CHICAGO (AP) Fans gave Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon a rock star’s welcome, chanting his name as they greeted him with a standing ovation.
They thanked ownership and management. And they welcomed the newcomers in what felt like a big group hug.
The atmosphere at the team’s annual fan convention was every bit as upbeat as expected coming off a breakout 97-win season that ended with a trip to the NL Championship Series.
”It’s been special,” newly signed pitcher John Lackey said Saturday. ”We’re excited to be here.”
These are exciting times for a team that finished with the third-best record in baseball – and the third-best record in the NL Central.
With young sluggers such as NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant, Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and Manager of the Year Maddon leading the way, the Cubs ended a five-year run of losing seasons and sparked hope that a championship drought dating to 1908 will – at long last – end soon.
One thing they didn’t do this offseason was stand pat.
The Cubs have been as busy as any team, signing outfielder Jason Heyward ($184 million, eight years) and Lackey ($32 million, two years) away from division rival St. Louis. They also landed infielder Ben Zobrist ($56 million, four years) and traded Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees for pitcher Adam Warren.
”We chose you,” said Heyward, who turned down more lucrative offers.
The chance to help a team with a promising young core end an historic drought were big draws for the newcomers as was the unique – and changing – environment at Wrigley Field.
There still is plenty of work to do.
The Cubs exchanged arbitration proposals with Arrieta on Friday and hope to reach an agreement before a potential hearing, even though they remain far apart.
Arrieta is asking for $13 million. The Cubs countered at $7.5 million – the largest gap among players left in the arbitration process.
Then there is president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, entering the fifth and final season of his contract.
Epstein said Friday that he has no plans to leave anytime soon and that the players’ contracts need to be taken care of before his.
”There’s no holdup, there’s no drama,” chairman Tom Ricketts said Saturday, when a fan asked if a deal will be completed by the start of spring training. ”The fact is that generally we’re on the same page. We’ve been working on other stuff. Theo and I have had conversations. We kind of know what we’re gonna do with this. You don’t have to worry.”
It’s a busy time for the business side, with the Cubs TV deals expiring in 2019 and the stadium renovation ongoing.
The Cubs are considering starting a new regional network and would need a two-year lead time to launch it, president of business operations Crane Kenney said.
Meanwhile, the multiyear transformation of baseball’s second-oldest ballpark that began last winter after years of legal wrangling with the neighboring rooftop businesses continues to move along.
The Cubs, who now own 10 of the 16 rooftops, installed new bleacher sections in left and right field along with two gigantic video boards last year.
The most important change for the team this offseason is the addition of a 30,000-square foot home clubhouse area that will house lockers, training facilities, player lounge an auditorium, media center and offices.
For fans, a center-field bleacher section is also scheduled to be ready by opening day to go with the ones in left and right that opened last season, and 7,000 seats in the left-field terrace are being replaced this winter. New concrete is being poured and steel beams installed in the ballpark.
Kenney said a plaza that the Cubs envision as a sort of town square with farmers markets, concerts, movie nights and an ice skating rink will ”come to life” in 2016 and be ready by the 2017 opener. The coming years will see more changes, including a hotel across the street.
Security at Wrigley is being beefed up.
Kenney said all fans will have to pass through metal detectors next season. He also said the Cubs are working with the city to try to limit game-day traffic on Clark and Addison streets outside the stadium to emergency vehicles, city buses and pedestrians.
”The thing that used to keep me awake all night was the concrete and steel in our ballpark, which we’re fixing,” he said. ”The thing that keeps me awake now is thinking about the crazy times we live in.”