- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- It's easy to trash a writer for blowing his first baseball column of the season, but please don't judge me too harshly.
Don't get me wrong; I'm a professional. This column is a part of the process, part of the job, and I come to Wrigley Field to win. Every column is sacred.
But if you feel like you've already wasted your time, it's important to remember sportswriting is a parallel-front approach and progress isn't linear. Sometimes, it's not even obvious.
This is my Opening Day column. I still get a few butterflies. I'm not alone. As Theo Epstein noted Thursday morning, "Opening Day feels like a holiday, like a celebration."
Well, maybe before Opening Day ends in a loss. The Cubs lost 2-1 to the Washington Nationals on Thursday in pretty familiar fashion: no offense and a blown save. You might be disappointed in the loss, but the new Cubs Way preaches Opening Day is for amateurs. Theo's Cubs have a proprietary formula that values other games more.
"I really cherish the second day of the year," Epstein said. "Because that's when the baseball rhythms kick in."
Baseball is better with baseball rhythms.
I don't care who wins or loses. I root for my column. With the loss went my paean to baseball.
"Shhh, quiet, guys, I think someone died," he said from his locker. "[Bleep], guys, it's Game 1! It's like a [bleeping] morgue in here."
Then, he turned up the clubhouse stereo extra loud. Bob Marley to the rescue, every day and every night.
So I trudged back up to the press box to write. Bear with me today and the rest of April, and what the hell, maybe through Memorial Day. I might misspell some words or botch a few metaphors. I might call Ryan Dempster, who looked good in the opener, a Cy Young candidate. We'll see how it goes. I don't like to not write well, but I promise you things will get better.
I understand if you don't want to read me anymore. But like Tom Ricketts and the pattern of declining attendance at Wrigley, I'm not worried about fans coming to read my columns.
If I write as well as I plan to, the readers will come. I know they didn't last year -- in fact, my readers have dropped every year -- but let's not forget how bad the weather was in 2011.
You can't expect people to read about baseball when it's chilly.
You might be skeptical. History tells a different story. The Cubs are 229-257 since ESPN Chicago launched and my columns started appearing in this space, back in April 2009. I can't say my prose didn't play a part in that abject failure. I still feel responsible for Jim Hendry's demise. I called his jokes bad last year. Maybe that was the last straw.
But remember what's past is prologue. Change is afoot. I realized I was underfunded in the past. My infrastructure had declined.
So, just like the Cubs, I even bought a new computer in the offseason. It's no "Carmine," and Bloomberg Sports didn't build it, but it's a MacBook Air. It's much lighter and more efficient than the clunky PC I used to lug around.
Of course, a new computer doesn't help me come up with a meaningful column, nor does it help when you walk in the tying run in the eighth and fail to convert on a contact play in the ninth.
Stop me if you've heard this before. It all felt very normal at Wrigley on Thursday. I have peanut shells in my keyboard, and the Cubs took a tough loss. But it's only Game 1 of 162. The Cubs prepared to be better than last year's 71-91 club. I worked harder, too.
For instance, while the Cubs focused on fundamentals and running hard on grounders to first in Mesa, Ariz., I focused on my writing fundamentals so I could build a foundation of sustained puns, wisecracks, half-baked analysis and pop psychology.
I also wrote a manual, "The Greenberg Way." It's full of helpful reminders, like make sure you get the score right and keep the BP Cup jokes to a maximum of three per column.
My conditioning is improved as well. I barely wheezed as I trucked up the ramp to the Wrigley press box, passing the PNC Club of Chicago at the Nuveen Investments suites level and other landmarks. I ate only two cookies during the game. OK, three, but they were free. I saw an inefficiency, and I pounced on it.
As for this column, I thought about asking Epstein to write it. He did offer the other day.
"I can go ahead and write your stories for you right now if you want," he told reporters at the end of spring training. Hopefully he's not talking about another poem.
But at least one person has confidence in me.
"I expect you to be a competitive writer," Ricketts said. "I think you'll win a lot of games against your fellow columnists. I don't want to put a number on that or anything. The fact is, you're going to be good. Your editors have a lot of confidence in you."
OK, Ricketts didn't say that. He probably thought it. But he said something similar about his team before the game.
"I expect us to be a competitive team this year," he really said. "I think we'll win a lot of games. I don't want to put a number on that or anything. The fact is, we're going to be good. The guys have a lot of confidence in themselves."
Or as Bill Murray said before singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," "We're going to win today and we're going to win every single game!"
Announcer Bob Brenly had a good chuckle at that one. He probably laughs at Ricketts' positive pronouncements, too, although not directly in his face.
Ricketts has a funny habit of prefacing jolly conjecture with "the fact is." Like when he said, "The fact is, I think this is a very compelling team."
Compelling for Cubs fans? Oh well. Facts, like amusement taxes, are often just obstacles to the greater good.
I wish I had a strong way to close out this column, but like Wood and Carlos Marmol, who gave up two hits and one run and took the loss in the ninth, or pinch runner Joe Mather (he replaced Ian Stewart, who had tripled), who ran into that pivotal out on a Jeff Baker grounder in the ninth, I just couldn't figure out a way to get it done.
That's OK. It's a long season. Lot of baseball left to write. I feel good about the future.
"The fact is, I think this is a very compelling column," Ricketts might say.
The Cubs have changed their culture -- not their roster.