The Cubs knew for five months that they would be hosting the first game of the 2015 season, on Sunday night against the Cardinals, but still they didn't seem quite prepared for Opening Day. Wrigley Field—which is in the first year of a four-year, $575 million face-lift—wasn't in game shape; its outfield stands were not teeming with bleacher creatures but instead covered by tarps, the result of construction delays stemming from an especially harsh Midwestern winter.
Chicago's lineup wasn't in peak form either, as it lacked third baseman Kris Bryant, the 23-year-old √ºberprospect who slugged 43 home runs in the minors last year and an MLB-high nine during the spring, but who was sent down to Triple A Iowa. (The official reason was to work on his game, but it was really to delay the first ticks of his major league service clock.) Perhaps not surprisingly, St. Louis won 3--0.
As Sunday night in Chicago showed, Opening Day isn't the circle-the-date event it once was. Baseball is a year-round sport now, its winter as assiduously dissected as its summer used to be. (This year that process seemed to extend longer than ever, as new Padres general manager A.J. Preller pulled off his latest blockbuster—a deal for All-Star Braves closer Craig Kimbrel—less than two hours before Cubs lefty Jon Lester delivered the first pitch of the season.) Spring training, once a chance for players to quietly sweat out the whiskey and béarnaise sauce they'd consumed during the off-season, is now similarly well-covered; fans in need of a baseball fix have already had the opportunity to watch more than a month's worth of daily games, thanks to the anachronistically long exhibition schedule. And, due to MLB's expanded, 10-team playoff structure, the importance of racing out of the gates has been greatly diminished. As the Giants and the Royals—both wild-card teams in 2014—demonstrated last October, how you start is not nearly as crucial as how you finish.
Despite all that, Opening Day remains special because it's one of the only national events that encourages us to look back and ahead all at once. Those tarps draped over the bleachers? They were emblazoned with images of Ernie Banks, who died at 83 in January, and they encouraged us to remember not only Mr. Cub but also others who passed away since last year's Opening Day: Tony Gwynn, Minnie Mi√±oso, Oscar Taveras, Don Zimmer. Rising up above the tarps, in leftfield, was Wrigley's newly installed video board: At 7:19 p.m. CDT the 101-year-old ballpark showed its first-ever replay, a groundout by the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter to second baseman Tommy La Stella. That once unimaginable sight reminded us that time marches on, with new commissioner Rob Manfred in the league office, new shortstop Didi Gregorius in the Bronx and new hopes not just in San Diego but most everywhere. There's plenty of time, even for the Cubbies.
PHOTOGRAPH BY STEPHEN GREEN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
WRIGLEY FIELD Despite the loss, Opening Night was picture perfect for the Cubs' faithful.
PHOTOGRAPH BY OTTO GREULE JR. GETTY IMAGES (TROUT)
SAFECO FIELD Mike Trout led off the season for the Angels with a home run in Seattle ...
PHOTOGRAPH BY H. DARR BEISER USA TODAY SPORTS (HARPER)
NATIONALS PARK ... while in D.C., Bryce Harper hit the third Opening Day homer of his career.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHUCK SOLOMON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
YANKEE STADIUM Blue Jays rightfielder Jose Bautista, usually known for his slugging, stole a hit with a different kind of wallbanging on Monday.