People begin to fill the stands at Wrigley Field before a Major League Baseball season-opening game between the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals in Chicago, Sunday, April 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Nam Y. Huh
April 05, 2015

CHICAGO (AP) The Chicago Cubs paid a heartfelt tribute to the late Ernie Banks before the major league opener against the St. Louis Cardinals, and they did it in a way that would have been impossible until now.

They showed him circling the bases following his 500th home run and unveiling his statue outside Wrigley Field.

It was all there Sunday night in high definition on their new videoboard in left field, the biggest addition to date in an overhaul that figures to transform the ballpark and surroundings over the next few years.

''They're going put a lot of history stuff up there, what happened in Wrigley Field, and it just gives the guys a little bit more information (about) playing with the Chicago Cubs that they can tell their kids,'' Banks' teammate, Hall of Famer Billy Williams, said before Chicago's 3-0 loss. ''It's just bringing baseball a little closer together.''

To Williams, the videoboard is about more than instant replays, expanded statistics, trivia and advertising. It's about connecting with the past while giving the 101-year-old ballpark a modern upgrade.

New, expanded bleachers in left are set to be ready by May 11 and another section in right should be finished by mid-June after bad weather and other issues delayed construction in the offseason. Those areas were covered Sunday by images of Banks, the popular ''Mr. Cub'' who died in January.

A smaller videoboard in right is expected to be operating by the All-Star break.

The coming years will see the expanded clubhouses and improved facilities for players, a new retail and entertainment annex, more concession areas and options, added club spaces, a plaza outside the stadium and a hotel across the street.

The renovations along with the big moves the Cubs made to add to a promising core of young players have fueled the sort of excitement that has not been seen on the North Side in recent years. The Cubs have endured five straight losing seasons, including a 73-89 mark in 2014.

But with the roster and the ballpark getting a makeover, there's a sense of hope, a belief that the Cubs are poised for big things.

To fans such as Todd Robel of Johnsburg, Illinois, the videoboard is just a large symbol of what's happening around the Cubs. He made his feelings clear with a sign that read ''Holy Cow It's Huge! (The scoreboard).''

''For those sitting in the park, I think it'll be great,'' Robel said. ''It'll really enhance the experience. Quite honestly, it fits in really well.''

At least some fans had expressed concern in recent years that a new videoboard would destroy the character of a ballpark known for its ivy-covered brick wall and manual scoreboard.

But the Cubs kept its design in tune with the rest of the ballpark.

The green backdrop and white lettering mesh with the manual scoreboard in center that was added in the late 1930s.

''I think it's phenomenal,'' Hope Samborn of suburban Glenview said after snapping some pictures from behind the third base dugout a few hours before the first pitch. ''I like they kept the fact that they kept it so that it's sort of in the green theme of Wrigley.''

New Cubs manager Joe Maddon acknowledged there might ''resistance from some old-timers,'' but he thinks they will come around within the next three to five years. He gave the videoboard a sparkling review.

''Being new to the game here, my first impression was spectacular,'' he said. ''I thought it was well done, the way it blends in.''

Shortstop Starlin Castro also gave it his approval.

''I think it's perfect,'' he said.

While the videoboard got positive reviews, there were some issues elsewhere.

Two bathrooms in the upper deck temporarily were out of order, team spokesman Julian Green said. That forced fans to use facilities downstairs, where there were already long waits.

Green said the Cubs plan to bring in additional portable units and will continue to monitor wait times.

''With 35,000 fans showing up in the ballpark tonight, we were simply not prepared to handle guests during peak periods,'' he said. ''We have high standards for service and we missed the mark. We want to apologize to our fans for the inconvenience tonight.''

As for the videoboard, one question is how it will impact the wind and, therefore, fly balls. Vice President of Ballpark Operations Carl Rice said the Cubs expect some changes in wind patterns based on studies they conducted. But they won't know the extent until the videoboard in right is installed.

''One feeling is when the wind is blowing in, it will knock down the wind a little bit more but not a whole lot,'' Rice said. ''It was really a small percentage, that they thought it really didn't have an effect.''

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