Commentary

Never too early

It was just one loss, but Cubs fans are all too familiar with warning signs

Updated: April 6, 2010, 5:30 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

ATLANTA -- This was before Monday's game, when spirits were high, self-doubt was low, when those inside the visitors' clubhouse and dugout were of good cheer and all was right in Cubdom.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Zambrano
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesAfter winning just nine games last season, Carlos Zambrano was hoping for a strong start this year.

You get the picture.

The fellas were crowded in front of the flat screen and the Cardinals-Reds opener, Carlos Zambrano, Carlos Marmol, Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Geovany Soto sprawled on couches like a bunch of guys about to order some pizzas and beer, except they were in various stages of uniform.

"Let's play ball," Zambrano called out to no one in particular as the Cubs' clubhouse enjoyed a happy buzz.

And then Albert Pujols jacked the second pitch he saw over the center field fence, 400 feet-plus, his first of two home runs on the day, and I don't want to say the room went dead, but it was awfully quiet.

It's too long a season to suggest one game makes a tangible difference, and undoubtedly there are reams of evidence to support this. But when you go in promoting so much hope; when your pitchers performed well in the spring; hitters healed or lost weight or joined the club with even more optimism; when new ownership takes over and new slogans are launched and it's all about a fresh start; well, a 16-5 Opening Day pasting has a little more profound effect than just another game.

You can't help but look at Mark Buehrle and the White Sox, and how one tremendous performance Monday seemed to reverberate around the whole team. How Buehrle's defensive gem seemed contagious and how the game appeared to inspire even more confidence in the season.

New Sox reliever J.J. Putz spoke of Buehrle "setting the bar high" for the rest of the staff. Paul Konerko said, "It's never too early to get into good habits."

A supposedly rejuvenated Zambrano got lit up for eight runs before the Braves had five outs. And before it was over, the Cubs had two baserunners picked off first. Soriano, a player who can be sent into a funk by whispering the word "funk" in his presence, struck out twice and did not look good doing it. Cubs pitchers walked eight guys.

Cubs players spoke of broken-bat singles and bloop hits and bad calls, setting the tone for excuse-making. And they rationalized.

"Everybody knows Zambrano is going to be better than that, and the bullpen is going to be better," Ramirez said.

But how does everybody know?

"It was just one of those days where they hit everything hard," Ramirez said.

Except for the bloopers and broken-bat hits, of course.

"Maybe it's just first-game jitters," Cubs reliever Sean Marshall theorized.

Maybe.

"[Opening Day] is always a big spectacle, you have flyovers and introductions, it's a big gala," said Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster, who sounded a little grateful to be starting Wednesday instead. "And then kind of after Opening Day, everyone gets back in the normal routine of playing in the regular season. It's such a great event that starts off the season, it feels good, but it's still just another game in the grand scheme of the whole season."

And then there's Putz's take.

"It's only one game," said the Sox pitcher, "but it's better to be on top after the first one."

Still in good spirits before the game, Todd Ricketts remarked good-naturedly how he couldn't wait until he and his family were no longer the "new owners."

I responded that with that title at least came some immunity that would no longer be there on Tuesday.

"I don't think anyone in our family has thin skin," Ricketts responded. "We know it's coming and there's going to come a time during the season when we lose some games and fans are going to be unhappy, or we sign the wrong player. I think that's just part of it."

But the Ricketts must know as Cubs fans that part of it also includes overcoming a certain feeling of doom that begins with the fans but can't completely escape the team.

So yeah, it's just one game. But a 54-year-old lifelong Cubs fan -- is there any other kind? -- put it this way in an e-mail Tuesday, when I asked how he felt after Monday's loss.

"After Zambrano fell apart, I simply felt 'Here we go again,'" my friend wrote. "I bet most Cubs fan felt the same way. We are destined to feel that way. It's not 'Wait until tomorrow and we'll get 'em.' It's tomorrow will come and it will be just like today. You can't just look at a half-full or half-empty glass. You look at the glass and you know there's probably a crack in it or the stuff inside is spoiled anyhow. But you drink it. Oh, do you drink it."

It's Year One. It just feels like 103.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.