It was a strange Opening Day. Strange because for the first time in any of our lifetimes we were able to call the Cubs the "Defending World Champions".
It was also strange because admittedly it felt less like an opener and more like a chance to reunite and celebrate the Cubs one more time. Joe Maddon set a lineup that was less about match-ups and more about paying tribute to the players that were on the field for Game 7. I even proposed a toast on social media. This isn't going to be a thing for the whole season, but we all felt the need to bask in that glory together just one more time.
As much as the media wanted to make this about the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry, it really didn't feel that way to me. It was just about the Cubs. I don't think I would have felt any different if the Cubs had played the San Diego Padres. That is not to say the Cubs did not take the Cardinals seriously, far from that.
It was just more about wanting to see this team on the field one last time and think about everything they accomplished last season. We even got the chance to see an old friend in Dexter Fowler while those warm feelings are still circulating through our veins. Maybe things won't be quite the same when the Cubs face them later in the season. Soon we'll inevitably start to view Fowler as just another pesky Cardinals player. Perhaps that process has already started with that somewhat controversial slide into second base. Fowler's interest now is in helping his new team beat his old team. How's that for a cold dose of reality?
But for one night at least, I don't think any of us were quite ready to let go of 2016. There is a part of us, of course, that never will.
The irony is that the game itself did not remind us at all of that magical season, at least not how we like to remember it, and at least not for the first 8 innings. All those little breaks seemed to go the Cardinals way -- the squib grounders, a couple of close calls, a distracting sign that seemed to have temporarily camouflaged the baseball from Javy Baez. On top of that, the Cardinals seemed locked in. Carlos Martinez was at the top of his game and every time a Cubs pitcher made a mistake with their location, their hitters just seemed to pounce on it. The Cubs didn't play well, but you also have to give the Cardinals credit. They did not seem to leave the Cubs any room for error that night.
The Cubs did have at least a little magic left. Willson Contreras would hit a dramatic 9th inning, game tying 3 run HR and all seemed right again. As it turns out, that euphoria would be short-lived. The Cardinals had been grinding this one out and had outplayed the Cubs all game. They were not about to let this one slip away.
It was a frustrating loss but maybe more importantly a sobering reminder to put 2016 behind us now and look in earnest to 2017. Teams aren't going to just lay down and let the Cubs steamroll them on their way to another title. It was also a reminder that losing still stings.
All that said, even in hindsight, I wouldn't change the way Opening Day was handled and the way many of us viewed it as fans -- even if it could have somehow changed the result. It was a long, sometimes heart-wrenching journey from the day we first became Cubs fans until that night the baseball settled securely in Anthony Rizzo's mitt. Nobody can blame us for taking one long look back on it all before embarking on a new journey in 2017.
For this one time, Opening Day served a different purpose for Cubs fans. It wasn't about forgetting about our past. It was about embracing it. It allowed us to close the book on 2016, store it as a treasured memory, and move on to a season that will undoubtedly provide many more moments to cherish.
With Opening Day behind us, I'm more than ready for what's to come in 2017.
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