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Cubs check out Wrigley's new features

Cubs check out Wrigley's new features

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CHICAGO - Derrek Lee leaned against the dugout railing Thursday, peered toward the outfield and gave Wrigley Field's makeover a positive review.

"Looks pretty nice," he said.

Todd Walker noticed the new brick wall outside the stadium along Waveland Avenue and observed, "It's kind of cool. They cleaned it up."

Their stadium has a new look, and the Chicago Cubs are hoping for better results at home this season - starting Friday when they host their old rivals the St. Louis Cardinals, who led the majors with 100 victories last season. Chicago sends Greg Maddux to the mound versus Jeff Suppan, a 318-game winner.

The Cubs opened the season by splitting two games at Cincinnati. Now, they're at home, where they were five games below .500 last year.

"It's always fun facing the Cardinals," Maddux said. "It's a very good atmosphere. They could have very easily won the World Series last year."

Of course, the team on Chicago's south side - the White Sox - did just that, capturing the city's first baseball championship since 1917. Now, the heat is on the Cubs, who haven't won it all since 1908.

"Fans have grown weary of the complacency that surrounded the Cubs for all these years," catcher Michael Barrett said. "Cubs fans love this team. … Now with the White Sox having won the World Series, their quest for this team to win the championship is on the tip of their brain.

"That's the first thing they think about when they wake up in the morning: 'I've got to go to work and put up with all the White Sox fans. Now more than ever, I need the Cubs to play together and win."'

The team couldn't agree more.

The Cubs added the leadoff hitter they sorely lacked last season in Juan Pierre. They have a new right fielder, Jacque Jones, and their bullpen is deeper with the acquisitions of Scott Eyre and Bob Howry.

The facelift didn't stop with the roster.

The Cubs spruced up one of baseball's grand old stadiums in the offseason, expanding the bleacher area. The $13.5 million project added about 1,800 bleacher seats, a lounge in center field, restrooms, concession stands, a walkway that stretches from foul pole to foul pole and improved wheelchair access.

The Cubs also replaced the brick walls along Sheffield and Waveland avenues outside, added a grand entrance to the bleachers and elevated the top of that section, which may obstruct some of the views from the neighboring rooftops.

"I don't think balls are going to be flying into the street like they were the last couple years, but it looks good," Lee said.

Manager Dusty Baker and some hitters expressed mild concern about a possible glare from the concrete, which will be painted green when the weather warms, and the lights in the center-field lounge. But a more pressing issue is establishing a home-field advantage.

"There shouldn't be a better place to have a home-field advantage than here at Wrigley," Walker said.

But the confines were anything but friendly for the Cubs last season, when they finished fourth in the NL Central at 79-83.

They were 38-43 at home, and the list of explanations was wide-ranging.

Baker pointed out that the Cubs play most of their home games in the day and said, "A lot of guys have had trouble their first year, and then they adjust and get back to reality."

Barrett mentioned the struggles of Corey Patterson and LaTroy Hawkins and said, "This is the greatest place to play, and for some guys, it can be the worst place to play."

For Patterson, who hit .215 and failed as the leadoff batter, Wrigley Field was like a horror chamber. Same goes for Hawkins, who struggled as the closer in 2004 and early 2005 before being traded to San Francisco in May. Both players were booed at home.

"When things like that happen, it sort of brings everybody down," Barrett said. "If it doesn't work out for one teammate, everybody sort of feels the same way. … We just didn't do what we needed to do to win last year."

Ryan Dempster settled into the closer's role and the Cubs are looking to Pierre do the same at leadoff.

"If you're dependent on a three-run homer every time, you're going to be out of luck," Walker said. "We didn't have a leadoff guy the last couple years, and I think that was an important factor.

"When Juan Pierre goes, we go."

So far, Pierre is rolling. He's 4-for-10 with four runs.

Still, the Cubs' success largely hinges on the health of pitchers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, who remain on the disabled list. And so far this season, Cubs pitchers have walked 16 batters, including five by Carlos Zambrano in the season-opener.

"I wouldn't read a whole lot into it," Maddux said.

Notes:@ With Maddux pitching, Baker will opt for more defense and start Neifi Perez at second base Friday instead of Walker. … Wood threw 40 pitches on Wednesday at the Cubs training complex in Mesa, Ariz.


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