BY NEIL HAYES
Kevin Orie has seen his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates come out of the darkness and into the light and thinks the Cubs might be on the brink of a similar odyssey.
‘‘Money doesn’t buy you championships,’’ said Orie, a former Cubs third baseman. ‘‘In baseball, it really hasn’t. We know which teams spend a ton of money every year, and they aren’t winning the World Series every year. So you should never lose sight of what’s important: your minor-league system, your Latin American division. If you have that, you have something to build on.’’
Orie is the pregame and postgame analyst on the Pirates’ flagship radio station while raising daughters Alexa, 4, Kara, 6, and Ava, 8. His wife, Melissa, died of cancer at 40 in 2013.
‘‘Nothing can prepare you for something like this,’’ he said. ‘‘It makes baseball seem so simple. It’s like something out of a movie. I was so thankful for my life and so happy with where I was in my life, but the man upstairs chose us. Being one of nine children has helped me get through this, but it doesn’t necessarily get easier because it’s a couple of years out. I get tired of planning. Everything has to have a big plan. You can’t just pick up and go.’’
Orie was once the latest in a long line of players seemingly destined to replace Ron Santo at third base for the Cubs. A first-round draft pick in 1993, he hit .275 with eight home runs and 44 RBI as a rookie in 1997. He also was second in fielding among National League third basemen (.971 percentage) that season and was a candidate for Rookie of the Year.
He lived in an apartment two blocks from Wrigley Field and walked to ballpark. He assumed he would remain with the Cubs for his entire career.
The next season began even more promisingly. He hit .350 in spring training and .307 with nine RBI during the first 10 regular-season games. But he was hitting .189 when the Cubs sent him to Class AAA Iowa a month later.
Sammy Sosa was swatting homers at a record clip, and the Cubs had their sights set on securing their first postseason appearance since 1989 when general manager Ed Lynch shipped Orie to the Florida Marlins for left-handed reliever Felix Heredia.
‘‘It absolutely threw me,’’ Orie said. ‘‘I never expected to be traded — given up on — so early. For so many years, you can do no wrong. You’re a first-round pick. Then you slump for 3½ weeks, and that’s the end of it. I’ll never forget driving away from Wrigley Field. It was surreal. I was not where I needed to be mentally. What in the world just happened? It was a bummer.’’
Orie spent more than a decade in pro baseball, including another brief stint with the Cubs in 2002. He doesn’t blame anybody but himself for his career not turning out as planned, although he admitted the added pressure of hitting homers during the steroid era was a factor.
‘‘There was pressure out there, but I played very well during my first spring training and first season,’’ he said when asked about playing in Santo’s shadow. ‘‘Looking back, I don’t think they handled me the right way. I had never struggled before, and I didn’t know how to work out of it, which I learned over time. You would never see the Pittsburgh Pirates do that. They leave guys in the minor leagues for a long time and ease them in gradually. I didn’t have that. But when I made the team, I wasn’t complaining.’’
Orie said the Cubs’ handling of minor-league sensation Kris Bryant gives him a better chance of long-term success at third base.
‘‘His offensive numbers are sick, and they aren’t rushing him,’’ Orie said. ‘‘There are a lot of things outside baseball that can distract you. When you feel overwhelmed and feel yourself getting away from the basics and things get a little foggy upstairs, you have to keep it simple. I thought I was ready for the big leagues talentwise, but mentally was a different story. How you react to a slump at that level, in that limelight, is a different story.
‘‘The legacy in Chicago at third base, guys come in and guys go out, and there are reasons for all of it. But the more seasoned you are going into big leagues, the better chance you have to survive.’’
The KEVIN ORIE file
Then: Cubs third baseman and Rookie of the Year candidate.
Now: Pittsburgh Pirates pregame and postgame analyst.
Quote: ‘‘Everybody loves Chicago. Most people love to go play there. Some people don’t want to deal with day games, but not many people don’t want to play in Chicago.’’