(Photo Courtesy Dan Gaken via Flickr)

A Home Opener Fit for a King

The Cubs Raise the Banner and Walk Off against the Dodgers

The early spring is harsh in the windy city. The wind bites as the temperature drops to below freezing that would temper even the most optimistic expectations for baseball fans. But the fans that resided within the walls of Wrigley Field on this night would not be dissuaded by the bitter cold or the torrential rain. These fans had come to watch a coronation of the reigning champions of baseball, and would not be disappointed.

With the opposing dodgers huddled down the first base line in their winter jackets and face covering thermals, the Cubs players were unaffected by the cold as they were introduced. The “Rocky” soundtrack played in the background as the Cubs players took the field with the majestic gold of their championship jerseys flowing behind them. Not even the most frigid of nights could temper these champions of men, these legends of the north side.

Wrigley field looked different this year. The familiar minor league look of exposed bullpens were replaced with a cleaner periphery as the bullpens were moved under the bleachers, a one way mirror absconding the pitching staff and coaches from the field of play. There were also four new flagpoles erected behind the bleachers in the outfield, two on each side of the historic Wrigley scoreboard. The music from Rudy made the sentiment palpable as the flags were raised for the 1907 world championship by Ryne Sandberg, and 1908 world championship by Fergie Jenkins. With a sense of both excitement and torment, the wind slowly unfurled the banners with painstaking tediousness as they were raised high into the damp, dark Chicago night. The royal blue of the banners, enclosed with the crisp red tones only brightened the bold white letters within.

Billy Williams raised the smaller 2016 National League Champions flag before the main event took place. Each of the Cubs players from the World Series championship team lined up next to the final flag pole. Where once could only be found bleacher bums who took their only solace in throwing home run balls back onto the field, the team that made the impossible a reality slowly began to raise the penultimate flag. One at a time each took their turn and the flag crept steadily higher, until the forked pennant finally stood atop the right center field pole, exclaiming the deeds of those who raised it.

The impossible had been a reality to the north side for a little more than five months. The faithful many that had made Wrigleyville their home had waited for this moment with anticipation since the summit had been breached. And as the blue flag waved in the cold late night air, the white letters brilliantly glistened; “Chicago Cubs 2016 World Series Champions.”

The small stadium of 41,000 cubs fans erupted like it was the final out all over again. All the trophies and all the Clydesdales in the city of St. Louis couldn’t take down the flag that hung now over the Wrigley Field bleachers. And all the hype for Cleveland could not undo what was done to them after the 17 minute rain delay on a cold night last November. What that banner means to cubs fans, to the lifelong faithful, and to those fans that would never live to see this day, was the fulfillment of a promise. The promise that for so many years seemed like just a dream; the promise that one day, it was going to be our time.

Monday night, it was our time. And the eyes of the baseball world would be nowhere else.

Like a scene from a movie, the gates opened and the golden clad championship Cubs team marched out from under the bleachers onto the still damp field. AC/DC was playing on the loud speakers, and Anthony Rizzo was carrying the World Series trophy. The Ricketts family was standing near second base when the team met them. The Cubs first baseman lifted the Commissioners trophy high above his head to thunderous applause from the stands filled with cell phone cameras and tear filled eyes. Tom Ricketts took the trophy and walked to the pitcher’s mound, where again he held it aloft, as an offering to the greatest fans in baseball, on the greatest night of this young 2017 season.

It’s a memory that’s a lifetime in the making. And Jon Lester took the mound against the visiting Dodgers to make sure it would be a game to remember.

3 time World Series Champion and Cubs Ace (Photo Courtesy Doug Harting via Flickr)

The relationship between Jon Lester and his new permanent catcher Willson Contreras would be the most important factor in prospects for the 2017 defending world champions. The catcher commands the infield, and for the ace of the Cubs staff-his eyes and ears behind the plate (all while calling pitch location and progression). In short the 24 year old catcher for the Cubs will determine if Lester can remain effective in this, his 11th year in the majors.

