Alfonso Soriano needs 28 home runs to reach 400 for his career. (USA Today Sports)
MESA, Ariz. – After a week of sun, warmth and unfiltered spring promise, Wednesday morning here broke dank and gloomy. Rather than creep toward something like renewal, the season had withdrawn into a condition of icy mush, with no explanation other than, well, wait, there it is, through the windshield wipers on the road ahead, "Winter Home of the Chicago Cubs."
The poor Cubs, 101-game losers, 100-and-something-year losers, couriers of wind, rain, cold and the slog of another rebuild.
Keeps going like this, Dale Sveum will go hunting with Robin Yount again next winter, this time wearing a full quail suit.
Actually, it's maybe not that bad. Probably.
We're pretty sure the Cubs are front-office smart, have the money to match the organizational plan, believe in the plan and one day will have the major league players around whom the plan presumably is … planned. Until then, they'll have stuff like 2012 happen, where they spent $108 million for 101 losses, traded away Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm at the midsummer deadline and won 18 games after July 30. They had a winning record against three teams, one of them being the Houston Astros, and only just barely.
But, you knew all that. And, crummy as it was, that alone probably didn't bring Wednesday's chilling gloom. There's a plan, see, and this is part of it. The prospects are down there (Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Arodys Vizcaino), some already in the clubhouse, perhaps pushing for playing time by the end of 2013. There's hope this season for improvement, which shouldn't be hard, and then what appears to be genuine optimism for the seasons after that.
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While it seems a tad unfair to make Cubs fans wait another couple years, there's apparently a right way to make the mistakes of the past era go away, and the only way out is agonizingly methodical. Generally, the trades, international signings and draft picks engineered by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have been praised, so the farm system grades out reasonably healthy again. That leaves only the matter of what goes on at Wrigley Field. Other than the swearing and drinking, I mean. Because that's going quite well.
The Cubs believe their pitching will be better, and that's a start. In fact, they seem to think everything will be better. Sveum compared it to a year ago and said, "There's just a whole different look in their eyes," adding, "There's so much more talent in camp this year than there was last year."
Of course, asked about believing in the plan while living with 101 losses, Sveum said, "I already said I don't want to talk about last year. … I ain't going to talk about it. I'm not the kind of person to talk about the past. It's just a waste of time."
Sveum is a guy in the middle, caught between the types of players the president and the GM give him, and the performance of those players. And while Sveum was bouncing between remembering last year and dismissing it, the whole time I'm thinking about Alfonso Soriano, and the $36 million he's got coming over the next two years, and the no-trade clause, and the fact he's 37, and how he fits into all of this. He was on his way to San Francisco last summer when he vetoed the trade, and now, if nothing else, Soriano knows the lay of the tundra.
If the Cubs can move him and save a few million dollars, it appears they will. Soriano seems to like it here, however, and even has talked about the mission of bringing a championship to the North Side. When it comes, he doesn't want to miss it. Apparently the past few years – and three consecutive fifth-place finishes – haven't talked him out of it yet, because Soriano still gets all dreamy about October baseball at Wrigley.
Six years ago, he said Wednesday, "I signed here to win the World Series. Now there is [year] No. 7, and we haven't won it. We have a chance. This year, I think we have a better chance than the last two years."
Reminded that time might be running out, he smiled and shrugged and said his legs feel good. He doesn't feel 37, he said. He recalled being a young player, watching Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds chase 600 and 700 home runs, marveling at the sheer volume of what they'd done.
Now here he is, the end of his career perhaps in view, himself 28 home runs from 400. It's not 600 or 700, but he's getting an idea what a career-long body of work might look and feel like, and he finds the numbers bring very little satisfaction. He understands, because of the contract he signed six years ago, he bears the public responsibility for what's happened lately. More than his fair share, probably.
"People talk about the money," he said. "They forget about what I bring to the field every day."
Soriano said he worked hard, tried to get better, played first for the team, that he'd continue in the same manner. He is as disappointed as anyone, he said. So, he hears talk about the plan, and he hopes to fold in, and he hopes it all works, maybe a bit ahead of schedule. Sure, the gloom has been cold and awful. And, sure, maybe if the Cubs play themselves out of things in April and May it could be time to go.
But for the moment, and for evermore, he'll believe he came to the Cubs, and played for the Cubs, for the most honorable of reasons. It wasn't because all the days would bring sun, warmth and promise.
"I wanted to be a champion in Chicago," he said.
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