CHICAGO Memorial Day has come and gone, the temperatures are rising and June is fast approaching. For the Chicago Cubs' faithful, that usually means one thing time to write off another season and start holding out hope for next year.
But hold on just a minute there, Cubs fans. This is Dusty Baker's team now, and the winning attitude he instilled in San Francisco is working quite well here in Chicago, too. The Cubs have been in first place in the NL Central since April 15, and they went into Thursday's off day with a 1 1/2-game lead over St. Louis.
''I'm not going to say anybody picked us to be in first place, but I think here in the clubhouse, we expected to be there,'' Kerry Wood said. ''We knew we had a good team.''
Cynics and what Cubs fan isn't one after a century of heartbreak? will point out that Chicago's 29-23 record is the worst of any division leader. And it's early, with four months of the season still to go. And that the slim lead could be wiped out with one bad series, especially with Houston coming to town this weekend.
But all of that is missing the point. The Cubs were so bad last year they lost 95 games, getting not one but two managers fired in the process. They never had a winning record, and were 11 games out by the middle of May.
This year, the Cubs were the team to beat in the NL Central before the Wrigley Field ivy had even come in.
''I love first place more than any other place,'' Baker said. ''It's not the end (of the season), but it builds confidence in your team. It builds confidence in the fans. The longer you're there, the longer you feel you belong there and the harder you try to stay there.''
When general manager Jim Hendry went looking for a new manager last fall, Baker was the one he really wanted. In 10 years in San Francisco, Baker was 840-715 and a three-time NL manager of the year. He took the Giants to the playoffs three times, including last year's World Series.
But winning is an aberration instead of an attitude in Chicago, and Baker had his work cut out for him.
Starting in spring training, he made it clear the Cubs should expect to win. He doesn't believe it's their destiny to be baseball's lovable losers, and he didn't want to hear any nonsense about that goat and its curse.
''Last year, you'd walk in here and it was dead. It didn't even seem like people were alive,'' reliever Joe Borowski said. ''This year, it's just different. Everybody comes in believing we're going to win.
''Dusty brought it into the clubhouse, and now all the guys are starting to take it over because they believe in it.''
The makeup of the team helps, too. With so many problem spots to address, Hendry decided to go for a group of veterans rather than one or two big-name free agents. The guys he picked up Damian Miller, Eric Karros, Mark Grudzielanek, Lenny Harris, Troy O'Leary, Tom Goodwin, Mike Remlinger are solid characters who've made big contributions, both on and off the field.
''There are special guys in the clubhouse and that's where it starts,'' said Miller, who won a World Series with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Pitching has been the Cubs' strength, as expected. Mark Prior ranks among the league leaders in both wins (six) and ERA (2.82), and he and Wood lead the NL in strikeouts. Shawn Estes and Carlos Zambrano, the Nos. 4 and 5 starters, have combined for 10 wins and a 3.87 ERA.
The Cubs offense is scuffling somewhat without Sammy Sosa, who is due to come off of the disabled list Friday, and the defense has been sketchy at times. The pitchers alone have committed 13 errors.
But Moises Alou is back to his old self, batting .305 with 31 RBIs. And Corey Patterson is hitting .312 with a team-high 41 RBIs.
''We have a different feeling when we go out to the field,'' Wood said. ''We lose one or two in a row, we don't expect to lose the next three or four in a row. We haven't gotten into a rut where we sit around and say, 'Oh, why us? Why is this happening to us?' We lose a couple in a row, we step up, we come back the next day and get it done.''
Chicago has gotten off to fast starts before, only to swoon in June. And Baker is the first to caution that it's early.
But after the dismal shape the Cubs were in when he arrived, he'll take this kind of turnaround.
''Winning, that's the only way you can change anything. Or at least make improvements,'' he said. ''Let's not forget that we've already won almost half as many games as they won last year, in a third the period of time. That's improvement.''
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