Champion Cubs get started with fanfare, big expectations

MESA, Ariz. (AP) - Back home in Las Vegas this winter, Kris Byrant finally understood just how much the Cubs championship meant far beyond the Windy City.

He felt the constant love from fans just by seeing people in the streets wearing Chicago gear. Or when many recognized him and offered congratulations for his huge part in the franchise's first title in 108 years.

He's hard to miss at 6-foot-5, too.

"I didn't really realize how many fans we had around the country and I really got a sense of that this year," Bryant said Wednesday, when the World Series champs held their first pitchers and catchers workout of spring. "It was kind of hard to even go places in my hometown. I was just seeing Cubs hats everywhere driving my car down the road or guys running in a Cubs hat. I'm like, 'This is crazy.' It really shows what we did, and it's something that we can be proud of."

Jake Arrieta gets it. He experienced the same thing, and he can't always hide behind his signature bushy brown beard.

"Kris can't go anywhere without getting recognized," Arrieta quipped. "He's got beautiful hair and being 6-foot-6 it's a little hard to stay hidden for him. But the beard for me kind of gives me away. I was able to fly under the radar for a couple weeks without facial hair but it came back pretty quickly."

Now that this group has its banners and baseball's bragging rights until a new winner is crowned next fall, the Cubs want to do it again. Keep flying that W in Wrigleyville.

No doubt the fanfare has reached the Arizona desert, where the Cubs were a main attraction in Mesa when they formally began 2017.

Around Sloan Park and the club's adjacent training complex, there are signs of winning: Large decorative baseballs declaring "2016 World Series Champions" and banners hanging from light posts that read "2016 World Champs."

Manager Joe Maddon has a firm but good-natured message. He is encouraging the Cubs to stay "uncomfortable," to keep pushing. He absolutely believes the "psychological crap" he speaks of matters greatly.

"The hangover component, I already started talking about it today not using the word hangover, but just addressing the method by which we're going to be able to get back there and do it again," Maddon said. "It's important that we, staff, manager, deliver the message but then the peer group delivers the message also that we don't stand or put up with anything less than that same kind of attitude that got us there. Having said all that, one of the main components of us getting there is we have fun here, and I want us to continue to have fun."

Bryant has repeatedly re-watched the jaw-dropping 8-7, 10-inning Game 7 win against Cleveland and also a film on the Cubs ending their drought at long last.

"Oh, yeah. I'll be watching that for the rest of my life," he said. "Going through what we did last year and winning the whole thing it just makes you want to go through it all over again. Playing in the Game 7, that's the most stressful game you can probably play in in sports. I think all our nerves heading into this year are pretty calm that we played in one of the most stressful games in the history of this game. I think we'll be fine."

Arrieta's spring start was immediately a success.

"I'm glad to have the blood test done. I didn't pass out this year, which was nice," the ace right-hander said.

He loves the energy surrounding the team from every angle.

"You get the goosebumps and the positive nervous anxiety to start another year," Arrieta said. "The appreciation from the fans all across the country continues to pour in and that's a really good feeling. There's support in California to Florida, where I'm at in Texas. I'll randomly get, people will walk up and I'll get a pat on the back from lifelong Cubs fans or people that just had an appreciation for what we were able to do and just like to come up and say hello. It feels great to say you're a world champion, but to be able to try and repeat and do it all again would be a little bit more special for us."

And Bryant is clear about one thing as a new season begins:

"It's still like a World Series tour," he said. "We've got to turn the page."