The Cubs came north a few days early this year to play a rare pre-opening-day exhibition game, and the gods were well pleased. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky; it was a shorts-and-short-sleeves day, with temperatures in the 80s and the wind blowing out. I was seated with the former writer of this column in our regular seats in the upper deck behind home plate; while the shade there, under the roof, usually keeps things nippy until mid-May–even on the sunniest days–on this afternoon there wasn’t a hint of a chill. It was as if we had stepped through a time warp directly into midsummer. The only thing that brought us back to real time was the baseball: it was clearly of spring-training quality.

There were four errors charged on the day–only one to the Cubs –but that was only counting the usual breakdowns in muscle memory; the mental mistakes were much more numerous, and if one lost track, for the moment, of the game’s utter meaninglessness, the way the Cubs lost was particularly grating.

Ryne Sandberg homered in the first inning, renewing everyone’s memories from last year, which is what new baseball seasons are all about. The Milwaukee Brewers’ Billy Spiers responded in kind in the second against the Cubs’ starter, Mike Harkey. That, however, was it for homers on this blustery day. The Cubs scratched an unearned run across the plate in the third, Sandberg again scoring on a single, a stolen base, an error on the throw sending him to third, and a shallow Mark Grace sacrifice fly when the heave from left skipped past the catcher. Ancient catcher Rick Dempsey, who’s trying to hang on for another season with the Brewers, was responsible for the throw into center and for missing the throw on the sacrifice fly, and the day was not going to get any better for him.

The pitchers were ahead of the hitters in everything but the count. Going into the ninth inning, the Brewers had three hits and the Cubs five; even though the Cubs had issued six walks without drawing one themselves, they still held the 2-1 lead. Harkey had thrown the ball well, aside from spells of wildness. Mitch Williams, however, was simply wild in the eighth, going to a full count on all three men he faced and walking the last two, which brought manager Don Zimmer out to remove him from the game and, soon enough, from the Cubs’ roster.

The new relief ace, Dave Smith, got the Cubs out of the eighth but lost it in the ninth, surrendering a double down the left-field line (rookie Gary Scott, who had already committed the one error by the Cubs, was well off the bag), then a bunt single when he failed to cover first, then a two-run, game-winning single to pinch hitter Robin Yount, who would have been given an intentional walk in a more important game. The inning could have been worse if Dempsey hadn’t been called out on strikes before Yount came to the plate. The 3-1 pitch was so wide he began trotting to first base. It was so wide Cubs catcher Joe Girardi didn’t even bother to make a play on the runner trying to steal second. The umpire (a scab, as it’s the major-league umpires’ turn to threaten to strike this season) called it a strike, however, then showed Dempsey what professional pride he had by calling him out on a pitch that was only marginally better. The ump evened up, though, by calling out Girardi on a bad ball to end the game in the bottom of the inning with the tying run at third and the winning run at second. We all went home happy regardless, which is the charm of exhibition baseball.

Missing from the Cubs lineup were their other two major off-season acquisitions, aside from Smith: outfielder George Bell and starter Danny Jackson. I like all three players and agree that they make the Cubs the team to beat in the National League East. What I like most is that Cubs general manager Jim Frey acquired each one to fill a need. Smith replaced Williams in the bull pen–first as a threat, then for real, when Williams was traded to Philadelphia last Sunday. Starter Danny Jackson has had his problems from season to season, but when he’s healthy he’s capable of being the ace of whatever pitching staff he happens to be on. (He was to start opening day for the Cubs and has already drawn opening day assignments with both the Kansas City Royals and the Cincinnati Reds.) The Cubs now have several quality starters with iffy arms, the idea being that at least four or five of them have to be healthy at any given time. I think it’s an idea that is fundamentally sound.

