Recently I wrote, in another publication, that there are two basic theories of evil in horror movies: either evil is an external force that can attack any unwary individual (epitomized by Michael Myers in the Halloween movies or by the more ethereal spirit of Bob in the TV series Twin Peaks) or evil comes from within (as in Psycho). As I watched the Cubs' horrific April unfold, I began to wonder: is there some external force of Cubness that attaches itself to players when they join the Cubs, or are the players who play for the Cubs simply awful?
April was certainly the cruelest month for the Cubs, who after losing their first 11 games, as I'd half expected, went on to lose three more before finally beating the Mets in New York. Bunts rolling down the third-base line and into left field for RBI doubles, balls thrown away by defensive replacements in the late innings, closers grown so warped and rusty from nonuse they were unable to close, line drives snagged at the hot corner and thrown across the infield to double up runners at first, starters who gave up too many homers when the wind was blowing out, hitters who couldn't drive in runs when the starters pitched well--the Cubs found all manner of ways to lose games. Each night, when the highlights--or lowlights--played on the evening news, the voice of Jack Brickhouse echoed in my head: "This is a snakebitten Cub ball team." Yet never had the Cubs seemed as accursed as they were this year.
And the most irritating thing about it all was that the Cubs clearly weren't this bad. They were strong up the middle defensively, with Scott Servais catching, Ryne Sandberg and Shawon Dunston at second and short, and Brian McRae in center; the starting pitchers generally pitched better than expected, especially new ace Terry Mulholland; the middle relief was beefed up with the addition of Mel Rojas as closer, pushing Turk Wendell down in the pecking order; they still had Mark Grace, an excellent hitter and defensive first baseman; and rookie third baseman Kevin Orie quickly established himself as a major leaguer. Sure, there were injuries to Grace, who had to watch most of that opening losing streak with a bad hamstring; to Sandberg, nailed with a foul ball in the dugout ("a snakebitten Cub ball team") that caused a concussion and opened a cut requiring 14 stitches; to pitcher Kevin Tapani, still out following surgery on his hand; and to right fielder Sammy Sosa, sore-armed and suffering through a miserable slump to start the season. But even lumped together, they didn't explain the Cubs' 6-20 April. (Actually, they played .500 ball after those 14 opening losses.) Most disturbing was that although Jim Riggleman is widely acknowledged as a fine manager, the Cubs kept making the mental mistakes that typically plague a mismanaged team, one in which the manager has lost control of the players.
Personally, I like Riggleman; he is open and honest with the media (and therefore, a member of the media imagines, with his players). He isn't the greatest tactician, but many managers are worse. But perhaps the Cubs and White Sox both would benefit from an exchange of managers before their June series at Comiskey Park: Riggleman's easygoing precision seems to be just what the Sox need, while Terry Bevington's more neurotic intensity might rouse the Cubs.
A couple of decisions Riggleman has made, with the apparent help of general manager Ed Lynch, have been highly questionable. For one, they decided during the off-season to stick with Brian McRae as center fielder and leadoff man. McRae is a fine defensive outfielder, but he had a barely respectable on-base percentage a year ago, and his slow start this year crippled the offense. If the Cubs were determined to keep McRae and compete this year, they'd have been better off obtaining Rickey Henderson from the San Diego Padres, who would've accepted a Harry Caray rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" for him during the off-season, and inserting him into left field and the leadoff spot. Now the Cubs, already out of competition, are more likely looking to trade McRae to a contender and insert the promising Doug Glanville into center. Equally dubious was the Lynch-Riggleman decision to keep Brant Brown on the roster coming out of spring training and send Brooks Kieschnick to the minors. First of all, Brown is a first baseman converting to the outfield; second, he's a line-drive hitter with little speed--along the lines of Mark Grace. Kieschnick may be a lummox in the outfield, but he is the sort of power hitter the Cubs need at the corners--first base, third base, left, and right--so long as they play half their games at Wrigley Field. And as a left-handed hitter, he offers much better protection for Sosa than Shawon Dunston does hitting fifth. Maybe Riggleman and Lynch believed that Kieschnick would be summoned when the weather warmed, that Brown was only the better choice for April, when the wind tends to blow in off the lake, knocking down potential home runs. Still, it was a highly questionable judgment of talent.
