Paul Sullivan: Chicago Cubs season at Wrigley Field saw both good times and bad, but throughout it all, the ballpark remains a special place

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Wrigley Field closed its gates one final time Sunday afternoon, ending its 106th season as home of the Chicago Cubs with a 4-2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.

There have been worse seasons in Wrigley’s history than 2021, though few as memorable after fans were allowed to return for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic forced teams to play in front of empty seats in 2020.

The vibe was mellow on a beautiful fall morning, with the Rolling Stones blasting over the PA system, the ballhawks camped outside in folding chairs and the grounds crew taking batting practice before the game.

Head groundskeeper Dan Kiermaier hit one into the left-field bleachers, giving him one more Wrigley Field home run than his brother, Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier.

The grounds crew also has a tradition of performing during the seventh-inning stretch at the home finale. If Wrigley Field is about anything, it’s about its traditions.

“You can lose sight of it from time to time when you’re in the grind, especially throughout the middle of the year,” Cubs starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks said before the game. “The fact we have a day like this, on the last day, you stop and look around and go, ‘Wow, how special is this?’

“Just hanging out in the outfield with your friends, knowing what we get to do for a living and where we get to do it, it really couldn’t be any better. Coming out and seeing the grounds crew hitting, singing the stretch (later), there are a bunch of traditions around here that make it a special place.”

As it turned out, the Cubs marketing department let country singer Thomas Rhett perform during the stretch instead of the grounds crew.

So much for traditions.

The Cubs finished with a 39-42 home record, in spite of a franchise-record 13-game home losing streak and the late July sell-off that saw most of their stars dealt for a slew of prospects, some of whom might never make it to the Friendly Confines in a Cubs uniform.

The Cubs came into the finale with an abysmal .240 average at Wrigley, though it was a vast improvement on last year’s franchise-worst .210 home average. And a few new names such as Frank Schwindel and Patrick Wisdom helped ease the pain for fans distressed over the departures of their favorites, especially the Big 3 of Kris Bryant, Javier Báez and Anthony Rizzo.

Those three are unlikely to return, but it’s just as well. You can’t re-create the magic of those 2015-16 seasons, as Jake Arrieta showed, and they created a bond with Cubs fans that will remain unbroken no matter where they land.

The renowned “ex-Cub factor,” a theory invented in the 1970s by a fan named Ron Berler, states that any playoff team with three or more former Cubs can’t win the World Series. It has been disproven, so it’s probably time for a new theory, ex-Cub factor 2.0: Any member of the 2016 championship team will forever be treated like royalty upon his return to Wrigley.

Bryant felt the love in his return with the San Francisco Giants earlier this month, causing him to break down in tears. Jon Lester and Kyle Schwarber experienced it during their return in May with the Washington Nationals, and Lester was even treated to a second homecoming this weekend after being dealt to the Cardinals.

Soon there will be Cubs fans rooting for the Giants in October and perhaps for Rizzo’s New York Yankees or Schwarber’s Boston Red Sox if either or both make it to the postseason with an American League wild-card berth.

The Cardinals? Sorry, Lester. Some things will never happen.

The high point at Wrigley might have come on June 11, when Rizzo homered against the Cardinals in an epic 14-pitch at-bat to spark a Cubs win, hours after admitting he declined to get vaccinated against COVID-19. It was the first day the ballpark was at 100% capacity since the end of 2019, and Wrigley went up for grabs, including in the press box, where actor Bill Murray cackled out loud, ignoring the “No cheering in the press box” edict.

Or maybe it was the night of July 26, when Báez hit a walk-off single against his old enemy, Cincinnati Reds reliever Amir Garrett, and taunted him while walking to first base. It was the last hurrah of the Big 3 before the trade deadline sent them packing.

Or perhaps it was a game you went to, as everything is more meaningful when you experience it in person.

The low point? The franchise-record 13th consecutive home loss on Aug. 22 may be the obvious choice. For me it was Aug. 11, when Arrieta told a reporter on Zoom after a 10-0 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, “I’d love you to take your mask off.”

Arrieta was released the next day, and though he’ll always be remembered for his heroics in 2015 and ‘16, the anti-mask message was a stark reminder that not everyone gets it.

The Cubs were one of a handful of teams that never made it to the 85% threshold of fully vaccinated Tier 1 personnel needed to relax MLB’s COVID-19 protocols — an embarrassment to President Jed Hoyer, who stressed the need to get to 85% to avoid being at a competitive disadvantage. Hoyer and manager David Ross, both of whom were vaccinated, later contracted COVID-19.

Strangely, the Cubs allowed UFC fighter Conor McGregor into the clubhouse last week, violating MLB protocols to appease a celebrity. Rookie Manny Rodríguez inadvertently outed McGregor in an Instagram post in which neither he nor McGregor was wearing a mask.

During the baseball shutdown in June 2020, I wrote that the Cubs should open the gates and allow fans to walk through the outfield of the empty ballpark, socially distanced of course. The idea was to bring back some normalcy when we were not allowed to enjoy the things that make Chicago great. Even without the Cubs, a few minutes inside Wrigley Field could’ve been therapeutic to many.

The column eventually was spiked when someone reminded me it was a bad plan, that risking the spread of COVID-19 for a few minutes of sunshine and ivy was a nonstarter. Not every idea works, though it would be nice now if fully vaccinated fans got to see the ivy turn color in late October, a sight we haven’t seen since 2016.

Alas, that’s wishful thinking, and except for the Northwestern-Purdue football game on Nov. 20, most of us won’t step inside Wrigley again until the 2022 home opener.

“It’s always tough at the end of the season at home,” Ross said before Sunday’s game. “It’s been a long time not going to the postseason, so to have a last game here at home and not be able to come back here for a long time, it sucks.”

Whether the Cubs are up or down, Wrigley Field will always be a special place that’s close to our hearts.

It reminds us how lucky we are to call Chicago home.

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