Cubs fans need some Rays of hope

CHICAGO -- How optimistic were the teeming masses at Cubs Convention on Friday night?

Well, for one, they cheered Carlos Zambrano's entourage.

While I think they might have confused one of the bigger guys with Carlos Silva, that's another sign of unfettered enthusiasm: They cheered a guy who kind of looked like Carlos Silva.

I only popped into the convention kickoff rally to see who the fans booed, because I'm a jerk like that.

With traditional target Larry Rothschild chilling in Tampa, owner Tom Ricketts got off with polite applause, even after curiously repeating Jerry Krause's apocryphal line about "organizations win championships," while team president Crane Kenney got a mix of boos and crickets chirping. General manager Jim Hendry got some cheers, but mostly boos, which is unfortunate considering the bang-up job he did this offseason.

Because this is an event attended by the most rabid of die-hard fans -- the kind of people who believe a tucked-in Greg Maddux jersey equals steppin' out clothes -- the players all got raucous applause, even Zambrano, who was the target of the fans' ire last season until his final stretch, which was after everyone stopped paying attention. Kerry Wood got the kind of applause that Silva gets when he enters an a la carte steakhouse.

For all the fun I make of it, the Cubs Convention -- and next week's SoxFest -- is a welcome sign because it means baseball is around the corner, and talking to the Cubs on Friday made me slightly sanguine about the club's chances. After all, as Big Z himself reminded us, 2010 is over.

"Let's talk about this year," he said, rebuffing questions about his turbulent season. "I'm ready for this season and I'm excited for this season."

Me too, Carlos. Someone pass me a foam claw and a "We Got Wood" T-shirt. Chicago lost the great Ron Santo this offseason -- how many tears will be shed at the home opener when he doesn't appear in the booth? -- but that doesn't mean you have to lose that undying hope that this really is the year.

I don't think the so-called curse will be lifted in 2011, but I think the Cubs will be more likable than you might think.

And two of the main reasons are the newest Cubs, Matt Garza and Carlos Pena. Along with part-time poet, full-time outfielder Fernando Perez -- "He can really fly. He might be the fastest guy in baseball," Hendry said -- Garza and Pena can bring a little bit of the winning tradition of the Tampa Bay Rays to musty Chicago.

Hey, don't laugh. They've been to a World Series this century.

They're different personalities -- Garza is intense and self-admittedly "goofy" and good citizen Pena has a burgeoning reputation as one of the "good guys" in the game. Both are capable of bolstering with good vibes and good play.

The fact the public response to the Pena signing and the Garza trade was mixed shows how little faith the fan base has in Hendry's stewardship.

The concern with Pena is mostly due to an anemic batting average that has dropped precipitously the past four years, going from .282 to .196. While most fans know average is an overhyped stat, .196 is still .196. But more importantly, to me anyway, he's averaged 36 home runs and 102 RBIs in that span. I know RBIs are a flawed stat as well, but I always like a guy who can drive runners in -- call me old-fashioned.

Pena is ready to work on his flaws. He already has a week scheduled in Texas with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo before spring training.

And maybe hitting at Wrigley, rather than in the dome in St. Petersburg, Fla., will do wonders.

"Why not?" Pena said. "Like I said, I'm very optimistic about this year and I expect good things."

Garza looked like he was going to be Hendry's white whale until the GM struck a deal with Tampa Bay to send a group of prospects, headlined by pitcher Chris Archer, to the Rays for him. While Garza, a fastball-heavy hurler, is coming off a career-high 15 wins and a solid 3.91 ERA and 1.251 WHIP, he's a little wild, in more ways than one.

For instance, like Zambrano, he's both fought his catcher during a game and thrown a no-hitter. But Garza also was the MVP of the 2008 American League Championship Series.

"I love those big moments and that big spotlight game, that's what I crave," Garza said. "I love that intensity, I just love that energy. I'm very passionate about what I do. You can see it. So, it's a match made in heaven."

Pena talked about how fun it is to watch Garza pitch, even from first base, and Perez, who has a good shot to make the club as a reserve outfielder, agreed.

"Matt is an amazing competitor, he's really, really fun to watch," Perez said on ESPN 1000 last week. "He doesn't really have the modern athlete's indifference to what's going on, just trying to be cool out there. He's a pitcher; he's kind of a throwback pitcher, that's what we decided."

Wood saw a little of Garza in the AL the past two years, and is thrilled to have him aboard. And as you know, Wood's stamp of approval is better than Good Housekeeping's.

"He's going to get into a groove and some guys are going to be in awe what he's capable of doing," Wood said.

Cubs fans have an (often unrealistic) ideal of what they want out of a player -- a gritty, team-first competitor who thinks he's still playing a kid's game is the basic outline -- and by the sound of Garza, he wants to be that stereotype.

"I enjoy having fun," he said. "I come to the park with a smile on my face and leave the park with a smile on my face. There's not a better job in the world to be doing. Everybody wants to do this, everybody wants to do this, but everybody wants to be a ballplayer. If I can't wake up with a smile on my face and get it going, then I shouldn't even be here. I'm just going to come in and be my goofy self and have a lot of fun doing it."

There's plenty of time to fret about the bullpen or the hole in Pena's swing in the coming months, but for now bask in the cheer of guys who have never been booed off the field on a sunny day at Wrigley Field. To them, joining the Cubs is an opportunity to win.

Don't laugh. Because anything really is possible in baseball. Just ask the guys who made a World Series with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.