On day of Phase 5 reopening, the stands — and hearts — filled up at Wrigley Field

There was only one place for the Cubs and Cardinals to be.

SHARE On day of Phase 5 reopening, the stands — and hearts — filled up at Wrigley Field
St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs

Craig Kimbrel and Willson Contreras congratulate each other after the Cubs’ 8-5 victory.

Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

How much do they really understand America’s pastime in jolly England, anyway?

Enough to grasp how odd it is to see the Cardinals’ Yadier Molina, one of the great catchers of his era, have a run-scoring passed ball and a run-scoring throwing error in the same half-inning?

Enough to appreciate the size and spectacle of Cubs slugger Anthony Rizzo dragging reliever Daniel Ponce de Leon through a 14-pitch at-bat and finally — still choked up on the handle, as is his two-strike custom — launching a game-tying home run into a sea of delirium in the bleachers?

Enough to realize Joc Pederson should’ve had a two-run, go-ahead triple instead of a two-run, go-ahead double, but, hey, sometimes a guy just has to stare at the ball off his bat awhile and maybe it’s not the end of the world?

Enough to love every moment of it all on a magical day like Friday?

From the press box at Wrigley Field, I found myself looking out at all the delighted, sun-kissed fans in blue or red — “100% capacity!” actor Bill Murray hollered during the seventh-inning stretch, though it wasn’t quite that — and thinking about where the Cubs and Cardinals were supposed to be this time last year.

Any guesses?

Indeed: London. If not for the pandemic (admittedly, a hollower phrase than that couldn’t be found), baseball’s best rivalry would’ve been staged June 13 and 14, 2020 at London Stadium. We’re sure it’s a nice place.

But Big Ben isn’t just a clock, Buckingham Fountain isn’t just a bubbler and Wrigley isn’t just a ballpark. There was only one place for these teams to be on an afternoon of reopening — of rebirth — as Chicago joined the rest of the state in Phase 5. Of course, it was Wrigley, which opened its doors and its aisles to as many as could fill the joint.

Fifteen months after the sports world shut down, COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are far down enough here that we can give thanks for it while watching a baseball game with 40,000 of our closest friends.

“A lot of emotions,” Cubs manager David Ross said, speaking for one and all.

Before the Cubs’ 8-5 victory, Ross spent some quiet time thinking about the last time he’d been in the home dugout at Wrigley with a full-size crowd surrounding him. It was 2017, his first year after hanging up the catcher’s gear for good, and he was here for a ring ceremony. The time before that? Game 5 of the 2016 World Series. What memories.

This was a long time coming for all involved. When June rolled around last year, there had already been weeks of nasty infighting between Major League Baseball and its players’ association. Numbers of potential games and percentages of prorated salaries were being bandied about, with accusations flying in both directions of bad-faith negotiating tactics. And then came shutdowns at multiple spring training sites as teams were hit by positive test results. We really had no way to know if there would be a 2020 season at all.

Eventually, teams reported to big-league stadiums for condensed training camps. Then-Cubs pitcher Jose Quintana had a crazy dish-washing accident. Stars Yu Darvish and Kris Bryant spoke openly about being scared, but weren’t we all? Of getting sick. Of getting someone else sick. Of ignoring — or of listening to, depending on your line in the sand — infectious-disease experts.

The Cubs were the model in 2020, adhering to protocols with uncommon earnestness. They are much less of a model now, one of only about one-fourth of big-league teams that have failed to reach the 85% vaccination threshold for coaches, players, trainers, etc. As we learned Friday, Rizzo — the longtime team leader — is among those who have chosen not to be vaccinated. That group is making it impossible for the Cubs to begin to move on from certain pandemic-related restrictions that the Cardinals and at least 21 other teams have freed themselves from.

“I believe the science is clearly behind [the vaccine],” general manager Jed Hoyer said, “but obviously not everybody agrees with that.”

So it wasn’t quite a perfect afternoon at Wrigley. But Hall of Famers Andre Dawson, Fergie Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg, Lee Smith and Billy Williams were on the field. New Bears quarterback Justin Fields was in the stands for a lengthy ovation. Murray revved up the crowd. Even the celebratory “Go, Cubs, Go” sounded a tad less cheeseball than usual.

OK, I retract the previous sentence. “Go, Cubs, Go” was as cheeseball as ever. On a day of rebirth, that was just what the doctor ordered.

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