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It'll Take More Than Nomar

Team chemistry in baseball is intangible and unpredictable, and after the picking up Garciaparra the Cubs have performed erratically.

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Nomar Garciaparra is the sort of flamboyant, stylish player who has always thrived with the Cubs, a team known for its matinee idols. His beak of a nose, combined with the nervous, flittering tightening of his batting gloves before he steps into the batter's box and the rhythmic tapping of his toes as he awaits the pitch, make him seem an exotic bird doing a mating dance in a National Geographic video. Because of the Cubs' close association with television over the decades, primarily on Channel Nine, their players have always been defined by their tics. From Kyle Farnsworth, with his dreadful huff of breath, looking down at the pitcher's mound before receiving the sign, and Carlos Zambrano, ball in hand, constantly adjusting his cup, back through Mark Grace's even leveling of the bat in the box and Ryne Sandberg's perfectly efficient way of running the bases, on through Billy Williams spitting out his gum and hitting it on the way to the plate and Ernie Banks fluttering his fingers on the bat as if playing a flute, the Cubs have had personality to spare, and Chicago fans have had ample opportunity to study it on the TV screen.

From the moment Garciaparra arrived in town, upstaging Greg Maddux in his first attempt to win his 300th game, one knew that boys (and no doubt some girls) all across town were getting their imitations of his batting ritual down pat: the preliminary readjusting of the sweat band at his right elbow, then the tightening of the batting gloves--right, left, right, left--and finally the tippy-toe dance in the box. As with so many Cubs over the years, his peculiarities don't disguise his excellence, a five-time All-Star shortstop who routinely put up 20 homers, 100 runs batted in, and a .300 average, winning two American League batting titles along the way, with an eye-popping .372 in 2000. Acquired from the Boston Red Sox--where he'd been a fan favorite, beloved for his tics as well as his skill--at the July 31 trade deadline in a complicated four-team deal that saw the Cubs give up two midlevel prospects (flamethrower Francis Beltran and infielder Brendan Harris), he instantly strengthened the Cubs' lineup and bolstered their hopes of earning the wild card spot in the National League. This was their only hope of making the playoffs, as by that time the Saint Louis Cardinals were gone in the NL Central Division like an ice cream truck down the street (an ice cream truck playing the Budweiser beer jingle).

The atmosphere around the park for Garciaparra's debut and Maddux's attempt at history was manic. Walking to the game, I heard a scalper on the street demanding $150 apiece for a pair of seats. Maddux was cheered throughout the stadium when he emerged to begin his warm-up session, and though Garciaparra sort of snuck out of the dugout unnoticed, the left-field bleacher bums were quick to greet him when he began running sprints in the outfield. Both players received thunderous ovations when their names were announced in the lineups, Garciaparra pausing to tip his hat between sprints. Although Maddux gave up a homer to the leadoff hitter on that day--the wind was blowing out--Garciaparra made a lovely, gliding play on the next batter, fielding a slow chopper on the run in the infield and throwing off his back foot to get him by a step at first base. Maddux departed after six innings down 3-2 and thus deprived of the chance to earn his 300th, but the Cubs won 6-3, with Garciaparra, cheered at every at bat, playing a role in the Cubs' rally by driving in a run. It seemed just a matter of time before Maddux reached his milestone--and the Cubs made the playoffs.

However, team chemistry is even more intangible and unpredictable in baseball, a largely individual game of pitcher versus hitter, than it is in other sports, and the Cubs performed erratically in the days following. They went to Colorado and beat up on the Rockies, with both Kerry Wood and Mark Prior throwing well, but then sputtered in two critical series against their top competitors for the wild card spot. They lost two of three to the Giants in San Francisco, with Maddux's 11th win of the season and 300th of his career the lone bright spot, then came home to Wrigley Field and lost two of three to the San Diego Padres.

There were moments when the Cubs appeared on the verge of putting it all together. The acquisition of Garciaparra motivated manager Dusty Baker to insert him into the second spot in the order and move Corey Patterson into the leadoff spot. Patterson previously hadn't shown the patience to be a leadoff man, but he thrived on the steady diet of fastballs he was receiving hitting in front of Garciaparra, Sammy Sosa, and Moises Alou. The middle game against the Padres was typical: catcher Michael Barrett doubled with one out in the third and went to third on a groundout by Zambrano, the night's starter. Left-handed pitcher Sterling Hitchcock wasn't about to walk Patterson to bring up those three fearsome right-handed hitters, and Patterson knew it. He took a curve and a high fastball for balls--both pitches he might otherwise have swung at--then pounced on the 2-0 fastball and hit it onto Sheffield Avenue. In the fifth Barrett doubled again and came home on a single by Zambrano, and in the sixth Alou led off with a single and Sosa doubled--and though a runner on third with fewer than two outs is a situation that has typically flummoxed the Cubs this season, both came home on sacrifice flies by Aramis Ramirez (Sosa advancing) and Derrek Lee. Garciaparra ended the San Diego eighth by going deep into the hole to backhand a one-hopper and throw in one fluid motion to first--earning a pointed acknowledgment of thanks from Zambrano--and ended the game with a spinning throw to first after fielding a grounder behind second base as Chicago won 5-1.

