Jeez, is it hot.
Why, yes, I do know that this is February in Chicago and that it’s not unusual for someone to stumble upon a perfectly preserved 1970 Ford LTD in the permafrost.
And I am indeed aware that there’s a groundhog somewhere that wants to tell us we have six more weeks of winter.
But spring officially starts this week for Cubs and Sox pitchers and catchers in Arizona.
And, man, is it toasty in Chicago.
The traditional spring-training theme of hope does not apply here. This year’s theme is heat. The heat of incredible expectations for the Cubs to finally – finally – win a World Series. The heat on Sox manager Robin Ventura and his team to turn things around, or else.
Desert heat. Chicago heat. Whatever you want to call it. It’s hot.
The Cubs are the favorites to win the World Series. That is not opinion. That is fact. Many “experts,’’ from baseball writers to Las Vegas bookmakers, are picking the Cubs to be the last team standing in October – “standing’’ meaning “rolling around like children in an infield celebration.’’ They made it to the National League Championship Series last season, and signed Jason Heyward and John Lackey away from the Cardinals in the offseason, thus weakening St. Louis in the NL Central.
Cubs fans might lose their minds for good this season, one way or the other. The admonition to “act like you’ve been there before’’ doesn’t apply because 99.9 percent of those people haven’t been here before. There is probably a wrinkled handful of supercentenarians (110 and older) that remembers anything about the last Cubs’ title in 1908. To be the favorites, to be the frontrunners, well, that’s not something anyone is used to.
That’s where manager Joe Maddon comes in. Never mind his mad-scientist act with lineups and pitching changes. Never mind his very public gimmicks, whether it be having his players wear pajamas on a flight home or hiring a magician to entertain the team. He does his best work behind the scenes. Players love playing for him because he convinces them that he believes in them. If one of the best managers in the game believes in you, it follows that you should believe in you too.
That’s going to be especially important this season, when the Cubs will get more national attention than they’ve ever gotten before. It helps that Kris Bryant played in the bright lights of the All-Star Game last year and that Kyle Schwarber shined in the postseason. But neither young player has seen what he’s going to see this year. There will be no sneaking up on anybody. Maddon has to be the calm in whatever storm blows through town.
The main criticism of Ventura is that he’d be the calmest person at a convention of cadavers. OK, he’s not fiery. Fair enough. But he didn’t get much help from his players last season, when the Sox finished 76-86. Veteran Adam LaRoche had 26 home runs and 92 runs batted in for the Nationals in 2014, then came to the White Sox and had 12 homers and 44 RBI. That’s not the manager’s fault.
Like a late surge at the polls, there is growing optimism on the South Side. The rationale for it goes like this: Last season’s underachieving players surely will have bounce-back years. The top of the rotation – Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon – is as good as any in baseball. And the Sox acquired Todd Frazier to hit home runs and play a mean third base.
The Cubs will swallow the city this season. That, too, is fact. Everything they do will be big, whether it be winning or losing. But the Sox have to win, as well. They’ve finished a combined 66 games out of first place the past three seasons. They need to win, and win fast. I’ve made the argument that, given those poor results, Ventura’s job ought to be in jeopardy but might not be with ultra-loyal Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf in charge. But there should be a hot seat, and Ventura might want to think about padded pants.
So it’s blazing around here. We don’t need to look toward Arizona and try to imagine a fully operational sun. We don’t need to warm ourselves with thoughts of a Jake Arrieta fastball as we shovel snow or grit our way through the Chicago winter.
You might have seen the Cubs-themed “Next Year Is Here’’ T-shirts last season. Turns out next year is actually this year. For both teams, for very different reasons.
Hot enough for you yet?