John McGrath

John McGrath: Sunday night opener in Chicago? Say it ain’t so

The Major League Baseball season opens Sunday night at Wrigley Field in Chicago. There is so much wrong about this I don’t even know where to start.

The baseball season isn’t supposed to open on a Sunday night in Chicago. It’s supposed to open on a Monday afternoon in Cincinnati, where the Reds play the only game on the schedule.

Furthermore, night baseball and Wrigley Field are as incompatible as smartphones and church. It’s been 27 years since the Cubs appeared under the lights at home for the first time, a festive occasion that found the novelty turning stale around, oh, the top of the second inning or so.

But former commissioner Peter Ueberroth, a savvy businessman born with the soul of processed cheese spread, forced the Cubs either to install lights at Wrigley Field or play future postseason games elsewhere.

The Cubs and the residents surrounding Wrigley Field reached a compromise – 18 dates a year on assorted weeknights – but because TV ad revenues are much more lucrative for night games than day games, and because the Cubs’ lawyers are better at winning than the Cubs’ players, the compromise turned out to be as sturdy as a damp paper towel.

This season, it’s possible more than half of the team’s 81 home games will be played under the lights.

As for Wrigley Field, it won’t look much like Wrigley Field during the Sunday night opener. The ballpark, which opened in 1914, is in the early phase of a four-year reconstruction project that required a demolition of the left-field bleachers for a video board.

Although new bleachers should be occupied by June, the video board’s incongruous presence in the outfield alters the essence of a sports stadium steeped in the charming notion that it didn’t have video board, or commercial signage, or any other distraction at odds with the beauty of an ivy-laced brick wall glistening in the sun.

If it sounds as if I regard Wrigley Field as a second home, it’s because it’s a second home. A treasured childhood memory is of climbing the stairs into the centerfield scoreboard with my dad and godfather, watching Chicago Bears football games through a window pane.

Jerry Jones never could conceive a luxury box more inviting than the dark underbelly of the Wrigley Field scoreboard. Amid the aroma of cheap cigars and the clatter of the telegraph – we learned of the out-of-town scores before everybody else – I thought: This is my world. This is where I belong.

The scoreboard will survive the renovation, but only as a relic. All eyes figure to be fixed on a video board showing replays and stats and, between innings, fans giddily waving to a camera they can’t see.

Wrigley Field’s transformation from a ballpark treasured for its 19th-century simplicity to a stadium that embraces 21st-century gaudiness makes me sad and mad, until I realize the alternative: Razing the place for a shopping mall, and relocating to one of those suburbs without sidewalks.

So I go with the flow. More night games than day games? A sprawling video board that dominates left field and makes those majestic home runs onto Waveland Avenue – Dave Kingman once connected on a fastball that landed on a porch four houses north of Waveland – a memory?

Whatever. If my heart is broken by a video board, I don’t have much of a heart.

I wish the schedule began with the opener in Cincinnati. I wish baseball cards still smelled like bubble gum. I wish players wore pants that didn’t obscure socks with stirrups. I wish pregame warmups concluded with teams taking infield. I wish pitchers acknowledged applause by doffing their caps. I wish there were Sunday doubleheaders that started at noon and were done by 6.

When it comes to the sport I love the most, my wish list is long and cluttered with unreasonable nostalgia.

The 2015 baseball season begins Sunday night in Chicago, where the only action in the left-field bleachers will be on a video board.

I wince at the thought but count my blessings. A night game at Wrigley Field beats a 2 a.m. season opener in Asia, any day of the week.

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