The rain fell in sheets from a Chicago sky pierced by flashes of lightning. Umbrella-wielding fans at Wrigley Field huddled under the video boards and in the covered sections of the grandstand. Players sought shelter in the dugouts.
There was no way they could play baseball Saturday night. Not in this weather. So what to do to keep a season-high crowd of 40,693 grumpy, impatient fans entertained?
In past years, the Chicago Cubs’ answer would have been, essentially, “Nothing.” As the only ballpark in the major leagues without a jumbotron, Wrigley Field did not have much to offer in terms of rain-delay amusement.
That changed this season. Two video boards were installed above the left and rightfield bleachers over the winter as part of an ongoing $375 million renovation.
During the Cubs’ 4–3 win over the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday — which didn’t end until almost midnight and included a two-hour, 48-minute rain delay that was longer than the official game — they were put to good use.
The Cubs showed a live feed of Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals, in which the hometown Blackhawks were playing the Tampa Bay Lightning, much to the delight of the crowd.
Over the course of a crazy baseball game that included not only the lengthy rain delay, but also three replay reviews, a fan dashing onto the field, and a walk-off game-winning hit, the jumbotrons proved their worth while staying true to Wrigley’s history.
The video board in rightfield continually showed lineups, while the one in left showed video replays and stats specific to each batter. All of this information was extremely helpful in following the game.
Sponsored highlight clips took the place of straightforward advertisements. Company logos appeared only in small corners of the boards. And the default color of the screens was a green that blended in well with the ivy and historic centerfield scoreboard.
Another element of the renovation was the tearing down and rebuilding of the bleachers. The leftfield seats opened in May, and the ones in right opened last week.
“The more activity and the more noise … it’s very powerful for the home team,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon told reporters in the home dugout several hours before the first pitch. “While you don’t focus on the noise, you feel it. There’s an energy involved. It’s good to have all that back.”
Hitting coach John Mallee agreed. “I know it helps our guys’ energy level when they get to see all the fans out there cheering for them,” he said. “The home field advantage of Wrigley is amazing.”
In the second inning, veteran catcher Miguel Montero hit a two-run homer to score rookie Kris Bryant, the Cubs’ leading All-Star vote-getter.
In the bottom of the fourth, with Bryant again on base, 25-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro hit a line drive to center. Bryant slid into home, but he was called out. Maddon challenged the ruling, and after a nearly four-minute replay review, Bryant was declared safe, putting the Cubs up 3–1. Wrigley was rocking.
Then the rain began. Play progressed through the end of the fifth, making the game of regulation length; if it was called, the Cubs would be credited with a victory.
As the drizzle turned to a downpour, the umpires were forced to halt play until conditions improved. The mood was bleak.
Then the club put the hockey game on the video boards in time to show a replay of Patrick Sharp’s goal that had just put the Hawks up 1–0. Wrigley organist Gary Pressy played tones to mimic a goal horn, and the DJ put “Chelsea Dagger,” the Hawks’ goal song, on the loudspeakers. Fans cheered wildly.
Over the next couple of hours, Wrigley was serenaded by the frenetic voice of hockey play-by-play man Doc Emrick, the pitter-patter of the rain, and occasional crashes of thunder. There was something almost surreal about watching the Lightning on the video board while the real thing was present in the vicinity.
A few minutes before 10 p.m., as the ground crew prepared the infield, the Blackhawks concluded their 2–1 victory over the Lightning to take a 3–2 series lead. The soggy Wrigley Field crowd — at least what was left of it — went crazy.
By the time the Cubs-Reds game resumed, more than half of the fans had departed, but those who stayed saw Castro break a 3–3 tie in the bottom of the ninth on a single that sent Bryant around from second. Bryant slid into home as his teammates dashed onto the field to celebrate.
It was 11:42 p.m.
The rain that still fell as fans streamed out of the ballpark belied the bright future that awaits both the renovated Wrigley and the Cubs’ team that includes young stars like Bryant, who finished 3-for-4 with three runs, and Castro.
The present was dreary, but the future looks to be the opposite.
Photo: Nam Y. Huh/AP