What's more, in the off-season Lynch failed to address the team's major offensive shortcoming--an unwillingness to accept a base on balls. In fact, he worsened that problem by bringing back Dunston, a notorious free swinger. Riggleman recently made this mistake more noticeable by moving Dunston into the second spot in the batting order behind McRae. No wonder the Cubs can't score runs; they can't even get their first two hitters on base.
The Cubs were cursed, it's true, but they brought many of their troubles on themselves.
That said, I stand by my prediction that the Cubs will be in the World Series within five years. Lynch and his boss, club president Andy MacPhail, have been widely attacked in the media as cheapskates and Tribune Company stooges, and there is an element of truth to that. MacPhail probably was hired by the company in large part because he wanted to take a slow, cost-effective approach to rebuilding, developing players through the minors rather than buying them through free agency. That may be why he was attractive to the Tribune Company, but it doesn't mean his approach is the wrong one.
Look, I'm as big a defender of free agency as anyone--let the free market dictate salaries--but for years I've also believed that at some point sheer market forces of supply and demand at the major-league level go beyond a ballplayer's real value. For example, if the going price for a middle reliever like Paul Assenmacher is $2 million, is it better to spend the money on him or to spend $1 million in scouting and player development in hopes of finding a series of younger Assenmachers earning smaller salaries? I'm not arguing that a Frank Thomas or an Albert Belle isn't worth the considerable sums they're making; talent like that can't be developed, it has to be found and then nurtured. Yet for a specialist like Assenmacher--a left-handed reliever expected to get out left-handed batters, someone without an overpowering fastball, but with a sharp-breaking curve and some pitching savvy--at some point the cost of paying for it goes beyond the cost of developing it. The only problem is the lag a team committing itself to development has to endure before the young talent begins to emerge from the minors. It's likely that MacPhail and Lynch are committed to developing the minor-leaguer system on philosophical rather than purely economic grounds, but the fact remains that they're playing my theory out. The Cubs' minor-league system is producing more talent than at any time in memory.
Shortly before the Cubs' home opener, when they were a mere 0-5, I got a chance to ask Lynch if it was difficult keeping fans loyal to the development of players they couldn't see. "Sure, it's tough to sell people on players who aren't here," he said. "We feel like we have some good young pitchers in the minor leagues. We feel that in Kerry Wood and Jeremi Gonzalez we've got good young pitchers coming. We're incorporating two young players into our starting lineup, in Brant Brown and Kevin Orie, and I think the fans see that. They see that seven of our nine players on the field today are in their mid-20s. We're a young club, and we've got veterans who know how to win. We just have to turn it around."
Well, the Cubs entered the week 7-21, reflecting poorly on the veterans "who know how to win," and they're probably beyond any reasonable hope of "turning it around," at least where contending for a playoff spot is concerned. Otherwise, Lynch's thinking remains sound. Brown has been replaced, but by Kieschnick, another homegrown talent, and Glanville is all but demanding more playing time simply by the quality of his play. Orie is a big strapping guy with a quick bat, and he has the quiet, stoic temperament of a baseball player who looks to be a long-term major leaguer and a potential star. The Cubs' failure to contend actually makes it less likely that the team will call up Wood, because if he is promoted to the majors this year he would have to be protected in the coming expansion draft during the off-season. But Gonzalez, who will be eligible for the draft anyway, will definitely be up before the season is over (and the sooner the better), as will Curt Lyons, the promising young pitcher Lynch stole from the Cincinnati Reds this spring in a trade for Ozzie Timmons. (Lyons was up with the Reds last September and, in fact, beat the Cubs.)
In the meantime, yes, there is Wrigley and the ivy and Harry and the pleasures of day baseball, and if an increasing number of people are right to complain that those qualities are no substitute for competitive baseball, well, they are still an adequate substitute for almost any other diversion on a summer afternoon. What's more, winning or losing has never had any effect on the images the Cubs stamp on the mind, and that continues to be the case. I continue to marvel at the way Grace's smooth, level swing grows out of that elbows-out batting stance of his, stiff and unbending as a boy at table who won't eat his peas, and I've been newly won over by the way Mulholland drops his hands behind him in the middle of his delivery, like someone tucking something secretive and precious into that extra pocket in a pair of jeans. There is also Steve Trachsel's eyeless stare from the pitcher's mound, with his cap pulled low on his forehead, and Kieschnick's flourishing, two-fisted follow-through on that uppercut swing of his, performed with the elan of a matador. As a fan, the Cubs are still my team, and they're developing talent according to my most eccentric personal theory. Why wouldn't I stick with them?