- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2007

MESA, Ariz.

With a singular record of futility and a curse of their own, the Chicago Cubs are the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox, the Chicago White Sox before 2005, the last team standing in the Longest Losers Club.

No one would know it here, however, even though the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908. Spring training in the Arizona desert is where the sun always shines and hope perennially blooms. But an added brightness has infused the Cubs’ Cactus League headquarters. After a National League-leading 96 losses, there is a new manager in fiery, battle-tested Lou Piniella, a roster beefed up by nearly $300 million in free agent contracts and a cautious sense that — pitching questions aside — it finally might be the Cubs’ turn.

The primary source of radiance occupies a corner of the home clubhouse at Hohokam Park. Even though it’s barely past 8 a.m., Alfonso Soriano already is fully dressed in his uniform and a smile. He is happy to be here. Then again, he is happy to be anywhere they assign him a locker and a jersey, no matter what it says on the front.

“When I see Soriano, I see a guy who loves doing this,” Cubs pitcher Ted Lilly says.

It shows. Soriano hated losing but still loved the game last year when he played for the Washington Nationals after being traded from the Texas Rangers. It started badly in spring training when he refused to move from second base to left field, showing up manager Frank Robinson and causing substantial ill will among the public. Reason eventually prevailed, and he learned he could handle the position (sometimes making it more exciting than it needed to be), which in turn allowed him to relax at the plate, ultimately leading to one of the best individual seasons of the last few years.

Forget the .277 batting average. Everything else was spectacular. Soriano had 46 home runs, 41 stolen bases and 41 doubles, becoming the first player to go 40-40-40 in the three categories. For an otherwise weak offensive team, he scored 119 runs and drove in 95 batting leadoff. And despite misplaying some balls on defense, Soriano led all outfielders with 22 assists.

Soriano’s hitting, running and ultimate acceptance of playing the outfield, which he now calls “a good decision,” made him the prized free agent of the offseason. The fiscally conservative Nationals, for whom the future is decidedly not now, never had a chance. He signed an eight-year, $136 million contract with the Cubs, his third team in three seasons.

Business being business, Soriano claims leaving the Nationals was nothing personal.

“I had to move,” he says. “I had to move on.”

He took along some bittersweet memories. Soriano enjoyed the city and his teammates, and his single season here propelled him to vast riches. But the Nationals’ poor play (71-91, the league’s third-worst record) clouded even the sunniest of dispositions.

“It was an exciting year,” he says. “I had some very good numbers. On the other hand, it wasn’t that good because we finished in last place, and I’m a player who worries about winning. That’s what I like. I don’t care what numbers I have during the season. I had a good time with my friends over there, but it didn’t mean nothing because we finished in last place.”

Despite new surroundings yet again, Soriano has adapted quickly.

“It’s different from last year,” he says. “Now I’m concentrating on what I want to do. I’m very excited about the team and very excited about the people here. They’re very nice people.”

What Soriano is concentrating on, what he wants to do, is another position change. He is now a center fielder, a move he initiated. While the move might seem strange considering the fuss Soriano raised about switching to left field last year, it makes perfect sense to him.

“I had a little problem because I didn’t believe I had the talent to play left field,” he said. “But that helps me with this. I’m OK because now I believe I have the talent to play center field. … If I knew I had the talent and the ability to play the outfield a couple of years ago, I would have played the outfield. I think I can be a very good outfielder, and that’s why I play the outfield now.

“I feel very comfortable just because I’ve got one year of playing the outfield. I think it’s gonna be more easy because I have the one year of experience in the outfield.”

Piniella, who came out of a yearlong retirement to replace Dusty Baker, likes what he sees so far. But as a veteran who has managed for 19 seasons, Piniella isn’t getting carried away.

“It’s going well,” he says of Soriano’s switch. “He’s working hard. He’s an athlete. I think he’ll get better and better at it. Do I think he’ll be a Gold Glove center fielder his first year? Probably not. At the same time, we’re talking about a young man who can cover the gaps with his speed. He’s got good speed. What’s he’s gonna have to learn are the hitters. But I don’t see any problem with it.”

Piniella observed Soriano last season and, with Seattle, managed against him. He knows he can play. Now that the two have gotten acquainted, what strikes Piniella the most is Soriano’s demeanor.

“I mean, he’s a professional,” Piniella says. “He’ll do whatever you want him to do. He does it willingly. He’s got a smile, a wonderful disposition. Then you add all his talents on the baseball field, and you’ve got yourself a really, really good superstar.”

Lilly, a another free agent signee and Soriano’s former teammate with the New York Yankees, also thinks the Cubs made the right decision by signing him.

“When I watch Soriano, I see a guy who was kind of born, destined to play baseball,” Lilly says. “You really see it by the way he enjoys the game. It doesn’t look like he puts a lot of pressure on himself, although I’m sure he has high expectations.”

Soriano, a five-time All-Star who turned 31 in January, is the biggest but not the only piece of the Cubs’ rebuilding process. Hiring Piniella was significant. The Cubs also re-signed third baseman Aramis Ramirez and signed second baseman Mark DeRosa, outfielder Cliff Floyd and pitchers Lilly and Jason Marquis.

The big questions are the health of pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, both of whom have fought injuries since the Cubs came within one game of advancing to the World Series in 2003. But the team should hit. First baseman Derrek Lee is back after suffering a knee injury, and now Soriano leads off.

“There’s just a certain excitement he brings to the game,” says outfielder Daryle Ward, who played with Soriano on the Nationals last year. “He’s leads off the game, and he’s leading off with a double or a home run to get us started. He’s stealing bases. You know he’s gonna do it.”

A few hours later, Soriano leads off the bottom of the first with a home run in an exhibition game against Oakland. Later, he steals second base.

“When he’s leading off an inning, it’s a very uncomfortable feeling because he can hit the ball out of the park, put one run up on the board real quick,” Cubs catcher Michael Barrett says. “Or if he gets on base he can cause even more mayhem.

“He’s smart. But more than anything he’s fast and gets good jumps. When we played him last year, he went from first to third like nobody I’ve ever seen. There’s an art to running the bases. His turns are really fast. He takes great angles, cuts corners really well. I think it adds to his speed.”

Now that the Red Sox have dispelled the Curse of the Bambino, it’s left to the Cubs to take care of the Billy Goat Curse. It supposedly was placed on the franchise after a fan and his pet goat — originally allowed into Wrigley Field for Game 4 of the 1945 World Series against the Detroit Tigers and wearing a sign that said “We’ve got Detroit’s goat” — were ejected by orders of owner Philip K. Wrigley because the goat smelled bad.

Since then, so have the Cubs. They went on to lose the Series and haven’t been back since. The Cubs collapsed at the end of the 1969 season and suffered postseason swoons in 1984, 1989 and, most recently, in the 2003 league championship series against Florida, a series made infamous by fan Steve Bartman trying to grab a foul ball that outfielder Moises Alou was trying to catch.

Lilly is well aware of the sordid history of the team and the yearning for a winner.

“You definitely feel the pressure and responsibility,” he says. “You know how loyal and patient the fans have been.”

But the patience is wearing thin, and Soriano, more than anyone else, will be expected to do something about it. He says he can deal with that simply by being himself.

“I play my game,” he says, “and I play smiling, happy all the time. That’s all I do, so I don’t have pressure. I play baseball. I always play hard, and I love the game.”

Love, however, won’t be enough. In baseball, at least, it never is.


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