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David Haugh: Optimism soars at Cubs’ camp like a Rizzo blast

By David Haugh, Chicago Tribune –

MESA, Ariz. — Baseball romantics desperate for a Cubs metaphor this spring found what they were looking for Monday when 22-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo stepped to the plate for batting practice.

Nobody knew how far the ball that exploded off Rizzo’s bat might go but, as it sailed over a 50-foot wall on top of a center-field fence 400 feet deep, the possibilities captured the imagination. One idealistic non-math major estimated 500 feet, which seemed like predicting this Cubs team to finish above .500. But, hey, it’s spring — allergy and exaggeration season in the desert.

“The ball comes off his bat the way you want it to come off,” Cubs manager Dale Sveum said of Rizzo. “He’s one of those special guys.”

Rizzo and fellow Cubs minor-leaguer Brett Jackson, another guy in that mold coming soon to a North Side baseball museum near you, entertained the crowd with an impromptu home run contest. Rick Sutcliffe, the ‘84 Cubs hero in uniform again as a spring training instructor, served up soft tosses like it was 1994 — the end of his career.

“Hey, Theo, that’s not the first dent I helped put in that wall,” Sutcliffe yelled to team President Theo Epstein after Jackson drilled his pitch off the green wall.

When Jackson launched another bomb into left-center, Sutcliffe cracked, “Somebody check that bat.”

Rizzo’s packed even more punch. After the left-handed slugger’s last, majestic shot into the Arizona sky, Jackson threw his bat down.

“He got me,” Jackson said.

So why was Jackson smiling like Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer and every other Cubs employee in the vicinity? In the oddest of spring trainings for the Cubs, optimism soars even if nobody necessarily expects the Cubs to surpass their 71-win total from 2011. That’s what happens when a sleepy organization embarks to change the culture. It slowly begins changing one drill at a time. Call it the Epstein Effect.

“It feels like a fresh start, an air of something great to come,” said Jackson, 23. “There’s a sense of excitement to be on the field, to work hard, to make history. That’s why everyone is here.”

And I thought it was for the bunting tournament.

Sveum came up with the idea of the 64-player, NCAA-style tournament as a minor-league manager in the Pirates organization. His players embraced the team-building, fundamental-inducing exercise so much that Sveum has seen several perfecting their bunting technique before workouts.

“You get a feeling which guys are bearing down and competing and some guys who aren’t competing,” Sveum said. “You get to know somebody through this tournament as well.”

Matt Garza danced around like a boxer, taunting Carlos Marmol, in front of 30 teammates who stuck around to watch after practice. But the biggest cheers came when Sveum ousted Kerry Wood with a series of slow-dribbling, well-placed beauties. Talk about leading by example.

Somebody asked Sveum if he felt like bragging.

“No,” he said.

Clearly, with Sveum, small talk is out, small ball is in. Providing feel-good moments matters less than demanding focus, as it should be. When Sveum thought the Cubs were sloppy fielding bunts to open camp, he repeated the drill the next day because, “I wasn’t real happy with the way it went,” he said.

“There’s a lot more structure to our hitting routines and how long we’re on the field,” Jackson said.

Veteran players also have noted longer practices that include more intensity and purpose than under Mike Quade. Wisely, Sveum the manager has drawn from his deep well of playing experience. Whether it’s changing the angle shortstop Starlin Castro takes to ground balls or illustrating the most efficient way to round third base, Sveum connects offering practical pointers drawn from 12 years in the majors.

“He makes good points to each person individually and it’s a lot different this year,” Alfonso Soriano said. “He’s a direct guy. I like that.”

Even when Sveum directly points out when Soriano forgets to run out fly balls, as the manager reminded us last week.

“That didn’t bother me,” Soriano said. “I know I sometimes have some problems running out the ball, so that motivates me. We talked about it. And if I start (running out everything) at spring training, young guys see me doing that, so they will do the same thing.”

Soriano wasn’t the only one at Fitch Park hoping to change habits this baseball season. A woman among the hundreds in the retiree crowd was overheard loudly describing how she lost 40 pounds last year following the “Cubs Diet.”

“I only ate when they won,” she said.

Another lean summer likely awaits, but perhaps not many more. The Cubs can taste it.

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