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Condition Hopeless

Dusty Baker is a man defeated.

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Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Cubs fans, but I'm diagnosing manager Dusty Baker with a terminal affliction. Call it Bayloritis for its symptoms--abject resignation and the acceptance of one's accursed fate. Former manager Don Baylor came to town a no-nonsense leader who'd guided the expansion Colorado Rockies to the playoffs and promised to do the same for the Cubs. A product of the vaunted Baltimore Orioles system, he was expected to instill the Cubs with discipline and an appreciation of fundamentals, but he left two and a half seasons later a beaten man.

His friend Baker followed him, coming over from the San Francisco Giants, where he'd developed a reputation for managing overachievers and had just taken the Giants to the World Series. He, too, promised to end the old ways at Wrigley Field, and for one season his methods worked. Baker persuaded the Cubs and their fans to reject the legacy of lovable losers and expect nothing less than a championship. But with the Cubs five outs from the Series in 2003, Steve Bartman reimposed the curse and Alex Gonzalez cemented it on the field. The following year the Cubs put together an even better record but collapsed in the final week as only the Cubs could. For the past season and a half Baker has seemed as resigned to the Cubs' fate, and his own, as his predecessor. The difference is that because the Cubs came so close--and because their hated crosstown rivals went all the way--Cubs fans can no longer innocently love a loser.

The malady was never easier to diagnose than after last Friday's opener of the city-series rematch at Wrigley Field. The Sox won 6-2, but the Cubs could have cut the lead to a run in the seventh when Juan Pierre tripled and Todd Walker grounded to first with the infield playing back. Paul Konerko came home anyway, and Pierre was called out in a bang-bang play though replays showed he was safe by a fingernail. Baker, in the dugout, waved his arms in a "confound it!" gesture but didn't contest the call. He was asked later why not. "I couldn't even see the play," he said defensively. "From where we are in our dugout, you can't see second base, first base, or home plate, and from where I was I couldn't tell if he was out or safe. That's why I didn't come out." Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said the play couldn't be seen from the visiting dugout either.

The Cubs have been elevating the field level at Wrigley--to improve drainage and sight lines--since the 80s. The field seems a little higher each year. To say you can't argue a play because you can't see it is to say that at Wrigley you'll rarely if ever argue a play. And that's to admit that the way the Cubs have set things up ties your hands and there's nothing you can do about it.

General manager Jim Hendry was given a contract extension in April, and Baker, in the last year of his contract, was in line to get one too. But Derrek Lee, the Cubs' best hitter, went down with a broken wrist, and Baker's new deal got put on hold. He argued time and again that there was little he could do with Lee and starting pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior on the disabled list. (He harped on this even during a TV interview with Fox Sports in the middle of Saturday's game at Wrigley.) Yet he could at least have tried to rally the Cubs, who went 19-40 after Lee's injury, but there was little of the rhetoric that in 2003 drew the Cubs out of their culture of losing. And another thing: Baker wasn't blameless in the loss of Wood and Prior. Baker rode "our two horses" hard and put them up wet in 2003. I wrote when that season was over that if they suffered from the riding he'd be responsible. They've never been the same.

Even with Lee back and Prior returned to the rotation, the rematch with the Sox couldn't have come at a worse time for Baker and the Cubs. The Sox have become everything the Cubs insisted they wanted to be--winners with talent, confidence, and, above all, a forthright, energetic manager. Guillen glories in how he and general manager Ken Williams have remade the team in their own combative image, and there were more Sox fans in the stands than I'd ever seen at Wrigley for the clubs' annual interleague meetings. They cheered when the Sox drew first blood, and Cubs fans could only respond by booing A.J. Pierzynski as he came to the plate and later by cheering Michael Barrett, who'd just finished serving a ten-day suspension for punching Pierzynski when the teams met at Sox Park. As the Sox closed out the win, in which Juan Uribe drove in five runs, Barrett came to the plate in the ninth. A triumphal Sox fan behind the Cubs dugout shouted to relief pitcher Brandon McCarthy, "Hit 'im in the puss!"

Outside Wrigley after the game, a Cubs fan bizarrely exclaimed, "Uribe's a liar!" A Sox fan hurried along on his heels. "Uribe's all over your ass!" he shouted. "Five ribbies today, buddy, five ribbies!"

It got worse the following day. In a typical back-and-forth battle with the wind blowing out, the Cubs took a 6-5 lead into the ninth. Closer Ryan Dempster got two quick outs, and Cubs fans rose. But with two strikes, Ross Gload dribbled a grounder between Dempster's legs to reach on an infield single. Jermaine Dye walked on five pitches. And with Cubs fans still on their feet, who should hit a hanging slider onto Sheffield Avenue but Pierzynski? Disdainful fans in the right-field bleachers littered the outfield with beer cups.

As they had at Sox Park earlier this season, the Cubs averted a three-game sweep by winning the closer, but it could hardly be said they saved face.

I was wearing my 1917 Sox cap as I rode the Brown Line home after Saturday's game--it's the way this avowed fan of both teams shows his disgust with the Cubs. A guy sitting with his girlfriend asked who'd won. "Sox," I said matter-of-factly. "What a surprise," he responded. "Was it a bloodbath?"

"No," I said. "It was worse than that. A.J. hit a game-winning three-run homer in the ninth."

"Did Barrett give him a kiss as he crossed home plate?"

No, I allowed, he didn't. That's unthinkable for Barrett, but it wouldn't have been out of character for the rest of Baker's Cubs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.

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