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  • The Weight: Chapter 2

Refurbished Cubs team returns to renovated Wrigley Field

For most of the winter, the front entrance of Wrigley Field was covered in plastic like your grandma's couch.

Ugly as it looked, the protective cover was necessary to shield the construction workers from the Hawk wind that blew off Lake Michigan and into their bones. The wrap finally came off last week when the Cubs began to ready the park for the home opener, which arrives Monday night with the boys back in town.

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Just as the revamped Cubs are loaded and ready to go after a 5-1 start to the season, the Cubs insist the still-under-construction ballpark will be ready for the packed house expected for the home opener.

Phase 2 of the renovation was a bit messy but productive. A new clubhouse is ready, and the free-range players are geeked about the possibility of moving around without bumping into someone from the fourth estate.

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Phase 1 was marred by construction delays and an opening-night bathroom malfunction that eventually forced the Cubs to line the concourse with port-a-potties.

Despite the many changes, Wrigley 2.0 will still be as beloved as the original, which is why it remains the gold standard of ballparks.

"It's the history," said David Ross, the gray-bearded catcher who won a ring with the Red Sox at Fenway Park. "I love going in there and feeling the energy. Old ballparks, the fans are right on top of you, and the green. ... For me, all the old, faded green, I love it.

"I love the tight quarters. It just feels like baseball. You're crammed into this little bitty dugout at Wrigley. Some people complain. I love it. You get to know your teammates, and everybody's cheering, and nobody lets anybody slide.

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"Big dugouts seem empty sometimes."

The dugout will be sufficiently cramped on opening day. Nothing new there. It will be ready for the sunflower-seed showers players get after big home runs, the rhythmic clapping during someone's walk-up song, and the other shenanigans that make the Cubs the Cubs.

But the old, cramped clubhouse is gone, replaced by a 30,000-square-foot room that's bigger than anyone else's but the Yankees, the team from New York that serves as a Bizarro World version of the Cubs.

The new clubhouse, built underground under an old parking lot on the west side of the ballpark, has only been seen by a few. President Theo Epstein wanted his crew to be the first to gaze upon its majesty, like Dorothy and her posse getting their first glimpse of Oz after the long journey down the yellow brick road.

"You guys know what the old clubhouse was like," Chairman Tom Ricketts said. "It's night and day. It's incredible."

The Cubs never won a championship in the old clubhouse at Wrigley, or the one before it. Not once in a century have they won, so perhaps the antiquated ballpark was part of the reason for all those dismal decades.

"I don't know about that," pitcher Jason Hammel countered. "They've had good teams here in the past. For whatever reason, finishing the job in October has been the problem. I don't think it has anything to do with the (lack of amenities)."

No matter the reason, change has arrived. The consigliere of the clubhouse is a balding, middle-aged man who goes by the name of Otis, though his given name is Tom Hellmann. Otis is the longtime clubhouse manager, with 33 years in the organization, starting on the visitors' side before replacing the legendary Yosh Kawano in the '90s.

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Jason Heyward on the Cubs' new clubhouse and Monday's home opener.

Players spend half their lives in clubhouses. It's their home away from home, and they expect to feel at home, except without their kids asking them for a juice box and some microwaved mac and cheese. Going from the cozy, old clubhouse to the super-sized version is going to be an adjustment, but one Otis feels will be welcomed like the first robin in spring.

"The difference? I was there when we went from no lights to lights," Otis said, referring to the Cubs' submission to night baseball at Wrigley Field on Aug. 8, 1988. "Let's put it that way."

The old clubhouse, under the stands behind the dugout, debuted in 1984, a dividing line in Cubs history. The previous clubhouse was located down the left-field line, where Ron Santo would jump up and click his heels en route to the postgame spread. The visitors' side remains a shoebox, though they did change from metal lockers in 1990 when the Cubs were awarded the All-Star Game.

The visitors will have to wait until the final phase of the renovation project to get their much-needed space.

Otis assigns the lockers for Cubs players, making him the unofficial director of clubhouse feng shui. You don't want to put the wrong players next to each other and risk upsetting the clubhouse chemistry. Notorious malcontent Milton Bradley, for instance, was placed next to happy-go-lucky Cajun Ryan Theriot, who didn't blink the day Bradley cashed a paycheck and stacked his money in his locker for everyone to see.

But Otis let the veterans pick their own lockers this year so they can choose which friends they want to kibitz with on a daily basis. The coaches and clubhouse men and others who don't actually play will dress in different rooms, meaning the players finally have the joint to themselves for the first time in a century.

Since the clubhouse is round instead of rectangular, the so-called "crazy locker" in the corner is gone, never to return. It was inhabited by Carlos Zambrano, Matt Garza, Carlos Villanueva and Grandpa Ross in recent years, thus the name. It's whereabouts are unknown.

The clubhouse was particularly a treat on getaway day, when duffel bags full of uniforms, clothes and equipment were strewn all over the floor as players showered and dressed and the media congregated at lockers waiting for the bon mots. It often resembled a game of Twister played by squirrels.

"We had to make it work," Otis said. "And we did. This place is going to be so much nicer. Long time coming. It's so nice, I don't know how much they'll hang out at their lockers. There are so many other places to go. It'll be a trial-and-error type of thing, see where they hang out. They'll hide from the media."

Ross concurred with Otis. No one will be hanging out much in the spacious quarters.

"There will be a little bit more luxury," Ross said. "But I have a feeling we'll be tucked away in a little-bitty room somewhere, knowing us."

Still, some of the old standbys will be missed. Hammel joked he would miss the rats, the ones former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen often referred to when describing Wrigley as a "dump." Hammel confirmed Guillen's stories are not the stuff of urban legend.

"The rats were mostly in the storage areas back behind where the lockers are," he said. "But one thing I won't miss, if and when we're celebrating, is I won't have a puddle of booze puddled up in front of my locker. There were some low spots in the old clubhouse."

Whether the humongous new clubhouse will make a difference in the Cubs' performance on the field is a question no one can answer, even the man who is paying for the changes.

"I don't know," Ricketts said. "I hope so, though we did pretty well last year with the old clubhouse. What it can do is the players will have batting cages, we'll have a better weight room, we'll have different aqua therapy, we'll have room for the Pilates reformers.

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"It'll be a better place for them to be prepared for the game, which I think ultimately could lead to some more success. But I don't know how you quantify it."

Hammel believes bigger will be better. He pointed to the old contraption that dropped a net out of the ceiling like something out of "Get Smart," acting as a poor man's batting cage for players who needed to take some swings before an in-game at-bat.

"With as far as this game has come along, technology and stuff, it's a necessary evil," he said. "It's stuff we have to have in a stadium that's pretty old and has a lot of rings on its tree. We've got to have some updates, and I think everyone is welcoming it."

The option of cutting down the old tree and planting a new one was always there for the Rickettses. Even before they bought the Cubs, the franchise had spent an inordinate amount of time over the last few decades fighting with the city and the neighbors over how they should run their business.

It probably would've been easier to move to a generic suburb like Rosemont and build a spanking new park with all the modern amenities and doodads and who-has.

But home is home, and truth be told, there is no place quite like Wrigley Field.

Warts and all, it's still the place of your daydreams.

Twitter @PWSullivan

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