Like the rest of Cubs Nation, Jim Hendry was back at work the morning after Chicago lost Game 7 of the NLCS. "I should have stayed home," says the Chicago G.M. "I wasn't much good to anyone for a few weeks." A short time later Hendry retreated to Lafayette, La., where for four days he golfed with his brother, John, and their friend former Yankees pitcher Ron Guidry. But the getaway didn't soften the pain of the Cubs' failure to reach their first World Series in 59 years, after they'd been five outs away in Game 6. "I tried to shake it," Hendry says. "But it lingered. It'll always linger."
The Cubs' faithful would like nothing more than to erase the memory of that heartbreak, but the team's run deep into October should serve notice that these Cubs are bona fide championship contenders. Not since Teddy Roosevelt's presidency have the Cubs played in two straight postseasons. They'll reach it again this year, but they're thinking bigger. "On paper we're better than we were last year," says Hendry, who strengthened the rotation, the bullpen and the batting order over the winter. "We feel we're ready to make the next step."
Sammy Sosa, 35, enters his 13th season at Wrigley, and he's surrounded by the best supporting cast he's ever had. Hendry's February signing of pitcher Greg Maddux grabbed the biggest headlines, but the November trade with the Marlins for first baseman Derrek Lee (for first baseman Hee Seop Choi and a minor leaguer) could prove to be the most significant of Hendry's moves. The Cubs have had four Opening Day first basemen in the past four years, but in Lee they have a keeper. Signed to a three-year, $22.5 million deal, he's quietly become one of the best all-around players at his position: In addition to hitting for power, he stole 21 bases last year and won his first Gold Glove. At 6'5", Lee has a huge wingspan, which allows him to get to a lot of balls. His power numbers should rise now that he's free of Florida's cavernous Pro Player Stadium; 20 of his 31 homers last year came on the road, where he also batted .297, 55 points higher than at Pro Player.
The lineup has also been bolstered by the return of 24-year-old centerfielder Corey Patterson. The Cubs' 1998 first-round draft pick was on the verge of a breakout season (he had a robust .511 slugging percentage in his 83 games) when he tore his left ACL in July. This spring hitting coach Gary Mathews tweaked Patterson's batting stance so that he's more upright at the plate, a move to relax him and address his tendency to be overly aggressive.
Sosa batted just .245 in the second half of 2003, and in response he began weight training in December, a month earlier than he usually does. He arrived at spring training noticeably larger in his upper body, and he hopes the added bulk will improve his endurance. Sosa is also counting on the added bulk in the roster. "Those years we weren't winning, I was keeping Chicago very happy with all those [home run] numbers," he says. "Now that we have a team that can compete, I'm happier because I don't have to go out there and kill myself."
The bullpen also figures to be better with the signing of hard-throwing reliever LaTroy Hawkins, who rooted for the Cubs as a kid in Gary, Ind. Chicago's biggest weakness last year was middle relief, and Hendry's most urgent priority this winter was to find an elite setup man for closer Joe Borowski. In Hawkins, who allowed a mere three runs in 31? innings after the All-Star break, he found the most dominant one in the American League. An improved pen will take some of the load off aces Mark Prior (who starts the season on the DL with an inflamed right Achilles tendon) and Kerry Wood. The two ranked first and second, respectively, in the majors in pitches per start. Says Prior of his pen pals, "I think Dusty will have a lot more confidence in them."
"Feel free to believe in us," reliever Mike Remlinger told fans last season, as the Cubs, losers of 95 games in 2002, made their playoff run. On the first day that 2004 tickets were available, the Cubs sold 572,705, more than doubling baseball's previous alltime record for one-day sales. Are Cubs fans being overly optimistic in believing a world championship is in store in 2004? "I don't think so," says Hendry. "In fact, I think we've got a team that'll be right there for years to come."
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