Cubs Nation, breathe easy. Mike Quade sure is.
Opening day 2011 is in the books, and on an afternoon that saw the Cubs fall to the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-3, I know many die-hard Cubs fans are already coming up with reasons to doubt. Their reasons—taken individually—aren't without merit. The Cubs are still without a strong leadoff hitter that can get on base and manufacture runs. They lack a consistently big bat in the middle of the lineup to drive in runs and scare opposing pitchers. There are concerns with the back-end of their rotation. Stop now? Ok, ok.
Here's the thing, though. Even after Friday's loss, I couldn't shake the feeling that there is reason to hope.
If there was any doubt that Starlin Castro is a star in the making, then those were surely erased Friday. Playing in his first Opening Day game, Castro was a revelation. He scored the Cubs first run on a fantastic piece of base running, and looked comfortable and confident at the plate all day. Defensively he has all the tools to be a great shortstop, and wasted to no time displaying that talent when he robbed Jose Tabata of a sure hit up the middle on the first play of the game.
Ryan Dempster made two bad mistakes, but was unlucky that each of them resulted in home runs. He battled control problems late in his outing, but generally looked like he will be the same guy that the Cubs have leaned on for consistency over the past few seasons.
Darwin Barney was another bright spot. The kid will surely go through the sort of ups and downs that will drive Cubs Nation crazy, but he shows great range defensively and has a spark at the plate that will surprise people this season. Look for a big rookie season out of him.
The long and short of it is this: around this time last year, I saw no reason to get excited about the upcoming Cubs season. But after Friday, I see light at the end of the tunnel. A big reason for that is Cubs Manager Mike Quade.
With all the controversy surrounding his hiring over Ryne Sandberg, it's easy to forget that Quade ignited a fire under an all-but-dead Cubs team to close out last season. The guys wanted to play hard for him. He gained the respect of everyone in the organization with his integrity and frankness. There are no secrets in Quade's clubhouse. What you see is what you get.
Take a moment and enjoy that statement.
It was clear that Lou Piniella lost control of his team last season, but I have total confidence in Quade's ability to get everything out of his players every time they step on the diamond.
After the game Friday, Mike Quade sounded like the baseball version of the original Zen Master of sports, Phil Jackson. He didn't make apologies for his team's play. He didn't mince his words. He understands that the Cubs played well enough to win. He knows that the Pirates were fortunate to capitalize on the Cubs' mistakes the way they did.
There is work to be done, but he knows there is reason to be excited. If the Cubs play to their potential this season, it will be in no small part because of the direction of Mike Quade.
For the first time in a long time, I'm excited to be a Cubs fan.
Cubs Nation, exhale.