It's time to stop dwelling on 2003.
There is no doubt that for Cubs fans, 2003 was a magical ride that ended just a few days too early. For the whole generation of Cubs fans, including myself, who weren't around in 1984 it was an induction into the heartbreak that comes with hope borne of rare, but ultimately limited success. 1998 was a year to remember, but we all knew that the Cubs didn't have a real chance against the Braves, and we were just glad to see them in October.
Today is more than three years removed from the opening day game at Shea Stadium where the Cubs, led by the now-disgraced Corey Patterson, beat up on the Mets en route to a 15-2 victory, inspiring hope throughout Cubbie nation, a hope that has been dashed repeatedly since then.
Before President Bush throws out the ceremonial first pitch today in Cincinnati, we, as Cubs fans, need to take a deep breath - and forget about 2003.
Opening day is a fresh slate. All of the ballclubs (well, except for the "opening night" players) are 0-0, tied for first and last in their divisions. And while there is no denying the two elephants in the room that represent Mark Prior and Kerry Wood (and their ongoing rehab/training), there is much the Cubs can look forward to.
Jim Hendry has done a job that, while not stellar, is deserving of praise. He made the wise, but not extraordinarily popular, decision of not drastically overpaying Rafael Furcal and other free agents. This added maneuverability will allow the Cubs to make big splashes at the midseason deadline. Hendry instead opted to spend some of his money on upgrading the bullpen. This wasn't a glamorous decision, but one that will surely have a serious effect in the standings. His foresight with regard to Ryan Dempster was proven last year, and will likely be repeated this year with Scott Williamson available to help steady the bullpen, and to back up Dempster.
Hendry also added Wade Miller, who is slated to be available by mid-May. In fact, if the training program currently in place for the trio of Miller, Prior, and Wood is complete on time, the Cubs will have by the end of May what would be the most formidable starting rotation in the majors - and a bullpen to back it up.
Meanwhile, the Cubs are improved on the offensive front, too. Matt Murton probably won't hit .321 like he did in limited action last year, but he'll certainly outperform the committee headed last year by Todd Hollandsworth in left field. Juan Pierre is a tablesetter, and with either Todd Walker or Jerry Hairston, Jr. hitting behind him in the two hole on a daily basis, Derrek Lee will finally have some runners to drive in when he comes to the plate.
A number of people have assumed that Lee's stellar 2005 will beget a return to reality in 2006, and I would agree, were it not for the mechanical reasons behind Lee's surge last year. Expect to see more success on Lee's part, as he's making more contact and driving the ball further than he ever has. Aramis Ramirez has had three straight solid seasons, and at age twenty-eight is due for a very strong season.
Cubs fans have many reasons to be hopeful this year. The Cubs will score more runs, and their bullpen will allow less. When the big three finally make it to the big league club in May, opposing teams are going to find it extraordinarily difficult to score runs. Even managerial incompetence will have a hard time screwing this one up (although deep in our hearts, we suspect that Dusty will always find a way).
But best of all, we know that what doomed the Cubs in 2003 - over reliance on starters by necessity in particular - is not an issue. And that's why we should forget 2003, and look forward to 2006, the year of the Cubs.