Now or never for Cubs' Lee

Tim Brown

MESA, Ariz. – Derrek Lee(notes) arrived in Chicago 6½ years ago, when he was young and emotionally (and physically) flexible and reasonably certain the losing could not go on forever.

In fact, he has started every season anticipating it would be the one, the season Cubs fans treasured forever, that launched a million celebrations, that put a cold keg and a chummy song on every street corner.

And though he wears the colors of wait-til-next-years 96 through 101, Lee refuses to believe Cubs failures are now self-sustaining, doom leading to losing, losing leading to doom, a tinny pinwheel that blows freely in both directions.

What he does believe is he probably has one final chance to end the cycle.

A lot of men stood where Lee has, some of them better ballplayers, most of them not. They all knew they would win on the North Side. They left disappointed, for more than a century.

Now he's on the doorstep of the come-and-gone history, alongside Banks and Santo and Dawson and Williams and Hartnett and Sandberg and Grace. Unless, of course, the Chicago Cubs were to win. "The challenge of being here is trying to get a championship," Lee said, "something that hasn't been done in a long, long time. It really does matter. I'd love to be on the team that wins the championship. This city, you can feel how bad they want it. And this could be my last shot at it."

Lee is 34. He does not have a contract beyond this season. Given that neither he nor his agent, Casey Close, has heard from the Cubs about an extension, he assumes this is it. He's been around enough, seen enough, to know there's no sense staring at the phone, no sense worrying.

Lee just had one of the better seasons of his career – .306 batting average, 35 home runs, 111 RBI, ninth in the MVP vote in a lineup that otherwise had big problems scoring runs – and then, by the way, spent the winter getting into better shape. Every morning he drove from Malibu to Venice, to Gold's Gym, to Pro Camp Sports and noted trainer T.R. Goodman. And every day at noon he'd wobble out, a little fitter, a little stronger, a little more elastic. A little more ready.

Still all quiet from the front office.

"I don't know," Lee said. "I've enjoyed my time here. Chicago is great. But, I'm going into the last year of my contract. That's the fact of the matter. And I'm OK with that. There've been no talks, so I'll be a free agent. I'm pretty sure of that."

So that leaves a final duty in Chicago before he goes, one final enormous lift. Good thing he's a little stronger.

The Cubs had plenty go wrong last season, and while that alone doesn't make it different than many of their previous seasons, they'll choose to believe they're owed better in 2010. They're owed a healthy Aramis Ramirez(notes), a healthy and more patient Alfonso Soriano(notes), a healthy and more settled Giovanni Soto and a slightly less edgy right fielder, whomever that is (likely a Xavier Nady(notes)-Kosuke Fukudome hybrid).

And, what the heck, if somebody wanted to float them a starter and a right-handed setup man, they'd feel owed that, too. The point being, and it's going around camp, second place might have looked to the world like the Cubs were trending downward again. To them, all things considered, second place meant they'd hung in there through a tough summer. Then they get back to camp, and Soriano seems better (and should be more comfortable with new hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo) and Soto has lost 40 pounds and Milton Bradley(notes) has been moved out. (General manager Jim Hendry has thrown himself on so many sharp objects over that contract the groundskeeper has taken to hiding the rakes.)

The Cardinals are still better in the NL Central. The Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds are more intriguing picks to challenge the Cardinals. Then there are the Cubs, who seemed closer two and three years ago, but might actually make something of themselves as underdogs, and would seem to have the talent, if they could line it up right.

On a perfect afternoon in the Arizona sun, all of these things seemed quite possible for the Cubs. Course, they always have in February.

"We need for Soriano to bounce back," Lou Piniella said. "We need Fukudome. I mean, there's no reason for The Fuke to be hitting in the .250s. There's no reason for that."

He went on to ask for a full season from Ramirez, and for Lee to hit all season like he did after mid-May.

''We'll have a nice offense,'' he said.

Then he smiled.

''We have some work to do with our pitching, though,'' he said. ''We really do.''

Maybe it's too much to ask, and just about everything that went wrong last year would have to go exactly right this one, but, hey, you never know. It's why they do this every spring, when no matter the filter, the Cubs' blue looks bluer, and the flaws look fixable, and even the fans at the gates wear hopeful looks.

It's also why Derrek Lee feels his time slipping away, and why he wouldn't miss this last chance at it for anything. It's why he's here, and he really believes that. For the championship. If he's gotta go, then he might as well win.

''It's a good city,'' he said. ''They're good fans. They deserve one.''