Cubs’ Jason Kipnis is back — at home, in spirit and on a big-league roster

Maybe Jason Kipnis isn’t the player he used to be. Could be the fact that it took signing a minor-league contract with the Cubs in February just to keep his career going removes any doubt about it.

But the baseball gods can take that “minor” and shove it, because Kipnis, 33, a two-time All-Star second baseman, is back. The Cubs added him to their 40-man roster Friday. A few hours later, he was in the middle of the infield next to superstar shortstop Javy Baez for an intrasquad scrimmage. That’s his double-play partner now. This is his team now.

And Opening Day can’t get here soon enough.

“I get to play at Wrigley Field,” he said.

In fact, the Cubs always were Kipnis’ team. Not many still need to be told that Kipnis grew up a Cubs fan in Northbrook — it was written approximately 8.4 billion times during the 2016 World Series, when he played for the Indians — but occasionally it bears repeating.

Kipnis is due to make $370,000 in prorated salary this season, or merely 97.5% less than he made in 2019. Guess what? It’s all good. Did we mention he’s back? Back in the big leagues, officially, and at the ballpark of his youth — 15 years after left Glenbrook North to chase his baseball dream.

Fifteen years is nearly half Kipnis’ life, by the way. A pandemic made him wait a few months longer to play at Wrigley and cost him the chance to do it in front of a small army of family and friends in the stands. Again: not complaining.

“I get to see Chicago and actually walk around maybe a little bit when it’s warm outside, instead of just living here during the winter months,” he said. “So I’m getting a lot of positives out of this, regardless of all the negative stuff that’s going on.”

It stung when the Indians gave up on him. When teams didn’t line up to sign him as a free agent, that stung, too. Kipnis didn’t see himself as an “NRI,” as he put it: a non-roster invitee to spring training.

“I knew I was better than a lot of players out there,” he said.

It hardly matters now. He’ll prove the Cubs right or all those other teams wrong. Either way, it’s on him and it’s coming.

But looking around during a recent team meeting in the stands down the first-base line gave him a feeling. He walked the concourse, through the tunnel and up the stairs to get there, like any fan would. Like he did so many times as a boy.

“Flashbacks,” he said.

Doesn’t it sound delightful?

And here’s how Kipnis got himself ready for this during baseball’s coronavirus shutdown. He found a place to live in Old Town. He bought a bicycle. He found a nearby track. He pedaled along the lakefront and ran sprints and took long walks. He’d gotten older, after all.

“I literally just tried to be more active, have an active day,” he said. “In years past, there might’ve been days I’d sit on the couch and be happy about it, watch movies all day long and call it a good day.”

He hit in the cages he’d provided for the Glenbrook North baseball program and played long toss in the middle of a Northbrook street with an old teammate. He got hungry again.

“I’m a strong boy right now,” he said. “I’m going to tell you that right now.”

He fell in love with Chicago, too. Riding, running, walking, looking, noticing all sorts of little details through new eyes. It’s funny how that happens.

“Something I’ve never been able to do,” he said. “I always tell people Chicago is the best city in the U.S. during the summer, but I realized I’d never actually been here for the summer.

“But I stand by that statement. Just to be able to now get to experience and enjoy all these little hidden gems, and [to see] people in the parks and having picnics. They’re still social distancing, but they’re doing it the right way. Just a gorgeous city that I finally get to explore and see at its best.”

The player he used to be didn’t have all that.