April 09, 2017

CHICAGO (AP) Kyle Schwarber could envision the atmosphere at Wrigley Field on Monday night. It will be a home opener unlike any other at the famed ballpark.

The Chicago Cubs will raise a banner as defending champions for the first time since they moved in more than a century ago, then send 2016 NL Cy Young Award runner-up Jon Lester to the mound against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

''Oh, it'll be crazy,'' Schwarber said. ''It's going to be one of the best (openers) in a while.''

It will be another moment generations of fans wondered if they would ever witness. That changed last fall when the Cubs rallied from 3-1 down in the World Series to beat the Indians in a thrilling Game 7. With that, they ended the longest drought in North American sports: The Cubs had not won it all since 1908 - six years before Wrigley opened and eight before they moved in.

The banner raising on Monday and ring ceremony two days later are like the final punctuation marks on last season's historic run.

''We worked hard for that championship, we worked hard during the World Series, we worked hard all of spring training,'' shortstop Addison Russell said. ''So I believe that we earned it - it's going to be a great day. It'd be kind of an insult to say `Let's just play some baseball.' But whenever you have awards like that, that crowd is there for you, you just kind of have to embrace that moment and live in that moment and try to remember everything that you can in that moment. It'll be special.''

They're returning to a home with a decidedly different look.

Fans will notice a new plaza with a lawn and a large video screen that will host community events throughout the year, such as a farmer's market, movies and musical performances. A building housing, among other things, a two-story team store and a higher-end Starbucks Reserve stands at the corner of Clark Street and Waveland Avenue. There's also a new gate to the ballpark off the plaza, which should make it easier for fans to enter and exit.

Inside, one noticeable change will be the location of the bullpens. They've been moved from the field to under the bleachers and replaced by premium seating along the foul lines.

It's all part of a multiyear transformation of baseball's second-oldest ballpark and the surrounding area.

The Cubs have added video boards in left and right fields in recent years, and constructed new bleacher sections. They've been replacing seats throughout the ballpark, expanding concessions. A hotel is going up across the street, too.

But the most welcomed change for long-suffering fans?

That has to be a championship banner raised toward the sky, a gift that might seem heaven sent.

''I'm really looking forward to being home and getting to see our fans again, and for them to see us for the first time back on the field since what happened,'' Schwarber said. ''We're really looking forward to it, it's going to be a fun couple days. We'll raise the flag and get our ring. That's going to be some day that you won't forget. It'll be a good little blast from the past - and then keep working on the `17 season.''

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