Out the window as I write this, the city looks like the interior of a snow globe. It reminds me that when I walked up the back steps returning from the corner store, it seemed as if I'd never again be able to sit on the porch and read the morning paper. But my thoughts are of warm days spent sitting outdoors drinking beer and watching Sammy Sosa run to his position in right field, though they keep getting disrupted by images of Alex Gonzalez preparing to backhand a high hopper, Moises Alou flinging his arms down in frustration, an entire stadium going silent but for the growing chorus of curses flung at a man in glasses, headphones, a turtleneck, and a Cubs cap. I know that many people would say that to every sport its season, to everything its proper place. But the marvels of the hot stove league, of baseball's spirit of renewal so tied to the arrival of spring, have never before struck me as so mysterious, poignant, and essential--almost pagan in their origins.
Two weeks ago I walked through the cold canyons of the Loop (taking pains to avoid the wide wind tunnel of Michigan Avenue) and made my way to the Hilton Chicago & Towers for the annual Cubs Convention. I got there just as the organized festivities were beginning and was met by long lines of guests waiting to sign in and get their room assignments, and by those who'd already checked in and now were lounging about in the hotel bars and lobbies, waiting for friends or for who knows which old Cubs favorite to amble by. I watched the final outs of Don Cardwell's 1960 no-hitter on a projection TV in one of the bars--"Come on, Moose!" Jack Brickhouse urged Walt Moryn as he made a last-out shoestring catch to preserve the gem--only to meet Cardwell not an hour later at an affair for players, fans, and the media. What struck me was the resilience of these fans, who'd been dropped on their heads by the Cubs almost exactly three months before yet were now here to renew their allegiance. What struck me even more was the way hope mingled with anguish over what had been irretrievably lost last fall. When manager Dusty Baker threw himself open to questions at a gathering later in the weekend, queries about the season to come were mixed with interrogations about whether he would manage any differently if he could go back and replay games six and seven of the Championship Series. The hot stove league in general and the Cubs Convention in particular sit on the cusp between past and future, where--as in a tormented Faulkner novel--the awful realization of what has come before does battle for dominance with hope eternal.
For me, the past tends to dominate. I look to the season ahead with a certain dread and mutter, "I've got a bad feeling about this," like a character in a Star Wars film. I'm in the minority where Cubs fans are concerned, because the team has been busy over the winter and clearly improved itself where it needed to most, in the bullpen. General manager Jim Hendry addressed that need right away (coincidentally helping the White Sox in the process) when he signed setup reliever LaTroy Hawkins away from the Minnesota Twins. Hawkins seemed to discover how to pitch two years ago and he only got better last season, compiling a 1.86 earned run average with 75 strikeouts while allowing only 69 hits and 15 walks in 77 innings. He has the classic power stuff to be a closer, and may well usurp the less conventional yet effective Joe Borowski in that role. Hendry also signed former phenom Kent Mercker, a left-hander who likewise compiled a sub-2.00 ERA in middle relief last season, and he brings back Kyle Farnsworth and Mike Remlinger. That's a good bullpen. It should help Baker take the strain off young starters Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Matt Clement, and Carlos Zambrano, all of whom pitched 200 innings last season and need to be better protected against potential arm troubles. Central Division rival Houston likewise improved its pitching, spiriting away Andy Pettite and Roger Clemens from the New York Yankees, but I'm not worried about them--whether or not the Cubs bring back Greg Maddux to replace Juan Cruz as a back-of-the-rotation starter. Pettite and Clemens have seen their best days, while Wood and Prior appear to have their primes ahead of them--again, a weighing of past against future.
