Cubs, Kyle Hendricks take small step toward normalcy with spring opener

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Return of fans brings Cubs, MLB step closer to normalcy originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

PEORIA, Ariz. — After a day of clouds and wind that chilled the air in the Phoenix area Sunday, the sun came back out Monday, pushing the temperatures back into the 70s as the Cubs basked in their first day of baseball competition in almost a year that seemed close to normal.

“It was super exciting,” said Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs’ presumptive Opening Day starter who also started Monday as the Cubs took their first small step into playing a spectator sport again with a seven-inning spring opener against the Padres.

“Walking out there and seeing fans in the stands, having people cheer — we’ve really, really missed that,” Hendricks said. “You saw it from all the guys. Everybody was out there. Everybody was upbeat, with a little more energy today. That was so cool, just getting back to somewhat normal, having fans out there.”

Official attendance for Monday’s game with COVID-19 limits in force was 1,636, a small fraction of the size of the crowd the last time they played before fans on March 11 last year.

As Javy Báez said a few days ago of playing last year’s shortened season without fans, “It was the worst.”

MORE: Báez eyes bounce back with return of fans, in-game video

Báez, who might be among the top five or 10 players in the game who feed off big crowds, had his worst season at the plate last year. His fresh start Monday included the Cubs’ first hit of the new spring — a hard line drive up the middle in the fourth.

In the context of this season, it meant about as much as Joc Pederson drawing a walk in his first plate appearance as a Cub or Ildemaro Vargas’ single in the fifth or Hendricks’ two scoreless innings against a Tatis-less, Machado-less Padres lineup in a practice game.

But all of it mattered.

Because if nothing else, it was one more huge step toward the normalcy that we’ve all sought during a year of pandemic shutdowns, economic hardships, masks, protocols, pain, sickness and historic numbers of American deaths.

Players, field staff and the front office already have talked increasingly the past two weeks about at least a semblance of that normalcy since reconvening in their spacious training complex for this shot at a full spring training and season.

“I think sort of, right?” manager David Ross said this week. “Going through last year with the guys we’ve had here, you feel safe inside this environment. Last year with just the unknowns of where everything was and coming to Wrigley [for training camp] and other teams getting infected with the virus and teams shut down — you just felt like you were on edge most of the season.

“This doesn’t quite feel that way.”

It’s certainly not back to the old normal of even a year ago, with mask mandates, a new set of safety protocols for 2021, a delayed minor-league camp and limits on fans and media access.

But on this day the fans and sun finally were back out in force if not quite full force yet.

“I was expecting almost to have to adapt back to having fans,” Hendricks said. “But it felt so normal.”

And that’s the point. Even if you could hear almost every cheer, taunt and strange offer from the spaced groups.

At one point in the fifth inning with the Cubs having just taken the lead, a man on third and two out, a fan yelled at Anthony Rizzo as he stepped to the plate:

“Rizzo! Get an RBI and I’ll buy you a pizza!”

There was no pizza on this day for Rizzo — who promised during a media Zoom session last week to never stop eating pizza. He struck out.

But the Cubs won — and long before they beat the Padres 1-0 in the seven-inning game.

“Every day you’re here it is the feeling of you don’t take it for granted,” Hendricks said. “Every day we go [to the complex], guys are trying to get something out of that day. I think it has to go back to just everything getting shut down and getting canceled and not having what we love to do readily available.

“Guys definitely come in [this spring] with the energy and the passion and knowing that you never know when your last game can be.”

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