Cubs entice with lure of more Baseball: A fortified lineup attests to the notion that this finally could be the year for the long-suffering Chicago faithful.

March 30, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

MESA, Ariz. -- If only the late, great Harry Caray were here, he would be able to forecast the 1998 season in a way that long-suffering Chicago Cubs fans could truly appreciate.

"It might be it could be "

Yes, this might be the year that the Cubs reach the World Series for the first time since 1945. Stranger things have happened. This might be the year that the curse is lifted and Cubs fans all over America turn their eyes skyward and wonder if Caray finally took their case to a higher court.

It might be. It could be. It probably won't be. But it certainly is within the realm of possibility.

The Cubs spent the off-season plugging holes and putting together what they hope will be a team capable of winning the soft National League Central. That might look like a mighty task for a club that finished last in the same so-so division a year ago, but if the planets line up right, it just might happen.

"I would be very surprised if we weren't contending throughout the entire season this year," said Cubs president Andy MacPhail. "We feel we have a quality major-league player at every position. Our pitching is solid, not spectacular. And we're in a division that does not have what you would consider one of the elite teams in all of baseball."

That might be the main thing. The St. Louis Cardinals are considered the favorite in the six-team NL Central, but they've got serious pitching problems. The Houston Astros are the defending champion, but they lost pitching ace Darryl Kile to free agency and didn't do much to replace him. The Pittsburgh Pirates were considered the biggest overachiever in baseball last year and finished with only 79 victories.

The Milwaukee Brewers are better than their tiny budget and the Cincinnati Reds are usually around somewhere, but there is no team with enough on paper to justify writing off the much-improved Cubs.

The Cubs have five healthy starters and one of the best pitching prospects in baseball (Kerry Wood) waiting in the wings. They are improved in virtually every area. It isn't a super team -- how many clubs are these days? -- but it is solid enough to raise expectations inside the organization and out.

"I think there were high expectations last year," said manager Jim Riggleman, "but they are certainly higher this year. We had gotten Mel Rojas, Kevin Tapani and Terry Mulholland for last year, so expectations were high, but things didn't work out well."

That's a bit of an understatement. The Cubs won just 68 games and finished 16 games behind the Astros, the team with the worst record (84-78) of the eight teams that reached the postseason.

"I didn't want to say it at the time, but I felt we were too much of a right-hand-hitting lineup last year," Riggleman said. "Ed [Lynch, general manager] and I talked about that. Right-handed, we had some pretty good offensive players with Shawon Dunston, [Ryne] Sandberg and [Sammy] Sosa, but the balance is much better this year.

"We've got guys with a history of good on-base percentage, we've got some power in the lineup and we've got enough left-handed hitters where it's not as easy to be matched up against."

A veteran clubhouse

That newfound confidence extends to the clubhouse, where the Cubs have veterans in every corner. Sosa had 36 home runs and 119 RBIs last year with a lot less backup. First baseman Mark Grace is coming off another solid season (.319). Henry Rodriguez hit 26 homers in 132 games. Infielder Jeff Blauser and closer Rod Beck are coming over from division-winning teams.

"For the first time since I've been here," Sosa said, "I feel like I can relax and feel comfortable that we're going to produce a lot of runs. We're in great shape. Let's see how it goes, but in my mind, we're going to do a lot of damage.

"We have to stay together, pick each other up, do the little things. When you do all those things, you become a winner. That's what I want to happen."

Sosa is not alone. There is a whole nation of Cubs fans who want that to happen. They won the pre-realignment National League East in 1984 and 1989, but came up short in the playoffs. It will be even tougher to get to the World Series with a two-tiered league playoff system, but this club enters 1998 with a surprising amount of postseason experience.

"Ed Lynch has brought in guys who understand what it takes to win," said Beck, who reached the playoffs with the San Francisco Giants last year before becoming a free agent and signing a one-year deal with the Cubs. "We're not necessarily the most talented, but we have the knowledge to get where you want to go. We've been in postseason. We've done it. We expect to do it. That can rub off on other people.

"The starting nine is pretty much set. If we can keep those guys out there for 140-plus games each, we have a real good shot at contending in the National League Central."

Pressure? What pressure?

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