MESA, Ariz. – Under a perfect (but not entirely jet-less) sky, framed by bundled balloons made more festive by peppy wafts of desert air, and set to a bluesy trio skidding across bent ditties of home, the Chicago Cubs opened their soaring new spring training facility here. Green steel beams rose from ruddy brick behind a stage where Arizona's governor, Mesa's mayor, the Cubs' owner and maybe 10 others sat, all so utterly pleased the ballpark finally had been built, and the franchise had not run off to Naples, Fla. but instead accepted the generosity of its new neighbors.
The band played. The lead man drawled.
"I'm going back to Chicago, man, that's where I'm from
I got so many friends in Chicago
Place just can't do me no harm."
Then came the bagpipes, correlation unknown but unimportant. The presentation of colors. The anthem, by a young woman in the key of perfect. Fergie Jenkins waved.
"Isn't this fabulous?" shouted the governor.
"The standard!" gushed the mayor.
Then everyone took their oversized gold scissors and shredded the ribbon out front, and the band cold-started another number, and everybody shook hands, and Tom Ricketts smiled, and for a moment it was enough to be under the sun, swaying to the shrieking bottleneck slide, and all I could think was, "How many days in the last hundred years have started just like this for the Cubs?"
Skies blue, promise plentiful, just enough soulful love in the air to think, "You know, maybe, just maybe … "
Only to have a squall roll in on the next peppy waft, and the startled governor put her shoe through the amp, and the anthem-singer become entangled with the balloon tree, and the bagpiper stumble into the punch bowl, soaking ol' Fergie's enduring pleasantness.
None of that happened. Could've though.
"They gotta win one or two more games, maybe," Jenkins had said with a smile, and that would do for the restraint for one day.
For the Cubs, more often than not, are the Cubs, which most recently has meant three consecutive fifth-place finishes in the NL Central, the last with exactly five teams in the NL Central. So the good days must remain good days, as lately there've been too few of them, and the next day – take Thursday, for instance – has this habit of being slightly less comforting.
Shoulder to shoulder to shoulder, inside the gleaming new Cubs Park facility, Cubs president Theo Epstein, field manager Rick Renteria and general manager Jed Hoyer sat before six cameras rolling and perhaps two dozen reporters. Epstein and Hoyer have been on the job more than two years (the effervescent Renteria for a few months), and year three projects similarly to years one and two. They're 197 losses into this thing, and the payroll has waned to near Pittsburgh Pirates levels, and, really, Cubs fans – being Cubs fans – will not put up with this for more than another generation or two.
The Cubs did take a run at Masahiro Tanaka and didn't get him, and now Epstein says he'll keep that powder dry for something down the road, maybe this summer, maybe for an international signing, maybe for next winter. The plan almost certainly is to store the powder as far as possible from unenlightened Cubs fans.
The plan, which evolves from the process, which buds from, you know, The Right Way to Build an Organization, is on course, Epstein said. The farm system is deeper, more talented, and … almost … ready. It's true, in the various rankings of such things – only the Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins and Pirates generally rate as good or better in the prospects department.
So, the Cubs ask for time. For understanding. For trust. Kris Bryant is coming. So's Javier Baez. Jorge Soler and Albert Almora are coming. There's pitching down there, they say.
It stinks to sit through this. It stinks to have to hire a manager who will honor the process and cultivate the youngsters. Stinks more to have to fire him to bring in a manager who, uh, will honor the process and cultivate the youngsters. Stinks to watch the Pirates pull it together first, and the St. Louis Cardinals be so damned surgical, and all those other organizations that don't bring in anywhere near the same revenues win so many more games on the dollar. They win games while the Cubs get sued over billboards. They win games while the Cubs, well, don't.
Epstein gets it. Or appears to. He tries not to sweat over the personal attacks, presumably. He spoke Thursday of "a real dichotomy" between how the club is perceived and "how we look at it."
In the 28 months since he arrived (he hired Hoyer six days later), Epstein said, "I think we've made tremendous progress. … It takes time, but it's happening.
"I think we're on the verge of something special."
As for the perception-vs.-reality thing, he said, "That's our fault. We've been in last place a lot the past couple seasons."
Facts are facts, of course, and standings are standings, and there's no getting around the fact the Cubs that people go to see (and pay to see) every day – as opposed to the Cubs that will be here next year or the year after – have been atrocious. Most speculation has them being pretty close to atrocious again this year (in spite of the new weight room here), though it would only be fair to let them play the season and decide from there. Given the Cubs did little of significance to improve the team from the outside, however, it would appear the Cubs of last year are again on their own for this year. They'll just have to get better, or try harder, and believe in Renteria, and, like everyone else, have patience for the process. Really, what choice do they have?
No matter what, though, the Cubs will have had their day in the sun, under a blue sky, Bedazzled in balloons. It might just have to do.
"I got so many friends in Chicago
Place just can't do me no harm"
Amen, brutha. Amen.