Cubs waited four years for Fukudome

BOB ELLIOTT -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:58 AM ET

They have not won a World Series in 100 years.

They play in a park which opened in 1914.

For all their history, their ivy-coloured walls, all the "next year ... maybes" and franchise baggage, the Chicago Cubs are run by modern thinkers.

General manager Jim Hendry and scouting director Tim Wilken, who once held the same position with the Blue Jays, leave no pebble overturned in the search for talent.

Whether it be the free-agent market, college or high school, Latin American or international, the Cubs scour the globe. And they left Toronto yesterday on a charter for Tampa, carrying with them the tag as the best team in baseball.

After taking two of three from the Jays at the Rogers Centre, the Cubs are now 45-25, winners of 15 of 19, including 10 in a row at Wrigley Field.

EKG MACHINE

In 2007, Hendry and his staff added pitchers Jason Marquis and Ted Lilly and outfielder Alfonso Soriano.

Hendry was hooked up to an EKG machine when he finalized the deal on Lilly, who won yesterday's game, allowing one hit. Hendry eventually underwent an angioplasty procedure.

This year, the Cubs added Japanese right fielder Kosuke Fukudome and right-hander Jon Lieber.

Fukudome's arrival with the Cubs, in scouting terms, is like a love story of the Grade 9 student with a crush on a classmate he'd never met, until finally they marry the final year at university.

Gary Hughes, Hendry's assistant, saw Fukudome at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

"I liked everything I saw. He had plus tools," Hughes said from AT&T Park in San Francisco. "I checked in the boxes on him but the last to be filled in was his arm.

"He went into the bullpen area in the right field corner to throw out a runner at second, for fun.

"I'd never heard of (Fukudome). He caught my attention," Hughes said. "But I didn't know when or if he'd ever come here."

Fukudome homered in three consecutive games after returning to Japan. But he was hit with a pitch in the next game, breaking his hand, and went on the disabled list.

Hughes flew to Japan twice to see Fukudome with the Chunichi Dragons and Japan in the opening round of the 2006 World Baseball Classic to "make sure what I saw was legit."

"The more I saw him, the more I liked him," said Hughes, who can't remember waiting that long to sign a player he had scouted.

With nine years experience in Japan, Fukudome reached free-agent status at the end of the 2007 season. The Cubs were the first to belly up to the bar with a four-year $48 million US deal. And we don't mean Hughes' belly. He is almost a missing person after losing 55 pounds.

"Fukudome is similar to (Mariners') Ichiro Suzuki and almost as good a player," Hughes said. "He is so fundamentally sound.

"Right field is tough to play at our place and people who have been around a while say he plays it as well as anyone since Andre Dawson."

After knocking in a run in yesterday's win, Fukudome, so sensitive about the weight of his bats that he carries his own scale, has 29 RBIs. He is hitting .293 with five homers.

"He'll probably finish with 15 homers," Hughes said.

Fukudome wasn't the only player Hughes liked at Athens. He filed glowing reports on right-handers Daisuke Matsuzaka (signed by the Boston Red Sox) and Hiroki Kuroda, (Los Angeles Dodgers), along with Kenji Johjima (now catching with the Seattle Mariners).

Oh, there was one bit of unfinished business. Hughes had Fukudome's baseball card and wanted to get it signed.

"I've had it since '04," he said. "But now I can't find it."

No matter. Hughes found the player.


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