2011 Chicago Cubs Preview: The Who are on first!

Posted on March 31, 2011


The 2011 Chicago Cubs sure did not look like legitimate contenders as Spring Training began. The Milwaukee Brewers looked better. The Cincinnati Reds looked better. Even the stars-and-scrubs fantasy team from St. Louis looked a bit better. Seventy-five wins and a fourth place finish looked like the most likely scenario.

But the spring has gone comparatively well for Chicago. The Cardinals lost ace Adam Wainwright for the season. The Brewers lost ace Zack Greinke for at least most of April to a broken rib. Reds pitchers began to drop not so much like flies, as like Cubs pitchers in any other season.

In a division suddenly devoid of a true favorite, the Cubs (whose worst attrition this month was to cut Carlos Silva) suddenly have a very real chance. There are all kinds of terrific storylines around this team. There is a building, creeping energy, the kind that can lift a team out of the doldrums of mediocrity and into unexpected contention. It could be a summer worth remembering at Wrigley Field. But first, this team needs an identity. It needs an anthem. It needs a little rock and roll, a little rhythm and blues, a little chip on their shoulders. Like abbott and Costello, the Cubs need The Who.

Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere: Don’t Tell Marlon Byrd What to Do

Marlon Byrd works harder during the offseason than any other Cub. He may work harder than any other player in the league during the winter. He takes tremendous pride in his conditioning, his toughness and his ability to play hard without sacrificing intensity.

This winter, though, with Barry Bonds on trial for the transgressions he may or may not have committed in conjunction with BALCO founder Victor Conte, Byrd has gotten a fair amount of flak for his continued association with Conte. Conte and Byrd work together; Conte advises him on nutrition, conditioning, supplements and weight training. Marlon Byrd is in remarkable shape, and Victor Conte is part of the reason.

Some guys would bend to that media pressure. Most guys would, really. In this day and age of steroid paranoia, most guys shy away from even achieving the physique Byrd has chiseled over the past four years, and hardly anyone would think to do so with Conte as their partner.

But Marlon is a Byrd of a different feather. He shows patience and deference but also a general dismissiveness to media criticism. Like the protagonist of “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” Byrd does not allow himself to be ordered around or even influenced. That fierce, even contrarian independence defines plenty of songs in The Who’s catalog, but this tune makes it especially explicit, and like Byrd’s, there is some swagger in its declarative style.

Bargain: Jim Hendry, People Person, Does it Again

The tale is well-worn by now but no less fun to tell: In the winter of 2006, Jim Hendry proved his commitment to free-agent southpaw Ted Lilly by signing him for four years and $40 million, all from his hospital bed after chest pains ran him down ever so briefly.

Hendry is not merely a tongue-hanging bird dog, though: He is known throughout the game as one of its true good guys. Players, managers and other GMs almost universally like him, despite (or perhaps partially because of) his recent fallings-out with Milton Bradley and Carlos Silva.

Hendry brought his affability to bear more tangibly than ever this witner, though. After Ron Santo’s death in early December, old Cubs hurler Kerry Wood came back for his hero and friend’s funeral. Wood, a free agent, got offers three times the size of the Cubs’ eventual best effort from both the crosstown white Sox and the New York Yankees. He signed here instead.

“I’d gladly lose me to find you,” Hendry might have said to Wood. “I’d gladly give up all I got. To catch you, I’m gonna run and never stop.”

A franchise legend back as set-up man-slash-assistant pitching coach for pennies on the dollar of his market rate? It’s the best bargain Hendry has ever had.

I’m a Boy: Stop Trying to Change Carlos Zambrano

“My name is Bill and I’m a head case.”

If that were the only line of the song, it would still fit Carlos Zambrano down to a simple substitution of his name for Bill’s. But the similarities actually run much deeper.

Zambrano, like the song’s protagonist, has been mistreated. He has been misused, misunderstood and altogether misconstrued for the past several years. Really, it lasted the entire Lou Piniella era. It culminated in his demotion, promotion, suspension and reinstatement between May and September 2010. It will continue, in modest form, when he is denied his first Opening Day start in six years. That last abuse is not so bad.

Enough have been, though. Zambrano never ought to have been pressed to control his emotions on the mound; that stole his release, his catharsis, and it led to his outbursts in dugouts and clubhouses. He never ought to have been demoted to the bullpen. And the team, as well as the fans, really need to accept that Big Z is what he is, and stop demanding more, less or a lateral move from him. He is EL Toro. He runs straight.

Call me Lightning

The Who only recorded this song on American releases and performed it live in the United Kingdom only decades later, on reunion tours. They felt the sound was already played out in Europe, the ground well-covered by the Beatles. And they were right: This song will be fundamentally unfamiliar to everyone, but I bet it rings some bells. Pete Townshend, the brains of the band’s operation and a man sometimes given to artistic overindulgence, knew enough to call a spade a spade and trade it in on a diamond in this instance.

So it must go for Miek quade and the 2011 Cubs, and so it has already begun to go. The Cubs have been a miserable baserunning team for the past decade or so, and the temptation (in line with the title of the song itself) would be for Quade and his team to try and prove to the world that they have gotten a bit more athletic.

