SOUTH BEND — As the fans trickled into Four Winds Field early Tuesday evening, South Bend Cubs President Joe Hart leaned casually against the concourse wall and beamed.
Months of preparation for this day, followed by a flurry of last-minute details and touchups were finished. Now it was time to enjoy and welcome season No. 35 of Minor League Baseball in the city, raise a championship banner and play ball. The moment couldn’t have been more perfect.
After losing the 2020 season to COVID, and dealing with its residual effects the past two years, this Opening Night finally made it feel like baseball here has come back all the way.
“This is amazing,” Hart said before the SB Cubs home opener against the Beloit (Wis.) Sky Carp. “We couldn’t ask for anything more. This is really our first (normal) year (post COVID). Last year we didn’t have any (attendance) restrictions, but there were companies that still weren’t doing stuff. This year we’re back to normal. So that’s exciting.”
With sunny April skies overhead, temperatures in the mid-70s and fans wearing short-sleeved shirts, the scene inside the ballpark looked like something that slid off Norman Rockwell’s paint brush, a true American portrait of nostalgia and pastime.
Lines formed at the concession stands as the smell of onions and peppers wafted through the park. You could hear the grills hissing and the friendly banter between patrons and the staff members drawing cold beer from the taps. The line at the Dippin’ Dots stand — the self-proclaimed “Ice Cream of the Future” since its inception in 1988 — stretched nearly an entire 90-foot baseline.
Kids wearing ball caps too big for their heads and with ketchup stains on their shirts darted through the crowd looking for friends. Older fans found their seats and began filling in the lineups on their scorecards. Remember those?
Forget Spring. This felt like mid-Summer form in the middle of the 142-game schedule rather than Opening Night in early April.
“Opening Day is great,” said Wayne Messmer, a voice familiar to nearly any Chicago sports fan. “You’re on an even playing field. You have that anticipation that this is going to be the year. And for the South Bend Cubs this might be ‘let’s go for two in a row and three out of four.’ It’s a special time.”
Indeed, the SB Cubs won the High-A Midwest League championship last season, the organization’s fifth since its creation in 1988. Before the game, a banner commemorating that title, the first since 2019, was hoisted just beyond the centerfield wall.
Shortly after, new Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Micah Shrewsberry threw out the ceremonial first pitch, bouncing it short and outside after a few warm-up tosses.
Then it was Messmer who stepped up to the microphone behind home plate and delivered yet another outstanding rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, a duty he takes seriously every time.
“For me, whether it’s a Little League game or the World Series or Opening Day right here in South Bend, it’s still the same exact thing. … I don’t want to let anybody down. I not only want to impress people, but I want to do it right. I do a lot of work with veterans and first responders, and I am grateful for that. When you do it, you should do it right, with honor, dignity and respect.”
Messmer estimates he’s sung the National Anthem more than 5,000 times at various athletic events.
“And I’m still looking for the perfect one,” he said with a laugh. “I strive for excellence and perfection.”
This is Messmer’s 39th year associated with the Chicago Cubs. Once the longtime public address announcer at Wrigley Field, he just sings anthems these days. He also did three years with the Chicago White Sox before joining the Cubs, 13 years with the NHL Chicago Blackhawks and 29 years with the AHL Chicago Wolves hockey club of which he is a founding partner.
Then it was time to play ball in South Bend as the Cubs — who won their first three games of the season against the Quad Cities River Bandits in Davenport, Iowa over the weekend — took the field for second-year manager Lance Rymel.
The SB Cubs have been a player development affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs since 2014.
In the owner’s suite, team chairman Andrew Berlin, who bought the team at the end of the 2011 season, had even more to smile about than the picture-perfect view of the action on the field and in the stands.
Earlier in the day a proposed change to state law that would allow the club to capture up to $3 million of annual tax revenue from future stadium expansion passed unanimously through the Indiana House, moving it to the Senate.
Berlin and the city of South Bend, which owns the park also known as Stanley Coveleski Regional Stadium, plan to expand and update the facility in the next couple years.
“That is a tremendous compliment to the city of South Bend,” Berlin said of the legislation as he entertained family and friends during the game. “… If this team hadn’t been in South Bend, (the city) never would have qualified for this legislation. If ever there was a win-win situation, this is what it looks like.”
Berlin and the city have spent millions in recent years improving and updating Four Winds Field, adding a picnic area, splash pad and village of apartments beyond the outfield called The Ivey at Berlin Place. Those improvements helped Four Winds to the title of “Best Minor League Ballpark,” last season as designated by Ballpark Digest.
Hart believes that as many as 350,000 fans will attend SB Cubs home games this season. Tuesday’s first-pitch temperature of 73 degrees was the warmest of any home opener in franchise history. Far more often first week weather is cold and damp in Northern Indiana.
“(A mild) April and May really give us the ability to hit those attendance goals,” Hart said. “So having this first week being like it is (temperatures in the 70s throughout the homestand) gives us a good shot assuming we don’t lose any dates (to weather) in June, July and August. This is a great start.”
The only sour aspect of the night before the fireworks lit up the South Bend sky, was the Cubs’ 8-5 loss to the Sky Carp in 10 innings. But they did rally for two runs in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game on a D.J. Artis infield hit.
The fans (not quite a sellout of the 5,000-capacity park) were into the game until the end, giving the umpire grief in the 10th when he lost track of the count that resulted in a Beloit strikeout.
As the game ended, smiling staff members thanked fans as they left.
“You can train people to do many things, but you can’t teach people how to be nice,” Messmer said of the SB Cubs employees. “They hire a lot of really nice people. And that, to me, is the secret to what they’re doing here. The moment you walk into this ballpark you feel like you’re totally at home. … If I lived here, I’d be at every game.”
This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: South Bend Cubs High A minor league baseball home opener vs. Beloit
Source: Yahoo Sports