The final days of the Cactus League are achingly familiar.
Players generally are tired of playing meaningless exhibition games after six weeks in Arizona and are eager to get the season going.
General managers basically know who will make up their 25-man rosters and are only checking the injured list to make things official.
Managers have announced their opening-day starters, and the opening lineup already is done in their heads.
But this spring’s Cactus League was like no other, of course, because of the COVID-19 outbreak that shut down the sports world.
Spring training ended midstream on March 12 before final decisions were made, and now that we’re down to the final days of summer camps on the North and South sides, the Chicago Cubs and White Sox still are evaluating their plans.
That’s why the two exhibition games Sunday and Monday at Wrigley Field and Sox Park could carry more meaning than your typical end-of-camp affairs. And after a few weeks of exclusively playing intrasquad games, taking on your crosstown rival should be a refreshing chance of pace.
Unlike the Cactus League, the Chicago League is an exclusive club of two. But after four months without baseball, the two Cubs-Sox games will be must-see TV, even if the stars aren’t playing all nine innings.
“We’re going to do the same thing,” Sox manager Rick Renteria said. “You guys have seen all of our guys out there playing the intrasquad games. We’re still trying to get as much as we can out of it, still be limited in how deep we take them.
“We want to make sure that all our guys that have been working are going to be able to start the season healthy. Everyone will be able to see most of the guys that we have here in camp. And it’s unique to everybody.
“Just the fact that we’re going to be able to play, go to the North Side and play against each other, that will be a little different. It will be nice to get out there and see what it feels like to play against an opponent and get ready for a season.”
Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said the games won’t have any more meaning than a typical Cactus League game but will be interesting nonetheless.
“It’s going to be a different environment because our guys are going to be so excited to play against a different uniform,” he said. “More excitement. It’s going to be important for our guys to get the feel of a real game.
“We’re sort of used to having these intrasquad games. ... I think everyone is looking forward to Sunday. It’ll make things seem real in some ways. ... Yeah, I think the guys are totally ready for it.”
The usual animosity that accompanies a Cubs-Sox game will be absent without fans in the stands. The players don’t really care as much about the other team in town, though there’s no question former Cubs prospect Eloy Jimenez loves doing damage against his old team. He keeps the broken bat he used to beat the Cubs with a ninth-inning homer last summer on display in his home in the Dominican Republic.
In truth, this year the players all are on the same side in the big scheme of things, trying to minimize their chances of contracting COVID-19 to ensure the season comes to a successful conclusion with a World Series in October.
“We’re trying to take as few risks as we can and be as smart as we can,” San Francisco Giants outfielder Hunter Pence said. “It’s a weird paradox. We’re 30 teams but also one team because if any one person messes it up, he can mess it up for everyone. It’s one of those interesting seasons that’s pretty special in that we’re all working together and all these decisions add up in a big way.”
Sunday night’s game will be special for Cubs skipper David Ross, who will be managing at Wrigley for the first time, almost nine months after replacing Joe Maddon.
He already has pulled off one big surprise.
Yu Darvish was penciled in by the media as the opening-day starter as early as the Cubs Convention in January. That narrative continued through spring training and into summer camp. But Ross on Thursday named Kyle Hendricks the starter for Friday’s opener against the Milwaukee Brewers based on Hendricks’ strong showing in the shortened camp workouts and games.
So if there is one thing we’ve learned about Ross the manager that we didn’t know about “Rossy” the player, it’s that he won’t be predictable. Last week a reporter told him it would be more important to use starter Alec Mills twice a week instead of once.
“Good consideration,” Ross replied with a straight face. “We’ll continue to think that process through and (consider) your advice as we work through this.”
Obviously this is a man who is comfortable in his own skin.
Down on the South Side, Renteria returned to camp Thursday after missing time for a family issue. He stayed in touch with the Sox via texts from coach Joe McEwing while using the MyTeams app to watch whatever was streaming on NBC Sports Chicago.
“That’s my team, obviously,” Renteria said. “I know we have Blackhawks and Cubs and Bulls and everything, but I’m a baseball guy, so I have the White Sox plugged in. I’m able to watch them and I could hear the boys calling the game and was able to watch what I can.
“In watching it as both their manager and as a fan, I could tell you that I was pretty excited just to see and hear the crack of the bat and see those guys moving out there and enjoying themselves playing the game. I’m sure, even though fans aren’t in the ballpark, they’re going to be able to enjoy major-league baseball, Lord willing that we get it on track and are able to get it all through. Maybe we can bring a little distraction to everybody during this moment in time and use it all to our benefit.”
The crosstown rivals will play six times during the regular season, including the final three games at Sox Park. While they may be seen as upstarts, Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal said last winter they’re not looking to steal any attention from the Cubs.
“We’re just looking for success,” Grandal said. “If, at the end of the day, we can have a Chicago Cubs-Chicago White Sox World Series, that’s great for us. We’re going to be sleeping in our own beds.”
The journey starts next week, but for Cubs and Sox fans, the appetizers will be served Sunday and Monday.
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