Of all the great annual dates in sports -- day one of March Madness, Super Bowl Sunday, the final round of the Masters -- none are like Opening Day. (No sport name need be attached.) Aligned in a perfect metaphor with the start of spring, no day in sports is full of so much hope and excitement. It's the only day during the regular season that you put on both your cap and jersey when you're not going to the game. You walk with an extra spring in your step. You blast John Fogherty's "Centerfield" -- okay, well maybe that's just me.
Then there's Cub fans' Opening Day, usually encapsulated in the single question "is this year?," but in 2009, the question feels as if it must be phrased a little differently:
"Am I wasting my time this year?"
In one of the few times I can remember as a sports fan, every single Chicago Cubs fan is thinking the same thing/feeling the same way. No one cares about the regular season -- we just don't want to get swept again in the playoffs. And six months is a long time to wait for that answer.
How does one who bleedeth the blue possibly get amped up for Opening Day other than the standard excitement that comes with baseball season? How does one justify getting 100 percent behind the Cubs knowing that they could play harder, faster and break more franchise records than last season and it all would mean jack if they didn't win a playoff game? I don't know the answer, but we've more or less done it for a collective 100 years, so I don't see the problem with waiting another 3/400 of of that time. My only suggestion would be to not scrutinize the team every game. I know that's something I'll have to work on this year. Unless the Cubs' chokehold on the NL Central slips this year, there's nothing to get upset about on a day-to-day basis unless there are some foreseeable playoff implications involved. That's the approach "Exile in Goatville" will take this season.
So what will happen? The Cubs are hands-down expected to return to the playoffs as NL Central champions for the third straight season and if and when they do, they'll be badgered by the media over if they can possibly win a game this time. Lou Piniella will be on the hot seat. The future of the team will be up in the air, especially with a new owner and the window for a World Series with these players frighteningly close to shutting. To all that I say this: They'll get there and they'll win a game. As for two games, I'm not going to press my luck.
Because some pieces need to come into place for that to be possible. Firstly, the rotation has to continue its dominance of the last two seasons and then step it up come playoff time. In actuality, it is a lot to ask of Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly to repeat their 17-win seasons. Both can be erratic -- Dempster with walks and Lilly with the longball -- so there are no guarantees here. Health is also another factor, especially in terms of Rich Harden. I agree with the analysts who predict the Cubs will decide to or will have to reopen talks with the Padres for Jake Peavy. There's no question he'll be on the market when the Padres suck again and the Cubs will likely be looking to distance themselves.
Next is the outfield. I'm okay depending on the Cubs infielders, but every outfield position has its question marks. The first is obvious. Well, the first two are, but let's start with Milton Bradley. He needs to stay healthy -- prove he can handle playing a position for 100 days at least -- and contribute consistently at the plate. Then there's Kosuke Fukudome. We all saw exactly one year ago that when the Man from Japan makes good contact that the Cubs are unstoppable. They can still be playoff-bound platooning him with Reed Johnson, but you remember that whole "how can we win in the playoffs" aspect? Right here. If Kosuke is playing like in All-Star in September, the likelihood is the Cubs will threaten to run away with the NL Pennant. The last piece is of course Alfonso Soriano, who always has something to prove with his gargantuan paycheck. Can he too stay healthy all season? Can he hit with consistency? Can he maybe start stealing bases again? For some reason the team is better with him in the lineup hitting lead-off, but often times the exception to "team" is him. If he contributes regularly, this team really would become unstoppable.
Truth is, at any given time the Cubs can be the most explosive, dangerous and exciting team in baseball. Remember the May/June win streak of last season? The even longer home win streak? You want your reason to watch the Cubs? -- they're good. While October will always remain a mystery, there's no reason you can't get excited -- at least on opening day -- about watching a team with this much potential take the field every day and maybe singing "Go, Cubs, Go" a few times along the way.