When Pat Hughes stepped to the microphone to kickoff the 24th Annual Cubs Convention he announced it was two below zero outside but hearing Mr. Hughes and his familiar voice meant one thing….the baseball season is right around the corner.
The Hilton was filled to the brim, some even said it’s more crowded this year than they’ve seen in the past. Most seemed focused on acquiring autographs but many wanted to hear exactly what the Cubs have been up to this winter and to prepare for another run at a division crown.
The biggest news of the day, other than the announcement that single game tickets for the Cubs at Wrigley will go on sale February 20th, was Carlos Zambrano will undergo LASIK surgery on his right eye. He is scheduled to see a doctor on Saturday and is expected to have the surgery before the start of Spring Training.
Other notable news from day one… Lou Piniella discussed Alfonso Soriano and the lead off spot during the taping of Sports Central. Milton Bradley was introduced to the Faithful and there will be competition in the spring for the Cubs’ closer job between Carlos Marmol and Kevin Gregg.
The kickoff to the Cubs Convention featured a who’s who of Cubs’ past and present. The Cubs are honoring the 40th anniversary of the ’69 team and the 25th anniversary of the ’84 team this weekend and both rosters were well represented.
Bill Buckner was the first member of the ’84 Cubs introduced. Jody Davis, Bobby Dernier, Leon Durham, Keith Moreland, Rick Reuschel, Tim Stoddard, Steve Trout and Ryne Sandberg were announced to a rousing applause from the crowd below.
Jim Hendry was next up and the Cubs’ GM received a scattering of boos mixed in with the applause and a much-thinner Lou Piniella was introduced. Piniella received a warm welcome and the all-too-familiar LOOUU! Chant.
Pat Hughes then unleashed the newest Cubs to their first convention. While Reed Johnson and Rich Harden are also attending their first gathering, at least with a year at Wrigley behind them, they had an idea of what to expect. On the other hand, Joey Gathright, Kevin Gregg, Aaron Miles and Milton Bradley received their first idea of what playing for the Chicago Cubs will be like on Friday night.
Joey Gathright and Kevin Gregg received warm welcomes while the crowd applauded when Aaron Miles was introduced, a chant of “DE-RO! DE-RO!” was heard throughout the ballroom. Milton Bradley made his debut to a thunderous applause and the Cubs new right fielder threw out the ceremonial first pitch of the convention.
Several members of the defending Central Division Champions made their way out. Ryan Dempster, Reed Johnson, Ted Lilly, Jeff Samardzija, Carlos Marmol, Ryan Theriot, Rich Harden, Mike Fontenot, Neal Cotts, Micah Hoffpauir, Sean Marshall, Alfonso Soriano, Kevin Hart and Randy Wells all made their way out. Carlos Zambrano by far received the loudest applause from the Faithful and Geovany Soto was not at the Opening Ceremonies.
After WGN played their tribute to last year’s squad to fire up the crowd, it was time for Sports Central and Dave Kaplan.
Sports Central ‘Live’
Typically WGN’s Sports Central broadcasts live from the Cubs Convention but because of the Blackhawks game the two-hour show was taped on Friday night….WGN Radio will air the show on Saturday night.
Dave Kaplan put together his typical four segments, 30 minutes each (on Friday night it was actually 20 minutes) and first up was Lou Piniella, Larry Rothschild and Jim Hendry.
Jim Hendry was running late and Lou Piniella joked about why later on. Piniella was his usual self with the Cubs’ pitching coach playing the straight man in Piniella’s comedy routine. Piniella, Rothschild and Kaplan briefly discussed the end of last season with both giving the same answers to the same questions they had all winter.
When the topic turned to the upcoming season Piniella’s demeanor changed and he said, “We’re going to boogie this year.”
The Cubs are going to let Kevin Gregg and Carlos Marmol battle it out for the closer’s job when Spring Training begins. Piniella compared it to the competition last year between Marmol, Kerry Wood and Bobby Howry.
Piniella went on to discuss the bullpen and he said they must find pitchers for the 6th, 7th and 8th innings. He thinks Gregg and Marmol will work at the end of games but said they cannot pitch everyday.
Kaplan then brought up the inevitable question….Who’s going to hit leadoff for the Chicago Cubs in 2009? Piniella asked Rothschild to answer that one and he responded with “Carlos Zambrano“. After the laughs died down, Piniella answered the question.
Sweet Lou said he talked to Jim Hendry about the situation and mentioned Aaron Miles’ success in the leadoff spot for the Cardinals and his OBP. He said they would go to camp and figure it out. But Piniella indicated Alfonso Soriano is getting older and could possibly be moved down in the order. While Piniella did not say, it was implied that Soriano would be willing to move down in the lineup. Piniella added Soriano will do what’s best for the Cubs.
Larry Rothschild thinks Carlos Zambrano will come back this season with a vengeance. He said last year was the first time Zambrano had to deal with arm problems and he will be back to form this year. Lou Piniella said he likes to see Zambrano hit. After the laughs subsided he admitted Zambrano can be an adventure at times. Piniella added, “He battles himself.”
