At Cubs convention, skepticism in mid-summer form

CHICAGO -- The whack job wore an actual Illinois license plate around his neck, complete with "CUBS WIN" vanity lettering. His black baseball cap featured the always classy phrase, "You Still Suck." Years ago he bought stock in the Tribune Company, which owns the cursed franchise, "so I could raise hell" at the shareholders meetings.

Now, in the worst possible scenario for Chicago Cubs manager Lou Piniella and general manager Jim Hendry, the codger was standing in front of a working microphone near the center of the Continental Ballroom at the 22nd Annual Cubs Convention. The "Meet Cubs Baseball Management" session was about to turn ugly.

The old man, who said he had attended all 22 conventions, demanded to know why the Cubs were so mind-numbingly bad when it came to baseball fundamentals. A 16-hop "throw" from right-fielder Jacque Jones to the cut-off man came to mind, as did one of Aramis Ramirez's legendary labored jogs to first on a gapper to right-center. Retirees with aluminum walkers move faster out of the batter's box than the Cubs' third baseman.

The codger, with the support of the 1,200 or so Cubs fans who had squeezed into the SRO ballroom, went on and on until Piniella interrupted him.

"Let me work on that and I promise you it will get better," Piniella said in surprisingly soothing tones. "You're going to have a good, fundamental club, believe me."

Applause echoed through the vast room. The old man and his license plate returned to their seat. Order had been restored -- for the moment.

Say what you will about the Cubs, but they were the first big league team to bring its fans together for a three-day, love/hate therapy session in the dead of winter. During the most recent convention at a South Loop hotel, 15,000 of these people gorged themselves on all things Cubs.

I felt the worst for the little kids, their eyes filled with innocent wonder as they waited happily in line for autographs and photo ops with their favorite players. You wanted to pull them aside and gently explain that there are less painful hobbies than following the Cubs, such as plunging knitting needles into your inner ear canal.

Of course, the adults should have known better. It's been almost 100 years since the Cubs' last World Series championship, but here they were, proudly wearing their convention passes like state fair ribbons. This was the first year the passes featured the blue, block-lettered W on the front, in honor of the "Win" flag flown at Wrigley Field after a victory. Last season, that flag flew a grand total of 66 times, the third-lowest number in the majors.

That's why Piniella is here, and Dusty Baker now works for ESPN. That's why Hendry committed nearly $300 million to free-agent contracts during the offseason and the Cubs' 2007 payroll underwent a major growth spurt. That's why pitching coach Larry Rothschild was booed during the opening night introductions and why the newly signed Alfonso Soriano was greeted like someone who eliminated the Chicagoland tollway booths. Most of all, that's why Cubs followers possess the rare ability to be optimistic and pessimistic at the same time.

Who knows if this is going to work? Even team president John McDonough, who replaced Andy MacPhail in October, told fans at the convention, "I don't think we're going to spend our way out of this."

Maybe not, but at least Piniella's lineup card won't read like the Iowa Cubs roster Baker was forced to use when injuries and trades left him without three-fifths of his starting rotation and without first baseman Derrek Lee, who earned the 2005 National League batting title and made a serious run at the Triple Crown. For $297.55 million -- what the Cubs committed to spend this winter -- you get a lot more than Brian Dopirak.

Piniella … Hendry … McDonough … Rothschild -- they all were Simon Cowell'd by Cubs fans weary of watching everybody else (the White Sox on the South Side, the rival St. Louis Cardinals, the once-horrific Detroit Tigers) reach the World Series. One guy ragged on Hendry so long that I thought the usually affable Cubs GM was going to leap over the table and stuff a pine tar rag in the fan's mouth. Instead, Hendry clenched his teeth and said, "Can I speak, please?"

As the Cubs' pitchers and catchers prepare to report to Mesa, Ariz., next week for the start of spring training, here are some of the things we learned from the convention:

• Unless he's traded, tears an ACL, or decides to retire and become an Old Style vendor, Soriano will move from left field (where he played last season for the Washington Nationals) to center and bat leadoff. "That's a godsend for us, if it works," Piniella said. The leadoff thing is a done deal, but Hendry is more cautious about Soriano's playing position.

• The Cubs will have eight pitchers competing for five starting spots.

This is like saying George Steinbrenner has taken a vow of silence. I mean, since when do the Cubs have pitching depth?

But one of those Cubs pitchers, Kerry Wood, who lost 31 pounds thanks to his offseason workout program, could move to the set-up or closer position. Meanwhile, Mark Prior's status remains iffy because of persistent shoulder problems. He's feeling better than he has in recent years, but, said Rothschild, "you don't really know much about Mark until the grass turns green." Said Piniella: "Larry, when does the grass turn green?"

In other words, the Cubs' rotation is Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, and some combination of Rich Hill, Prior, Sean Marshall, Wade Miller or even Neal Cotts.

• Piniella will start every sentence with, "Look … " or "Let me tell you this … " or "Hey, listen … " And when asked when we could expect his first Lou-ish, bolt-from-the-dugout tantrum after a bad call, Piniella said, "It depends on how cold it is." That rules out April.

• Utility man Ryan Theriot has the potential to become the go-to guy for National League beat writers.

During a "Not For Women Only" panel discussion, former Cubs pitcher Mike Bielecki asked several players to invent a baseball catch phrase for Viagra. Theriot's ad campaign: "Viagra -- I always play hard."

Theriot, the former high school prom king, didn't hesitate when asked about his first makeout session ("Sixth grade … Jenny … back of the skating rink."), or his imaginary porn name (the radio hosts emceeing the session said to combine your pet's name with your street name; Theriot's was, "Gauge Classique"), or showing his rear when a 73-year-old woman from Lafayette, Ind., requested that the panel (Bielecki, Theriot, Marshall, Cotts and reliever Scott Eyre) show her their "assets."

• Cubs players are thinking big.

Marshall predicted a 100-plus-win season. The four other panelists predicted between 95 and 98 victories.

A few words of caution: It's February. These are the Cubs. Money doesn't buy everything, not even blind faith.

During the Q&A with Hendry and Piniella, Scott from suburban Glen Ellyn first thanked Cubs management for its aggressive spending, but then recited all the reasons why the starting rotation faced potential disaster.

"I'd like to know what facts you have, as opposed to what-ifs, that make you think this is going to be a success when it hasn't been a success in the past three years?" Scott said.

Piniella glanced toward Hendry.

"Jim," he said, "this is a tough crowd."

Not tough, just skeptical. That's what happens when a team nears its second 100-year rebuilding plan.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.