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Spiegel: Welcome Back Baseball, We've Missed You

There's nothing like the hope and routine that baseball brings.

Matt Spiegel
March 28, 2018 - 10:55 pm

By Matt Spiegel--

(670 The Score) It’s here.And though it’s not quite April, Chicago is very ready for baseball.

Even with the Jimmy Butler trade a clear success, the Bulls have been watchable only for a small, debatable portion of a long, ugly season. Rooting for #Tankwins, though logically satisfying, grows exhausting.

The Blackhawks have been a colossal disappointment, and the potential end of their championship window lingers in the air like the stench of sweaty hockey pads. Inspiration has come principally from Ed Olczyk’s beautiful openness about a cancer fight that he appears to have won.

Loyola has stormed to the front of our minds and sports sections, injecting rare local wonder into March Madness. The Ramblers have one more chance Saturday night to extend their hoops moment.  

Shortly after that game starts, the local sports landscape will be marked by change.

Loyola and Michigan will tip off at 6:09 p.m. CT. One minute later, prize free-agent addition Yu Darvish makes his Cubs debut against the Marlins. And five minutes after that, Lucas Giolito tries to carry his electric spring into the White Sox's regular season against the Royals.

If you find yourself wanting a two- or three-television setup for that evening, then you and I can be friends.

Opening Day is here. Happy new year. Spring becomes more credible today. The temperature climbs, if by perception alone. Footsteps come easier, aches and pains recede, oxygen is filtered by the lungs more efficiently.

Our companion sport is back. The next seven months are the best of the 12.   

On a typical day in baseball season, I wake eager to catch up on anything I missed the night before -- late West Coast box scores, must-see highlights, dissections of specific showdowns using PitchFX.  “Quick Pitch” on MLB Network is gold; there's no filler, just the important stuff. I might watch a full condensed game for the Cubs and/or White Sox if life got in the way the day before. (Bless you, MLB.TV). 

Then, it's time to scope the new day’s matchups. This all must be done in advance of setting lineups for two fantasy teams, well before the first pitch of the new slate. Some of my players might not make their own lineups, so they better not waste space in mine. 

The daily ballgames begin anew. Which ones deserve live eyes? Can I dedicate a monitor, an iPad or the big screen? Must I merely follow along to the game center? Games can be with me all day long. If the dog needs to be walked, either team’s radio broadcast is on headphones, courtesy of the MLB At Bat app. (I know, more league endorsed product-placement here, but going without this app is simply not an option). Errands can be run while the steady hum of a crowd continues between the ears. Buying groceries is so much more enjoyable when Pat Hughes comes with me. An afternoon tilt at Wrigley Field will linger on the home television as I play with my son, the next generation granted every opportunity to grip our pastime like a parasite. Dinner may be prepared and devoured, all while a bullpen tries to hold the lead.

Night falls. First pitch of the White Sox and other evening games will come just as the sun sets. By summer’s peak in late June, daylight could last through the third or fourth inning. There’s a full batch of scores to keep tabs on every night, with viewing options everywhere. But, the time I look forward to most is on the balcony couch, play-by-play rolling steadily, calmly from of the outdoor speaker. Maybe a drink is in hand. Maybe my girl is with me, or I might settle for the dog. A blanket rests nearby if needed. Watching sports television outside in your own personal space feels like living in the future. As a society, we've clearly conquered technology and made it bend to our demands.

From my spot in the South Loop, you can see Sox Park. Fireworks alert me to a home run coming in the next seven seconds, courtesy of the broadcast delay. I love living near a ballpark. One night in May 2014, Alfonso Soriano was in town with the Yankees for his final Chicago road trip, and Chris Sale was on the bump. While doing the dishes, I listened to the first inning and realized I had to be there. Getting from the kitchen to a seat 20 rows behind home plate, with a beer and hot dog in hand, took 14 minutes. I've lived a lucky baseball life. Sale struck out 10 in six innings of one-hit baseball.

These moments outside, whether watching or just listening, are what I envision when baseball gets saluted at first sight every spring. On that balcony, I feel connected to our families through the decades, those who sat on their porches and lived every day with Harry and Jimmy or Pat and Ron or Rooney and Farmer or Ernie Harwell or Mel Allen or Vin Scully or Lou Boudreau or Bob Elson and on and on. The evening is filled with attachments to past and future, and it's timeless.

Eventually, the bed calls, the night ends, but I know the routine awaits tomorrow. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The potential fit of the 2018 Cubs and White Sox into this routine is exciting. We’re going to have two extremely interesting teams, at very different moments in their competitive cycles.

The Cubs will be deemed a disappointment if they don’t make it to their fourth straight Nationa League Championship Series, at the very least. This is what it’s like to be a premier organization smack dab in the middle of a championship window. Personally, I think this Cubs team is going to win the World Series. A one-year refractory period after breaking the curse in 2016 makes sense, and the roster is loaded. 

Their challenge, and ours, will be to stay in the moment. They must be present, taking care of task after task at hand every day. Joe Maddon is terrific in creating an atmosphere for a ballclub to do that. Here’s hoping Jim Hickey will be a proactive helper in Maddon’s ear come October.

Ian Happ is Theo Epstein’s selected “breakout” player for this group, and why doubt him? Last year, he chose Willson Contreras. Those two joining Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo for full seasons should make a formidable top four. A rejuvenated Kyle Schwarber no longer physically resembles Babe Effing Ruth, but his potential still tantalizes. There are four potential aces in the rotation and a deep, versatile bullpen. If Brandon Morrow is unaffected by being tasked with owning the ninth inning as opposed to the eighth and Jon Lester finds his form instead of repeating his 2017, 100 wins are coming.

The White Sox exist in the eye of a beautiful storm of hope. So many young players inspire dreams of excellence, and few have exposed themselves as undeserving. Tim Anderson and Carson Fullmer must bounce back to be clear, worthwhile building blocks. Carlos Rodon needs to return, stay healthy and find the plate. But everyone else still screams upside. It will be fun to watch Yoan Moncada lead off, Giolito ably lead a rotation, Jose Abreu get his 30 and 100 again, a healthy Nate Jones throw it a hundo, Reynaldo Lopez take the next step and Adam Engel patrol center field. 

The rest is anticipation. Eloy Jimenez’ arrival will embolden the loudest Cubs-hating White Sox fans you know -- and understandably so. He has a Giancarlo Stanton-esque body with incredibly easy power and a terrific makeup. As Michael Kopech continues to show true No. 1 starter potential, when does he get to prove it at the top? How fast can the breathtaking Luis Robert get healthy and fly through the low minors? Which of the myriad other pitchers will get here first? Dylan Cease would add to the Jose Quintana trade haul bragging rights, and Cease might have the best stuff in the whole organization. This is still a year in which the focus should be much wider than just on the big leagues, and 75-80 wins will be nowhere near the most important seasonal accomplishment. Playoff dreams will be in play for 2019, especially if the right free agents join up with the emerging kids.

Jimenez and Quintana. Rick Renteria and Maddon. Rick Hahn and Epstein-Jed Hoyer. Jerry Reinsdorf and Tom Ricketts. Your neighbors and your family. Cuban sandwiches and Hot Doug’s.  The Craft Kave and the Sheffield Counter. These two organizations feel destined for the 2020 World Series, with legit angles for edginess galore.

But don’t rush it, baseball tells us. Let’s follow the lead of the mental skills department that just about every team now has. There’s plenty to focus on, beginning with all 30 teams opening the 2018 season as one.

Welcome back, baseball. We vever needed you more than we do right now.

Follow Matt Spiegel on Twitter @MattSpiegel670.