by foul balls. Fielders sometimes tripped over the mounds while trying to make catches. An ump once got hit by an Aroldis Chapman fastball that got away from a bullpen catcher. And on May 16, 2000, a fan (possibly drunk) reached over the brick wall and stole the hat of Los Angeles Dodger catcher Chad Krueter, who responded by leading a contingent of Dodgers into the grandstand. The resulting melee made all the sports highlight shows.
It's as if those fans used to have beachside cottages on a friendly little lake, and they came back this summer to discover someone dredged the lake to accommodate a cruise ship, filled in the lakeshore and built condos in front of them.
The new bullpens are under bleachers, and fans can view them only on the video screen or through glass windows. "Please do not disturb the Cubs," reads a warning on the viewing area. "Kindly keep your paws off the glass."
I sat in those seats next to the old bullpen in 2011 when my youngest son and I were guests of another father and son, and the New York Yankees were in town. The relievers spent the first eight innings seeing who could flip or spit sunflower seeds across the foul line and into right field. As the 9th inning began, the bullpen catcher gave my son and his friend balls that legendary reliever Mariano Rivera had used during his bullpen tosses before he earned the save in the 4-3 win over the Cubs.
Very cool memories. But then again, so is seeing the raising of World Series Championship banner above beloved Wrigley Field.