CHICAGO — Opening day is finally here, and the Chicago Cubs already have made some big news.
No, it’s not the signing of outfielder Derek Dietrich to a minor league deal, though Dietrich did announce on his Instagram page that he’ll play on the Cubs taxi squad in South Bend, Ind.
The real news was the announcement of the long-awaited carriage agreement between Comcast Xfinity and Marquee Sports Network, which will provide the majority of TV-watching Cubs fans in the Chicago area with a chance to watch their team play.
Crane Kenney, the business operations president for the Cubs, told WSCR-AM 670 the multiyear deal was almost done before the originally-scheduled opener on March 26. The coronavirus outbreak paused the season on March 12.
“So it took us a little longer,” he said, admitting it was “unnerving to watch” for Xfinity subscribers and calling negotiations “multidimensional chess.”
Kenney said the Cubs also expanded their reach to Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, which was important to the organization because of the number of Cubs fans in Indiana.
It was a long and winding road for the Cubs, but all’s well that ends well. Marquee is now on Ch. 202 in high definition on Comcast and started broadcasting Friday morning.
Kenney also told the “Mully & Haugh Show” the Cubs hope to have a limited number of fans inside Wrigley Field by Sept. 1 and believes there is “a path to do that” with a plan to seat fans while being socially distant.
Currently the league and the city do not allow fans inside stadiums. Concessions would be brought to fans instead of having them wait in line, Kenney said.
“We’re looking down the road at 2021, and we’re not sure life will be that different next year,” he said. “So anything we can do to have a little bit of a glimpse of how we’ll have to operate the stadium next year, this year would give us one year to plan for it.”
The Cubs’ season opener against the Brewers is scheduled for 6:10 p.m., with Kyle Hendricks facing Brandon Woodruff. The rooftops will be open and the ballhawks will be out on Waveland Avenue, but otherwise, the usual Wrigleyville scene will be muted. The Cubs will pipe in fake crowd noise to try to create a more normal environment for players and fans watching on TV or listening on the radio.
The Cubs added more advertising to the ballpark Thursday to help make up for the revenue losses from the lack of gate receipts and set up cardboard signs in center field written by children in support of the players.
There are no cardboard cutouts of fans, as several other teams are doing. Chairman Tom Ricketts told broadcaster Len Kasper on Kasper’s podcast he wasn’t sure the cutouts would be a fit in the unique settings of Wrigley Field.
As we saw on opening night Thursday in Washington, both teams are likely to make a visual statement on the Black Lives Matter movement, either by taking a knee during the national anthem, displaying support on shoulder patches or both.
Cubs manager David Ross said the team is “supportive” of the movement but declined to say what they plan to do.
“I think you’ll see our group’s message (Friday),” he said. “And then we can address that then.”
Baseball is behind the NBA and NFL when it comes to speaking out against systemic racism, but Cubs baseball operations President Theo Epstein, along with White Sox vice president Ken Williams, have been instrumental in ensuring the game becomes more vocal in its support of the movement.
Epstein said he was “proud” of the way Cubs players have openly discussed social injustices, noting the unity it has created inside the clubhouse.
“I don’t want to get ahead of things, but you’ll see (Friday) how unified they are, how thoughtful they’ve been in engaging in this extremely important issue,” Epstein said. “And I think they’re poised to be part of the solution.”
Ross said baseball has “a lot of strides to make, and there’s a lot of listening we all can do to be supportive. Continue to grow as human beings and listen to our hearts and what’s right.”
As for the last-minute decision by MLB to expand the postseason from 10 to 16 teams, Ross said he had “mixed thoughts.”
“I’m a believer (that) baseball is a game about overcoming adversity, and this is as big of an adversity as you can put yourself in,” he said. “The team that did the best job (during) the downtime of being prepared and staying ready should be rewarded.
“Whether that’s the big market team or a team that wasn’t even on the radar to make the playoffs — if they play well in these two months they deserve to get in and fight for a championship.
“I’m probably a little bit against expanding it. Let’s make it mean something. Let’s get after it from day one. I think everyone is into the sprint mentality, and I’m into it and every game matters. Let’s not water anything down.”
Epstein seemingly was more open to the playoff expansion. The existing format was fine, he said, but “if they want to expand it before the first pitch of the first game, we’ll certainly be on board.”
Either way, opening day is here, and it’s a good time to count your blessings and enjoy a brief respite from the numbing news about the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We all have an awareness of what the country and the world, what we’re all going through,” Epstein said. “That concern never goes away, but through all the crises we’ve faced as a nation and all the tragedies, there’s always been a place for baseball as a helping hand of sort to assist people in getting back to normal and helping the country as a whole get back through it.
“It’s always been about our ability as an industry to pull this off safely, but if we can continue to do that, what a great feeling that will be to provide some much-needed entertainment and joy to people who have been through so much already this year in a number of areas.”
©2020 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.