As Cactus League slate kicks off, the Cubs are feeling a sense of normalcy again
PEORIA, Ariz. — Some things were very, very different in the Cubs’ Cactus League opener against the Padres Monday afternoon.
There was a 5th Inning Stretch, the game ended after the 7th inning and the outfield grass was littered with big white rectangles to separate fans. Oh, and the Cubs were playing a National League team they haven’t faced for a full year.
The Cubs’ 1-0 win also represented a big step forward — back to “precedented” times.
Kyle Hendricks threw 2 shutout innings, the Cubs defense looked crisp (turning three double plays) and David Ross’ squad utilized small ball to plate their only run on a P.J. Higgins groundout.
More important than the result: Baseball is back.
After the first winter of the pandemic, after a 2020 MLB season that felt more like a dream than real life, baseball is back.
“It’s nice just to get back and play baseball against another uniform and one you haven’t seen,” said Ross, whose Cubs didn’t play the Padres in 2020. “Every step feels like you’re getting back to a little normalcy and this is another day where it feels like we’re heading in that direction.”
Some fans were allowed inside the Peoria Sports Complex — 1,636, to be exact. The Cubs still draw well on the road, with a hefty volume of cheers every time the Cubs made a nice play or got a hit.
With the socially distanced crowd, it felt more like the 15th inning of a regular season game where every shout from a fan could be heard throughout the ballpark. There was a guy offering to buy Anthony Rizzo a pizza and somebody else loudly wishing the Cubs’ No. 94 (Brennen Davis) would hit the ball to the Padres’ No. 94 (Eguy Rosario).
Make no mistake: Fans were a welcome addition back into the mix and it took no time for the teams to get used to playing in front of a crowd again.
“You heard everything,” Hendricks said. “I was expecting almost to have to adapt back to having fans now. But it felt so normal. We’ve had it like that for so long — our whole lives. Seeing them back out there, it brought more energy, more positivity.
“We were just having fun out there. Hearing people yell at you or whatever they do, that’s all part of it. We love it. It really felt like a real baseball game — a lot more than any one did last year.”
There’s always a sense of optimism and hope in spring training, but this Cubs camp has felt different than in past years. After essentially being robbed of the game for a year due to the coronavirus, there’s a renewed vigor that’s palpable every minute of the day, from baserunning drills to bullpens to the first Cactus League game.
Ross admitted this spring feels new and fresh. After the shutdown, 2020 was basically about simply trying to survive from one day to the next.
“It was kind of a scramble and we were just making the best of a new situation for everybody,” Ross said. “It’s nice to be back and mapping things out for guys again, spreading out the workloads.
“I think it’s been really rewarding and makes me feel really good about the drill work, the intensity that these guys are going about their fundamental work. Whether it’s bunt defenses, first and thirds — all the stuff that we’ve put into practice, they’ve done with energy and just really clean.”
The Cubs are also able to spread out at their complex in Mesa, cycling players in and out the clubhouse and weight room and batting cages.
Summer camp at Wrigley Field last year was a unique — and awesome — experience, but it was also one filled with anxiety and uncertainty getting acclimated to COVID protocols.
This spring has felt more like a normal ramp-up to the season.
“You don’t take it for granted,” Hendricks said. “Every day we go in there, guys are trying to get something out of that day. I think it has to go back to everything getting shut down and getting canceled and not having what we love to do readily available.
“Guys have definitely come in with that energy and the passion and knowing that you never know when your last game could be. Enjoying this opportunity to be as a group and go out there and win some ballgames.”