Wrigley Field started shaking again once Addison Russell connected on a 95-mph Jumbo Diaz fastball, watching it take flight and disappear into the bleachers in left-center.
It felt that way last October, when the Cubs eliminated the St. Louis Cardinals from the playoffs, and that atmosphere left the crowd of 40,882 wanting more late Monday night. Russell emerged from the dugout, raised his blue helmet and twirled around for the curtain call in the eighth inning after that go-ahead three-run homer.
With one quick swing from Russell — the 22-year-old shortstop who can dance like Michael Jackson — the Cubs could christen the Celebration Room in their tricked-out new clubhouse.
“I knew it was gone,” Russell said after a 5-3 victory over the Cincinnati Reds. “I normally don’t pimp home runs. But Opening Night, we’re down, the occasion called for it.”
[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]
What a before-and-after snapshot of this franchise, the comparisons between a locker room that would have felt cramped and out of date for a high school team. Or the ballpark where overhyped prospects used to get buried. Or the stadium operations that became a national joke when enough toilets didn’t work on Opening Night last year.
Amid a $600 million construction project and the hum of a scouting-and-player-development machine, Wrigley Field is becoming a place that works and the Cubs have morphed into a team that expects to win every night. Even when Brandon Finnegan takes a no-hitter into the seventh inning.
“You’re trying to believe in those promises,” said Jon Lester, who got a quality start no-decision and looks visibly more comfortable in the second season of a six-year, $155 million megadeal. “It was just really trying to listen and believe in the upside of all these guys that have never played in the big leagues.”
Lester knew Cubs executives Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod from their time together with the Boston Red Sox and had to take the leap of faith Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and John Lackey didn’t in joining an instant contender.
“I believed Theo,” Lester said. “To get where we were last year — to get to 97 wins — I think kind of panicked Theo a little bit. I don’t think he really expected that.
“But to give those guys a winning season — and get to the playoffs and get that experience under their belt — (has) relaxed these guys a little bit and allowed them to just go out and play baseball.
“They know how to deal with the expectations now. It’s just about going out and performing.”
At this time last year, Russell and eventual National League Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant hadn’t made their big-league debuts yet, meaning they won’t become free agents until after the 2021 season, the same time frame the Cubs have All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo under club control.
Even the layout of the room — with blue mood lighting next to wood-paneled lockers and a Cubbie logo on the ceiling — symbolizes this youth movement.
“Being a circle unites teammates, creates a sense of equality,” Epstein said. “There’s no premium locker that’s greater than anyone else’s. There’s no corners to hide in. Everyone’s equal.”
Where the Cubs used to drop a net from the ceiling to help get pinch-hitters ready in the middle of a game, they now have a batting cage, The Jake Arrieta Pilates Room, a hyperbaric chamber, infrared/steam saunas, a lunch room stocked with organic food and an NFL-style tunnel leading them onto the field.
The end goal isn’t winning the clubhouse arms race and being 6-1 during the second week of the season. But a franchise that used to talk a good game is seeing actual results. Wrigleyville will keep rocking.
“The clubhouse fits our identity,” Epstein said. “We believe in young players and the clubhouse has kind of a young, energetic, fun feel to it. But it also has everything that you would ever need to improve yourself. That supports the growth mindset that we try to have for our players.
“Every new device under the sun is in there. You want to try to have the best facilities to go along with the best team, which is obviously what we’re trying to build. And there’s only one way you get there. It’s by proving it on the field.”