Why all that raucous cheering coming from behind the closed doors of the clubhouse at HoHoKam Park one day last month? Was union honcho Don Fehr giving a fire-and-brimstone speech? Had the Cubs fired yet another manager?
No, actually the Cubs were being entertained by a couple of evangelical weightlifters, who performed tricks involving hand-cuffs, metal bars and telephone books. All fired up, the players then went out and bent, pounded and ripped the Brewers 4-3.
In all seriousness, the Cubs were remarkably happy this spring. "We're having fun again," says second baseman Ryne Sandberg, who is now playing under his 11th Cub manager. "This club has one of the best attitudes I can recall us having."
One reason for that is Tom Trebelhorn, who replaces the fired Jim Lefebvre as manager. Trebelhorn is an upbeat player's manager who had a good five-year run (1987-91) in Milwaukee. "On a scale of 1 to 10," says Trebelhorn, "we're an 8 with a chance to be a 9."
His in field is close to a 10. Sandberg and first baseman Mark Grace are Gold Glove winners, and third baseman Steve Buechele should have been voted one by now. The Cubs also have three more good shortstops than most teams: Rey Sanchez, Jose Vizcaino and, back from the dead, Shawon Dunston. A herniated disk in Dunston's lower back caused the two-time All-Star to miss most of the last two seasons, but this spring he has looked sensational, offensively and defensively.
As for centerfield, that's a toughie—namely Karl (Tuffy) Rhodes, who has failed several auditions with the Houston Astros. But Rhodes opened some eyes last year when he hit a composite .314 with 33 homers, 96 RBIs and 69 walks in Triple A and the majors. Says Rhodes, "A lot of people asked me, 'Tuffy, was that you?' It was." Rhodes is also expected to lead off, which he hasn't done in years. His best credential for that duty may be his high school, Cincinnati's Western Hills, alma mater of a leadoff hitter named Rose.
With 53 saves last year, Randy Myers has the ninth inning nailed down for the Cubs. The first eight may be a problem, though, since general manager Larry Himes let his two winningest starters, first Greg Maddux and then Greg Hibbard, depart as free agents in each of the last two oil-seasons. No use crying over spilled Gregs.
The positive side of any Cubs' battery is catcher Rick Wilkins. He not only hit .303 with 30 homers but also threw out 43% of the runners who tried to steal on him last year, the best such percentage in the league. The Cubs expressed their ingratitude by renewing his contract at a mere $350,000, so there was at least one unhappy camper in Mesa.
On the Cubs' blackboard at HoHoKam was this slogan: EXPECT TO WIN. After 86 years without a world championship, that might be asking too much. But expect them to be better.
Rhodes has taken a fast route from Triple A to the top of the Cubs' order.