Cubs dash fans' hopes on Opening Day

April 5, 2012

You get off the L train, walk through the crowds and pass the Ernie Banks statue. The old organ music from inside Wrigley Field is the backdrop to the whole scene.

How is anyone — how am I — supposed to remain unemotional? How many thoughts, feelings, memories pass by on Opening Day at Wrigley Field?

For all that is cynical about sports, Opening Day is still Opening Day.

And then, you go over to the gate by the old fire house, and …


This is the exact spot where fans were mobbed, trying to find Steve Bartman after blaming him for the NL Championship Game in 2003. They wanted to beat him. When I got near him, a beer bottle flew by my head. Ah, the memories. Not be cynical? How is a Cubs fan supposed to do that?

You are pulled in two directions here: the magic of Opening Day and Wrigley Field, and also the 100 years of bad. Every year you get your hopes up on Opening Day and then the Cubs find some new way to make you pay for it throughout the summer.

Thursday wasn’t just any Opening Day for the Cubs. It was the first one of the Theo Epstein era. Epstein did it for Boston, so now it’s time to do it here. He’s the new magic potion. In fact, he’s already credited for the ivy on the outfield wall. It’s up and turning green months before it usually does.

“That was impressive,’’ Epstein said on the field before the game. “I was just telling somebody last night, I hope that’s a good omen.’’

The omen would come a few hours later, when the Cubs were about to finish off Washington ace/phenom Stephen Strasburg. In came pitcher Kerry Wood, the face and symbol of the Cubs for a decade. He walked three batters in a row, mixing in a wild pitch. He gave up the tying run, and then closer Carlos Marmol gave up the winning run. Nationals 2, Cubs 1.

There is your omen, Theo Epstein. Welcome to the Cubs.

“This is the Cubs year. I really do believe that,’’ Bill Murray said.

Yes, that Bill Murray, celebrity Cubs fan. He threw out the first pitch, ran around the bases and slid into home, and also sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame’’ during the seventh-inning stretch.

So I asked him, during the eighth inning: Why is this the year?

“I don’t ever want to be the guy that says, `This isn’t their year.’ And then it’s their year. Then, I’d have to kill myself. I’ve spent my whole life. . .

“All I’m going to do is root for them every game. I think this is their year because I’m there.’’

Murray remembered his first Cubs game, as a kid. His brother took him to see them play the Brooklyn Dodgers. TVs were black and white back then, Murray said, so he didn’t know what the park would really look like.

His brother held Bill’s hands over his eyes as they walked up the stairs and into the stands. Then, Bill uncovered his face.

“When I saw that ... it’s the Emerald City,’’ Murray said. “It’s just the most amazing thing you ever imagined. So beautiful. I’ll never forget that.’’

Murray manages to keep his optimism. That is one type of Cubs fan. Some fans think of Wrigley as a hopeful place, with mystical properties like a goat jinx. Or, the idea that some mope in the stands who tried to catch a foul ball was actually responsible for the Cubs giving up eight runs in one NLCS inning. Some fans, thanks to the night games and the bar district that is Wrigleyville, are young adults wishing they still had some place to go for a frat party. Their choice: the bleachers.

And then some fans hit the wall, find a last moment that they just can’t get past. For me, it was Lou Piniella. The Cubs were definitely going to win with him. But they didn’t. They never do.

This will be the 104th year in a row that the Cubs won’t win the World Series. They have never won it while playing at Wrigley. And at some point, Wrigley Field simply becomes a museum to losing.

But now, they are starting over again with Epstein, who has tried hard to make sure no one expects anything this year. He said he the pressure is in building “a championship caliber organization. We know nothing we can go out here and do on Opening Day is going to prove that or accomplish that. It’s a grind to get there, and this is one day of it.’’

It is amazing that any Cubs fans would accept a call for patience. Their whole life has been patience.

So far, Epstein has spent most of his time sweeping out the mess. He has added heavily to what was once an incredibly understaffed front office. He has put big money into international scouting, and into the draft. And he has gotten rid of as much dead wood on the field as possible. Carlos Zambrano and Aramis Ramirez are gone. No one would take Alfonso Soriano.

The moves have allowed Epstein to start filling out the roster with his type of player, the type that fights hard and builds up numbers in stat categories that sabermetrics people buy into. These players also are taking short-term contracts.

Wrigley has changed over the years, but still feels like a park for a picnic. This year, someone took down the sign on the apartment building across the street that told how many years it had been since a division title, a pennant, a World Series win. And the Cubs have added a video board on the right field wall.

Murray said he remembered when they would cook smoky links in the walkway. He misses that.

“But this stuff looks all right,’’ he said. “I went to Fenway last year, and Fenway (used to be) a dump. They made some great improvements to that place. Sox Park (White Sox's U.S. Cellular Field) is like an architectural hazard. But they’ve made Sox Park nicer.

“It’s still beautiful (at Wrigley). I don’t think these new LED signs take anything away, particularly. … The signs and the advertisements don’t mean anything if somebody hits a home run in the bottom of the ninth. They’re just screaming and yelling.’’

The Cubs almost hit that homer Thursday. Later, the guy who almost hit it, Ian Stewart, was thrown out at the plate trying to score on a ground ball.

The Cubs were beating Strasburg 1-0 in the eighth inning. The Nationals had already taken him out. This was going to be another Tuffy Rhodes moment. (He hit three homers off Dwight Gooden on Opening Day in 1994.)

You know, in the winter at the Cubs Convention, Chicago had vowed not to re-sign Wood as a publicity stunt. Roughly 10 minutes later, the Cubs announced to a big crowd that they had signed him. He walked in to huge applause.

Then, he blew it.

It’s the little things that make the difference in these close games.

That’s the new mantra, under new Cubs manager Dale Sveum. So they worked on details in spring training. Then on Opening Day, Soriano, on bad knees, tried to steal third. Stewart made an error. Wood walked three in a row.

Same old Cubs? No, Wood said. Things have changed.

“We’ve got a bunch of new faces in here, a new attitude,’’ he said. “And there are 161 (games) left.’’

A hundred and sixty-one.