Here’s the problem: They haven’t gotten more athletic. Not really. The song worked in America because it had an edge that American pop still lacked, and because The Who were talented musicians and made it work. But it was not right for their European audience. They picked their spots, and they used the song only when they could use it to their advantage.

If the Cubs get smarter about going first-to-third on singles; if they swipe bases only in high-leverage situations with their better baserunners, like Tyler Colvin and Darwin Barney and (whenever he reaches the big leagues) Fernando Perez; and if they understand, as Quade proved he does when he told reporters this week the team will not pretend to have speed, that their identity is not anchored in their ability to nab bases; then they will be a good and efficient team on the base paths. Do NOT call Aramis Ramirez lightning.

Pure and Easy: Wait Until You See Brett Jackson Play Baseball

Baseball is better than football or basketball not because of the superior role of strategy or because of its pastoral connotations, but because of its unique rhythm. A baseball game soaks you in and time ticks to the metronome of dribblers to shortstop and cracks of the bat during batting practice.

It’s never hard to spot the players who feel the rhythm of the game deep in their bones. They move naturally. They swing smoothly, even when they swing for the fences. They don’t have to do everything perfectly; you can just tell when a guy belongs on a ball diamond.

Brett Jackson belongs. He moves smoothly on the bases and in the outfield. He swings effortlessly, albeit with some unnecessary loop and sometimes lacking contact. He sees pitches before they even leave their purveyors’ hands, and as such, his batting eye is excellent. Brett Jackson is going to be a big-league outfielder for a logn time, and he may do it by the end of this season.

For all the smoothness in his game, there are hitches. He may eventually be too big and strong to stay in center field. He may never make enough contact to fully actualize his power or his plate discipline. But that’s why this is a fit. Listen to this song. It’s one of my favorites. It’s about duality, the lilting lightness of the chorus standing in contrast to the harsh imagery in the verses.

To finish it off, they break it down into a call-and-response thing with a guitar riff that just seeps coolness. It’s funky and it’s uneven but it still seems clean. It is the height of cool. Jackson will be that way someday.

Pinball Wizard: Not even Carlos Marmol knows how Carlos Marmol does it

This song is all about a guy who succeeds utterly without explanation or defensible method. He dominates, even, though no one is sure how because he lacks the fundamental sense of parameters and limitations that should be a prerequisite to success itself.

Carlos Marmol has no command. He has no idea where the ball is going. Most guys who miss the strike zone as often as he does do so because they don’t aim for it in the first place. Marmol’s career was in danger of regressing permanently after 2009, when he walked nearly eight batters per nine innings. He didn’t know where the ball was going.

Now, though, he is sick. He’s filthy. No one can touch him, so even though he went right on walking obscene numbers of opponents last season, he began to dominate anyway. He set a record for strikeout rate. Before last season, absent much reason for optimism, I would have bet on him continuing to walk the world and losing it altogether. Now, absent much reason for optimism, I bet he keeps fanning and baffling enough hitters to strand most of those he puts on base. No method. Just madness. But that big-eared kid sure throws a mean slider.

Substitute: Tyler Colvin is not who they say he is

One line again sums up what I’m trying to get across here, albeit roughly:

“I look pretty young, but I’m just backdated.”

That is the dismissal offered by the hurt and reeling protagonist of the song, and it’s the same palms-out defense Tyler Colvin could offer to the Cubs and their fans.

In December 2006, Hendry made a huge mistake when he signed Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year deal worth $136 million. Time has only made the deal look worse. Soriano remains in left field but his effectiveness is waning (although not as fast as many think). Meanwhile, another Hendry albatross stands in right field in the person of Kosuke Fukudome. Colvin is the new co-face of the team. He is the antidote to the PR poison to which Hendry fell victim by signing Soriano and Fukudome.

But he’s a fraud. Sort of. Colvin was a first-round draft pick out of Clemson in 2006, and though he will not turn 26 until September, it took him those three years to establish himself. He plays an awful lot like a left-handed Soriano. Chicago, though, embraces him nicely, so Hendry and the PR guys have made him a substitute.

I Can’t Explain: Why does Koyie Hill still have a job?

This one is pure and simple wordplay: The emotion and tone of the song do not match what I’m saying here. But Koyie Hill does not belong in the big leagues. At all. He is a man of perseverance, sturdy build and good baseball IQ, but he is not any good at baseball. He had one hit this spring. One hit, in 32 at-bats. Meanwhile, pseudo-competitors Welington Castillo and Max Ramirez hit .632/.696/.842 and .294/.409/.529, respectively. Yet the team sent Castillo back to Triple-A and risked losing Ramirez to the waiver wire to put Hill on the Opening Day roster. That Ramirez cleared waivers ought not to cloud the foolishness of that decision.

Won’t Get Fooled Again: The perverse world of Cubdom

The protagonist of this tune is helpless, but to his credit, he knows it. He cannot help but believe in each new iteration of what he knows, on some level, is the same regime. He encourages change, especially enlightened change, but he knows that most of that change comes out in the wash.

“Meet the new boss,” he says. “Same as the old boss.”

It sounds an awful lot like, “Wait ’til next year.” Yet here we are. I’m here to say, and I’ll be the guy holding the guitar and grinning after everyone else is gone, but I’m here to say I believe in the 2011 Cubs. The guy in the song keeps believing, too. Not much reward, but well worth it anyway. Faith is its own reward.