Back in the bleachers: Returning to Wrigley Field for the first time since the pandemic

A couple of weeks ago, I was able to travel to Chicago for the first time since the pandemic began.

The world has changed so much since then, but the Red Line journey to Addison, followed by the short walk up Sheffield Avenue to Murphy’s Bleachers, offered some reassuring familiarity. As did the bar itself; abuzz with excitement, as it always is on a gameday, regardless of the time of year.

As I stood outside amongst the crowd of lunchtime revellers, staring up at the imposing grey and blue Cubs sign aback Wrigley’s famous scoreboard, I thought about the last time I was there. About watching Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, and Kyle Hendricks take to the mound while Joe Maddon was in the dugout, and Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Báez all still appeared to have futures on the North Side.

Even back then, it was clear that the wheels were beginning to fall off, though; that the group that won the World Series in 2016 wouldn’t go on to achieve the dynasty many, including myself, assumed they would and that something would have to give.

And yet the manner in which it happened, not to mention the time at which it happened, meant that those of us who follow the Cubs from afar were robbed of one last opportunity to say goodbye to the history-making, curse-killing group of players we’d grown to love. What’s perhaps most frustrating is that if it hadn’t been for the pandemic, they would have participated in the London Series in 2020, giving us one last opportunity to do just that without even having to cross the Atlantic.

Instead, they played half of their pandemic-shortened 60-game schedule behind closed doors that year at a Wrigley Field devoid of fans and the atmosphere they provide. As I stood there, drinking an Old Style straight from the can, as is the custom, I thought about that season; about the time Anthony Rizzo sat in the empty bleachers while the Cubs played an intrasquad ‘Spring Training’ game; about organist John Benedeck serenading a largely empty Wrigleyville before the season even began; and about a curly haired Yu Darvish and his Cy Young-calibre season, which none of the fanbase that had rooted so hard for him the year before even got to see in person. Mostly though, I thought about how much I’d missed being at Wrigley Field; about the weird way in which it had become a beacon of hope for me during the pandemic; and about how watching the Cubs play those games – which at times, seemed meaningless given what was going on in the world – had given my life some much-needed structure at a time when it otherwise had none.

In short, it was great to be back in Chicago; great to be back in Wrigleyville; and great to be back watching the Cubs once again, even if the team had changed dramatically in the time since I’d last been there.

Aside from Ian Happ, Nico Hoerner, Adbert Alzolay and Kyle Hendricks (who was in Iowa, working his way back from injury), the roster is entirely different now and although the current rebuild is by no means complete, I felt a sense of optimism about the direction the team is heading in as I finished my drink and made my way across the street. From there, it’s a short walk through the towering gates and up the ramp to the bleachers, where you’re greeted with one of the most magnificent sights in all of baseball: beautiful, historic Wrigley Field.

As Richard Hoffer once wrote in Sports Illustrated: “It’s impossible to feel blue at Wrigley Field, even though your beloved Cubs are losing again. It’s a national treasure, a true American original. It’s ivy and brick and bleachers and a manual scoreboard and seats so close to the field you can almost hear the infield chatter of Hornsby, Hartnett and Banks.”

And he’s right; it is impossible to feel blue there, particularly when the Cubs are playing well, as they largely did during my trip, going 3-3 in a stretch punctuated by Drew Smyly almost throwing a perfect game, Marcus Stroman picking up his 1,000th career strikeout and Dansby Swanson swatting his first Wrigley home run. What’s more, I got to tick some big names off my baseball bucket list (Clayton Kershaw, Freddie Freeman, Fernando Tatís Jr., Juan Soto and Manny Machado, to name but a few) and I got to meet fellow Bat Flips and Nerds contributor Brett Walker, who was at his first Cubs game.

It was so good to be back in Chicago and even better to be back at Wrigley Field. Hopefully, I won’t have to wait as long between visits in future. Now bring on the London Series!

Sean Guest is the Chicago Cubs correspondent for Bat Flips & Nerds. You can follow him on Twitter @SW_Guest

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