It is the baseball season too good to end. Mark McGwire hits 70 home runs, splintering Roger Maris's old record of 61. The Cubs' Sammy Sosa adds 66 of his own, proving McGwire's total wasn't a fluke (or maybe just the opposite). Pitching phenom Kerry Wood strikes out 20 in a game and wins 13 for the surging Cubs, but as if to offer a lesson in the fragile nature of sport goes on the disabled list with a sore elbow and doesn't pitch the last month of the season. Gary Gaetti, a slow-footed, hard-hitting third baseman who was built to play in Wrigley Field, finally gets his longtime wish to come to the Cubs and picks up the offensive slack down the stretch. Brant Brown commits a game-losing gaffe on the order of a Merkle Boner or a Snodgrass Muff, but in the end it doesn't matter. It's raining beer in the bleachers.
What insane baseball god went and put Harry Caray in charge of the Fates upon his arrival at Elysian Field? Clotho, Lachesis, Atropos: he's making them caper like hot-pantsed extras in a beer commercial.
It's been a delight for Cubs fans, of course, but then it's been a delight for all baseball fans--a vindication. Here is the sport in all its esoteric glory, with its unique pace and its deep and complex history, suddenly in full bloom, its attractive colors and irresistible fragrance enticing even those who previously derided it. Down at the school yard at the end of the street, boys--not men--are typically found playing long-pitch baseball against a brick wall these days.
When the last day of the regular season arrived (or so we thought), I sat down in front of the TV with my nine-year-old and we both got drawn into the game. "This is the most exciting thing we've watched since the Bulls," she said, and it was. Yet where basketball tension is one big buildup to the final shot, baseball is more subtle, less predictable. In Sunday's game, which the Cubs needed to win to clinch a tie for the wild-card playoff spot and perhaps win it outright, they took a 3-1 lead on three unearned runs, then desperately tried to hold on. Each inning the anxiety grew. Second baseman Mickey Morandini made a flat-out diving stab of a hard-hit one-hopper by Craig Biggio to preserve the lead in the seventh, but the Astros came back to tie the game in the eighth.
Here it should be explained that the schedule could not have been shuffled to produce more drama. The Cubs had entered the final week a game behind the New York Mets in the wild-card race after being swept at home by the Cincinnati Reds (which threw a considerable damper on the Sosa celebration during the team's final regularly scheduled home games of the year). Yet the Mets lost two games to the lowly Montreal Expos; so when the Cubs took one of two from the Milwaukee Brewers--they should have had the second game too, but Brown dropped the would-be final out in left field with the bases loaded--they got back into a tie. The Mets then played their final three games against the Atlanta Braves, while the Cubs played the Astros--each an opponent already in the playoffs but with considerable self-interest in who the wild card would be. If the Braves allowed the Mets into the playoffs, they would be prevented from playing them in the first round because they're from the same division, and therefore would meet the other first-place team, the San Diego Padres--not an appealing substitution. If the Astros kept the Cubs out of the playoffs and the Mets made it, then the Astros and Mets would meet--again, a prospect much preferred by Houston to playing the Padres. The Braves swept the Mets out of playoff contention, but meanwhile the San Francisco Giants--four games behind the Mets on Monday--were charging back by beating up on patzers, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Colorado Rockies. They won six in a row in the final week to move into a tie with the Cubs going into that last day. As the Cubs lost their 3-1 lead, the Giants were in the process of blowing a 7-0 lead in Denver's volatile Coors Field.
Part of what made the day so wonderfully tense was the pure anxiety of watching the Cubs go into extra innings in Houston. But thanks to the wonders of television, there were also glimpses of the Giants playing the Rockies on ESPN2, as well as McGwire's final at-bats in Saint Louis for the Cardinals against the Expos. Baseball purists love the pace of the game and often decry the TV gimmickry of split screens and the like, yet as a purist at home in the postmodern era I was switching back and forth to see all I could (and peeking in on Poltergeist on another cable channel when ads unfortunately aligned, just to keep the tension level consistent). This didn't so much upset the continuity of the Cubs' game as add the continuity of the others. It was TV baseball in three dimensions.
McGwire hit his 69th and 70th homers. For a baseball fan aware of history--and who isn't familiar with Maris's magical 61?--it was a stunning feat. Baseball history is filled with colossal offensive records, most of them set in the 20s and 30s when titans apparently walked the earth, yet here was a titanic number in the present day. (Both eras have been marked by bad pitching and a juiced ball, which is not to diminish McGwire's accomplishment--it's about time the pendulum swung to the offensive side in baseball.) Vinny Castilla homered in Colorado to put the Rockies up 8-7, just as the Cubs' Rod Beck was working out of a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the tenth. The Giants came back to tie it at 8 and brought in their unhittable bull pen closer, Robb Nen. Beck again slipped into a bases-loaded jam, and this time allowed the sacrifice fly to lose the game. The Cubs trudged to the clubhouse to await the inevitable from Coors, but the whole scenario would change before they got there. I had promised my buddy the Boomer--who was at work on a sunny Sunday, poor sap--that I would call him as soon as something happened, and as he answered the phone and I told him about the Cubs' loss I switched to ESPN2 and saw Neifi Perez's game-winning homer off Nen sail into the seats.
"The Rockies win!" I cried. "We play tomorrow at Wrigley!"
