Palm Springs, Calif.
Ever since the Chicago Cubs last appeared in a World Series in 1945, their future has looked remarkably like their past. Managers change, players change, but the penchant for losing lingers on.
Those who think that 1980 is going to be any different for the Cubs are probably also awaiting, with wild anticipation, the return of the Edsel, the 5 -cent phone call, and high-button shoes.
It's not that Chicago can't put quite a few good-quality players on the field at the same time. Actually the Cubs are capable of a .500 season and perhaps more. But in a division that includes Pittsburgh, Montreal, St. Louis, and Philadelphia, the only team Chicago can really be sure of beating out is the New York Mets.
The Cubs have a new manager this year in ultraquiet Preston Gomez, a new second baseman in Mike Tyson, and possibly a new centerfielder in Scot Thompson.
The latter hinges on how much turbulence continues between outfielder Jerry Martin and the Cubs' front office, of which Martin has been highly critical. Speculation is that Martin will be traded.
Otherwise Thompson will play right field and Dave Kingman, who led the majors last year in home runs with 48 and had a surprisingly high (for him) batting average of .288, will play left.
Gomez, who previously managed expansion teams at San Diego and Houston, is considered an excellent baseball man and perhaps as good a third base coach as there is in the business. But two cotton balls fighting in a sea of tapioca would probably make more noise.
Whether Preston has the inner toughness to handle today's "I'm gonna get mine first" ballplayer is probably something that won't be known until after the season. But there were problems last year when former Manager Herman Franks had one set of flexible rules for his stars and a much more rugged brand for everyone else on the club.
Chicago, with proven hitters like Kingman, Martin, Thompson, Bill Buckner, Steve Ontiveros, and Ivan DeJesus, should have no trouble scoring runs -- perhaps often in bunches.
The problem is questionable pitching and defense, although the Cubs right now seem optimistic about both. Nevertheless, Chicago's pitching staff last year ranked ninth in the National League, produced only 20 complete games, and gave up more hits (1,500) than any other team in the league.
Defensively the Cubs saw DeJesus make 32 errors at shortstop; Ontiveros, 23 at third base; Barry Foote, 17 behind the plate; and Kingman, 12 in left field. Either Tyson (obtained from the Cardinals) or Steve Dillard (who had a fine spring) will play second base.
Gomez is expected to go with a starting rotation of Rick Reuschel (18-12 in ' 79), Dennis Lamp, Mike Krukow, Lynn McGlothen, and Willie Hernandez. The bullpen will be headed by Bruce Sutter, only the third releif pitcher ever to win the Cy Young award, and Dick Tidrow, with Bill Caudill possibly pushing Tidrow out of the No. 2 spot.
However, there are rumors that Sutter, who took his salary demands to arbitration during the winter and won a $700,000-a-year contract, will be traded. The Cubs still consider his demands excessive.
Chicago will have some excellent hitters sitting on the bench in reserve first baseman Larry Biittner, plus outfielders Miguel Dilone, Mike Vail, and Karl Pagel.
Biittner hit .290 in 111 games last year, while Dilone stole 50 bases for Oakland as recently as 1978. Pagel, who hit 39 home runs with Wichita in '79 and was the Minor League Player of the Year, may be used in a trade. Part of Pagel's problem is a glove that weighs only slightly less than a small anchor.
What Cub fans can expect under Gomez is a team with more discipline, at least as much hitting, and perhaps some improvement on defense and in the pitching department. But the bottom line still indicates that Chicago will probably finish just under or just over the .500 mark.