You Know Better….
Go ahead and admit it, you had your doubts on Monday. The Cubs got off to a nice lead, but then you saw the only “Ace” the Cubs have left, Carlos Zambrano, look very mortal. Jacque Jones struck out with runners on base, just as his past stats had warned us he would. Scott Williamson no longer seemed like an asset we shouldn’t have traded in the off-season. If this was 2004, our attitude would have been borderline cocky and arrogant, as we entered that season with a sense of entitlement and our expectations would have been so high coming off the playoff run of 2003. With the disappointment that followed in the next two years, I believe we have gone from high expectations to a level somewhere between cautious optimism and downright skepticism for this season. Seeing “Combo Ball” in action yesterday, I believe, has provided the Cubs Faithful with the ammunition we needed to believe that our improved defense, added speed, and smarter baseball play can allow our Cubs to achieve the glory that our Journey-loving neighbors to the South enjoyed last year. That anxiety and second-guessing you felt during the game is normal, natural, and to be expected….but try and keep a good perspective, after all, this is but the first game in a string of 162! The Cardinals got off to a great start the past two years, leaving the Cubs in the dust, so while a win on Opening Day doesn’t really mean much in terms of overall record, it does serve as a great feel-good moment for the Cubs Faithful. This win may also have served to create the beginning of a long and prolonged psychological affect of setting positive expectations amongst the team, building important momentum and confidence in our new and young players, and leading to a loose and energized chemistry in the clubhouse. When you spend an entire off-season pondering the woes of your Cubbies, and then an entire Spring Training getting excited about their potential, you can’t help but be emotionally involved in the outcome of the first game of the regular season. So….for all of the Cubs Faithful that had their moments of doubt during yesterday’s game, including myself, we should all close our eyes and repeat this all too important mantra, over and over: you know better….
There are so many positives to point to, in the great win on Monday, that it could fill several columns, so I will just mention what stood out the most to me: Pierre, Murton, and the bullpen!
1. Juan Pierre doesn’t have to have a career year. I have said this before, but it is worth repeating, that if Pierre simply hits his career averages, he will be the best leadoff hitter, possibly, that the Cubs have ever had! I think the Cubs have a good mix of quality character players, especially like Derrick Lee, that lead by example. This will create an atmosphere that is more relaxed and should allow the new guys, like Pierre and Jones, to get comfortable and be themselves, without pressing and trying to carry the team. There is nothing greater for a team, I believe, than to have your leadoff hitter score in the very first inning. With the exception of Greg Maddux, most pitchers can’t always settle down after a bad start, and put the past behind them and focus on the next hitter. When Pierre comes flying around second for a triple, and you see him trot home just a few pitches later, thanks to Todd Walker, you can’t help but feel deflated if you are pitching on the mound. His presence on the base paths will eat away at the opposing pitchers’ psyches, and I am looking forward to seeing a Cubs player swipe over 50 bases!
2. I remember listening to sports radio, not too long after the Nomar trade, which also brought Matt Murton to the Cubs. A Red Sox fan was talking and he was not too upset about Nomar being gone, as Nomar had worn out his welcome with Red Sox Nation, but he was devastated that Murton was given up in the trade! Not much was said about Murton in 2004, as he was practically a throw-in (nice job, Hendry!) and he was a revelation in 2005, and he may truly be ready to shine in 2006. How crazy is it that we practically stole Nomar in that trade AND wound up with our future starting left fielder?! When we get down on Hendry for not addressing the starting pitching this off season (which we should), we still have to give him credit where credit is due in working his magic in that trade. Never has a GM gotten so much (Lee, Aramis, Pierre, and Murton) for so little (Choi, Bobby Hill, and some no-name prospects)! Murton seems to be a guy that has the right mental makeup to succeed in the big leagues. He never stopped performing last year, even when he was thrust into the spotlight, and when he had to deal with the media always asking about why Dusty didn’t play him more, etc…. He has heard all the knocks on him (not enough power, his defense is just average, and then he proceeds to go out in the very first game of the season and homer and have a leaping catch….talk about quieting your critics with your play! I don’t expect 30 HRs from Murton, but I do think he will get a ton of doubles, hit for a good average, and always hustle and play like he appreciates being in the big leagues.
3. If you think about our bullpen last year, here are some names to ponder: Borowski, Leicester, Wellemeyer, Novoa, Wuertz….none of these guys really inspired a lot of confidence in me that the Cubs would be able to hold a lead once the starting pitcher exited the game. As much as I question a lot of Dusty’s managerial ability, I do think he is right in liking veterans to rely on in his bullpen. There is something to be said for having an experienced reliever that isn’t trying to strike out the side, isn’t trying to save the world, and isn’t trying to do anything other than get out of the inning as painlessly as possible. Even though Williamson had a bad outing, I like his resume, and Howry and Eyre (and even Ohman) make me feel much more relaxed about the 5th thru 8th innings this year. Hendry may have overpaid for middle relievers, in terms of their market value, but if they perform well this year, they will still be a bargain for the Cubs, as they sorely needed help in the bullpen. With 3 projected top starters in Prior, Wood, and Miller out with injuries, the bullpen becomes even more critical over the next month or two. I would rather have a healthy Prior and Wood pitching the next two games, to keep the momentum going, but the bullpen at least gives me hope that we can keep the games close when Rusch, Marshall, and/or Williams are starting.
Am I a hypocrite? I cheered for Steroid Sammy when he hit 60 homers in three different seasons. He entertained me, and gave me a reason to care about the Cubs when their team was mediocre to horrible. I knew he was probably on something, and I didn’t cry or whine with righteous indignation at the time, or predict aloud the damage to the sanctity of the sport. I think it is easier for us fans to be negative on Sammy because it seems fairly clear that he was a “me-first” kind of guy, and an athlete can only be popular with that persona if he is performing. Once Sammy stopped mesmerizing us with towering home runs, we had more time to focus on the person, and we didn’t like what we saw. The revelation of his corked bat, and the Canseco-fueled steroid cloud that soon hung over baseball, helped to sour us to Slammin’ Sammy. Sometimes we want to be able to believe in our heroes….sometimes we want to look the other way….but when that corked bat fell apart onto the field, it forced us to confront what we already intellectually knew; Sammy was cheating. If Sammy had hit a couple of home runs in game 7 against the Marlins, we may have given him a glorious farewell and send-off when he retired. Instead, ever self-serving, and conscious of his image, Sammy has done the smartest thing he could possibly do for his legacy, which is to fade away without a fuss.
I don’t know about you, CCO readers, but I am disappointed there was not a game on Tuesday! Now that my Cubbie Kool-aid is filled to the brim and starting to overflow, the next game can’t come soon enough! If this is going to be the last year for Greg Maddux, I want him to go out in style, and with at least 15 wins, so I hope on Friday he will earn his first victory, Rusch will have a quality start on Weednesday….and the positive momentum will keep on building. Until next time, let’s go Cubs!