On Monday, the Cubs begin defense of the National League Central Division title when they play host to their rivals, the Milwaukee Brewers. You'll hear a lot about this being the 100-year anniversary of the last time the Cubs won a world championship. Just don't mention it to Piniella.
"Let this team stand on its own merit," he said often this spring. "I told the players, 'Don't think about the past, don't think about 100 years -- think about this year here. That's all you can do. You can't do any more than that.' The more relaxed guys are and the more confident they are, the better."
It is the longest drought in professional sports, but who's counting? Not Ryan Dempster.
"I think we're going to win the World Series," Dempster said on the day pitchers and catchers reported to Mesa, Ariz. "I really do. I wouldn't have worked as hard as I did, and everybody worked as hard as they did, to not believe that."
He's not kidding, either.
These are the same Cubs who were swept by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL Division Series last October, but they're different. Dempster isn't the closer, he's now in the rotation. Kerry Wood isn't rehabbing his shoulder, he's the closer. Geovany Soto isn't in Triple-A Iowa, he's behind the plate. Kosuke Fukudome is no longer batting third for the Chunichi Dragons, he's now hitting fifth, the first Japanese player for the Cubs.
Youkoso Chicago ye.
Instead of scrambling to find enough healthy arms for the rotation, the Cubs had too many. They waited until the final week to name a closer, letting Wood, Bob Howry and Carlos Marmol duke it out this spring.
Last year, Piniella's first in Chicago, he needed an extra two months -- sort of an extended Spring Training -- to learn the personnel, and figure out who should stay, and who should go. Changes were made. This spring, the roster has been more settled despite trade rumors and the daily presence of a Baltimore scout.
The players don't seem as intimidated by their skipper, who made it clear he doesn't like to lose, even if the Cactus League record is wiped out as soon as the Cubs take the field Monday. By the way, bring a poncho. The forecast is for temps in the upper 40s and rain.
It's been a strange spring. Mark DeRosa needed surgery to correct an irregular heartbeat. Jose Ascanio had a black eye after a robbery attempt at a convenience store in Scottsdale, Ariz. Strength coach Tim Buss' 1995 Nissan Sentra was sledge-hammered to scrap metal in a good-natured prank. Felix Pie underwent a procedure for testicular torsion. Just reading that will make a grown man wince.
The Cubs will be young up the middle with Pie in center, Ryan Theriot at shortstop and Soto behind the plate. Technically, Fukudome is a rookie, and he'll be followed all season by a minimum of five Japanese reporters who want to know what he eats, how he's feeling, and if he has enough tamo bats.
Alfonso Soriano, who was the focus last season after signing an eight-year, $136 million deal, is now batting second so he doesn't try to steal too much and re-injure his legs. His 40-40 days may be over. The Cubs' lineup was a puzzle for Piniella, who will probably tinker even though he says he wants to stay constant.
The biggest storyline to follow this season is Wood, who begins a new chapter in his career as the closer. The right-hander, who struck out 20 in a single game in his rookie season in 1998, now is 30 years old and firing 98-mph fastballs again.
And that was only 10 years ago. Seems like 100.
MIL: RHP Ben Sheets (12-5, 3.82 ERA in 2007)
Sheets has five career wins at Wrigley Field, the most of any visiting ballpark. This will be his sixth Opening Day start in the last seven seasons, and he's 3-0 in those games. He retired 22 straight Dodgers at one point in last year's assignment, throwing a complete game two-hitter. That's the first time a Brewers pitcher went the distance in the opener since Don August did so against Cleveland on April 3, 1989.
CHC: RHP Carlos Zambrano (18-13, 3.95 ERA in 2007)
This will be Zambrano's fourth Opening Day assignment, and he's still looking for his first "W." He was 2-1 with a 4.26 ERA against the Brewers last year, and is 9-8 in his career. Big Z is the first Cubs pitcher to start four straight season openers since Rick Sutcliffe opened the schedule five years in a row, 1985-89.
This is the Cubs' first home opener since 2001, when the Montreal Expos won, 5-4, in 10 innings. ... The Cubs are 73-57-2 on Opening Day, and 50-41-1 in Wrigley Field home openers. ... Derrek Lee batted .371 last season against the Brewers. ... Marmol has a career 1.90 ERA and 4-0 record against Milwaukee. ... The Cubs will unveil a statue of Ernie Banks outside Wrigley Field at Clark and Addison streets. ... Chicago was 9-6 vs. Milwaukee last year.
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Official game notes
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Tuesday: Off day
Wednesday: Brewers (RHP Jeff Suppan, 12-12, 4.62) at Cubs (LHP Ted Lilly, 15-8, 3.83), 1:20 p.m. CT
Thursday: Brewers (TBD) at Cubs (RHP Ryan Dempster, 2-7, 4.73), 1:20 p.m. CT
Friday: Astros (RHP Chris Sampson, 7-8, 4.59) at Cubs (LHP Rich Hill, 11-8, 3.92), 1:20 p.m. CT