A-Ram back, so are Cubs

CHICAGO -- Aramis Ramirez must have something against standing ovations.

With the crowd on its feet, cheering as if Bill Murray or Vince Vaughn were leading the seventh inning stretch, Ramirez swung at Jair Jurrjens' first offering after two months away, and grounded meekly to second, trotting toward first to end the first inning.

Ramirez waited two pitches to line out to third in his next at-bat, and then grounded out in his third and fourth. He didn't record a putout at third. It didn't matter. Derrek Lee hit a two-run homer in the first and Randy Wells pitched six strong innings in the Cubs' 4-2 win over Atlanta.

"I feel pretty good," Ramirez said after the game. "I didn't get any hits, but I felt great. I'll do better. I'll get some hits tomorrow."

The third baseman's much-awaited return after a 50-game respite didn't result in Waveland Avenue bombs and curtain calls, but the fates were smiling on Wrigley Field on Monday.

Mainly, there was Ramirez's reappearance after missing the past two months with a dislocated shoulder. Early Monday, word came out that the deal between the Tribune Company and the Ricketts family to hand over control of the Cubs was done, though no official announcement has been made.

And while this isn't as newsworthy, the third major event of the day was that relief pitcher David Patton strained his groin.

(I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention that the already-released Ryan Freel was traded to Kansas City for some "awesome barbeque sauce.")

Cubs manager Lou Piniella said it was "really nice" to write Ramirez's name in the lineup. With Ramirez back, the Cubs fielded their projected starting lineup for just the second time this season, the first being Opening Day.

"It felt a little strange," he said. "It's been two months."

Just two months? It felt like two dozen watching the likes of Freel, Mike Fontenot, Bobby Scales and Jake Fox try not to get burned at the hot corner. Only Fox, who was en route to winning the Triple-A Triple Crown, was able to hit, putting up a .536 slugging percentage in 26 games.

The Cubs successfully treaded the metaphorical choppy water that is the NL Central race while Ramirez recuperated from his painful injury, which could require surgery after the season.

"It's not 100 percent," Ramirez said. "But if I wasn't good enough to play, I wouldn't play.

But Ramirez rehabbed hard and was often seen in the Cubs' cramped clubhouse with a Mark Prior-endorsed shoulder wrap. What was it like to watch the out parade known as the Cubs' offense? Probably similar to negotiating with "The Grave Dancer" on a $900 million deal.

"It was tough, because you want to be out there and try to help your team, especially when they weren't scoring runs earlier," Ramirez said. "Right now they're swinging the bats well, but we lost some games we should've won, because we had good pitching but we didn't score any runs."

Ramirez's return, in many ways, heralds the real start of the season. To paraphrase Bill Shakespeare, the past 79 games is simply prologue for a team that has its eye on October. After 80 games, the Cubs are just two games back of St. Louis in the Central, which is right about where they were when Ramirez went down. Given that last season's non-competitive regular season didn't augur a fall to remember, maybe a little struggle is good for the soul -- and the first round of the playoffs.

Just to ease Ramirez back into the flow of things, someone asked him a really stupid question. With the ownership change in the news, thanks to furtive, and possibly self-interested sources, Ramirez was queried if he was excited to get checks from Tom Ricketts rather than the Tribune Company. He let it be known, politely, that he wouldn't know Sam Zell from a Keebler Elf, or Tom Ricketts from Tommy Lasorda.

"I don't pay any attention to that," Ramirez said. "I don't even know who [is buying] the team, who was owning it before they sold the team. I don't know anything about that."

Ramirez was earning his $15.65 million salary this season, hitting .364 with four home runs and 16 RBIs in just 18 games before going down on May 9. His return should help alleviate the pressure Alfonso Soriano and Milton Bradley have surely felt during their respective slumps.

As for the club's never-ending ownership transition, general manager Jim Hendry said he doesn't know what to expect from his new bosses in terms of financial backing, though People In The Know have told me that Ricketts intimated to the Cubs that they couldn't add on to their plentiful payroll in the spring. Whether that holds true now is less likely, considering the heat of the pennant race and smaller salary obligations.

That the Cubs were under some kind of restrictions would certainly be batted down by Ricketts and his associates, but it certainly makes sense considering the Padres agreed to a lesser offer for high-priced Jake Peavy from the White Sox in May. Good news for owners new and old: By only landing Ted Lilly ($75,000 bonus) in the All-Star Game, the team saved $625,000 in possible All-Star bonuses.

Hendry noted that the Cubs have a pretty good team right now, with the return of Ramirez, Reed Johnson and Angel Guzman, and he's not lying. The general manager and Piniella both said they wrestled with Monday's roster moves.

As luck would have it, Patton, known simply as "Rule V Guy" by his manager, miraculously came down with an injury that required a 15-day stay on the disabled list (at least), thus solving the conundrum of the 25th spot on the roster.

The Cubs needed to make three moves to get down to 25. The first two were easy: Outfielder Sam Fuld was expendable because he's basically a younger version of Johnson and reliever Kevin Hart had pitched four times since coming up from Iowa.

But the third was tough, thanks to the Cubs' recent acquisition of utilityman Jeff Baker, who if the Cubs' recent history of short-lived journeymen continues, will be traded by August for "cash considerations."

The Cubs couldn't send down Fox, who was hitting .310 with 15 RBIs in just 71 at-bats, or infielder Andres Blanco, the only guy capable of backing up shortstop and second base. Micah Hoffpauir is out of options.

Thankfully, Patton, who can't be sent down without being offered back to his old club, the Rockies, just happened to strain that groin a few days ago on a wet mound to give the Cubs the All-Star break to determine what to do with their coterie of small infielders, borderline relievers and hitters without a position.

"Yesterday, he wasn't available, but I didn't say anything," Piniella told reporters of Patton's injury, failing to realize that no one would've asked about the Cubs' 12th pitcher, who has appeared just 17 times this season, which is fine if you're a starting pitcher.

As for the ownership deal that is supposedly finalized, a source close to the negotiations told me only that progress has been made and the sides are very close. After that, the deal has to be approved by bankruptcy court and the rubber stamp of baseball's other owners.

I didn't need any source to tell me Ramirez is back because I saw it with my own eyes, and that's the only move that matters right now for the Cubs.