The nail biting moment would come in the top of the 6th when Jon Lester found himself in a jam. Leading 2–0 Lester started to see his control waiver. The home plate umpire had been squeezing the edges of the zone, and Joc Pederson worked a leadoff single. With 1 out, Forsythe singled to center, followed by a Seager double down the right field line to score Pederson from second base. The score was 2–1, and Justin Turner was coming to bat. The Dodgers third baseman was just handed a contract extension for 4 years, and was being groomed as a power hitter for the wealthiest franchise on the west coast. On a 1–1 count turner popped up to center fielder Jason Heyward, who loaded up and fired the ball to the catcher Contreras to keep the tying run safely at third base.

Scott Van Slyke found himself in an 0–2 count quickly as Lester bore down and hit his spots. And on a 2–2 count, Van Slyke rolled his bat over the top of a low fastball, just punching it into the still moist ground and feebly sputtered towards arguably the worst fielding pitcher on the Cubs staff — Jon Lester.

Willson Contreras knew that Lester could not make it off the mound to throw out the runner at the plate, so like any good catcher would do, he took it upon himself to bail out his pitcher. Contreras sprinted towards the ball as it leered to the left of the mound. 40 agonizing feet from home plate he reached down and plucked it from the grass. There wasn’t enough time to even tap the ball into his glove, but Contreras did it anyway, and threw a strike to Anthony Rizzo on first base to get the final out of the inning. Disaster had been averted, and the young catcher had proven himself an asset to the seasoned veteran pitcher. But the game was not yet over.

After the Dodgers tied the game in the 8th inning on a bungled double play thrown that should never have left Addison Russel’s hand, the game was still in doubt into the 9th inning. A single up the middle and ball that skipped past Bryant’s glove at third base set up a 2 on with 2 out situation for the Cubs new closer Wade Davis. Facing Logan Forsythe, Davis turned it on, and struck him out on a high fastball on the outside corner to end the threat.

Bottom of the 9th inning had come for the Cubs. Jon Jay fought off a high changeup from Sergio Romo to get a leadoff single into right field. Tommy La Stella chopped a grounder over the pitchers head for a fielder’s choice to advance the runner into scoring position. The reigning NL MVP headed towards the batter’s box, but the night would not belong to him. Jon Jay advanced to third base on an amazingly good jump. This appeared to distract the Cubs third baseman as Bryant swung and missed a high fastball to strike out. The Cubs were down to their final out of regulation and Anthony Rizzo stepped up to the plate, the winning run 90 feet away.

Fans: There is no way this night could get any better! Rizzo: Hold My Beer! (Photo Courtesy Ben Grey via Flickr)

The Cubs first baseman choked up on the bat, standing there in the box with a cloud of his warm breath billowing in the icy wind. On a 1–1 high fastball Rizzo sent the ball over third base down into the left field corner. Jon Jay touched home plate as the cubs team charged the field in their gold plated jerseys to celebrate with Rizzo as he rounds first. The Crowd erupted once again into cheers, the fledgling mass of people suffering through 4 hours of rain, cold, and pageantry to see an amazing walk off win. The W flags are unfurled as “Go Cubs Go” is sung for the first of many times at Wrigley Field.

Summer has returned to the north side of the windy city, and the championship trophy has found its new home. The twists and turns of last season have been forgotten, soon to be replaced with the unfolding drama of another summer in the bleachers. But for one night, for this moment, the storied history of the Chicago Cubs was put on display for the world to see.

The ballpark at Clark and West Addison has become our Field of Dreams. And for Cubs fans, tonight was the first of many on our continuing journey with our beloved Cubbies. And the joy that we all found was worth the wait.

Big Ben Martin has a big deep love for his Chicago Cubs. They say that everything is bigger in Texas, and based on Big Ben’s love for the Cubs we would have to agree. When not playing the role of Big Ben he might be found as his alter ego Big Cynical Ben on Twitter.

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