Q&A With ESPN’s Dan Shulman: Cubs on Opening Night, Maddon, is the Buzz Back?

The Cubs/Cardinals rivalry will have baseball’s big stage to its self when the 2015 MLB season opens. The two teams are scheduled to meet April 5 at Wrigley Field in the Sunday Night Baseball opener on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. CST.

Joe Maddon will make his managerial debut for Chicago in the start of a three-game series against the two-time defending NL Central champions. Dan Shulman, the voice of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, is scheduled to provide commentary for Opening Night, along with analysts Curt Schilling and John Kruk and reporter Buster Olney.

I talked to Shulman yesterday regarding the buzz surrounding the Cubs and the team’s return to the national spotlight.

TL: ESPN recently chose Cubs/Cardinals for the Opening Night tilt. Do you feel the Joe Maddon hire had some influence?

DS: ​There’s no way for me to know. There’s extra buzz about the Cubs, that’s for sure, both with Joe Maddon’s hiring and some of the young prospects that they’ve acquired in terms of whether or not [that influenced the decision], that’s a different department that chooses the game. I can’t answer that question, but…there’s definitely buzz because of the hiring of Maddon.

TL: How is the Maddon hire being perceived on a National scale?

DS: He’s been incredibly successful in Tampa Bay, and I’m sure he wouldn’t have taken the job if he didn’t think he’d have a chance to have success in Chicago, too. I still think it’s going to be a little while until really we can look at them–they still have some work to do–before we can look at them as legitimate contenders, obviously. They’re still building, but I definitely think they’re headed in the right direction.

TL: What about the perception or expectations regarding the Cubs moving forward? Are the Cubs going to hold interest around the league? Enough to appear on more nationally-televised games?

DS: ​You know what, it depends on what happens in the offseason. I’m not sure when your story’s going to run, but stuff’s starting to happen now, obviously, around baseball and signings and trades and so forth, so I think it depends on what they do in the winter. Are they big-time players? Are they going to go after a Lester, or are they just going to wait a year and build from within, and not really get after it until next offseason?

Definitely you want to see progress, and definitely I think they will continue to improve, but they’ve still got some holes to fill. I don’t think we can know what they’re going to be like next season until we know how much they’re going to spend or what they’re going to do in the offseason.

TL: The major star of the night could be the re-vamped Wrigley Field. There’s gonna be some major changes to the park, namely a jumbotron. What will you be looking for as far as the changes and the atmosphere that night?

DS: ​I guess what I’m hoping for, whether it’s a Wrigley or a Fenway or other great stadiums or arenas, whatever the sport is, is that I think we all understand that things have to change. It’s inevitable that things are going to change, but I just hope that the atmosphere is retained.

[Wrigley’s] a really special place. It’s a really unique place to see a baseball game, and I hope the changes that are made are for the better. I’m sure they will be, but I hope that what makes Wrigley so unique is retained as well, in terms of the club versus the rooftop owners. I’m just a guy from out of town, so I don’t really know all the details on that.

But for the fans who are inside the ball park, I hope that the changes really enhance their experience of watching a ballgame without taking away a lot of the things that make Wrigley so special. And I’m sure they will. I’m sure they will. I know Theo oversaw this process in Boston, so he’s been through it before. I’m sure the changes are going to be really good for the fans inside the ball park, but I’m sure Wrigley will still feel like Wrigley.

TL:​ One of the other elements that may or may not be there is top prospect Kris Bryant on opening night. Whether he is or not, are the other kids going to provide some national sizzle?

DS:​ The Cubs have a huge following. I mean, we all know that; even if the Cubs aren’t doing well, they’ve got a very big following. The better they do, the more relevant they are, the more likely they’ll be on national television.

Because they’re the Cubs and because it’s Wrigley, they’re going to get a certain amount of play no matter what. But as kids continue to show up at the Major League level, one by one, and if they have success, and if the team does better, you know it all rolls [along].

It’s all part of the decision-making process. Again, I think they’re a little ways away. I don’t think you can just anoint them as a contender this year; they’ve got a lot of holes to fill still. But there’s no question they’re building and there’s no question they’re heading in the right direction.

TL: ​No matter how competitive the Cubs will be, you’ve still got Cubs vs. Cardinals for Opening Night. Is the rivalry compelling on it’s own?

DS:​ When I think of rivalries, it’s always–even if the Cubs are down–it’s still the Cardinals and Cubs. They’ve been playing each other for over a hundred years, and whether it’s Yankees/Red Sox, Giants/ Dodgers, Cubs/Cardinals…it’s always nice to do a game involving one of the game’s oldest rivalries.

TL: ​You never know, you may get even get a Jon Lester/Adam Wainwright matchup.

DS: ​You may, yeah. That remains to be seen. If Monday is any indication, it’s going to be a very interesting offseason, that’s for sure. And I’m sure Cubs fans are very anxious to see what their team is going to do.

Follow Dan @Dshulman_ESPN

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