No, I'm more worried about the Cubs' offense. The Cubs were a .500 team when they acquired Kenny Lofton on July 22. After that they went 38-25 and sprinted to the division title. If there's one lesson in that, it's that the Cubs need a solid leadoff man in front of Sosa and Alou, and neither Mark Grudzielanek nor Corey Patterson is sufficient. The Cubs had a chance to steal second baseman Luis Castillo from the Florida Marlins, the team that beat them in the NLCS and went on to top the Yankees in the World Series (another aggravation: if the Cubs had finished those infamous five outs in game six, they likely would have fared every bit as well against a weakened Yankees team). Castillo compiled a .381 on-base percentage last season and would have fit perfectly at the top of the Cubs' lineup. But the Cubs re-signed Grudzie and brought in Todd Walker from the Boston Red Sox to press him at second, though Walker had a lower OBP and made more errors than either Grudzie or Castillo. If the Cubs end up regretting anything in 2004, I predict it will involve not upgrading their leadoff man.
I'm also not excited about the Cubs' swapping capable defensive specialist Damian Miller for Michael Barrett at catcher or exchanging Hee Seop Choi for the Marlins' Derrek Lee at first base. I know again I'm in the minority on that. Barrett is younger, and Lee is a proven power hitter with a fine glove. But Miller had a track record as a championship-caliber catcher who shuts down the opponent's running game, while Choi offered not only promise but a left-handed bat to balance Sosa and Alou. Even with the acquisition of former rookie of the year Todd Hollandsworth as a bench player, the Cubs, like the Astros over the last several seasons, may prove susceptible to right-handed pitching. I like it that Lee will take a walk, and I like it that Patterson, who's back from a knee injury, and Aramis Ramirez return for full seasons. But I'm more worried than confident about the Cubs.
Worry doesn't capture the state of mind of Sox fans, who hold their annual convention this weekend at the Hyatt Regency; depressed and despondent would be more accurate. The Sox have suffered almost nothing but losses since the season ended--truth be told, since their disastrous September trip to Minnesota, where they caved in to the Twins. General manager Ken Williams did a splendid job of assembling the Sox on the fly into a legitimate Series contender last summer, only to watch them implode in the sweep that handed the Central title to the Twins.
Since then, the Sox have lost ace Bartolo Colon, closer Tom Gordon, center fielder Carl Everett, and second baseman Roberto Alomar, while adding only Japanese closer Shingo Takatsu. This means that beyond Mark Buehrle and Esteban Loiaza, who will be hard-pressed to equal his breakout season of last year, they'll have to cobble together a rotation with the likes of Jon Garland, Jon Rauch, and Dan Wright--none of whom has yet to live up to advance notice--and back it with a bullpen that counts on Billy Koch to regain the form he had in Oakland two years ago, with only Takatsu and left-handed Damaso Marte as insurance.
The Sox again present a formidable lineup full of right-handed power--Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Lee, Paul Konerko, and Joe Crede--but it's a lumbering group on the bases, and like the Cubs' lineup it lacks a leadoff man who's proved he can get on base. The Sox grounded into 132 double plays last season--led by league leader Konerko with 28--and though they finished behind the Yanks, Twins, and Toronto Blue Jays in that category, all three of those teams put significantly more runners on base in the first place. Williams couldn't have helped with his persistent talk of a deal that would have sent Ordonez to the Los Angeles Dodgers for cheap young pitchers.
More than just Ordonez, the trade talk threatened to further alienate Sox fans, who briefly backed the team in last season's pennant race before the trip to Minnesota. It undid much of the goodwill brought on by the signing of old favorite Ozzie Guillen as manager to replace Jerry Manuel. Guillen figures to be a more fiery, aggressive field leader, but there's only so much he can do with his personnel. The Sox look like they'll be a diminished, plodding old ball club, unless young players like Joe Borchard develop quickly and fill the holes Williams left himself with last summer when he mortgaged the future to win right now.
Thinking about the team's fortunes last year reminds me of Lucinda Williams's ballad "Minneapolis." As I put it on again and look out at the snow, the song, about Williams being abandoned by a lover in the Twin Cities, seems more appropriate than ever.
You're a bad pain in my gut
I wanna spit you out
Open up this wound again
Let my blood flow red and thin
Into the glittering
Into the whiteness
Into the melting snow of Minneapolis
The chill seemed metaphorical last summer, but it's all too literal now. The hot stove league offers Sox fans only so much hope to thaw a deep and persistent winter freeze.