In our youth, February seemed the longest month of the year. The month just dragged, especially toward the end, for February was the time when baseball seemed tantalizingly close yet very distant. The month began with the knowledge that within two or three weeks the first reports would begin filtering back from spring training. Yet even the first box scores seemed but sketchy dispatches from distant battles. The real season, the season we could see on TV and experience, at long last, in person, was still more than a month away–beyond March to April.

But February was when baseball’s hot-stove league got hottest, making our winter houses almost stifling. Back then in the month after the football season ended–permit us a little grouchy adult reminiscence–there were no Michael Jordan Bulls to pass the time, just the Superstars competition on ABC. What’s more, we were baseball fans; there was no adequate substitute. In February we caught up with the wheeling and dealing done at the winter meetings in December–remember those hectic days, old-timers, in the era before free agency?–and burned with anticipation to see our new squads in action.

Things have changed, of course, but the very idea of the hot-stove league remains dear to us. So sit down a spell, put the feet up, light whatever’s handy or put in a chaw (the spittoon’s over there; pull it closer). We’re going to throw a log on the fire. Look, doesn’t that knot in the grain resemble Bud Selig?

Baseball’s off-season has been so eventful this winter–especially in these parts–it would seem the last thing anyone needs to do is drum up interest in the sport by restocking the hot-stove league. Yet for some reason we’ve been left strangely cold, and it doesn’t appear that general interest in the game has risen much either. The actual end of the strike–which should have been a cause of great celebration–came off as the climax of a tawdry, sweeps-month, made-for-TV movie. What? The prime villain suddenly unmasks himself–even to his closest allies–as a greedy, self-interested manipulator, at which point all concerned come abruptly to their senses and do the right thing? Not that old denouement! Yet this, indeed, was what happened. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, after quashing the late-season deal struck by the owners’ negotiator and the players’ Donald Fehr, signed Albert Belle to a record five-year, $55 million contract–at which point the other owners caved in and overwhelmingly agreed to the same exact contract they had just rejected. Anything seemed like a turn toward sanity after that.

At first it seemed the best of all possible worlds for Sox fans. Reinsdorf got his comeuppance, baseball got a new labor pact, and the Sox got Belle to bat behind Frank Thomas. Talk about a murderers row; there hasn’t been a back-to-back set like that since Roger Maris won two consecutive Most Valuable Player awards hitting in front of Mickey Mantle. Yet the deal had its price. Alex Fernandez was set free when the owners granted retroactive service time to players for the course of the actual strike in late ’94, and the Cuban emigre immediately signed with the Florida Marlins in his adopted hometown of Miami. Last year Fernandez had finally stepped forward as the team’s acknowledged pitching ace, a difficult role every team must fill if it expects to compete for first place.

There is something about the ace of the staff, the opening-day starter. He knows he’ll be facing the best the other team has to offer more often than not during the regular season, and especially during the playoffs and World Series–should a team be so lucky and well stocked with talent to get that far. So pressure is involved. Each year some team overestimates the development of some pitcher and makes a decision to make him an ace, at which point he soon goes into the tank. It took Fernandez more than a year to fully assume that role with the Sox after they traded Jack McDowell to the Yankees (where he won a championship last year as the third- or fourth-best starter on the team, it should be added). One might also mention the name of Mike Morgan, the man the Cubs appointed to fill the ace role abandoned by Greg Maddux a few seasons ago. The Sox signed Jaime Navarro, a serviceable starter, away from the Cubs, where he’d been their de facto ace; but as good and as steady as Navarro’s been the last couple of years, after the Cubs salvaged him from the scrap heap with the Milwaukee Brewers, he’s not the sort of pitcher one sees being given the ball in the first game of the World Series. And the instant the Sox hired a free agent like Belle the World Series suddenly became the only criterion for success. As for reclamation projects Roger McDowell and Doug Drabek, if either can give up but a run every two innings they’ll win games, the way the White Sox figure to score–but that’s a big if for both.

It’s going to be fun to watch Thomas and Belle hit back-to-back no matter what happens when the Sox are in the field. They are two great hitters with vastly different approaches to the game. Thomas is studious, patient, with a big frame and a quick and arching swing that sends the ball on a beam when he connects. Belle is shorter but fiercer; he attacks the baseball as if it were someone he caught cheating with his wife. Quite unlike, say, Reggie Jackson, Belle attacks the ball fully intent on making contact. We remember watching Thomas and Belle during batting practice last September–studying them as the great players they are–and the thought of them batting in the same order never entered our mind. Some things are too wonderful to even dream.

