Day one of the 23rd Annual Cubs Convention was filled with familiar faces in the same old place. This year, though, is a little different. The same hope still exists, as it does every year, but instead of a winter spent trying to build a team, the Cubs have spent the off-season trying to mold a winner and build on the momentum that saw them win the Central Division title a year ago.
As the Faithful were preparing to kickoff the annual gathering, news began to circulate the Cubs had signed Shingo Takatsu to a 1-year minor league deal with an invitation to Spring Training….not quite the surprise announcement that everyone in attendance might have been expecting.
Here is the rest from the first day…. Cubs’ fans of all shapes, sizes and ages flocked to the Chicago Hilton and Towers all with different agendas. There is your autograph seeker, armed with a notebook full of baseball cards in one hand and a backpack full of baseballs in the other. There is always a dozen or so older ladies with so many buttons and pins you can barely see which jersey they are wearing, like medals from all the battles they have witnessed throughout the years. Then there are the die-hards, the fans in search of as much information as they can get their hands on. But all have one thing in common, their love of the greatest game on the planet and of the Chicago Cubs.
The Opening Ceremonies was emceed by the radio voice of the Cubs, Pat Hughes. Hughes introduced several of the Cubs from yesteryear. Jody Davis, Rick Sutcliffe, Bill Buckner, Steve Trout, just to name a few, and the of Hall of Famers….Fergie Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg, Billy Williams and of course, Mr. Cub….Ernie Banks. Ron Santo was welcomed by a thunderous applause, clearly the loudest and longest of any of the player introductions, either past or present. Hughes then turned his attention to what he called the 2008 Chicago Cubs.
Players such as Mike Fontenot, Billy Petrick, Kevin Hart, Sam Fuld and Rocky Roquet were called upon first before Hughes announced the current Cubs’ roster. Mark DeRosa received one of the loudest ovations, with Derrek Lee taking the title of the loudest welcome, by the slimmest of margins over DeRosa. Rich Hill, Scott Eyre, Bobby Howry, Ted Lilly, Geovany Soto, Felix Pie and Ryan Theriot were all greeted with the same excitement as the next. Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano also received thunderous applause from the Faithful that were jammed in the Grand Ballroom.
Ryan Theriot introduced Dustin Eglseder to the crowd. He was the winner of the 7th Inning Stretch contest last season. Eglseder has battled with cancer and recently lost his right arm. He led the crowd in the old favorite with just as much energy as he did at Wrigley last year.
Lou Piniella threw out the ceremonial first pitch, after Steve Trout tossed him a ball. The lights dimmed as the large screen descended from the ceiling as the WGN production team unveiled their latest highlight reel.
This year’s reel began with still photos from last season then featured the highlight film ran on WGN on their last telecast of 2007. The production then turned to the Cubs winning the Central and the celebration in Cincinnati and in Wrigleyville. But the footage from the celebration in front of Wrigley featured a very familiar face and one that I was standing next to. To our surprise, Shaun was front and center on the large screen that kicked off the fan section of the film….to say Shaun and I were shocked would be an understatement. After the kickoff was complete, it was time for Sports Central Live.
The Continental Ballroom was standing room only as Dave Kaplan interviewed the likes of Derrek Lee, Mark DeRosa, Jim Hendry, Oneri Fleita, Ryan Theriot, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, Ron Santo, Pat Hughes, Glenn Beckert and Rick Sutcliffe.
Derrek Lee and Mark DeRosa
Derrek Lee and Mark DeRosa started the show. Alfonso Soriano was scheduled to attend but was absent when the show began. Lee and DeRosa talked about last season, Lou Piniella and the rumors surrounding Brian Roberts. Both said the way last season ended left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Lee stated they are ready to go further this season.
DeRosa was candid and said it was very frustrating the way the season ended. DeRosa added, “I did not feel Arizona was better than us.”
Kaplan asked Lee about his power production being down last season and Lee responded with a great answer. He said the year he hit 40 home runs they did not make the playoffs and he would take hitting 22 home runs and making the playoffs anytime.
The subject of Brian Roberts was brought up to DeRosa. Kaplan asked him how he felt about the Cubs looking for another second baseman and DeRosa did not mix words, after asking did he want the politically correct answer or how he really feels. DeRosa said, “I feel like I should be the everyday second baseman.”
DeRosa added he knows his versatility helps him but he thinks it hurts him as well. He said he called Jim Hendry before Christmas and “picked his brain.” Derrek Lee added DeRosa wants to play everyday and said, “(DeRosa) is the most unselfish teammate he as ever been around.”
Both liked the way Lou Piniella handled the team last year and DeRosa said Piniella put the team in a position to win.
Jim Hendry and Oneri Fleita
The next half of an hour was spent with Jim Hendry and Oneri Fleita. Hendry talked about what his plans are in the coming weeks, without going into many specifics. Hendry said, “We are going to try to make the team better over the next couple of weeks,” and added, “What you may have heard is no reflection on Mark DeRosa.” He stated he will always do what is best for the Cubs first and for the player second.
They talked about Felix Pie and Sam Fuld. Fleita mentioned Fuld’s accomplishments in the AFL and Hendry said, “Sam Fuld put himself in great shape to win the job.”
The two talked about the farm system and certain prospects. Hendry said they have to put their young players in position to succeed and not fail….and mentioned Corey Patterson in the same sentence. It was a very surprising remark about the former top prospect.
Fleita and Hendry talked about Tyler Colvin and brought up the season he had last year. Both appear impressed by the way Colvin can hit late in games and comes up with the big hit when his team needs it the most. Fleita talked about Colvin’s ability in the field and the fact he can play all three outfield positions and said he is on the fast track to the big leagues.
They also talked about the way the rest of the league views the Cubs’ farm system. Fleita said they cannot concern themselves with the way Baseball America rates their system but they have to know their own system. Fleita accepted responsibility for not knowing enough about Dontrelle Willis and allowing him to be traded to the Marlins.
Hendry finished by saying he is looking to add a right-handed bat that can play all three outfield spots and possibly platoon with Felix Pie. He said they would like to continue to add depth and another arm, if possible, before Spring Training gets underway.
Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster and Ryan Theriot
Dave Kaplan asked Ryan Dempster how is transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation was going. Dempster said he was one of eight pitchers that threw off the mound on Friday and added he was by far the best….remember Dempster’s sense of humor. Kaplan then turned to Ted Lilly and asked him if he was throwing off the mound. Lilly said he was not but is throwing on flat ground. Kaplan then brought up the “little” glove throwing incident in Arizona.
Lilly quickly responded with, “I don’t know what you are talking about,” and after laughter from the crowd finished with, “I threw my 10-year old tantrum.”
Ryan Theriot began to talk right around that time about pitching and was quickly quieted by Mr. Dempster. Ryan interrupted Kaplan after Theriot misused a word and reminded everyone in attendance where Theriot was from and where he went to school.
Glenn Beckert, Pat Hughes, Ron Santo and Rick Sutcliffe
The trio of Cub greats and Hughes shared stories and once again Beckert brought up several stories of his days as Santo’s roommate. The banter was priceless and Sutcliffe added some perspective from his time in Arizona with the Cubs last spring. No matter how many times you hear Santo and Beckert make fun of one another, it never gets old and is always very entertaining.
Day one was, as always, a success. The crowd was fired up and ready for Opening Day.