Cubs enjoying quiet time
MESA, Ariz. -- The first thing you hear is the silence. When you walk into the Cubs' spring-training clubhouse, Sammy Sosa's absence announces itself with the blissful resonance of ... well, not much at all.
Their first full-squad workout, the Cubs' first without their primary slugger/mascot since the Laddie Renfroe Era, might as well have been titled "Sammy Sosa: Unplugged (Literally)." The salsa-pumping boombox was gone, yanked out of the wall and toted off to Fort Lauderdale and the Orioles. The sounds that remained belonged to the voices of a team eager to get on with this new season, to start making music of its own.
"I'm anxious to see myself how long it's gonna take," catcher Michael Barrett said of the Cubs forging a new identity. "I think everybody feels like this is gonna be a better year -- just because of the people in the clubhouse, the feeling that everybody's getting. The air. The atmosphere."
Added starter Mark Prior, speaking about Sosa: "We're both better off. ... Are we better off numbers-wise? We won't know until the end of the year. But as of right now, we're better off. We don't have that whole saga."
That saga -- which found Sammy griping about his lineup spot, Sammy bolting early from the season's last game, then the team ripping Sammy publicly, realizing Sammy couldn't return and finally trading him -- left the Cubs' collective persona as essentially "The Team That Traded Sammy." And that was actually an improvement from how it ended last season: A 2-7 finish squandered the wild card to Houston, infuriating Cubs fans not particularly interested in how the team's 89 wins were actually one more than in 2003, when the Cubs won the National League Central. "We had it right there in our hands, and we let it get away," first baseman Derrek Lee said. Any optimism stemming from the Cubs finishing their first consecutive winning seasons -- let alone ones with at least 88 wins -- since 1971-72 was soon lost in rabid negativity apparently seeking refuge from New England.
Dumping Sosa was an illustration of why the end of college is called commencement: Given the direction of time, what feels like an ending is actually more of a beginning. That's the approach the Cubs are taking.
"We were more of a power team last year with Sammy and Moises," Lee said, referring to the Sosa-Alou axis that combined for 74 home runs and 186 RBI. "We've got more speed now. We're a little better defensively. You have to step up your game. I think everyone does."
The Cubs don't have that much more speed -- power-oriented Jeromy Burnitz is replacing Sosa in right field, while Todd Hollandsworth could win the left-field job. But the acquisition of fleet utilityman Jerry Hairston (who could play left or second base) for Sosa feels somewhat liberating to some Cubs. Sosa's homer-strikeout game became the Cubs' game, too; they're glad to inch toward a more well-rounded attack.
An attack more like their center fielder, Corey Patterson -- strikeouts and homers, yes, but some speed as well. "I'm proud of the fact that I'm an all-around player," said Patterson, who batted .266-24-72 with 32 steals last year and still is only 25. "You have to be a little versatile in the way you score runs."
Manager Dusty Baker said that personnel changes encouraged him to emphasize smallball as early as Tuesday's first workout. "We're stressing more fundamentals," Baker said. "We're stressing the little things that we're going to have to do, that you need to do, to win. It's more than usual, probably because we lost a lot of offensive sock. You try to make up for it in defense, baserunning, fundamental play -- from hitting the cutoff man to being in the right positions. It's a lot of repetitive stuff that you do in order for it to become second nature. It's more of a conscientious team effort."
Baker is leaning toward keeping Patterson in the leadoff spot to which he acclimated in last year's second half, though he might use Hairston at the top of the lineup as well to add extra speed. The middle appears more set, with Nomar Garciaparra third, Aramis Ramirez fourth, Burnitz fifth and Lee sixth. Burnitz vows to hit no fewer than 30 homers -- "No way. Not a chance," he said Monday -- but nonetheless is a Coors Field dropoff waiting to happen, so there still is the question of replacing the serious power of Sosa and Alou.
"When you lose someone you don't try to replace. You just can't," said Garciaparra, whose departure from Boston last July was about as jovial as Sosa's last month. "Everyone brings to this game a different style, their own personality. You just try to add another piece to the puzzle and hopefully that piece works.
|“||I don't feel it yet. It starts here, and it grows from here. Right now it's in its very premature stages. It's too early to say. ”|
|— Dusty Baker, Cubs manager, on the absence of Sammy Sosa|
"There's a core of guys that know how to win here. Sammy was a part of that. That's a small piece. There were a lot of other guys who were a part of that."
As the club took its first steps toward finding how its offensive pieces now fit, and whether this club can develop its new self-image, Garciaparra suggested that it could take longer than spring training's six weeks, and an injury in May or trade in June could change things in an instant.
"To say this is our identity, or this is the way we're gonna win, that might not be the way it is at all," he said. "The teams that adjust are the ones that are able to win in the end. It's hard to say, 'This is the only way we're gonna be able to do it.' If you start believing that, and something happens, now what do you do? If you don't believe you can adjust, you're in a lot of trouble."
Meanwhile, the Cubs get used to Life Without Sammy, how that feels and the opportunities it provides.
"I don't feel it yet," Baker said. "It starts here, and it grows from here. Right now it's in its very premature stages. It's too early to say."
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.
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