For Cubs, patience and positivity are key
Team may not click in Wrigley's celebration season, but talent is on way
CHICAGO -- Stay positive. Under all circumstances, just keep staying positive.
Ryne Sandberg said that was his mantra when he played for the Cubs, and it worked. Well, it did in 1984 and '89, anyway.
Every year when Opening Day rolled around, Sandberg pulled on his Cubs jersey, walked out to face the ivy and in that short walk to the dugout dreamed big dreams.
"This is going to be the year,'" Sandberg said. "I thought that every single year, every Opening Day I played in, that was going to be the year, regardless of who was on the roster, who my teammates were. That was the mentality I had, just hoping to get to postseason every year, and it all started with Opening Day."
Sandberg was sitting in the visiting dugout at Wrigley Field when he met with reporters on a frigid Friday morning. He would later join Cubs Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins and Billy Williams in throwing out a ceremonial first pitch before the game, which marked the start of the ballpark's centennial celebration, but his real purpose was to lead the Phillies to a victory over the team he had represented so well as a player.
Mission accomplished. Chase Utley's two-run homer was the big blow in a 7-2 win for the Phillies, who -- with the third-oldest roster in the Major Leagues -- are the antithesis of these Cubs.
Rick Renteria, hired both for his upbeat personality and his reputation for developing young players, said afterward it was "awesome" to get rolling on his new job before 38,283 fans at Wrigley Field. He's had a lot of firsts in the last couple of months, including the season-opening series in Pittsburgh, where the Cubs won one and lost two.
Those who have been around Renteria this spring say there's no doubting his enthusiasm and energy. But like Dale Sveum before him, he's managing a transition roster filled with veterans who fell through cracks elsewhere, few of whom are likely to be lining up along the third-base line for introductions once the Cubs have become a consistent contender.
Those guys are, for the most part, still in the pipeline on teams like Triple-A Iowa, Double-A Tennessee and Class A Daytona or in the team's monstrous scouting database. The Cubs lost 101 games in 2011 and only five fewer last season, but under Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod, they seem to have worked wonders with the farm system.
While the Cubs' 2014 season is being billed as "the party of the century," an ode to the season-long celebration of Wrigley Field's 100th birthday, few believe the team can avoid more labor pains in trying to deliver a consistent contender.
"Obviously it's been a long time [waiting] for a title, with that is the [need for] patience," said Hoyer, the general manager. "But people want to be here Opening Day and be watching a team they could be buying playoff tickets for. They wouldn't be fans if they didn't do that. I expect the fans to want that possibly sooner than we can provide it. But I feel really good about where the organization is. Spring Training showed a lot of our young talent, and I think we're certainly getting there on the right track. I think very soon we'll be sitting here on Opening Day talking about a team that can play deep into October."
Not much went right for the Cubs in the home opener. The Phillies even found a way to cool off Emilio Bonifacio, who had collected 11 hits in the three-game series in Pittsburgh.
Before Bonifacio strung together four-hit, five-hit and two-hit games at PNC Park, no player since 1900 had generated as many as 11 hits in their first three games with new teams. Only the Philadelphia Athletics' Nap Lajoie and the Dodgers' McKay Christensen had 10 hits in their first three games.
Imagine the excitement to get such an outburst from the 28-year-old Bonifacio, whom the Cubs signed after he was released on Feb. 10. The Royals needed a spot for lefty Bruce Chen, who they had re-signed.
"It was a real big confusion," Bonifacio said. "I was in Venezuela, playing the Caribbean Series, and I got no communication [from the Royals]. Then I received a call from my agent. It was confusing. But something I can't do anything about. I'm glad the Cubs picked me. I'm glad to be here."
Bonifacio is the type of "undervalued asset," to use the language of Epstein and Hoyer, that the Cubs have been trying to stack their roster with over the last three seasons. He is a switch-hitter and has already started games at second base and center field, with lots of other tricks in his repertoire.
"We felt like he was sort of miscast in the American League," Hoyer said. "He's a real good National League player, a guy who can do a lot of different things, play different positions, lead off, pinch-run. You need those guys to have a good bench in the National League. For us, having him in [AL cities] like Toronto and Kansas City, I think was a little bit of a waste of what he can do well on a baseball field. I think it gives Rick Renteria and the coaching staff a lot of different weapons within the same player."
Bonifacio, who hit leadoff, was 0-for-3 against winning pitcher Roberto Hernandez and worked a walk from reliever Antonio Bastardo. He did a nice job battling heavy winds (23 mph with stronger gusts) on a 38-degree day, making a nice catch rubbing against the ivy on a drive by Ryan Howard, but in general had a back-to-reality day.
Bonifacio will still feel pretty good when he gets to Wrigley on Saturday, however, as his batting average dropped down to a mere .579. For him, it should be a snap to think positive.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.