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COLUMN

Cubs General manager vows team will improve over last season

Friday, January 30, 2009 - 10:29 am

Chicago Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry was in Rome one day and Fort Wayne the next.

No, that's not a metaphor for the Cubs' 2008 season.

Hendry was traveling abroad, spreading good will for Major League Baseball the last couple of weeks. But he had also promised his friend, Cleveland Indians manager Eric Wedge, that he'd meet him here for the Fort Wayne Sports Corp.'s annual banquet.

So Hendry was in Rome on Wednesday and Fort Wayne on Thursday. There's not much in common between the locales, but this: Hendry can find Cubs fans in both places, and they all want to know what happened last season, and how it's going to be fixed.

“We had a terrific year, a 97-win season where we were the best team in the National League all year,” Hendry said. “They were a tremendous bunch of guys. As a general manager, it was the kind of team you'd kill to have, the way the guys were fan-friendly, not worried about their own stats or numbers for arbitration or their next contract. It was a tremendous experience.

“Unfortunately, we failed miserably and got swept in the playoffs.”

As a result, changes were made. The Cubs let relief pitcher Kerry Wood go in free agency. He signed with the Indians. They traded second baseman Mark DeRosa to the Indians. (I sense a trend here.) They signed Milton Bradley, a big bat with a quirky ego. Hendry even made a trade while a few blocks away from the Colosseum in Rome this week, acquiring pitcher Aaron Heilman, a Logansport product who played at Notre Dame.

In other words, the Cubs will look slightly different than they did a year ago. Hendry says that's a step forward.

“We have gotten better,” Hendry said. “We're more left-handed, we're faster, we're more balanced, and we have a better bullpen. I promise you when we get to Opening Day we'll be a better baseball team than the one that won 97 games last season.”

If the Cubs aren't better in Year 101 of the World Series championship drought, the fans will let Hendry know it.

He said he likes talking to Cubs fans, and speaking before decidedly pro-Cubs audiences, such as the one at Ceruti's Summit Park Reception Hall on Thursday. He was in town as a favor to Wedge, whom Hendry calls one of the great leaders he's ever met. Wedge, who grew up in Fort Wayne, met Hendry when Hendry was the coach at Creighton and Wedge was playing at Wichita State.

Wedge donates his time every winter to a baseball camp and the Sports Corp.'s banquet, and he invited Hendry because he knows how big the Cubs' following is in Fort Wayne. Hendry came to speak, free of charge.

After a short speech, he opened the floor to Cubs fans and their tough questions:

Can the Cubs handle Milton Bradley? Hendry says he believes Bradley has matured, and if there is a problem, it'll be up to manager Lou Piniella to deal with it.

Why did they get rid of DeRosa? Management looked at the three-game playoff loss to the Dodgers and saw a glaring lack of left-handed hitters. Someone had to go, Hendry said, and DeRosa was the one. He hated getting rid of DeRosa, however.

Who will be the fifth starting pitcher? Hendry expects four guys to challenge for the spot, including Heilman.

Who plays center field? It'll be either Reed Johnson or Kosuke Fukudome.

“Fukudome's a hard one to figure out,” Hendry said. “He couldn't have been any better the first half (last year), and he couldn't have been any worse the rest of the season.”

Hendry was asked if the Cubs would ever dismantle the team they've built in order to pursue a youth movement. Hendry said that's impossible in Chicago. The demand is to win now, and the Cubs intend to answer that demand.

“We're bothered a lot by people already assuming we're going to win the division again and ‘What are we going to do to fix the postseason problems?' ” Hendry said. “It's hard to win the division. It's hard to win 97 games. …I know Lou's message he'll send in camp right away will be, ‘Let's quit worrying about how to fix October and work on getting there again.' ”

That said, Hendry made it clear that he does not intend for the Cubs to need another 100 years to win a championship. He said he is sure Wedge will one day lead the Indians to a World Series title. He said he hopes it's the year after the Cubs win one.

“I promise you,” Hendry, “we're going to win this thing or I'm going to die trying.” He'll say it in Rome. He'll say it in Fort Wayne. And Cubs fans will believe it when they see it.

The Cubs celebrating a World Series win? Now that would be as sweet a sight as anything they've got in Italy.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. E-mail Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.