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Sunday, February 10, 2013
Cubs continue to preach patience

By Jesse Rogers

MESA, Ariz. -- There is no bigger loser in the history of competitive sports than the Chicago Cubs. They are the standard that all losing organizations are held up to.

The Blackhawks' former drought? Forty-nine years was nothing. The White Sox? They were closing in on Cub-like territory with an 88-year gap between championships, but it ended in 2005. There are plenty of examples of other futile teams -- teams that have never won a title, in fact. But those teams, such as the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners, are relatively new to the sports landscape.

The Cubs stand alone. One hundred and four years ... and counting. There's more than a good chance it will be 105 after 2013 is all said and done.

That's why, when the Cubs opened spring training Sunday, the idea of another year of preaching patience was met with pointed and meaningful words to back it up.

"It's a bit of a covenant," Cubs president Theo Epstein said. "We ask them (the fans) for their patience and understanding, ask them to get behind the young players as they come up to the big leagues. In return, we promise to work our tails off ... so we can build something really special. And reward the fans with October baseball year in and year out."

It's the same mantra he's been preaching since he arrived in 2011 and overhauled the Cubs' baseball operations from top to bottom. Epstein is considered the savior in Chicago, half because he was successful in Boston and half because Cubs fans have no other choice. They've been through the ringer too many times -- they need to believe in something.

"For one thing, we're being open and transparent with our fans about what we're trying to accomplish," Epstein said. "Our fans have been great about it. We appreciate that. When they can see an Anthony Rizzo get his seasoning at Triple-A then come up and make such a great impression, I think that helps. When they can see Jeff Samardzija, to be put in a position for us to rely upon him, I think that helps. And they see, under Dale's [Sveum] leadership how hard the players prepared and played on a day-in and day-out basis, I think that helps. We appreciate their patience, we don't want them to be patient forever. We want to make progress, we feel like we did make progress behind the scenes in a lot of areas last year."

Behind the scenes, of course, has mostly to do with new players entering the system and their development. In most years, the idea of selling prospects on a fan base is almost cruel. Especially in baseball. The percentage that make it is small -- even smaller for the ones who turn into stars, which is what the Cubs need.

But what else does rebuilding mean, if not selling stars of the future? This is Year 2, not Year 5. Selling the future is all the Cubs have. But at least this time it's by design. It also means plenty of losing before the winning can happen.

"On a given night there is nothing worse than driving home after a loss," general manager Jed Hoyer said. "That's not something the three of us (Epstein, Sveum and Hoyer) haven't experienced a lot of. Our goal is something much bigger. Sometimes you know there is going to be some short-term pain to have that long-term perspective. Last year was difficult for all three of us."

If it was difficult for them, how hard must it have been for the millions leaving the ballpark as well? And Hoyer & Co. did it for one season. How about 104?

A fan might almost wish one in that group grew up in Chicago. The Red Sox are one thing, but these are the Cubs. "Loveable loser" didn't just materialize out of thin air to describe them. It took years to cultivate.

For now, the best Epstein can offer is the following: "We're always trying to do two things at once."

As in win a few more games now, to remind everyone what it feels like, and then keep an eye on the growth of the future. Hoyer reiterated the patient stance that's needed.

"We don't have any young guys that we look at that have a really good shot to bust through and make the team," he said. "Hopefully we'll see them during the year."

At one point in their news conference Sunday, Epstein added more to the prospect notion, unprompted by any question.

"We prefer guys to spend about a full year at the Triple-A level before they come up here," he said.

Keeping people's expectations in check is probably more needed now than selling any of the prospects to the fan base. Javier Baez, the Cubs' top pick of 2011, has had a cup of coffee in the pros and people were asking if he could make the team. Same with Albert Almora.

Patience, please. But at least it's enthusiastic patience, if that's a phrase.

"We have a number of players right on the cusp," Epstein said.

At any other time in Cubs history that quote would be met with a roll of the eyes, but from this regime it's believable. Or at least people want to believe. That hasn't changed. It always has been the Cubby way.

Believe first. Results will come later. Now more than ever.

Jesse Rogers covers the Cubs for ESPN 1000 and ESPNChicago.com