MESA, Ariz., Feb. 21 -- As the Chicago Cubs were staggering to the worst record in the National League late last summer and into the early fall, their beleaguered, numbed-to-heartbreak fan base accepted the losing with its typical mixture of fanaticism and fatalism. Though admittedly uglier than most Cubs campaigns, it was, after all, the 99th consecutive season that would end without a World Series title on the North Side, and for that matter, there was no reason to think number 100 wasn't awaiting in 2007.
But out of view of the Wrigley faithful, major changes already were taking place. The Cubs flooded the rest of the major leagues with scouts, anticipating the coming free agent market. They practically set up a satellite office in Washington, where one or more Cubs scouts watched roughly 75 percent of the Nationals' games over the season's final two months, focusing closely on left fielder and soon-to-be-free agent Alfonso Soriano.
Meantime, at the Tribune Company's headquarters on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, the bean-counters were crunching the numbers, and the big bosses were sending memos back and forth that showed the Cubs' offseason spending budget -- and there were lots of zeroes.
By mid-October, the Cubs had a new manager, the fiery Lou Piniella, and by mid-November they had purchased eight years of Soriano's services for $136 million -- the climax of a winter spending spree that, when it was finally over last month, totaled more than $300 million. It was the most a team had ever spent in a single winter, and it proved to be the best and fastest way to erase the memory of the failures of 2006, not to mention those of the previous 98 years.
"Our fans deserved a better product than what we put on the field last year," Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry said. "We're on a mission not to have that happen that year."
At the height of the Cubs' spending spree, during baseball's winter meetings, Hendry, quite famously, completed the signing of left-hander Ted Lilly from a hospital room in Orlando -- while he was hooked up to an EKG machine. It was a source of constant ribbing from Hendry's peers, but Cubs players saw it as something different -- something almost warrior-like.
"I mean, our GM is out there signing guys from his EKG machine," closer Ryan Dempster said. "How awesome is that? That showed me something. But that's how it was all winter. My friends would all be texting me every time we signed a new guy. It'd be like, 'You guys just signed Alfonso Soriano.' Or, 'You guys just signed Cliff Floyd.' I'd say, 'Quit messing with me.' And then, it was, like, 'Wow.' "
"When it kept going," said veteran first baseman Derrek Lee, "I said to myself, 'It's like they must be growing money trees or something.' But it's pretty cool. They made a commitment. They're going for it."
At the annual fan-friendly "Cubs Convention" last month, players braced themselves for some uncomfortably close personal interaction with fans still stinging from the 96-loss embarrassment of 2006. Instead, all anybody wanted to talk about was the spending spree.
"We had 66 wins last year," Dempster said. "But you'd have thought, by the way people were walking around, like we'd won it all."
As the Cubs began assembling here for the start of their spring training camp last week, Piniella walked among his new charges, saying things like, "We've got all the pieces here. This is going to be a great year for the Chicago Cubs."
"Jim has asked me two or three times, 'Do you need anything else?' " Piniella said. "I said, 'Not at all. We have all the pieces in this camp to have a darn good baseball team.' "
Refreshed after a year of television work and the presence of so much high-priced talent -- a stark contrast to his three 90-loss seasons in Tampa Bay from 2003 to '05 -- Piniella already has seen enough to know he can break out stories from his two World Series titles as a New York Yankees outfielder, and another as the Cincinnati Reds' manager.
"I've been telling them, 'When you play on a world championship team, you remember all the players you played with. It's a special time,' " Piniella said. " 'And on the other teams, you don't remember as many.' "
As Exhibit A in the argument that GMs were out of control this winter, sending player salaries skyrocketing and doing irreparable harm to the game, Hendry has gone to great lengths to defend the Cubs' signings. First of all, he notes, it's not as if their payroll has spiked. Last year, it was roughly $97 million on Opening Day; this year, it will be somewhere between $105 million and $110 million.
And besides, Hendry said, "If we don't go out and attempt to get better after last year, the criticism would have been 10 times worse in Chicago than the criticism we got for spending money."
Of course, $300 million just doesn't go as far as it used to in today's baseball economics. The Cubs still have issues and question marks. For starters, they plan to play Soriano -- a shortstop as a minor leaguer, a second baseman for his first five big league seasons and a left fielder last year for the Nationals -- in center field, which could either be a stroke of genius or a complete disaster.
Piniella says he plans to hit Soriano in the leadoff spot, with Lee third and third baseman Aramis Ramirez cleanup. But he acknowledges that he does not have a perfect solution to bat in the second spot.
In addition, the Cubs realize they can no longer count on Kerry Wood and Mark Prior as essential parts of their starting rotation -- Wood, in fact, is being shifted to the bullpen -- which means they will be counting heavily on ace Carlos Zambrano, free agent signees Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis, plus youngsters Sean Marshall and Rich Hill.
But those seem like small problems when compared with the larger task facing Piniella -- that of changing a culture of losing for a franchise under the spell of an awful curse, commonly called "The Curse of the Billy Goat," that has lasted nearly a century. Can it even be done?
"Why not?" Piniella said. "I don't believe in curses."