Dempster predicts Cubs will win it all
Piniella focused on this year only as pitchers, catchers report
MESA, Ariz. -- Last year, Carlos Zambrano boasted he would win the Cy Young Award and the Cubs would take the World Series. On Wednesday, before most of the pitchers and catchers had unpacked their gear, Ryan Dempster predicted the team will end its 100-year championship drought.
"I think we're going to win the World Series," Dempster said. "I really do. I wouldn't have worked as hard as I did and everybody worked as hard as they did to not believe that."
He's not kidding, folks.
"It's funny when people make predictions and say things, and people say, 'How can you say that?'" Dempster said. "Enough of the curse this, the curse that, the goat this, the black cat, the 100 years, whatever it is. We're a better team than we were last year, I truly believe, and last year we made it to the playoffs and it was a battle to make it. I just feel our chances are better.
"It's not just going to happen, it's not a gimme," he said. "We have to work our tails off to do it. I like our team and I like where we're at. I truly believe the guys in there want it as much as anything."
The Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908, a fact the players will be reminded of more than once in Spring Training. Pitchers and catchers reported on Wednesday to Fitch Park, as well as several position players, and many shared Dempster's belief, even if they weren't ready to say it out loud.
"We'll find out where we stand in October," reliever Scott Eyre said. "Until then, it's the same old cliche: Go play."
Cubs manager Lou Piniella, refreshed from a week-long ski vacation in Aspen, liked what he heard.
"I like the confidence that our players have," Piniella said. "I think as a team we were disappointed in the way our season ended abruptly last year. I remember when I played with the Yankees in '76, we were swept [in the World Series], and as a man, we vowed we'd do better, and '77 and '78 turned out pretty well."
Piniella was an outfielder on the Yankees teams that won the World Series in both 1977 and '78.
"Our division has gotten tougher, the National League has gotten tougher, so we have to go out and play," Piniella said. "This year, we know the players a lot better, the players know the staff a lot better, and it's a big advantage for us. But at the same time, it's a bold prediction and you've just got to get it done on the field."
Pitchers and catchers take that first step on Thursday with a workout at Fitch Park. Rain is in the forecast, but it probably won't dampen the enthusiasm.
"You're always excited for baseball to start again," said Eyre, who played catch along with Jason Marquis in the outfield Wednesday.
The first day was a chance to get reacquainted and organized as coaches discussed the game plan for most of the morning. Zambrano showed off his sleek, black Lamborghini, Michael Wuertz brought red licorice for his teammates, while early bird position players like Ryan Theriot, Tyler Colvin, Sam Fuld, Jake Fox and Koyie Hill took grounders on the half field at Fitch. Position players don't have to report until Feb. 18.
"I try to approach this season just like I've approached the last four, five seasons of professional baseball, and that's trying to prove something," Theriot said. "I always thought once you got complacent, that's when somebody sneaks in and takes something from you."
The Cubs prepared for the arrival of Kosuke Fukudome, who is expected Friday. The media relations department has issued press releases in Japanese to handle the foreign press corps which will be covering the outfielder.
"From the first time when we knew we were going to get him, his actions and his comments through his agent were all about coming here, doing his part, proving he can play at the highest level over here," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. "He felt he was at the prime of his career. He's done everything to make sure he's accepted properly."
Fukudome, who has been working out in Los Angeles, apparently was worried that having an interpreter would be a problem. The Cubs have tried to put him at ease.
"He's a very focused man, and he's quite confident in himself that he's going to make the transition at a high level," Hendry said.
Did Theriot try to learn any Japanese this offseason?
"No," the shortstop said, laughing.
There is still that lingering number that will hover over the Cubs until they win a World Series. Piniella said he doesn't want his team worried about the last 99 years.
"That's going to be one of my messages when I talk to the team and we get everybody together -- 'Don't put that pressure on you. You worry about this year's team,'" Piniella said. "What's happened in the last 99 years -- [heck], I've only been here one. I'll take responsibility for one."
Said Hendry: "I'm good for five."
Hendry still has nightmares about the 2003 season, when the Cubs were five outs away from reaching the World Series. In Piniella's first year, the Cubs won the National League Central. That's a start.
"Let this team stand on its own merit," Piniella said of the 2008 Cubs. "Don't think about the past, don't think about 100 years -- think about this year here. That's all you can do. You can't do any more than that. That's basically going to be the crux of my message [to the full squad]. The more relaxed guys are and the more confident they are, the better.
"Stay positive about this year's team, that's really the focus," Piniella said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.