Cubs ready to end 100 Years' War
Organization cautiously optimistic; fans feel it's their time
CHICAGO -- The Cubs' Opening Day game against Milwaukee at Wrigley Field wouldn't start for another four-plus hours, and already the fans were lined up six to eight deep near Gate G at Clark and Addison Streets.
A few held signs that read 'NEXT YEAR IS HERE' or 'IT'S GONNA HAPPEN.' The fans were here in force despite 45-degree temperatures and a light but steady rain.
Many were here because they believe that a franchise that hasn't won a World Series title in 100 years is poised to end that streak of futility in 2008. The once unthinkable is openly being talked about as a realistic goal for 2008 by fans in and around the Friendly Confines.
"I think we're going to win the [National League Central] division again, and if you get to the playoffs you're only two series [wins] from going to the World Series," said Cubs fan Ann Morse, 38, of Chicago. "The Rockies did it [reached the World Series] last year and who thought that would happen? I think this is the best team we've had in 20 years."
"We took a big step last year winning the division," said 32-year-old Marty Kalsom of Chicago. "This is our year, I really believe that. We have the pitching, the offense, everything we need. And obviously we're overdue. I mean, if Boston can do it, why can't we?"
We might offer the century since the Cubs' 1908 Fall Classic victory as Exhibit A for the case against a Cubs World Series title this season. And yet there are legitimate reasons for the Cubs to be optimistic about 2008 and that optimism is coming from more than just the "hope-springs-eternal" faction of Cubs fans.
"I think it's a very good team, probably better than last year's," said Mr. Cub himself, Ernie Banks. "You know a lot of things can happen between Opening Day and October. But this is a very good team, with good pitching and hitting, defense. If everybody plays like they can play [and] stays healthy [I] think we do [have a shot]."
"I think the fans might be more excited this year; coming off [going to the] playoffs and all it's understandable," said Hall of Famer Billy Williams. "I think there are good reasons for the fans to be excited. On paper we are a better team, but we have to see how it plays out between the [foul] lines."
A Cubs pitching staff that had the second-best team ERA (4.04) in the National League last year appears deeper and should be even better this year. The rotation of Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Rich Hill, Ryan Dempster and Jason Marquis is solid.
The bullpen, with a healthy Kerry Wood at closer, young phenom Carlos Marmol and veterans like Jon Lieber and Scott Eyre, is talented and deep.
The Cubs also upgraded on the offensive side, spending $48 million on Japanese All-Star Kosuke Fukudome, who takes over in right field.
Fukudome's presence in the fifth spot behind Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez could make the Cubs' lineup significantly better. And if a trio of youngsters who gained valuable playing time last year -- catcher Geovany Soto, center fielder Felix Pie and shortstop Ryan Theriot -- continue their improvement, the Cubs should be a very dangerous team.
The potential exists to think this team can challenge for a championship. Of course, such has been the case in the past, most recently in 2004 when the Cubs were coming off a 2003 NL Central title.
Injuries undermined that team's chances and in any case most of the fans who spoke to MLB.com on Monday do not believe that team was as strong as this year's.
"This team is deeper, and besides [in 2004] once Wood and [Mark] Prior got hurt we didn't have the pitching after [Greg] Maddux and Zambrano," said Cubs fan Elliott Munsoney of Gary, Ind. "The division isn't as strong this year, and this is the best Cubs team we've had in a while. So I think we'll win the division, and with this lineup and Zambrano and Lilly I'd like our chances in a playoff series.
"Everybody always thinks this is their year, even when it's not. But I feel better about this year than I ever have about the Cubs. I just look at this team and the division and I think, 'This is it. It's our turn.'"
The Cubs themselves aren't putting the pressure of such expectations on their shoulders. And they aren't putting much thought into the 100-year drought.
"I don't embrace it," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "I don't know how I view it. It seems rather improbable. It's a long time. Let's see if we can do something about it. That's all we can do."
How long until Piniella is sick of hearing about it?
"It's something that, at least through the first portion of the year, [we'll] have to live with," Piniella said. "Like I told the players, this is this year's team, and this year's team stands on its own merit regardless of what happens. Don't put that burden on you."
In the meantime, the Cubs are leaving no stone unturned in their quest to make the next century more successful than the last one. The infield and outfield grass at Wrigley Field were completely replaced during the offseason as part of a drainage improvement project.
The more superstitious among the Cubs faithful are hoping that any bad karma that might have taken root during the last 100 years may have been thrown out with the old sod.
"I'm telling you, the new turf, [it means] a new era for the Cubs!" said Cubs fan Lee Keiser, as he waited in the rain to get to a bleacher seat. "This time we're going all the way!"
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.