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The tightly packed thin gray waves of clouds marched across the sky over Wrigley Field all Labor Day afternoon, blown along by a persistent chilly wind out of the north. It is easy to overdo the weather metaphors but this one was too insistent. Summer was on its way out. Or should we say the summer sport. We've had a couple weeks of high school football and a weekend of collegiate gridiron action but the transition to football really begins this Sunday.
The Tribune's Paul Sullivan notes that Monday marked the last day of the "summer tourist season" at the North Side ballpark. Before it went, new Cub first baseman Bryan LaHair provided one final memorable highlight. The 28-year-old first baseman, who had 38 homers in Triple A this year but is not considered a top prospect (?!), stepped into the lefty batter's box in the eighth inning against the Reds' Aroldis Chapman, a left-handed flame-thrower. Welcome to the big leagues, kid.
Except LaHair promptly zeroed in on Chapman's 97-mile-an-hour heater and launched a double down the right-field line. Sure Geo Soto, who had reached on an error, was then thrown out at home as LaHair advanced to third, but that didn't diminish the promise embodied by LaHair's hit against the guy who is probably the hardest thrower in the league. Later, Chapman hit 100 on the radar gun as he struck out a pinch-hitting Darwin Barney.
And that's enough about baseball.
As for the Bears, the number is 10. But it drops to nine projected victories this season if the team doesn't sign star running back Matt Forte to an extension (he has one year left on his contract paying him about $550,000 - to get an idea of how underpaid he is, know that his backup last year, Chester Taylor, received about $7,000,000). Heck, it might drop to eight.
A realist projects nine, maybe eight wins for the Bears this season no matter what happens with Forte. I'm going with a more optimistic outlook in part because the Bears should be receiving more respect than they have after a division championship last year and a spot in the conference final. But I'm also doing it simply because optimistic is a much better way to go through life.
One of my mantras is that if you can't find a way to be optimistic about your teams in the offseason, you should find another hobby . . . maybe knitting, or model airplanes maybe.
The offseason is time for thoughts like, "Sure, the Bears didn't add anyone in free agency to an offensive line that almost got quarterback Jay Cutler killed last year but hey, they drafted The Jewish Hammer! Former University of Wisconsin road grader Gabe Carimi has the best nickname of any rookie anywhere and he will bring power and purpose to a right tackle spot sorely in need of it.
And sure, the linebacking corps is as thin as Erin Heatherton, who I watched play basketball at Niles North back when she was Erin Bubley (oh so strange but oh so true), and the secondary is at-best shaky though the Bears just signed two-time All-Pro safety Brandon Meriweather.
Sure the kid had all sorts of problems with previous coach Bill Belichick and has found all sorts of trouble off the field (including an incident all of five years ago in which a group he was in was fired upon by an attacker and Meriweather took gun in hand and returned fire).
But Meriweather is the sort of talent teams rarely, rarely find on the last weekend before the regular season starts. And in Chicago we are especially familiar with the concept of guys being cut by their original team and then waking up and going on to have success with a subsequent squad - even if the transaction usually goes the other way - out of Chicago.
Then there is the fact that the offseason was dominated by the lockout, meaning there wasn't enough time for teams in the bottom half of the league to put in the kind of radical new schemes that would be more likely to turn the standings upside down this time around.
Finally, there is the undeniable truth that the only consistent winners in the NFL are the teams with great quarterbacks and/or great defenses. And while the defense is getting old, the Bears have a signal-caller on the verge of establishing himself as one of the greats. Cutler had a very good season last year despite a non-descript group of receivers and the aforementioned line. He is as comfortable as can be in his second year in Mike Martz's complicated, intricate offense, just the sort of system that lesser quarterbacks or ones with less experience would not be capable of mastering in a first year.
Here comes Jay Cutler. And here comes football.
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