It had nothing to do with the fact that the highly compensated Cub failed to reach base, going 0-4 with a strikeout. That was definitely a glaring difference between this year and last, but plenty of good players have off days (Derrek Lee).
The biggest difference had everything to do with the complete lack of optimism surrounding this one player. There are 161 games left in the season, and already there's nothing good to say about Kosuke Fukudome. This time last year, Wrigley's rogue vendors were scrambling to make enough rising sun headbands and tasteless 'Horry Kow' T-shirts to meet fans' rabid schwag demands.
Last year on Opening Day against the Brewers, Fukudome took his first pitch as a Cub and drove it into left-center field for a stand-up double. The Wrigley faithful praised Jim Hendry's decision to sign the Japanese import in one breath and high-fived the stranger in front of them with the next. He went 3-3 with a walk that rainy March day, and provided late-inning heroics with a game-tying home run in the bottom of the ninth. He was quickly anointed the missing link -- that which the Cubs needed to break 100 years of ineptitude.
That was certainly then.
To say that Fukudome, who is guaranteed $48 million over four years, is on the hot seat is gargantuan understatement. Whether he's letting that heat get to him is yet to be determined, but still worth questioning.
Fukudome told Cubs beat writer Gordon Wittenmyer a couple weeks ago, "Last year was last year. This year is this year. It is the changing season, and we will start over again."
When asked if he thought he had to hit well early to keep his job, he told Wittenmyer: "Take a look at today's practice, and you might find out your answer."
I'm not exactly sure what happened in that practice -- and whether it served to give any insight as to Fukudome's future with the club. But one thing is certain -- Reed Johnson is waiting in the wings. During last night's broadcast, Len Kasper kept reminding viewers that Johnson looked good in spring training, was described by Lou Piniella as "eager," "engergetic" and ready to step in.
Fukudome won't be in the lineup tonight because Houston is starting lefty Wandy Rodriguez. While nothing's official, it can't help but feel as though Johnson's performance today is more audition than strategy.
Granted, it's early. Fukudome could surprise us and we'll completely forget we ever had this conversation. Reed Johnson could be relegated to the supporting role he filled so adeptly last season and all will be well again near Sheffield and Waveland.
In the meantime, how much do we forgive Fukudome? How long until Lou needs to start making moves? If you're Lou Piniella, how do you handle the Fukudome situation?