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Reflections on the cusp of the 2021 Cubs season

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This will be a watershed year for the team and for baseball.

Photo by @WillByington / www.willbyington.com

When I walk into Wrigley Field Thursday for the Cubs’ Opening Day game against the Pirates, it will have been 557 days since the previous time I was at a game at the hallowed ballpark on the North Side of Chicago. (That 2019 game, I’d rather forget, and you probably would, too.)

That’s a long time, 18 months plus a couple weeks. Much has happened in baseball, and the world, since then, and I’m not here to belabor the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended life everywhere.

Instead, what I’m thinking about is the 1973 Cubs.

Why 1973?

There are many parallels between the Cubs of 2021 and the Cubs of 1973.

Back then, a core of beloved players had posted winning records for six consecutive seasons, just as the current Cubs have. A new manager had taken over in the previous season, and hope was still eternal that the Cubs would win something, anything.

The parallels aren’t exact. Those late 1960s-early 1970s Cubs never won anything, unlike the current core, who have a World Series championship that none of us will ever forget. That earlier core of players was somewhat older than the current group; Fergie Jenkins, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Don Kessinger and Glenn Beckert were all in their 30s, while Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras are still in their 20s, and Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Hendricks are younger than any of the previous core, even though Rizzo and Hendricks are now over 30.

The other difference is that in 1973, baseball free agency was still a couple of years in the future. The reserve clause still held players to their teams unless traded or released. This year, Rizzo, Baez and Bryant could all walk after the season. That lends a great sense of urgency for this group, all of them aware that this could be their last year together as teammates.

There’s one thing that I hope the 2021 Cubs don’t parallel with the 1973 group. In 1973, the Cubs roared out to a 48-33 start in the first half of the season. They led the NL East by eight games. It felt as if at last, finally, that group of beloved players would make the postseason and perhaps even win the World Series.

They ran out of gas. They went 17-37 in July and August, at one point losing 31 of 39 (!), including an 11-game losing streak. A five-game winning streak in September brought them to within 2½ games of first place with eight games remaining, but they couldn’t get closer. Still, the 1973 Cubs weren’t mathematically eliminated from the division race until the final Saturday of the season, the latest elimination date for the team since the pennant year of 1945.

That ballclub was broken up and traded away after the 1973 season.

This year’s team might very well be broken up after the season with departures to free agency and trades even if they do make the postseason. And we are looking at a potential work stoppage for 2022 because the collective-bargaining agreement between players and owners expires in December. Given the atmosphere between those parties over the last year or so, I am not optimistic they’ll make a deal.

Thus the sense of urgency.

Incidentally, if the Cubs do have a seventh consecutive winning season in 2021, that will be their longest such streak since they had 14 straight winning seasons from 1926-39, an era that included four NL pennants.

This baseball season, as for life in general, will begin to feel as if things are getting back to normal. Wrigley Field will have 25 percent of its seats filled for each of the six games of the first homestand, about 10,000 fans per game. Players and coaches have all said that they miss us, that they feed off the energy that fans bring to games. I believe them. We are part of the fabric of baseball and I’m happy to be going back to the ballpark. I attended 12 Spring Training games at Sloan Park this month and felt safe there. The Cubs did an excellent job on the COVID-19 protocols in Mesa and I am certain they will do the same at Wrigley Field — you can read all their Wrigley protocols here. Further, I was fortunate enough to get a vaccination while in Arizona (you don’t have to be an AZ resident to get one there) and am now considered fully vaccinated, as I was able to get the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine more than 14 days ago.

Perhaps by mid- to late summer, the ballpark can be rocking with 40,000 fans again.

One thing will be different for me on Opening Day, which will be my 44th. The bleachers are being reserved on Thursday for vaccinated health care workers. This is a great gesture by the Cubs and those health care workers certainly deserve a perk like this. So instead I’ll be in section 103 down the left-field line. If you’re at Wrigley, stop by and say hi.

And play ball. There’s no place on Earth better than Wrigley Field when the Cubs are home. Can’t wait.