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Schwarber isn’t dead, but Cubs’ loss is great

Joe Maddon greets Kyle Sch introductions before the Cubs' home opener against the Reds on Monday. | Nam Y. Huh/AP

You see this at NFL games, but not on home Opening Day in baseball: the beloved, injured player hobbling onto the field during pregame ceremonies, crutch under arm, to wild cheering from the fans.

That was young, left-handed slugger Kyle Schwarber on Monday night as the Cubs lined up along the third-base line after the visiting Cincinnati Reds had lined up along the first-base line at Wrigley Field.

It was a touching moment, reminiscent in an archival, lesser way of Babe Ruth staggering onto the field at Yankee Stadium in 1948 to say goodbye, or even Lou Gehrig, the Ironman, saying in 1939, “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got — yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

The difference is Schwarbs is only 23, he hurt just his knee five days ago, he is lost only for the season (we hope), and he didn’t say anything to the standing-room-only crowd.

All he did was tip his cap.

There is lots of rehab work ahead for this second-year kid who took the Cub Nation by storm last year and made the whole army love him for his vicious, snake-tongue-fast lefty swing that put baseballs out of the park in stunning fashion.

But he’ll be back. He’s not dying, ma! He’s only adjusting to the unfairness of life.

Yet the huge video board in left field showed a brief, ominously scored video of Schwarber from last season, crushing a ball to right, as if perhaps the young man and his skill had flown off to join the angels and would never be seen on earth again.

The video, of course, showed the most stunning of the Schwarber rocket shots, the one that came during Game 4 of the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals in the bottom of the seventh off pitcher Kevin Siegrist. That ball seemed to disappear into the night sky.

It was discovered later on the roof of the scoreboard down the right-field line. 

The ball was encased in plastic, where it landed, by Cubs management. Thus did the huge red “Budweiser’ scroll atop the scoreboard become part of the secular shrine to Saint Schwarbs.

The revered ball was removed by the Cubs after the season, to prevent thieves from scaling the sign and stealing it. But it has been put back. And, like Schwarber himself — out for at least this season with all kinds of torn ligaments in his left knee — the ball can only be nodded at in gratitude.

Just when the Cubs were seemingly on the way to great things, the Schwarber-Dexter Fowler collision happened, blowing up the kid’s leg in the process. To lose a player like Schwarber after four games, both for his talent and his attitude, is crushing.

Symbolic thoughts of goats, black cats and reaching fans flash to mind.

The ceremony reminded Cubs fans of just that.

Still, the team has a lot of talent, and, fortunately, a bunch of lefty bats. So the former Ohio high school linebacker won’t be missed horribly right away. But in time — as the long season rolls on — he will be. Badly.

“He is a huge part of our identity,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said before the game. “The way he plays the game, the way he treats people, the way he interacts with his teammates.  So it was devastating for a lot of people to lose him.”

Schwarber is feisty and gritty.

But “only in a great, tough way,” Epstein said. “He’s everyone’s favorite guy. There isn’t a player that doesn’t love him.”

The poor man hasn’t even had surgery yet. Doctors say they need to wait for the knee swelling to go down first.

Though he was in left field when he was injured, Schwarber considers himself a catcher, and catchers’ knees need to be sturdy. So his toughness in rehab will be essential.

Epstein and crew “fell in love with him during the scouting process,” the president says. “Then we’re in the room deciding on drafting him or a starting pitcher first — and he says, ‘Well, starting pitchers only go once every five days — they can’t impact your culture the way an every-day player with a big personality, who is a ‘connector,’ can.’ ’’

Feisty, honest. Done deal.

Indeed, when Theo questioned Schwarber as to whether he thought he would be a big-league catcher or play another position, the then-Indiana junior roared, “I’m tired of people saying I can’t [expletive] catch!”

You can build your team around a guy like that.

Oops.

Every time Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel threw, Schwarbs was going to be his catcher. Then, likely, he’d catch more and more.

That’s what he was going to do.

Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com