CHICAGO — It took a while, more than most denizens of Wrigley Field were willing to wait, but Anthony Rizzo made sure the ending of the Chicago Cubs‘ banner night was as memorable as the beginning. Amazing, in fact.
For a while, Monday felt like Cubs fantasyland, with the sun out, the temperature warm for early April and hordes of blue-clad fans descending on Wrigleyville to raise a banner 108 years in the making. Then, about two hours before the game, the sky opened up, and fans checking out the brand-new Park at Wrigley adjacent to the stadium had to scurry for cover. The rain eventually stopped, and the party resumed.
Then about an hour before game time, just as Cubs architect Theo Epstein was talking to the media in front of the dugout, the wind changed direction and, in an instant, early arrivals in the stands began reaching for their jackets. The cold air was followed by a storm, delaying the ceremonies for nearly two hours and threatening to put a damper on the much-anticipated evening. From the looks of the stands, virtually no one gave up hope, because when introductions finally began, Wrigley Field was filled to capacity.
“It was a special night,” Cubs starter Jon Lester said. “Something that will go down in my book that I’ll remember for a long, long time.”
As a team, the Cubs headed into center field. One by one they disappeared through a door in the center-field wall to raise their flags, joined by franchise legends Ryne Sandberg, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins. When they re-emerged, Rizzo led the way with the golden World Series trophy held aloft. Fireworks went off, David Ross’ appearance on “Dancing with the Stars” flashed on the video board, Wayne Messmer sang, AC/DC blared on the sound system and the 41,166 in attendance went nuts.
“That pregame ceremony, I wasn’t expecting to get hit with that many emotions,” Rizzo said. “It was amazing.”
Then, after all that, the Cubs had to play a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The weather change and rain delay made for a frigid evening on a windy night that foreshadowed what would be a low-scoring affair. Lester held the Dodgers to a single run over six innings before leaving with 100 pitches on the nose. He also drove in a run on a grounder, and Chicago led 2-1 when he departed.
If Lester had turned out to be the Cubs’ star of the night, it would have been fitting enough. It was his arrival as a lauded free agent before this Cubs group had actually won anything that hinted to the baseball world what was to come. Yet there was Rizzo, the first big acquisition of Epstein and Jed Hoyer when they landed in Chicago, the strapping, blonde-headed All-American guy whose anointed status as the team leader was exemplified by his carrying of the trophy.
“I’ll remember this day for as long as I play baseball,” Rizzo said. “That pregame ceremony, I really didn’t think — the Cubs did an amazing job. Videos, the tribute. It was amazing.”
The problem was that Rizzo not only hadn’t done much during Monday’s contest, but he had gotten off to a start this season so slow that maybe, just possibly, it could have been approaching a concern. He entered the game 4-for-25 without an RBI, then was 0-for-3 with a walk through eight innings on Monday.
The Dodgers had tied the game 2-2 in the eighth when Addison Russell‘s relay throw bounced past Rizzo, allowing Logan Forsythe to race home. And as the clock passed midnight in Chicago and the weather grew ever more bitter, more and more fans gave up, seeking the warmth of home and heeding the alarm clocks that would be ringing too soon in the morning.
But then one of the newest Cubs, Jon Jay, worked Sergio Romo for a single and got into scoring position on Tommy La Stella‘s roller. That sent Dodgers manager Dave Roberts to the mound to get Romo and summon the irrepressible Kenley Jansen from the newly hidden bullpen behind right field. This did not seem to be an ideal spot for Rizzo to break out of his funk.
“Their guy, Jansen, is ridiculously good,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.
Turns out, it was the ideal spot. Rizzo poked a Jansen fastball up the left field line to score Jay and clinch a 3-2 victory, setting off one more celebration at the end of a very long day.
“Choke up and put the bat on the ball,” was how Rizzo summed up his strategy against Jansen.
And who would have it any other way?
“That’s huge for Rizz,” Lester said. “Early in the season is so hard for those guys. What’s he batting, .170? It’s a weird time for those guys.”
In a way, it’s a weird time for Cubs fans, who will now filter into Wrigley Field and see a new championship banner flying in center field. It is literally something no current Cubs fan has ever seen. After Tuesday’s off day gives everybody a chance to catch their breath, the Cubs will receive their World Series rings in yet another ceremony before Wednesday’s game. Of course, Rizzo will have a hand in that too.
“I was fortunate to be part of the process,” Rizzo said. “I don’t know how you top tonight, but then you get the ring. I think it will be amazing.”