Baseball Season Preview: Chicago Cubs

You might remember, from back at the beginning of the NFL season, when we previewed each team by having a writer we liked write about their favorite team.

Well, we're less than a week away from the start of baseball — spring training is here! — so it's time to do the same thing in the baseball world. Every weekday until the start of the season, a different writer will preview his/her team. We asked a gaggle of writers, from the Web, from print, from books, to tell us, in as many or as little words as they need, Where Their Team Stands. This is not meant to be factual, or dispassionate, or even logical: We just asked them to riff on why they love their team so much, or what their team means to them, or whatever.

Today: The Chicago Cubs. Your author is Greg Lindsay.

Greg Lindsay is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn and the author of the upcoming Aerotropolis. His words are after the jump.

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The Chicago Cubs finally have a new identity this season, their 99th since winning their last World Series all the way back in 1908. The prospect of becoming the first franchise in all of sports to go a century between winning titles seemed to galvanize the Cubs' front office in a way that (almost) winning in 2003 couldn't; last year's 96-loss debacle threatened to sink the team back into lovable loserdom after only a few seasons of quasi-contention, and — for whatever reason (conspiracy theory to follow below) — general manager Jim Hendry resolved to spend what it took to pry the Cubs' window back open.

That led to the offseason we just witnessed: Dusty Baker's firing; Cubs president Andy MacPhail jumping from his suite before he was pushed and Hendry spending an unprecedented-in-all-of-sports $300+ million to head off the unprecedented-in-all-of-sports title drought. And just like that, Wrigley Field has gone from the de facto summer share house of every Chad and Trixie in Wrigleyville to the site of a desperate race against Alfonso Soriano's contract, Mark Prior shuffling off his mortal coil and Lou Pinella's lit fuse to win the World Series this year, or maybe in their Jubilee year.

Yes, the Cubs have a new identity, that of a family which has suddenly just come into money, like the lottery winners who are promptly torn apart by the complications of their new wealth (especially when it runs out).

I wrote the first draft of this preview more than a month ago, then put it away for as long as Leitch would allow it, because I couldn't file it in good faith while the fate of the Chicago Cubs for maybe the next 10, or 20, or even 50 years hung in the balance. But I ran out of time. I spent more hours this offseason watching for news in The Wall Street Journal than I did on any Cubs sites or fan blogs, because Hendry's bizarre behavior (like paying $136 million for a leadoff hitter and centerfielder who has a .325 OBP and has never played centerfield) can only be explained by the equally bizarre behavior of his corporate masters.

The Cubs' free-spending off-season — which has never been adequately explained in any purely baseball context, i.e. how the team could afford to do this now, and if they could before, why they hadn't done so already — played out against the backdrop of larger turmoil at its parent, Tribune Co. To boil the back story down into a few sentences, Tribune had expected to sell itself off over the winter, and inflating the Cubs' payroll to fund a winner was a quick and easy way to boost the value of the club before a sale to someone like Mark Cuban, who may be willing to drop $625 million for the team, especially if it's, you know, good. (As of Sunday, Tribune was mulling an offer from the suddenly cash-rich real estate baron Sam Zell. Considering that Tribune is already carrying $4.5 billion in debt, a Cubs sale could easily be in the cards.)

I mention all of this to explain how uneasy I feel on the eve of the season. It's not that I don't have faith in the team — 15-20 additional wins doesn't seem like too much to ask, but will that be enough to win the NL Central? — but worry that management has made an even more disastrous Faustian bargain than the one Baker made with his pitchers' arms in the 2003 season. This team reminds me of nothing so much as the 1996 Baltimore Orioles, another expensive team built to win now by an owner who lost whatever faith he had in winning after the experiment failed to show results and sunk back into the financial comforts of his cozy ballpark. I have bad memories of a certain ex-girlfriend of this Web site's editor who cited those Orioles as proof that you couldn't just buy your way to a division title. (This was before her Yankees proved our counter-assertion over and over and over.) (Ed. Note: Yes. We once dated a Yankees fan. We were young and didn't know any better.)

Speaking of Baker's crimes against the pitching staff, it's just sad at this point to see Mark Prior miss the rotation altogether while Kerry Wood can't climb out of a hot tub without injuring himself. Hendry wised up enough this offseason to sign Jason Marquis and Ted Lilly to eat innings when Prior (and probably Zambrano, finally) made visits to the DL, but I can't imagine that any team with a regular starter whose ERA is north of 6.00 will be lucky to win 85 games and make it to the World Series. Sure, it happened last year, but it won't happen to us. We're the Cubs, after all.