March 23, 1998
March 23, 1998

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March 23, 1998

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This is an article from the March 23, 1998 issue Original Layout

Discussions of the Cubs' chances of winning their division tend
to resemble the Kipling poem in their shared reliance on the
word if. The 1998 version of this spring tradition comes
courtesy of Chicago manager Jim Riggleman: "If we're hitting on
all cylinders, we're a contender in the National League Central."

Of course, this is basically the same opinion that was expressed
a year ago, just before the Cubs opened the season with a
National League-record 14 consecutive losses, putting them well
on the way to a 68-94 finish. For such an awful team, however,
it drew quite well--more than 2.1 million, down only a little
more than 100,000 from its average over the last 10
non-strike-shortened seasons.

Chicago's irrepressible fan support is the basis for the most
persistent criticism of the franchise since the Tribune Company
bought it in 1981: The Cubs do well financially even when the
team on the field is lousy, but it hasn't spent nearly
enough--or wisely enough--to create a winner.

Not surprisingly, Cubs CEO Andy MacPhail disagrees. "The Tribune
Company has been a terrific owner," he says. "We've tried to put
in place what we feel we needed, and they've given us the time
to do that."

The primary focus of MacPhail, Riggleman and general manager Ed
Lynch since they arrived in the fall of 1994 has been to rebuild
a farm system that wasn't producing quality major leaguers--a
plan that has yet to bear fruit. Meanwhile, they have relied on
an aging core of players in an effort to remain competitive. "We
knew that a downturn was probably going to come," says Lynch,
but no one in the organization could have imagined that it would
be as bad as it was in '97.

The horrors of last year prompted a shift in focus. "This year,"
says Riggleman, "we just looked the situation in the eye and
said, 'The hell with it, we've got to go outside our
organization to get some help.'"

In an attempt to win the most uniformly mediocre division in the
majors, the Cubs added a handful of proven veterans. This
off-season they acquired four players, three of them in their
30s, who have been All-Stars at least once during the past three
years. The most important of those newcomers is 30-year-old
leftfielder Henry Rodriguez, who arrived in a trade with the
Expos. Leftfield has been a black hole on the North Side; it's
been 11 years since a player held the job on two consecutive
Opening Days. But Rodriguez, who hit 36 home runs in 1996 and 26
last year, may finally bring some stability and production to
the position.

The Cubs desperately need that offense. Last year they were 12th
in the league in runs scored, and too much of the burden fell on
rightfielder Sammy Sosa. "In the past, once you got by Sammy in
our lineup, there really wasn't a situation where one swing of
the bat was going to get us back in a game," says Riggleman.
"Henry brings us the lefthanded power hitter we needed."

The other newcomers include a pair of free-agent
signees--32-year-old shortstop Jeff Blauser, who is coming off a
career year, and 29-year-old closer Rod Beck, who had 105 saves
over the past three seasons--plus second baseman Mickey
Morandini, 31, who came in a trade from the Phillies. After
suffering with a bad team in Philadelphia, Morandini (.295 at
the plate, only six errors in 610 chances in the field) is
excited by his spot on the newly revamped Cubs roster. "The key
is, we all feel that we have a chance to win this division," he
says. "We stack up position-by-position with anyone in the

Chicago's acquisitions have bumped its payroll to $48 million,
up 14% from last year. And the Tribune Co. has made it clear
that there will be plenty of cash available for another
acquisition during the season--if the Cubs stay in the race.

Says MacPhail, "It's our job to get the ball club in a position
to take advantage of the economic might of the company. We
haven't done that."

Often disaster is a catalyst for change. Perhaps last year's
failures were what the organization needed to move to a place
where the ifs seem a bit more realistic, and the when might
finally be now.

--Mark McClusky

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO BATTER UP Mark Grace's team-best .319 average last year would have been higher if he could have hit against the Cubs' staff.COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [Jeff Blauser]