Newness is the theme of every Opening Day, and this year is no exception at Wrigley Field. This is my third opener at the Friendly Confines. Two years ago was memorable because it marked the beginning of the Cubs' era as wards of the Ricketts family. Thomas J. Ricketts was the face of the franchise from that day until last fall, when he hired Theo Epstein away from the Red Sox.
Ricketts has faded into the background a bit, working the behind-the-scenes crowd in the way an owner should. Lou Piniella, Mike Quade and Jim Hendry are all in the rearview mirror and Epstein's arrival gives Ricketts a nice big window of relative peace and quiet.
Ricketts gave a press conference on the field before the game which was notable because of the one lingering issue on his docket: the much-needed renovation of Wrigley Field. Ricketts classified the talks as "close." A couple of days ago, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel gave a speech in which he said that discussions between the city and the Cubs are in the "final stages." That's quite a leap from where the matter stood a little over a year ago, when outgoing mayor/White Sox fan Richard M. Daley summarily dismissed Ricketts' idea to use incremental increases in the city's already-existing entertainment tax to partially fund a Wrigley makeover.
No one really expects anything to be announced until after November's elections, but it seems like the Wrigley renovation project is now a matter of when, not if. It's really the only remaining obstacle for a franchise best known for losing, but is one bursting with unlimited potential. One wonders what would happen to the stratification of baseball if the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Angels, Dodgers and Cubs were all operating at optimum efficiency. Except for the Mets, the rest of that group is looking awfully strong in the big picture.
The Cubs have made some tweaks to the ballpark, most notably in right field where the thin section of bleacher seats next to the foul pole have been replaced by a new deck to be used for group outings and a high-def scoreboard. They did a nice job of integrating it so that it looks almost organic. For my part, I'm hoping that I'll finally be able to see the radar readings flashed up after pitches. You couldn't really see them from the press box under the old configuration, which resulted in me spending way too much time looking at the Pitch F/X screen on my computer.
Another tweak is that the media now enters the ballpark through a gate behind the left-field bleachers. This matters to no one except the media. I'm really not sure why they changed it. For me, it means that it's now more convenient to take the No. 22 Clark Street bus to the park instead of the Red Line El. I'll take that tradeoff.
Some other pregame tidbits:
- I tweeted about this yesterday (you can follow me at @bbdoolittle) but one of things that jumps out in the Cubs' clubhouse is the bulked-up physique of second baseman Darwin Barney. His upper body is much more chiseled than it was at any point last year, when he wore down and lost a lot of weight over the course of the season. In Arizona, he was reportedly hitting the ball with a lot more pop, but I wouldn't go comparing him to Dustin Pedroia just yet. Still, it'll be interesting to see if he can become more than an empty batting average.
- Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo addressed the trade request made by pitcher John Lannon, who was left out of Washington's Opening Day rotation in favor of Ross Deitweiler. Rizzo said nothing is imminent with Lannon but he spoke glowingly of the pitcher and said he told him, "You're going to help a major-league team this season, whether it's us or someone else."
- Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair is out of the starting lineup because of back issues. Instead of Chicago's projected cleanup hitter staring down Stephen Strasburg, Jeff Baker will be manning first base and Alfonso Soriano is hitting fourth. Oh well.
- Washington manager Davey Johnson said Strasburg is "good for 80 to 100 pitches" for his first start of the season. I asked a couple of Cubs if it might be a good idea to focus on lengthening at-bats because of Strasburg's limited pitch count, though when I did that I actually thought the powerhouse righty would be limited to 75-80 pitches. In any event, each Cub I spoke to pledged to stay "aggressive." Given Strasburg's command, I expect a lot of one- and two-pitch at-bats.