This spring training Cubs Fever raged like never before. From Eric Karros to Corey Patterson to Sammy Sosa to Charles Gipson, with each passing day another player was overcome. Cubs Fever was back, and you couldn't help but catch it.
That's right, over a two-week span beginning in late February, 10 Cubs were zapped by a bronchitis-related virus. (Karros missed three days of workouts.) Every cough or sniffle sent players rushing to the clubhouse to wash their hands. Some even blew their noses into tissues!
Through it all, righthander Matt Clement smiled and went about his business. Why? Because he knows a thing or two about sickening springs and, as far as he was concerned, this wasn't one of them. Two years ago Clement was happily preparing for his fourth season with the Padres when he was suddenly traded to the Marlins. Last March he was preparing for his second season with the Marlins when he was unexpectedly shipped to the Cubs. "Nothing fazes me anymore," says Clement. "Last year my wife was pregnant and we'd moved into a place in Florida. I was comfortable, and then I was gone. That sucked. So the flu? Big deal. I've got bigger things to worry about."
Those who should be worried are National League hitters. With the young, hard-throwing righthanded foursome of Clement, 28; Kerry Wood, 25; Mark Prior, 22; and Carlos Zambrano, 21, new manager Dusty Baker has a dazzling rotation that, barring injury, should lift his club to the top of the NL Central and into the playoffs for the first time in five years.
Until last season, dazzling and Matt Clement fit together like tasteful and Christina Aguilera. Although he was the most gifted member of the San Diego staff, Clement was inconsistent and sometimes had difficulty maintaining command of his pitches, going 23-29 with a 4.84 ERA in his two full seasons with the team. His performance was no better with Florida: Clement's 5.05 ERA in 2001 was the NL's sixth-worst for pitchers who started 30 or more games.
Then, under the tutelage of Chicago pitching coach Larry Rothschild, Clement put it all together last year. He stopped throwing across his body, switching to a top-to-bottom motion. Suddenly, Clement's sinking fastball, which he threw in the low- to mid-90s, stopped dropping out of the strike zone. His biting slider made righthanded hitters look like fools. He walked only 85 batters, 40 fewer than he had in 2000. Opponents batted just .215 against him, third-best in the league and sixth-best in the majors. For the first time in his career Clement was heading into the late innings feeling strong. "I became much more efficient and smooth," he says. "It did wonders."
Clement spent last winter content with the knowledge that he would be a Cub on Opening Day. Instead of fretting about his future, he enjoyed downtime in his Butler, Pa., home, with his wife, Heather, changing diapers and caring for their first child, Matrix, a boy who was born in October.
"Matt has always had excellent stuff," says Baker. "I never understood why the Padres traded him, and I can't understand why Florida did, either. But the Mets traded Nolan Ryan, the Cardinals traded Steve Carlton and the Dodgers traded Dave Stewart. A lot of the great ones have been traded before they became great. Maybe this guy will be the next one."
One thing that will help everyone in the rotation is a revamped and improved bullpen. Not one to rip teammates, Clement does say that leaving a game with a lead last season "was not always the most comfortable feeling." If it wasn't closer Antonio Alfonseca blowing nine of 28 save chances, it was setup man Kyle Farnsworth faltering (7.33 ERA while opponents had a .558 slugging percentage against him). Cubs general manager Jim Hendry wisely signed veteran free-agent lefthanders Mike Remlinger and Mark Guthrie as well as righthander Dave Veres, giving Chicago a playoff-tested relief corps. "We're deep and experienced there," Clement says of the bullpen. "As a starter who pitched his butt off, it makes a huge difference. It makes me very happy."
Sounds like the kind of Cubs Fever you wouldn't mind catching.