Is This the Year? (No, but ...)
The Cubs have issues, but they're making new skipper Lou Piniella one happy camper
Posted: Tuesday February 20, 2007 9:49AM; Updated: Saturday February 24, 2007 11:45PM
In his often explosive 19-year managerial career, Lou Piniella has been ejected 57 times, including once from an exhibition game. When he retired as a player, from the New York Yankees in 1984, he received a bashed-in water cooler as a farewell gift from a fan. But last week, as the first-year Cubs' manager addressed his pitchers, catchers and a smattering of position players -- most notably $136 million free-agent prize Alfonso Soriano -- for the first time, his usual dour countenance was as sunny as the azure Arizona sky. "We're going to have some fun," the 63-year-old Piniella assured the assembled. "It's going to be nice and relaxed here."
Did the man say relaxed? Pressure on the Northsiders to win is now as high as it's ever been, following the Cubs' 96-loss finish and a wild-spending winter in which ownership ran up a free-agent tab totaling more than $297 million, a record for a single off-season. While the Cubs' players welcomed their manager's What, Me Worry? attitude, they weren't completely buying it: By Friday they had started to organize a clubhouse pool inviting wagers on the date of Sweet Lou's first meltdown.
Nonetheless, the tone at the Cubs' camp was upbeat, purposeful and, yes, relaxed. Soriano quietly arrived in Mesa four days ahead of the reporting deadline for position players -- a stark contrast to the traditional late arrivals of the Cubs' last superstar, Sammy Sosa. First baseman Derrek Lee, who missed most of last year with a fractured right wrist, was all smiles as he took one healthy cut after another in the batting cage. Oft-sidelined Mark Prior, the onetime ace who's vying for a rotation spot after a disastrous 2006 (1-6, 7.21 ERA), threw pain-free and looked sharp.
Of course, there were the usual signs of the apocalypse, courtesy of the franchise's other injury-cursed righthander, Kerry Wood, who bruised his right ribcage three days before the start of camp -- while stepping out of a hot tub. Wood, who has been pegged as a closer candidate if Ryan Dempster's struggles from last season persist, met with reporters after he was injured and said with a shrug and a smile, "It's that time of year again." (Wood was back throwing off the mound two days later, and pitching coach Larry Rothschild anticipates a quick recovery.)
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