'I believe in this team'
Soriano convinced health and offseason moves will result in Cubs playoff berth
MESA, Ariz. -- I haven't had a favorite baseball player since those salad days of hanging a Jason Kendall poster up in my college apartment. But if I were so blessed to be a Cubs fan, and had to pick a favorite Cub, the guy I would buy a jersey for, if I did such things, would be Alfonso Soriano.
(In related news, if I had to pick a favorite Cubs fan, it would be this goofball I saw at the Addison stop last year wearing a Jeff Samardzija jersey and a Kosuke Fukudome samurai headband. And, oh yeah, camouflage cargo shorts. You rock, sir.)
I know what you're thinking, I'm a dope. Soriano is overpaid and overrated. He got that big deal because John McDonough was eager to make a splash as the team president and the Tribune Co. was finally willing to pony up the big bucks, because they knew someone else would pay most of the freight.
The 34-year-old Soriano hops when he catches, he strikes out too much. He is a prima donna who demanded to hit leadoff (not true, but why ruin a perfectly fine myth) and probably two years older than he's listed, which explains his wobbly wheels.
But man, when he's hot, he's fun to watch. And for a guy who doesn't speak English for a living, he is a pretty good interview. He's friendly, thoughtful, available and he really seems to care.
When we talked about how he and Aramis Ramirez need to have big seasons this year, considering the money they make and the effect their injuries had on the team last year, he agreed.
"We got that money because of what we do, that's the bottom line," Soriano said. "They didn't pay us that money because we're cute guys."
I don't know, I think Soriano's pearly whites got him at least $20 million, but he's right. Soriano and Ramirez are well paid for a reason.
So with the caveat that the team must be healthy, and in Geovany Soto's case, well-proportioned and clear in the head, Soriano said this team is demonstrably better than last year's squad at this point. I challenged him on it. "Wouldn't you have said the same thing last year?"
"This year's team is better than last year's," he said. "I believe in this team."
And when I asked why, he gave me three reasons.
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"I think we made a couple of good moves," he said. "The first one, the team has an owner now. The second one is Marlon [Byrd] and the third is Rudy Jaramillo. All three moves were very good steps on the offseason."
My three reasons are a little different, and they go as follows: New, glorious bathrooms, Carlos Silva eschewing his "see food" diet and, of course, the continued employment of Crane Kenney, the man who invented the Captain Morgan Club. But hey, I'll take Sori's word for it.
I was skeptical of the fuss over Jaramillo's hiring. As one reporter opined this winter, it was jarring that the Cubs would hold a press conference for their hitting coach and a conference call for their big free-agent pickup, Byrd.
But everyone is raving over Jaramillo, so I can't help but think his influence won't help stem the tide of falling batting averages.
"He teaches you your swing," Byrd said. "He teaches you how to fix yourself. That's what makes him so good."
That's good. In the past, the Cubs were teaching players Neifi Perez's swing. Jaramillo's way should work better.
There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical over Byrd, given general manager Jim Hendry's track record of bringing in free-agent outfielders. Fukudome, the $48 million man, could be a reserve by May, with Tyler Colvin and Xavier Nady challenging him for playing time in right field. Milton Bradley, if you haven't heard, was a bust. I still can't believe Hendry tried to replace Sammy Sosa with Jeromy Burnitz. Jacque Jones was a disappointment.
But Byrd is a serious student of baseball. At the very least, he's an eminently likeable presence in the clubhouse. If you see him in the street, stop him and say hi. He's not just nice in the sense that he doesn't growl at reporters. He seems like a great dude. And he recently used the slang word "bougie" in a sentence, which is kind of awesome.
But is he another Texas walk-year creation? Can he repeat his career year for a team that is exponentially more dissected and covered than the Rangers? Can I write off a crystal ball in my expense report? Or at least a Magic 8 Ball?
The third component in Soriano's three-pronged improvement plan is the new ownership team. The Ricketts family was selected as prospective owners before last season and the long, drawn-out process was a dark cloud over the season. And when Ramirez went down in April, and the team needed another outfielder, Hendry's hands were basically tied. The money wasn't there.
Tom Ricketts, the new team chairman, met with Chicago reporters before Thursday's Cactus League finale. He wouldn't say Hendry has a blank check, but as a fan, he seemed amenable to adding salary this season if need be.
Ricketts was accessible during his visits to the Cubs' camp, mingling with fans and signing more autographs than Bob Feller. He was visibly cheering in his seat and generally enjoying life. Wouldn't you if you owned your favorite team?
Despite his wealth, his "regular guy" fandom has been a selling point since the bidding process. And it's true, Ricketts has the same problems as most Cubs fans.
"The only anxiety I have [for Opening Day] is I want the weather to be nice, so we don't invite hundreds of friends and families and VIPs, and they have to sit in a tent in the rain," he said.
You're preaching to the choir, buddy. I hate when my VIPs get wet.
But seriously, Ricketts seems like a careful steward, and as a success in his own right, aside from his family money, he's made money investing and trading.
He kept the baseball operations side of the team fully intact, and said he expects them to do their jobs, just like they did before. Although I hope that doesn't include any more deals for Ryan Freel, I think it's fair to be patient.
"With respect to this season being any more important than any other season in their careers, I don't think so," Ricketts said of Hendry, manager Lou Piniella and other front-office types. "It's a matter of everyone knowing they have to perform at a high level every year. ... It will be really enlightening for us. We'll learn a lot about everyone this year."
Last year, there was a feeling that the Cubs peaked in 2008 with a team that should have put up a fight in the playoffs, if not made the World Series. Is this Cubs team past its prime, a prime candidate for urban renewal? Or is it a cagey, veteran team that just had a down year and is humbled and ready to scrap?
"The team needs one more chance to go to the playoffs," Soriano said.
Just two years ago, it wasn't whether the Cubs would make the playoffs. It wasn't even whether they would make the World Series. The question asked over and over, and one more time, just for feeling, was: "What's it going to be like to win the World Series?" Mark DeRosa must have answered variations of that question 100 times.
Everyone was, as Piniella accurately described, "giggly" over the stars aligning for the franchise's big 100-year anniversary. Now we're just jiggly over the prospect of Silva reinventing himself in the rotation.
There is nothing tangible to make Cubs fans, or even Ron Santo, believe this is the year. The Cardinals are everyone's favorites with the Reds a popular second. The wild card will have more suitors than a Blackhawks Ice Girl at West End.
"We had over a .500 record last year and Rammy don't play half the season, I don't play for like a month, Geo's struggling," Soriano said. "I can't imagine this team, when everybody is 100 percent, what we can do."
One playoff win would be a nice start. At this time in 2008, that would be a modest proposal. Now it seems like a legitimate goal.
After all, the Cubs' marketing slogan for 2010 is "Year 1." Maybe it should be "Win 1 for Chicago."
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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