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Hope is eternal for Cubs in spring training

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

MESA, Ariz. – So Roger Clemens trudged off Capitol Hill, Joe Torre showed up for work in Vero Beach, a baseball season awakened without Barry Bonds or Mike Piazza or Craig Biggio, and the man behind the aviator sunglasses is Hank, not George.

The game moves, ever slightly.

We arrive at a time of Red Sox prosperity, of Yankee transition, and two decades since the Dodgers did anything worth recalling, a period, however, in which they beat back stagnancy with just enough chaos.

Seven different franchises have won the last eight World Series, Yankee Stadium is about to relocate across the street, and hardly anyone saw the Rockies coming.

The game changes. It breathes.

Except here.

Gray clouds drifted across a high sun early Thursday afternoon, chilling the handful of ball fields below. An air horn sounded. And Chicago Cubs pitchers and catchers scattered to the ends of Fitch Park on N. Center Street.

In a sport whose recognized annual championships go back 105 years, you don't often get a hundred consecutive anythings. But the Cubs defy disorder, ignore randomness, disregard even the dumbest of luck.

On the first day of another spring, they buckled their belts, slung blue duffel bags over their shoulders, and initiated the 100th anniversary season of this franchise's last World Series title.

Yes, the Cubs lean occasionally, but generally don't move, even slightly. The details become irrelevant. Baseball follows winter, and winter follows baseball, and then everybody starts over again with nothing gained but the memory of a few hopeful afternoons spent at Wrigley.

The Cubs have managed to get here without the public torment that chased the Red Sox to their 2004 championship or the sweeping indifference that escorted the White Sox to their 2005 title. They have had their moments of both, of course, real beauties, and plenty of them. But generally, this all happened over a cold Bud in the bleachers, and then it was time to go home.

For the best, one supposes.

"The great people that have loved the Cubs for so long, it's tough on them," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. "You start looking for answers that aren't there."

After 100 years, answers would seem to be everywhere. But, hey, it's spring, and Carlos Zambrano has lost seven pounds, Kerry Wood is healthy for the moment, there are seven men for five rotation places and three men for one closer's job, and Mark Prior is in someone else's camp. That's not a bad first day, right?

They'd been milling around here for only an hour or so before Ryan Dempster predicted World Series glory for the Cubs, almost exactly a year after Zambrano tempted the same little North Side demons and providence.

That died a few games into October, but it still counted as progress.

It's certainly worth the shot of being the guy who forecasted a Cubs parade, you know, if it happens to come true. Look what a simple division title did for Jimmy Rollins. If Dempster is wrong and by October the Cubs have embarked on a whole new century of pointlessness, it remains an earnest, well-intentioned ambition.

There are no losers on Day 1.

Asked about Dempster's prediction, Wood smiled. He's been a Cub a lot longer than Dempster has.

"I think that's a goal," Wood said, measured. "I wouldn't say it, but that's the goal … I don't predict anything."

The club that ran down the Milwaukee Brewers last season to win the NL Central would seem to have improved. Kosuke Fukudome, the Cubs believe, is an upgrade over Cliff Floyd. Jon Lieber is likely to help the rotation and at least broaden Lou Piniella's options. If Dempster can return effectively to the rotation (he won 15 games for the Marlins seven years ago) and Carlos Marmol, Bob Howry or Wood are any good in the ninth, the Cubs would have helped themselves again. And if Hendry can swing this trade for second baseman and leadoff hitter Brian Roberts, they really would be onto something.

At the dawn of Lou Two, Piniella gathered his pitchers and catchers and told them to have fun and try hard. Dempster seems ahead on both counts. Piniella said he had seen Dempster by chance the day before at the mall, and Dempster was dressed in fatigue pants and a T-shirt, gearing up to run Camelback Mountain.

"I told him I was going with him," Piniella said, grinning, "but I was going to drive the Suburban. So he's taking this seriously."

Next week, Piniella said, when the rest of the position players report, "We'll talk a little more about the winning."

Right. The winning. That's where it gets dicey.

When the Hundred Year Poor came up Wednesday, Piniella had joked, "I'll take responsibility for one," and Hendry granted Thursday, "I'm in for five."

That leaves a lot of losing, unaccounted for.

"I never really think about it," Hendry said. "I do feel badly for the people that have been wanting it all their lives."

He paused long enough to think it through.

"One of these years," he finally said, "we're going to get it done."

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