MESA, Ariz. Alfonso Soriano had nearly lost track: This is what? Number three?
Soriano had a smile on his face he usually does but hes on his third manager since signing that 136 million contract, a different one in each of the last three years.
Whether its Soriano expecting everyone to give 100 percent now, or chairman Tom Ricketts saying people are working a little harder, its not difficult to read between the lines.
This offseason blew up nearly every assumption you could make about the Cubs organization. Ricketts found his voice as an owner and hired Theo Epstein to run baseball operations.
Epstein didnt look for a celebrity manager and hired Dale Sveum, who doesnt seem to care at all about the television cameras. The Cubs could sit on the sidelines while Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder got their megadeals and hand the first-base job to a Pacific Coast League MVP (Bryan LaHair).
Carlos Zambrano and Milton Bradley arent taking up all the oxygen in the room. This front office traded away several top picks who were supposed to be part of the future (Andrew Cashner, Tyler Colvin, DJ LeMahieu), and wont be as loyal to certain veterans in the clubhouse.
The Cubs are starting over. Again.
Its a breath of fresh air, utility man Jeff Baker said. Sometimes I felt like there was a comfort zone people got in and guys never really got out of that comfort zone. I think a lot of guys are going to be more on edge, which I think is a good thing.
Baker was acquired from the Colorado Rockies on July 2, 2009, when Aramis Ramirez was on the disabled list and first place was still within reach (2 12 games out by days end). So Baker has seen the crash up close, and perhaps the first steps out of it.
Everyone has a clean slate, whether youve got 10 years in the league or you got zero days, Baker said. You know everyones going to be treated the same. Thats been made very clear and its about performance and production. I think a lot of guys can appreciate that. What you see is what you get. Players respect that.
Reliever James Russell made his big-league debut on Opening Day 2010 in Atlanta. Zambrano got four outs in a 16-5 loss to the Braves. A historian would note that the Cubs had never before allowed that many runs in an opener, the most since a 15-3 loss to the New York Gothams in 1884, when they were called the Chicago White Stockings.
So Russell has seen Lou Piniella in tears, the rise and fall of Mike Quade and all the enthusiasm generated by the Epstein hire.
Its kind of crazy, Russell said. Youre a rookie and you think everythings perfect and then all of a sudden Lou had his situation and had to leave. (Then) we get Q and thought everything was going to be great. Of course, that didnt really pan out, so now maybe third times the charm.
Russell loved playing for Piniella: Its a privilege playing for a guy thats going to be in the Hall of Fame. And Russell had a good relationship with Quade: It was just sad to see how everything kind of unfolded, but it might have worked out for the better.
Camp Sveum is all about the details. There is the yellow string running in front of the catchers during bullpen sessions, so the pitchers focus on that part of the strike zone. There are multiple cameras filming it behind the fence.
There are blue marks on the bases to show where your foot should touch. There are tape marks on the screen where outfielders make practice throws, almost a box that creates a target.
Every teams going to win 60 games and lose 60 games, Sveum said. Whatever happens those other 42 games depends on how you run the bases, how you play fundamentally, how you catch the ball, how you throw strikes. All these things come into play.
Its hard to imagine another teardown or change in philosophy anytime soon. Thats what lured Epstein from the Red Sox, a chance to build another organization in his image. No one should get too comfortable.
Hes just a straight shooter. Hes going to tell you like it is, third baseman Ian Stewart said. Our goal is to win the World Series and really nothing less. Its not about winning a wild card or getting to the playoffs. We want to win the whole thing, similar to what he did in Boston, and theres no reason why we cant do it here.