Wrigley Field has played different the last two years since the bleacher reconstruction according to Rothschild. He said regardless of the conditions pitchers must keep the ball down and induce ground balls. Piniella added, “Wrigley puts a premium on throwing strikes. You can’t walk batters at Wrigley.”
Lou Piniella was in the middle of answering a question from Dave Kaplan when a cell phone rang. Piniella quickly said, “There’s the GM making another deal.” Jim Hendry made his way to the stage and the first question from Kaplan was, “Did we get Jake Peavy yet?”
Piniella went back to the question and told the crowd he expects the team to play as well as last year but deeper in October….the theme of the first day. Piniella added, “This could just be the year.”
Jim Hendry was booed again when Kaplan asked him about trading Mark DeRosa. Hendry quickly stated that two years ago he was being questioned as to why he would sign him, and now it is the exact opposite. Hendry stuck to the same answers he’s been giving since the trade and added they could not make changes in any other positions.
Hendry finished by saying, “I promise you come Opening Day we will have a better team than we did last year.”
Outside of the ballroom Lou Piniella was overheard discussing the cell phone ringing and reiterated the same line about Hendry making a deal. So was Piniella joking?
Crane Kenney and Jim Hendry were scheduled to join Dave Kaplan for the second segment but Kenney never showed and Oneri Fleita filled in…arriving very late. The first question for Hendry from Kaplan was about Kerry Wood.
Hendry explained the Wood situation and the fact Pat Rooney, Wood’s agent, told Hendry that Kerry was offered a three-year, $30 million deal. Hendry praised Wood, brought up the fact that Kerry had spent 62% of the last four seasons on the disabled list and the Cubs could not weigh the risk against the price tag.
The Cubs GM described losing Wood as one of the sadder days of his career. In his heart he wanted to keep Kerry but in his head he knew a three-year contract would be a big risk. Hendry stressed the fact that it was not a sad ending. In reference to Kerry Wood, Hendry said, “He’s a Cub.”
Kevin Gregg will be a free agent after the 2009 season and Hendry said through arbitration will cost the Cubs in the low $4 million range to sign him. He feels the Cubs got lucky with adding Gregg because that type of pitcher would cost a lot more on the open market.
Hendry talked about the meeting he had in Dana Point with Milton Bradley. He said Bradley will play right field for a majority of the time. The Cubs did a lot of homework on Milton and Hendry added, “He’s a really, really good hitter.” The Cubs focal point for three months was Milton Bradley.
Derrek Lee is happier than Hendry has seen him in the off-season in a long time with the addition of Bradley. Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly also called Bradley after the signing. He said the current Cubs’ management has changed the culture at Wrigley and around the Cubs. Hendry stated, “We owe you people more than we’ve done in the past.”
Jake Peavy was briefly discussed. Hendry said because of tampering rules he could not discuss Peavy by name. He talked about the fact he does not like other organizations bringing up his players in possible deals with the media. Hendry went on to say that we would be surprised how much information in the off-season is actually true.
Hendry finished with the fact he is going to keep trying to improve the team. While Hendry did not say, it was implied that the Cubs are still discussing a possible Jake Peavy trade. Later in the interview, Hendry said maybe the Cubs will add a significant guy or maybe they won’t but he does not think it would be right without out checking with the new owner before adding a player. Hendry added, “Maybe we can chase a bigger fish.” Jim Hendry is not done “tweaking” his roster.
Oneri Fleita joined Hendry and Kaplan and stated the upcoming spring will be very exciting with a lot of competition. Fleita added, “We’re in the earn it business.” Fleita told the story of how he converted Carlos Marmol from catcher to pitcher….the same they have done with Randy Wells.
Rich Harden is “really good” according to Jim Hendry. Harden moved to Arizona for the winter and has been going through extensive strength and conditioning this off-season.
Dave Kaplan asked about Felix Pie and Rich Hill. Hendry and Fleita did not discuss Rich Hill but talked about Pie in length. Hendry said about Pie, “We don’t have time to wait.”
Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, Reed Johnson and Aaron Miles were the third segment. They shared stories and a funny one that involved red hot, Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster. Lilly said he began his off-season regiment earlier this winter because of the two slow starts the last two years.
Three quotes from Ryan Dempster:
- “This does not get old.“
- “Let’s do it again, three in a row.“
- “We’re going to do the same as we did last year…go out a kick some butt.“
Ted Lilly said he heard it was Lou Piniella that broke the pipe at Dodger Stadium, but he doesn’t believe it.
Dempster said the Cubs are a better team already than they were last year. He added that winning builds chemistry.
The fourth and final segment featured Pat Hughes, Len Kasper and Bob Brenly. Ron Santo was scheduled but was not feeling well and could not participate.
What a day it was. Familiar faces in the same place….just a year older and hopefully wiser.