It is risen.
Well, sort of.
Wrigley Field, that temple of baseball, is in the process of being renovated and should be ready, oh, any year now. Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel recently apologized for saying the rubbled, behind-schedule ballpark “looks like Baghdad,’’ a totally unfair characterization in that Baghdad’s bleachers were completed on time.
On Sunday night, a national TV audience will get a look at a stadium and a team that isn’t quite there yet but is being rebuilt brick by brick and Bryant by Bryant. The Cardinals, the Cubs’ Opening Day opponent, surely are smiling at the strut in their opponent’s step. One franchise has won the National League Central eight times since 2000, including the past two seasons. The other is coming off five straight fifth-place finishes in the division. St. Louis might have to resist the temptation to put the young Cubs in timeout for their temerity.
But make no mistake: They are coming. How far they’ll go and when they’ll get there are the raging questions around town.
Will the 2015 season start the upward swing that eventually leads to the World Series title that has been eluding the franchise since 1908? Or are Cubs fans being set up for a disappointment that will make the 2003 disaster look like a fender bender?
The Cubs are doing a lot of things right as an organization, but a lot of things have to go right for them to reach the heights that Theo Epstein, the team’s president of baseball operations, envisions. That’s the cruelty and capriciousness of baseball, and I’m not quite sure a new breed of Cubs fans completely understands it. Just because your team is doing things the right way doesn’t mean it will succeed in the end. There are no coronations in this sport. There is only a mean-spirited, 162-game grind that has a message for dreamers: Hope you’re wearing a cup.
Let’s talk about the good stuff. Let’s talk about what friend of righties Donald Rumsfeld once called “known knowns.’’ Jon Lester’s career averages over a full season are a 16-9 record and 215 innings. Provided his left arm doesn’t fall off on the mound, where the business department would bury it and sell naming rights to the plot, he should be the Cubs’ rock every fifth day. It’s why they gave him a six-year, $155 million contract in the offseason.
First baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro are coming off All-Star seasons. Jake Arrieta, with a 10-5 record and a 2.53 earned-run average, is coming off his best season by far. Kyle Hendricks had a 2.46 ERA in his first season, though the sample size of 80.1 innings is small. But if you’re looking for optimism, you’d be foolish to dismiss those results out of hand.
While all the spring-training attention went to top prospect Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler had a great spring as well. He hit .345, had four home runs and tied Bryant (and eight others) with 15 runs batted in for second-most in the big leagues. He’ll be the Cubs’ starting right fielder. Bryant will be starting the season in Triple-A Iowa, likely for only a few weeks before he joins the major-league club. Not many players are called “can’t miss’’ or “superstar’’ before taking a swing in the bigs. Other than Felix Pie.
And then there’s Joe Maddon, who has already reached mythical proportions in Chicago despite not having managed a real Cubs game yet. I don’t know how many games he’ll win for his team, but fun will be back at the old/new ballpark because of him.
Now, shall we get back down to earth, gently? Rizzo and Castro both struggled at the plate in 2013 before taking big leaps last season. Which versions will show up in 2015? Soler is a rookie and thus susceptible to just about anything. One of the players the Cubs has high hopes for, Javy Baez, needs to get his swing and his mind fixed in the minors.
Things happen. And they happen to the Cubs more than other franchises.
Fans are tired of talking about the ugly past. Fine. If you can still breathe with the elephant crowding the room, good for you. But at some point, what came before will have be confronted.
For now, my advice is to carry optimism in one hand and realism in the other. You’ll be ready for anything, which is more than can be said for Wrigley Field.