Cubs, Sox can have success without winning

Sveum, Ventura chasing pennants — just not this year's

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More than most Aprils in the city, baseball's opening day arrives open for interpretation.

Baseball romantics see the rebirth of something wonderful on both sides of town and anticipate a rush of summer babies named Robin or Theo.

Baseball realists consider it merely one day closer to the NHL and NBA playoffs and wonder more about whom the Bears will pick in the first round than whom the White Sox will pitch in the ninth.

I find myself happily in the middle: expecting little, watching a lot and marveling that neither team could devise a more dynamic marketing slogan to usher in a new era.

Sox: Appreciate the Game.

Cubs: Baseball is Better Here.

Mine: Relax, This Could Take a While.

This looks like an ideal summer for the city's baseball fans to tend to that neglected garden or learn a second language. This feels like the beginning of a long season — the first since 1992 the Cubs and Sox both open with new managers — in which Chicago's teams could combine for 185 losses.

Yet still cite progress.

To do so will require paying closer attention to the culture than to the standings, an unnatural response for competitive souls but the inevitable focus of rookie managers Robin Ventura and Dale Sveum. Both woke up Thursday chasing pennants — just not this year's. What Sox first baseman Paul Konerko said the first day of spring training goes for the Cubs too: The season can be deemed successful without winning a thing.

When Cubs President Theo Epstein articulated, "Progress as an organization isn't linear,'' it was an Ivy Leaguer's way of bracing Cubs fans for fourth place. Maybe Sox general manager Ken Williams can find an equally artful way to prepare fans for a team unlikely to compete for the extra wild-card spot. An Epstein-Williams made-for-TV baseball debate, Yale versus Stanford, sure would spice up the City Series, but I digress.

Opening day calls for a 24-hour suspension of cynicism. Opening day is all wide eyes and open minds. On opening day, the only thing better than hope is a good bratwurst. The most exciting two words of opening day aren't "Play ball" but "What if."

What if Jeff Samardzija finally proves he belongs in the Cubs rotation more than the Bears huddle? What if 36-year-old Alfonso Soriano hits 35 home runs? What if unknown first baseman Bryan LaHair tops him? What if Brett Jackson, the Cubs' best all-around outfielder stuck in Triple A, gets called up in mid-May? What if Starlin Castro flirts with .400? What if closer Carlos Marmol regains his All-Star form in a bullpen that surprises everybody?

On the Sox, what if Adam Dunn hits like the $56 million slugger the Sox thought they were getting and a resurgent Alex Rios thrives amid relative tranquility in the clubhouse? What if Jake Peavy resembles Jake Peavy again instead of the guy Williams should trade first? What if Gordon Beckham returns to the dangerous doubles machine we thought he was? What if John Danks really is an ace and Chris Sale is harder to solve than Sudoku? What if Addison Reed gives headline writers reason to get creative?

It would be fun to speculate how the Cubs' and Sox's blockbuster offseason acquisitions will fare, but editors frown on white space. Neither team acquired a player compelling enough to capture the imagination. Any upcoming major trades figure to be more notable for subtractions than additions.

The players aren't the most intriguing part of this season anyway.

The presence of a positive vibe due to Epstein's arrival represents a change at Clark and Addison even more noticeable than the 75-foot LED scoreboard by Wrigley Field's right-field patio. Throughout the organization permeates a belief in the Cubs Way, a sophisticated baseball approach at every level that isn't corny or fake.

It goes beyond the Cubs installing enough video gadgetry in ballparks to be sponsored by the CIA or adding so many executives that the front office needs to knock down a wall. It involves Epstein surrounding himself with smart people such as Sveum, who ran spring training like a corporate baseball seminar for adults relearning a kid's game.

On the South Side, Williams sits in the hottest seat, but Ventura commands the most intrigue. How will his quiet professionalism affect a roster that stopped responding to Ozzie Guillen? How patient is he? Early signs suggest Ventura can handle personalities and a pitching staff over 162 games, but we don't know. He never has.

Sometimes the fun in watching sports comes when competitors thrive in an environment absent expectations.

Welcome to Chicago baseball 2012.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh
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