I like George Bell, but I am not so fond of the Cubs’ move to sign him; let me explain. The Cubs needed a left-handed bat to balance their batting order, and they had two obvious spots to fill: left field and third base. The Cubs have prime prospects at both those spots: Scott at third and Derrick May in left. May played in triple A last year, Scott in double A. May is clearly closer to being ready for the majors than is Scott. I was quite impressed with him last September. May hits left-handed; he is tall and thin, with a smooth, extended swing, and I think with a few years to get his feet on the ground and put on some weight, he is going to make a very good outfielder. Bell is, just as clearly, a better bat than May in the short term; but he is right-handed, he has been known for attitude problems, and he is a butcher in the outfield. This, however, is moderated by his tendency throughout his career to immediately make up at the plate for any sins committed in the field. In the words of Bill James, he “hits like Babe Ruth’s older brother” in games where he has committed an error. I like Bell; I just wish the Cubs had given May a chance. If the Cubs don’t finish first this year they’ll wish the same thing.

The White Sox, too, have a new left fielder. They’ll need one. The team may be overshadowed by its new stadium, where every player will be cast in shadows–except the left fielder. The park’s odd configuration (it points southeast from plate to pitcher’s mound, while most parks point northwest) means that left field, not right, will be the sun field. Most teams put their best outfielders in center and right, where speed and a strong throwing arm are the top criteria, and put the comparative cripple in left. These teams are liable to get chewed up in the new Comiskey. New general manager Ron Scheuler immediately moved out Ivan Calderon and brought in Tim Raines. I like the trade, having never much liked Calderon. He’s a bad outfielder who has always managed to cover it up by making the routine play look spectacular. Calderon did make me a believer in his offensive skills last year, however. He can hit, he’s not averse to a walk, and he usually knows when he can get away with stealing a base. Raines, however, is a quality hitter only five years past a batting title, he can steal a base when he needs to, and he plays a good left field. As a leadoff man, he also fills one of the team’s most aching needs.

Beyond that, however, the Sox did little over the winter. Scheuler was brought in from the Athletics to pull the trigger on the deals his predecessor, Larry Himes, wouldn’t make, but he failed to coerce Bob Welch to follow him from Oakland. Instead, he settled for Charlie Hough, a 43-year-old knuckleball pitcher who has already come up lame with elbow problems. There was, of course, one major move in the spring, but I won’t even talk about Bo Jackson until he’s off crutches.

With Raines leading off, and with Carlton Fisk and Frank Thomas following somewhere along the line, the Sox should score some runs. The bull pen, with Bob Thigpen supported by Scott Radinsky and others, should be solid. The starting rotation, however, is all kids in need of a leader. I like Alex Fernandez, I like Greg Hibbard, and I like Jack McDowell, but none of them is the sort of gutsy stopper a contending team needs–a Dave Stewart, Roger Clemens, or even Danny Jackson type. Hough is supposed to be great communing with younger pitchers, but he can’t stop a losing streak from the disabled list.

The Sox played great baseball last year by making their chemistry great. “Chemistry” is one of those nebulous, overused words that means, simply, things are going well, but things went so well for them last year that they can’t possibly go as well this year. Fisk is 43; any new injury threatens to be career ending. Sammy Sosa faded through the second half of last season, which usually dictates tough times the first half of the next season. Thomas and Ventura are both young and could slip back in their sophomore seasons. Scheuler traded bull-pen depth to the San Diego Padres for Joey Cora, a promising second baseman until he broke his ankle in the winter league.

In short, there’s too much that could go wrong for a team already overdue for some bad luck. I want to say they’ll finish fifth, but the Raines trade makes me think third, so I’ll say fourth.

Despite what I said about the George Bell signing, it does give the Cubs the most menacing lineup in the National League, even if it is seven right-handed hitters and Mark Grace. The starting pitching will impress even if it’s not exactly solid. Zimmer was too quick to sour on Williams last season, and Frey was too quick to accede to the wishes of both and trade him this season, suddenly creating some depth problems in the bull pen. The relievers, led by Smith, should suffice, however. The Cubs will finish first. They’ll beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL playoffs. The Toronto Blue Jays will take the A’s in the American League. The Cubs will win it all.