Big moves bring big hope for Chicago baseball

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CHICAGO (AP) — As the cranes and trucks hummed just beyond the chain-link fence along Waveland Avenue, Erika Pflederer stopped to take it all in.

She could see the exposed back of Wrigley Field's brick outfield wall and the grandstand seats with the bleachers torn out. In the transformation of the famous ballpark she sees a change for the better for the Chicago Cubs, too.

"I think it's insanely exciting," says Pflederer, a longtime Cubs fan. "It finally feels like we're on the verge of really trying to accomplish (something big). We've all said maybe someday, maybe next year. It feels like we're finally on the verge or really making it happen."

It's not just Cubs fans who are thinking big. So are the White Sox faithful.

North Side and South Side, there's a big baseball buzz in Chicago. Both teams have made sweeping changes after 73-win seasons and sent enthusiasm soaring.

The Cubs brought in one of the game's best managers in Joe Maddon in October and landed top starter Jon Lester with a six-year, $155 million deal during baseball's winter meetings this month. In the process they made it clear that they are serious about bringing home a championship.

The White Sox, not to be outdone, added a front-line starter who grew up rooting for them in Jeff Samardzija and closer David Robertson to a pitching staff that already includes All-Star Chris Sale. They gave their lineup a boost, too, bringing in Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche to help support AL Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu.

"I loved every move they have made this off-season," said Craig Coleman of Chicago, a White Sox fan since the late 1970s.

There's hope that his favorite team is poised to make a move after enduring 188 losses the past two years and that the Cubs are ready to put five straight losing seasons behind them, not to mention a certain title drought.

The last time they won it all in 1908, Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House. But with the revamped roster and Wrigley Field finally getting its makeover after years of wrangling with the city and neighboring rooftop owners, the team's fans might have to do a double take once the baseball caps replace the hard hats.

Besides the different faces on the field, they will see new, expanded bleacher sections in left and right field along with video boards and outfield signs. It's the first phase of a four-year, $575 million that will overhaul a stadium that just completed its 100th season and bring a hotel to the neighborhood.

The moves made by the two baseball teams could not have come at a better time for Chicago fans. After all, the NFL's Bears are in a complete meltdown even if the NBA's Bulls and NHL's Blackhawks are not.

"I think it's exciting," said Theo Epstein, the Cubs president of baseball operations who has been busy since he was hired in October 2011. "Chicago baseball hasn't been what it should be the last few years and with both teams taking a big step forward this winter, it only benefits Chicago baseball fans."

All the moves have led to a surge in activity on the business side.

"Our moves combined with the moves that the Cubs have done, it's really put — at a time of year when you don't see this — baseball at the forefront," White Sox senior vice president of sales and marketing Brooks Boyer said. "To hear all the chatter about baseball and kind of supplanting football on the front page, that's certainly not a bad thing for baseball in Chicago. It really shows you the interest that the market has."

Both teams have seen a decline in attendance in recent years, with the Cubs drawing 2,652,113 last season after a franchise-record 3,300,200 on the way to the NL Central championship in 2008. The drop has been even steeper for the White Sox, who went from a franchise-best 2,957,411 in 2006, when they were coming off a championship run, to 1,650,821 in 2014.

Good seats might not be as easy to find after all the deals.

"I have been a Sox fan for over 30 years and I don't remember an offseason quite like this," said Tom Dorsey, who grew up near the ballpark in the Bridgeport neighborhood and still lives there.

He can see why Cubs fans are excited, too.

"Theo and (general manager Jed Hoyer's) vision can finally be seen by the common fan," Dorsey said.

Boyer says last week was the busiest for full and partial season-ticket sales in December since the White Sox signed Adam Dunn four years ago. Acquiring Samardzija and Robertson sparked such a huge surge in interest that general manager Rick Hahn credited the increase in sales for convincing chairman Jerry Reinsdorf to sign off on the budget-breaking $42 million, three-year deal the team gave Cabrera.

Apparel is in higher demand, too.

"With the signing of Maddon and the signing of Lester, it just slingshots the enthusiasm to the next level," said Bradley Rosen, part-owner of Sports World across the street from Wrigley. He said the interest trickles down to "all things Cubbies."

Jim Pisani, president of apparel manufacturer Majestic Athletic, said the timing of the moves was "almost perfect" for business with the holiday season. He also can't remember a situation like this, with two teams in the same market making huge splashes.

"We can't remember ever having both teams in a city bringing in so many stars in the same season, much less week," he said.

For all the big moves they made this offseason, the teams took different approaches on the road back to contention. The White Sox rebuilt on the fly, focusing more on the major league roster as they went through the transformation, while the Cubs underwent a top-to-bottom overhaul. They loaded up the farm system and vowed to strike big deals when the time was right.

That time was this offseason.

Besides Lester and Maddon, they added All-Star catcher Miguel Montero, starter Jason Hammel after trading him to Oakland last season and former Cardinals closer Jason Motte. They join young All-Stars in shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo along with a core of promising prospects.

"You never get too excited with the Cubs, but (I'm) very optimistic," said Brenden Horn of suburban Palatine, who was outside Wrigley recently with his girlfriend, videotaping construction along Sheffield Avenue, just beyond right field, for his grandfather. Horn is 22 and just put himself on the season-ticket list; he is "like 69,000" so he could be on there for a while.

Pflederer, a North Side resident, found out recently that her wait for season tickets is over. After six or seven years, she will have them for the first time next season. And she feels like she struck gold.

"It's sort of like a new era for the Cubs and a new era for me," she says.

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