Cubs facing high expectations

The Cubs used to be the trendy team for the underdogs.

They were the lovable losers.

Not anymore.

Cubs fans have become demanding. That world championship they won back in 1908 is no longer cute.

And as if the expectations of fans aren’t pressure enough, the Rickets family was awarded the franchise during the offseason, at the price of $845 million. Tom Ricketts, 42, assumed the leadership role for an ownership group that includes his three siblings and his parents.

Good luck, Jim Hendry, general manager, and Lou Piniella, manager.

There isn’t likely to be much of a honeymoon.

Ricketts is an admitted fan, who attended the University of Chicago back in 1984 and shared an apartment with brother Peter just beyond the right-field corner of Wrigley Field. He met his wife, Cecelia, in the Wrigley Field bleachers, according to the Ricketts lore that has surfaced in the Windy City.

Fans are not rational in evaluations of teams. They respond to emotions.

And the kicker is the Ricketts have no emotional ties to Hendry and Piniella. They are inherited management. The holdovers become easy scapegoats for the newcomers.

Neither Hendry nor Piniella seems too concerned about what might happen off the field.

Their focus is what will happen on the field.

During Hendry’s first eight years on the job, the Cubs have come close enough to being successful that suddenly they are being expected to be a success.

"The days are gone when we could come in third place and finish .500 and people would feel it was a good year," Hendry said.

Bottom line is Wrigley Field may still be a tourist attraction and a chic place to be seen, but it’s no  longer enough to satisfy the fans.

A franchise that has suffered the longest world championship drought in history – dating to back-to-back world championships in 1907-08 – actually advanced into the postseason three times in eight years. That’s not bad considering the Cubs had made only four postseason appearances in the previous 65 years.

What that did, however, was whet the appetite. It began with 2003 when the Cubs came within five outs of advancing to the World Series for the first time since 1945 and Steve Bartman became Public Enemy No. 1 for Cubs fans.

"We got close, and the bar got raised," Hendry said. "Our fans, and it’s a large fan base, is starving for us to win a world championship. We were within five outs of playing the Yankees for all the marbles, and got knocked out. It added to the anxiety."

Then came hope spawned from back-to-back division titles in 2007-08. The Cubs, however, were swept in three games in the opening round both times.

"Then you hear the talk that we are built for the regular season, not the postseason," Hendry said. "All of a sudden, the 97 wins (of 2008) are gone and all of us, the fans and the organization, feel we had a bad year."

And those two disappointments were followed up by a late-season fade to a second-place finish in 2009.

"We never felt we played good baseball last year, but when we looked up on Aug. 5, we were tied for first," Hendry said. At season’s end, however, the Cubs had fallen 7½ games back of St. Louis, losing 29 of their final 55 games while the Cardinals were winning 32 of 52.

So it was back to the drawing board this past offseason. The Cubs revised more moderately this year than they did a year ago, when the moves included bidding farewell to fan favorites such as Mark De Rosa and bringing in the turbulent Milton Bradley. The primary additions this time were center fielder Marlon Byrd, who takes Bradley’s spot and in the process allows Kosuke Fukudome to return to his more natural spot in right field, and Xavier Nady, a versatile right-handed bat who adds depth.

"There are times good players get off track, and we are looking to get back on track,’’ Hendry said of the Cubs from a year ago to this year. "We feel we are a contending club.’’

The proof, however, comes on the playing field, and Hendry understands that well.

"Except for ’08, the ’04 team was probably the best club we have had in the last decade," Hendry said. "On paper, we had a rotation with Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, an emerging Carlos Zambrano, Greg Maddux and Matt Clement.

"We didn’t get that team out of spring training, though. We had seven players on the disabled list by May 15. Even with all that we were still three games up in the wild card with nine games to play."

The Cubs, however, lost seven of their final nine games. The Astros, meanwhile, won eight of nine, earning the wild card.

That, however, is history.

There is a new regime at Wrigley, the Ricketts Family, and the focus is on this year.