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Chicago baseball fans in for another long season

Center fielder Adam Eatbrings energy Sox’ lineup offensively defensively but he won’t be able do anything about their bullpen deficiencies.

Center fielder Adam Eaton brings energy to the Sox’ lineup offensively and defensively, but he won’t be able to do anything about their bullpen deficiencies. | Paul Beaty/AP

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Updated: May 21, 2014 6:27AM

April, in some ways, is the cruelest month in baseball. The universal optimism of spring training inevitably gives way to the hard reality of what lies ahead, and it ain’t pretty.

A respite from an unfathomably harsh winter might ease our pain, but the wind chill was a dispiriting 32 degrees when the Cubs and Reds squared off under bright sunshine Friday at Wrigley Field. That’s 10 degrees warmer than it was when the White Sox played the Red Sox before a few close friends and family members Tuesday at U.S. Cellular Field. Fans who endured a snowstorm to watch the Penguins-Blackhawks outdoor hockey game last month at Soldier Field were more cozy.

It’s typical of their buzzard’s luck that the Sox couldn’t catch a weather break with the defending World Series champions in town. The total attendance for the three-game series against the Red Sox was 44,158, or 14,719 fans per evening. That’s below the Sox’ 16,959 average, which is last in the majors. And it covers ‘‘announced’’ crowds, not fannies in the seats.

I know, why the Sox can’t draw is a tired topic, a question without an easy answer. Maybe it changes if the team they’re putting on the field remains interesting, if not competitive.

Two weeks is hardly an adequate sample size in a six-month season, but the Sox have held their own despite bullpen deficiencies that require stronger measures than a Zach Putnam-for-Donnie Veal exchange. As the Red Sox and Cardinals demonstrated last season, big bullpen arms can be as vital to a contender’s welfare as a sound rotation. Conversely, nothing is as damaging to a team’s psyche as unreliable relief.

Losing Avisail Garcia is a bummer, but maybe Dayan Viciedo will deliver on the big-bat promise he displayed two years ago and Jordan Danks will get enough swings to prove whether he belongs in a big-league outfield.

There’s something beyond body type that calls to mind Brett Butler when watching Adam Eaton, and that might be a good thing for Sox fans. Butler enjoyed a prosperous 17-year career as a top-of-the-order igniter, and Eaton has been bringing similar energy to the
Sox’ lineup.

Again, small sample size, which is also true of Jose Abreu, who looked like the next Frank Thomas in slugging two home runs one night and about 1,200 feet worth of outs the next in two recent games at the Cell. But let’s not get carried away. Abreu’s first four homers came in two games, 12 of his 14 RBI came in three games and 10 of his 13 hits came in five. His other games weren’t quite as magical, as evidenced by a 1-for-21 slide that prompted manager Robin Ventura to sit him for the final game of the series against the Red Sox.

Sure, the Thomas comparisons were absurdly premature. But Abreu, Eaton and the rejuvenated Alexei Ramirez are giving Sox fans a reason to pay attention on the days Chris Sale doesn’t pitch.

If there’s comparable buzz on the North Side, nobody is feeling it. Starlin Castro has cut down on brain cramps, and Anthony Rizzo’s numbers aren’t that different from the numbers Billy Williams put up as a 24-year-old. Mike Olt? Who knows? Play him. Otherwise, the Cubs are an oddly matched collection of fourth outfielders and utility players.

They’re hitting .227 as a team and averaging 3.2 runs. They’ve lost every series they’ve played, and they had gone 24 innings without scoring before Luis Valbuena singled home a run in the seventh inning Friday. They wasted another strong seven-inning outing by Jeff Samardzija, and if they trade him — the wisdom of which totally escapes me — they easily might surpass the 101 losses they rang up in 2012.

I know, the Cubs’ future is in Class AA, but fans who have been paying the third-highest ticket prices in the majors to watch a
90-game loser the last three seasons are getting a little tired of waiting. And the thing about even the most highly touted prospects is you just never know. Anybody remember Felix Pie?

In an ideal world, the Bulls and Blackhawks will play into June, then everybody will catch their breath before Bourbonnais becomes the center of the universe. We all know what that means.

It’s no fun to think of baseball as an afterthought in one of the best baseball cities in America, but it might be for the best this year.

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