But the Cubs lost the rubber game against both the Giants and the Padres and looked bad doing it. Changeup pitcher Noah Lowry beat the less-than-overpowering Wood in San Francisco, and the Cubs lost the finale to the Padres in extra innings. San Diego got some help from umpire Bruce Froemming in the latter. Froemming blew the call when a diving Mark Grudzielanek stabbed a grounder up the middle and threw from the ground to Garciaparra, who made an awkward catch but clearly got the force before making an even more awkward throw into the San Diego dugout. That sent home the runner who should have been out at second.

Yet the Cubs didn't need help throwing games away; they made boneheaded mistakes in the field and on the bases. Garciaparra or not, the Cubs didn't seem to be all there. Sosa in particular seemed affected by the addition of a potential threat to his stature as the team's marquee star. (A debate broke out about where the slumping Sosa should hit in the order, but Baker seemed to think he had to keep batting him ahead of Alou, if only to hide the crowd's boos among its "Alou"s.) When the Los Angeles Dodgers' Odalis Perez outdueled Maddux with the wind blowing in at Wrigley last Friday--the bullpen imploded to make the final a deceptively one-sided 8-1--the Cubs had lost five of seven and were tied with the Padres for the wild card lead, with the Giants but a game back. The last two games of the series were critical, because if the Cubs did manage to claim the last playoff spot their first-round opponent figured to be the Dodgers.

The wind blew in again on Saturday, but Wood didn't really need it. Mixing a fluid fastball with a snapping curve, he pitched his best game since spending June on the disabled list. While Patterson, Grudzie, and Lee all saw deep flies die in center field, Wood himself dropped his bat on a first-pitch Kazuhisa Ishii fastball and hit it out under the radar into the left-field bleachers to give himself a 1-0 third-inning lead. Barrett tripled leading off the fifth and Ramon Martinez and Wood failed to get him home--both popping to second base--yet Patterson again benefited from the right-handed hitters behind him (Grudzie had been moved up ahead of Garciaparra, Sosa, and Alou) to slap a slider into center field to score the run. That was more than Wood would need. Lee made a nice stab of a bad-hop grounder early on and led Wood perfectly covering first, and Garciaparra's slick short-hop pickup of a grounder started an inning-ending double play in the sixth. Wood, striking a humble pose a la Maddux, later said defense won the game, but he pretty much did it himself in the eighth. He put two on with a hit and a walk, and the crowd came to its feet for a full-count pitch to Milton Bradley. He walked Bradley, but the crowd stayed up for the next batter, cleanup hitter Adrian Beltre, and Wood fanned him on a series of nasty sliders. With bullpen closer LaTroy Hawkins serving a three-game suspension for a run-in with an umpire, Mike Remlinger came on in the ninth. Helped by Garciaparra's pirouette on a grounder up the middle, he went right at the Dodgers and retired them without incident to complete the 2-0 shutout.

"We're pretty close to getting in that groove and putting some wins together," Wood said, and to be sure the Cubs looked all but unbeatable when Prior returned to form the following day. For the first time this season, his fastball seemed to fly effortlessly off his fingertips, and he had good command of his snapdragon curveball. Martinez staked him to a lead with a homer off Jose Lima leading off the third, and Garciaparra drove home Grudzie later in the inning with a two-out bloop hit. Pitching aggressively with the lead, Prior gave up a homer to Beltre, but got it back with interest when he singled ahead of Patterson, who golfed a low fastball out to left center as if he were swinging an oversize titanium driver. The Dodgers' Shawn Green homered, but Barrett hit a solo shot, and with Prior on the mound and a 5-2 lead the Cubs looked like they could coast home. But Prior weakened in the seventh, and the Dodgers pushed a run across when the ball got stuck in Garciaparra's mitt and he double-pumped on a potential inning-ending double play. It was the bullpen that blew the game, however, giving up three runs in the eighth and two more in the ninth, while the Cubs went timidly against Eric Gagne for an 8-5 final.

With Garciaparra augmenting an already impressive lineup and Wood and Prior rounding back into form after their early-season injuries, the Cubs seemed primed to run off a string of wins. Instead, they lost three straight series to West Division playoff contenders. Garciaparra is yet another star on a team already loaded with personality--the slit-eyed Texas gunslinger Wood, the ever-professional Prior, the humbly intent professor Maddux, the scowling Alou, the ebullient if mercurial Sosa--but he's a reminder that in 50 years of creating TV idols, the Cubs have yet to put together a team that could make it to a World Series.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Bernacchi.

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