Yet if the teaming of Thomas with Belle gives south-side fans a glimpse of paradise, the season is far from being a budding Eden. There are snakes in hibernation under every rock, beginning with Belle and Navarro, two talented players with personalities that will only add to the hissing and biting in the Sox locker room. In addition to the lack of a pitching ace and the doubtful middle relief (the Yankees showed how important that element of the game has become with their championship last year), the Sox have temperament problems. Besides Belle and Navarro, there’s the issue of what’s to be done with Tony Phillips, another tremendously talented but moody player who will now be moved either to right field (where his throwing deficiencies are likely to show up) or from position to position on a daily basis (where his temperament deficiencies are likely to show up). All the moodiness, in turn, will put more pressure on Thomas, who’ll be expected to keep his teammates in line if no one else can. And who is it presiding over this stack of kindling, railroad ties, and explosives that is the Sox locker room? None other than Terry Bevington, newly bolstered with off-season lessons on how to get along with the media.

There will be no winning ugly on this year’s team. There’ll either be winning or it’ll get ugly.

If the Sox decide to jettison Phillips, they’ll be faced with having to bat second baseman Ray Durham as the leadoff man. That’s another pressure-packed position–much like staff ace–that requires as much mental toughness as talent. Again, is he ready? It won’t matter how well Thomas and Belle hit if no one’s on base ahead of them. At this point we wouldn’t pick the Sox to win their division, much less the championship–though the best thing about hot-stove-league speculation is that, after all, it’s early.

If Navarro is not exactly what the Sox desired in a pitching ace, he nevertheless leaves a gaping hole on the Cubs staff. The Cubs are left hoping that, at long last, promising young starters Steve Trachsel and Frank Castillo can have good seasons in the same calendar year. But even at peak ability neither is an ace. (One gets the feeling that manager Jim Riggleman will line up his pitchers on March 31, ask who wants to start opening day, and all but one ignorant soul will step backward.) The bull pen has been bolstered with Mel Rojas, like Fernandez set free (from the Montreal Expos) when strike service time was granted, which means Terry Adams can become the sort of dominant setup man (how’s that for an oxymoron?) the Yankees had with Mariano Rivera last year. Yet the Cubs have to find a way to get a lead to the bull pen to protect it, and their starting staff is a mess. Does Turk Wendell have the pitches to be as effective as a starter as he was in the bull pen last year (when all he had to do was mix sinking fastballs with an occasional slider)? That question is easy next to: Will Terry Mulholland (the Cubs’ prime off-season free-agent signing) ever again have an earned run average under 5.00? Oh, the Cubs did sign Kevin Tapani away from the Sox, but–as in the case of Navarro–his departure creates more problems than his arrival settles.

Our best guess: Mulholland is not going to make anyone forget Doug Jones.

Otherwise, the Cubs look remarkably solid. With Shawon Dunston returned from a one-year exile to the San Francisco Giants, their everyday lineup looks good up the middle and to the right. The question marks are left field and third base. Third we’re actually encouraged about. Kevin Orie will make fans forget Gary Scott, the ballyhooed third baseman who washed out with the Cubs when he was rushed to the majors a few years ago. Admittedly, from a statistical distance Orie and Scott look like similar players at similar points in their careers. Orie, however, is a big guy, 6-foot-4 and well over 200, with a quick bat, where Scott was a little guy with a bat that wasn’t quick enough. What’s more, Orie had been erased from the Cubs’ 1997 plans when he ended last season with a shoulder separation that was said to be so severe it would keep him out of the Arizona fall instructional league, the postseason showcase for baseball’s best prospects. Not only did Orie recover to play in Arizona, he was by all accounts one of the most impressive players there. We’ll say it in February (which is the best time to say it, because it’s so easily forgotten if it proves wrong): Orie will hit more than 20 homers this year and end the Los Angeles Dodgers’ streak of providing the rookie of the year.

Left field is more of a problem. Time is running out on perpetual prospect Brooks Kieschnick, who is reported to have maxed out, both at the plate and in the field, at AAA Iowa. If the Cubs could find a left fielder who can lead off (did someone mention Tony Phillips?), they would instantly be strengthened to the point where they could actually think about competing no matter how bad their starters turn out to be. If not, they have to hope center fielder Brian McRae shows as much progress drawing walks as he did a year ago, when he was almost a decent leadoff man.

So while this should be a time of optimism and renewal for baseball fans, it turns out to be a time of dread on both sides of town. Isn’t it appropriate that, just as the Cubs and Sox both lack an ace, baseball continues to lack a real commissioner? And with the Cubs scheduled to make the trip to Comiskey in June for the first regular-season interleague play between the two teams, word now is the Sox are considering a deal that would require anyone wanting tickets to those games to buy them as a package with three other games. The Sox’ marketing department has worked overtime the last couple of seasons in an attempt to make the team more “fan-friendly”; then some greedy exec comes along with that plan. Someone should have made a requirement that if the team bid on Belle it had to bid on three quality pitchers as well.