Familiar faces return as Cubs near the century mark



MESA, Ariz. – The wild ride had reached its climax and Mark DeRosa couldn’t help but notice the Chicago Cubs’ unbridled joy was mixed with a big sigh of relief as the bubbly flowed that day in Cincinnati.

Somehow, after appearing to be knocked out, they were the National League Central Division champions.

“Our celebration in Cincinnati was so big, I think, because it was a relief,” DeRosa said.

Imagine the mayhem if they actually won it all.

“It’d be great to see the city go crazy,” Derrek Lee said.

Of course, the Cubs haven’t won the World Series since beating the Detroit Tigers in Game 5 on Oct. 14, 1908 – 13 days after the Model T rolled off the assembly line. And what’s happened, or hasn’t, in the ensuing 99 years is well-documented.

But forget the Billy goat, the black cat or the Bartman ball. A more immediate Cubs concern is getting off to a strong start and avoiding the misery they suffered the first two months last season.

Sure, they finished 85-77, but they needed a big shovel to dig their way out after falling into a deep hole.

They had gone on a $300 million spending spree after the 2006 season, hiring manager Lou Piniella, re-signing third baseman Aramis Ramirez and landing free agent prize Alfonso Soriano, along with pitchers Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis.

Expectations soared. And the Cubs hit bottom.

Carlos Zambrano and then-catcher Michael Barrett fought in the dugout and the clubhouse during a game against Atlanta in early June. A day later, Piniella threw his hat before kicking dirt on and bumping an umpire.

Then, the Cubs dug out of an 8 1/2-game hole to overtake Milwaukee before getting swept out of the playoffs by Arizona.

After an active offseason a year ago, this one was relatively quiet.

The Cubs spent a lot of time trying to acquire Brian Roberts from Baltimore, only to have Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail say Wednesday that a deal is “unlikely.” They did sign outfielder Reed Johnson this week, after Toronto released him.

The major acquisition was Japanese star Kosuke Fukudome.

Signed to a four-year, $48 million contract, he’ll play right field and bat fifth on most days, although Piniella said he occasionally could lead off against lefties.

Still, most of the big changes involve new roles for familiar faces.

Start with the bullpen, where Kerry Wood is now the closer. The man who tied a major league record with 20 strikeouts in a game as a rookie – 10 years ago – hopes to re-energize a career ravaged by arm problems.

He replaces Ryan Dempster, now the No. 3 starter. And the batting order has a slightly different look.

Soriano missed three weeks in August because of a strained right quad, and Piniella decided to drop him to second in the lineup. The manager doesn’t want him to feel pressure to steal bases early on when it’s cold, although the six-time All-Star said his approach at the plate and on the bases won’t change.

“I’m very aggressive,” said Soriano, who hit 12 leadoff homers last season. “That’s my game. If I have the opportunity to steal a base, I want to get it. Whatever I can do for the team, I’ll do it.”

But can the Cubs do it?

If nothing else, Soriano said the team’s familiarity should prevent another horrid start. They’re familiar with each other, they understand what Piniella wants. A year ago, they scraped themselves off the floor after two awful months.

Still, overcoming 100 years of futility isn’t easy.