<
>

Cubs pull together minus Sosa, 'lemons'

The Cubs' clubhouse has undergone a complete transformation from last season and it's not just the remodeling at Clark and Addison. The afternoon of game No. 162 at Wrigley Field, when Sammy Sosa arrived late and left shortly after the first pitch, not only spelled the demise of his despised boom-box by a bat-wielding teammate; it precipitated his departure from the Cubs.

Most of Sosa's teammates had become accustomed to his Elvis-like stature in the city of big shoulders. It wasn't that they resented a Sammy sneeze drawing more attention than the rest of the club combined, or that Sosa soaked in all that attention -- that's just the way it was. "Now," Todd Walker said, "it's more like 25 guys instead of 24 and one. Everyone has to take more of a leadership role, be more vocal instead of waiting to see what Sammy says."

It's meant young stars like Aramis Ramirez, Corey Patterson, Derrek Lee and Carlos Zambrano have had to step forward no matter how reluctant. The Cubs are more of a "team," even though -- in addition to Sosa and Moises Alou -- they've abandoned the heart of one of the great gangs of bench players in the majors, "the lemons." Tom Goodwin and Paul Bako were the guts of a group of reserves whom Goodwin himself dubbed as being "like lemons because at first sight a lemon is bright and juicy and appealing, but if you leave it in the sun too long, it shrivels up. Sort of like us if we play too much." That spirit of fun is now more prevalent throughout the roster.

Sosa never seemed to understand the responsibility of the captain's "C" on his jersey. To Sammy it was a symptom of the fan adoration. Now he's taken his famous right-field sprint to Camden Yards and is experiencing a rebirth of popularity in Baltimore, a team of many star players and big salaries. At least outwardly, Sosa has "never been happier," as he closes the chapter on Chicago and embraces Baltimore. His joy began with his first spring training in Florida in 13 years, which meant he was near his mansion in Miami the entire month of March and could be close to his family.

Around the bases
Barry Bonds has long been in a separate orbit from even the Sosas of the world, let alone his own teammates. But he made a point of joining the Giants for introductions at Dodger Stadium. The chorus of boos raining down on Bonds drowned out the intros of rookies like Lance Niekro and Jason Ellison, who might not even be in the majors if not for Bonds' right knee surgery. As he said he would in his first news conference in February, Bonds savored the invective of 50,000 Giants-haters in Los Angeles. Had he been healthy enough to play the outfield, he might have had to retrieve the oversized, inflatable "BALCO" prescription bottle that bounced onto the warning track from the bleachers, replacing the customary beach balls of L.A. Bonds probably didn't even see that on TV, even though he abandoned the dugout for the Giants' clubhouse during Game 1 of the series. Both days he slowly limped across the diamond to spend an hour in the Dodgers' weight room working out, emerging from their dugout soaked in sweat and looking fatigued. In spite of an ongoing media blackout, Bonds laughed and chatted with new Dodgers announcer Charley Steiner and local Los Angeles radio legend Joe McDonnell, who once shared agent Dennis Gilbert with Bonds.

By the first pitch of the second game, Bonds had left the stadium to go back to the Bay area and continue his personal rehabilitation on his knee. Not even Bonds knows when his right knee will respond enough to allow him to play, and if he did, he probably wouldn't tell anyone, maybe not even team officials. It's difficult for team vice president Larry Baer and general manager Brian Sabean to prepare for 2005 without knowing when the essence of their lineup will be back or whether Bonds will ever be what he once was when he returns.

Bonds' absence has accelerated the promotion of Ellison, who had an outstanding spring but needs more seasoning. In the Dodgers' home opener, he butchered a ninth-inning single in left field that turned it into a game-losing, three-run miscue. Marquis Grissom was alongside the rookie when he rifled the ball into the turf in frustration, and decided "just to let it soak in that night. He knows what he did, he doesn't need me to tell him." Before the game the next day, Grissom pulled Ellison aside and made sure he knew "everyone on this team has done that at some point. The key is to learn from it, and not repeat it."

• It was great to see Matt Morris return so successfully Tuesday night in Pittsburgh after offseason shoulder surgery. His former catcher, Mike Matheny, acknowledged that most of last season, especially the playoffs, Morris was existing on guts and guile. Matheny still keeps in contact with most of the Cardinals he caught. What he misses most about Morris is his competitiveness. Matheny recalled a bases-loaded situation against Bonds, in the playoffs, a situation almost any pitcher would dread. When he went out to strategize with Morris on the mound, Morris looked at Matheny and said, "Isn't this great? I love this!" That's how much Morris savors the challenge and the competition. Matheny made a couple of the dreaded Tucson road trips during his first Giants camp in Scottsdale, just so he could get more familiar with the staff he was going to catch. ... Jason Kendall faced the same situation across the bay with the A's, after spending his entire career as a Pirate. But he managed to bond enough in Mesa, without taking the trek south. As the veteran All-Star put it, "they took care of me."

• With the favored Giants a bit broken down and San Diego still struggling to suit its lineup to PETCO Park, the Diamondbacks may have a chance to hang in the race after a devastating 111-loss season in 2004. The return of Luis Gonzalez, and additions of Troy Glaus and Shawn Green will enhance what was the worst offense in their history. But to make any noise, they'll need Craig Counsell and Royce Clayton to consistently get on base in front of them.

That's one of the areas of focus for Brett Butler, one of several former Giants teammates on Bob Melvin's staff. As a leadoff hitter primarily for the Indians, Giants and Dodgers, Butler said his goal every season was to draw 100 walks and have a .400 on-base percentage. He only reached triple digits in free passes once, but for four straight seasons he averaged more than 90 walks and combined for an OBP over .400 in that span. He also had six straight seasons batting between .295 and .314, every season adding at least 20-points to his average with infield hits and bunt singles. While Counsell hopes for that kind of production, he does possess many qualities Butler says are essential for a front-of-the-order hitter. Be selective, see a lot of pitches, foul them off, work the count so that not only you and your teammates can see what the starter has, but also to raise his pitch count and get to a less effective relief pitcher sooner.

Counsell isn't a gifted base-stealer, but he can be a pest on the bases and has a knack for getting around them. Clayton fits one of the trademarks of a classic No. 2 hitter in that he has good bat control and goes to the opposite field well. But his career .313 OBP is sinking and if he stays at the top of the order, Arizona won't score enough for the runs he saves with the defensive improvement he provides at shortstop.

Gary Miller is a reporter for ESPN's major-league baseball coverage.