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Welcome to the new (and improved?) Wrigley: Banner raising starts next Cubs era

CHICAGO -- It’s finally here, a day more than 108 years in the making. The Chicago Cubs usher in a new era Monday, when the team returns to Wrigley Field for the first time since Game 5 of the 2016 World Series.

They won that one and two more in Cleveland to break the longest championship drought in professional sports history, and now every visitor to the historic stadium will be reminded of that fact.

“Rings are wonderful, but I love banner raising,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said over the weekend. “That’s symbolically there all the time. Every time a kid shows up at the ballpark, he sees that banner. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see more.”

The Cubs are off to a slightly slower start in 2017, but nothing will take away their magical season of a year ago. As the team on the field transformed, so did the ballpark they play in.

It’s being upgraded over a five-year plan, which began with a new home clubhouse. In order to add more seats, the iconic bullpens along the right- and left-field foul lines have been moved beneath the bleachers. The lovable losers are now a money-making machine off the field and world champions on it.

“There is good and bad about it,” reliever Justin Grimm said. “No interaction with the fans, but I’ll be under the bleachers like a caged animal.”

The increase in seats -- and ticket prices -- is the cost of winning. Beloved for so many years as losers, the Cubs are turning into the model franchise for sustained success.

For ownership and the front office, it’s the culmination of a vision started when Tom Ricketts bought the team in 2009 and accelerated when Theo Epstein came on board a couple years later. World Series MVP Ben Zobrist is a native of Illinois and gets the significance Monday holds.

“It’s the dawn of a new era for the Chicago Cubs,” he said. “To be kind of in the middle of it and experience it is really special. That’s why I signed over here.”

That's why Jon Lester, who is pitching Monday night, signed, along with John Lackey after him. That's why Maddon wanted to manage in Chicago: to be part of the team that broke the curse. The Cubs don’t get their rings until Wednesday, so the banner raising and unveiling of a new-look ballpark will be the main attractions in the home opener.

“It will be cool,” Lester said. “At first, I didn’t understand why they were doing the ring and banner on two different nights, but now I’m kind of glad. I can enjoy Wednesday without pitching. This hasn’t been done at Wrigley in a really long time. It will be fun to be a part of it.”

Until now, the players have tried to keep their focus on 2017, but as any championship team will admit, when the banner goes up, memories from the season before return in spades. Maddon wants his team to embrace it, remember it -- even bottle it. Once you get a taste of winning, it is quenched only by doing it again.

“It’s really a special time, and I would encourage my guys to slow it down, take those mental snapshots, enjoy it," Maddon said. "Don’t let it happen too quickly."

“Understand this is good. We celebrate achievement. I am looking forward to it.”

A whole city awaits, and the Cubs are used to the hoopla.

“It’s been a whirlwind since we won,” shortstop Addison Russell said. “Get to take home a gold jersey. That’s something you don’t get to tell your parents every day. And we’re ready to get those rings and then go get another one.”

It’s the new normal at Wrigley Field. So is the new look of the ballpark. Although Maddon didn’t love the idea of the bullpens going under the bleachers, he and the players are willing to give it a chance.

“I will definitely miss being on the sidelines, but I can’t knock it too much,” reliever Mike Montgomery said. “There’ll be some better things about not being on the side, but after experiencing that last year [after being acquired last July], I really liked that. It’ll be hard to beat that.

“You get to be into the game. It’s a different vibe when you throw inside. It’s not going to be my favorite, but maybe I’ll end up liking it more.”

Winning or losing won’t come down to where the bullpens are located; neither will the results of the previous season. Although the Cubs could be distracted from the task of beating the Los Angeles Dodgers this week, they’ll undoubtedly get a pass from their fans. No matter what happens moving forward, no one can take 2016 away.

The magic of a 103-win season and a World Series victory takes center stage again Monday. It might not be the World Series, but it’s a tough ticket to find.

“There is something about that feeling in the air,” Zobrist said. “When you see the fans there, the electricity is amazing. I can’t wait. It’s my favorite park. It always has been, and it’s never more true than now.”