For Monday night's wild-card playoff game, however, I went the complete purist route. With the press boxes filled and every seat accounted for, I headed out to the bleachers: no TV, no giant screen, no replays whatsoever, no radios, no play-by-play, just fans paying attention to every pitch. Before the game even started they were giddy. They were singing--actually singing--the national anthem, and about halfway through it turned to screaming, on the order of a Blackhawks game at the old Chicago Stadium. I sat in deep center field, the old Bill Veeck section, in a spot that gave a better view of the pitches than one gets in the press box proper. The Cubs, alas, were forced to start Steve Trachsel, an angular, herky-jerky right-hander with a decent but dead-straight fastball he has to spot carefully, as well as a curve and an unreliable splitter. Trachsel keeps his cap pulled low over his eyes to make himself menacing, but everything else about the way he works seems tentative. With runners on base, he becomes slow and deliberate; he works the way a farsighted fisherman ties flies. He makes it tense, there's no denying that. Trachsel walks a tightrope every time he goes out, and when he falls it ain't pretty--as when he set the stage for Brown's miscue by helping the Brewers back from a 7-0 deficit, or when he fell at the start by giving up nine runs and getting only one out in a disastrous outing in Saint Louis in early August. Monday's start, then, was vintage Trachsel. He walked one in the second, one in the third, walked the bases full with the help of a hit batsman in the fourth, and walked another in the fifth. But he also kept the Giants hitless. "Come on, Trax," people kept murmuring all around me, and somehow he stayed on the tightrope and even took a no-hitter into the seventh inning.
The Cubs, meanwhile, wasted singles in the first and second on inning-ending double plays. They were opposed by the Giants' Mark Gardner, a smoother, more polished pitcher with a fine array of breaking pitches who had pitched very well of late, going 5-0 in August and September. In the fifth, however, he gave up a leadoff single to Henry Rodriguez, bringing Gaetti to the plate. Gaetti was raucously cheered by the fans, who have embraced him the way only Cubs fans can embrace a reformed Cubs killer. (I see his stiff, staggering, but flawless play in the field and his short, punchy batting stroke and am fondly reminded of the "Penguin," Ron Cey, the third baseman on the Cubs' 1984 division-winning team who was another reformed Cubs killer stopping here at the end of his career.) Gaetti quickly fell behind 0-2. Gardner tried to slip strike three past him, but Gaetti dropped the bat and sent the ball high toward left. The wind was blowing in, and I traced the arc and saw San Francisco left fielder Barry Bonds settling under it, but somehow it kept going until it dropped into the first rows of the bleachers. In left field, in right field, even in normally composed deep center, people went crazy, bringing on a bleacher rain delay as cups and beer poured down upon the field. Order was restored, but only for an inning. Lance Johnson and Sosa singled in the sixth, and Mark Grace walked to load the bases with one out. The Giants brought in a left-hander to pitch, and Cubs manager Jim Riggleman answered with pinch hitter Matt Mieske. He slashed a two-run single to right, bringing on another delay, and though the inning ended with yet another double play the Cubs now led 4-0. They added another run in the eighth on a single by Sosa, a double by Grace, and a wild pitch.
For most of the game, a large homemade balloon bearing the visage of Harry Caray hovered over the left-field bleachers. It was a ghostly apparition that got all the bleacher fans screaming, "Harry! Harry!" Yet when its handlers out on Waveland Avenue took it around to the right-field side, the wind blew it into the actual bleacher area and a few fans grabbed it, pulled it down, and punctured it on the spiky top of the chain-link fence. Five smaller balloons fluttered into the sky like Caray's veritable essence. Outraged, fans in the left- and center-field seats took up the chant, "Right field sucks!" It was a clear omen, but of what?
As my old buddy Frank Kroll, a good friend and a fine gentleman, used to say (only half playfully), 5-0 is the most dangerous lead in baseball. That's because if a team breaks through with a single run, it's back within a grand slam of a tie, recharging the players' hopes. Certainly, after Brown's Milwaukee muff and the loss the day before in Houston, Cubs fans needed no help working up a sense of dread, especially as Riggleman was deploying his pitching staff the way managers used to the last time the Cubs won a championship--back in 1908. Trachsel had been removed in the seventh, and in the eighth pitching ace Kevin Tapani--who might have figured to start the first playoff game against the Braves if the Cubs advanced--came on. He pitched one good inning but gave up two hits to open the ninth. Terry Mulholland, who had gone eight noble innings as a spot starter only the day before in Houston, came on but had nothing; he gave up a hit and a walk, allowing a run and loading the bases to bring up the dangerous Bonds in a spot where that proverbial grand slam would tie the game. Left in to face Bonds, Mulholland got him to hit a sacrifice fly to Sosa. Beck, who had worked his longest outing of the year the day before, pitching two and a fraction innings while absorbing the loss, entered to face the Giants' right-handed Jeff Kent and Joe Carter. Kent smacked a hard grounder to Jose Hernandez at short that scored a run because Morandini couldn't turn the double play. That made it 5-3, with a runner on first and Carter up. He had ended the 1993 season with a World Series-winning homer, and long-suffering Cubs fans were well aware that in the sort of kismet only baseball produces he had been traded by the Cubs in 1984 to get Rick Sutcliffe--a deal that sealed the Cubs' division crown that year--and had gone on to have a great career, a career he had already decided would end this season. Now, however, Beck got him to go after an inside fastball, and Carter hit it weakly into the air. Grace seemed to stagger under the ball (or maybe it was just a fan's eyeballs quaking) but then he caught it, clutched it, and doubled over with pleasure--the only remaining Chicago player from the last postseason Cubs team, the 1989 Cubs, at last returned to the playoffs.
Again it rained beer in the bleachers, and although my suit jacket and slacks were getting soaked, at last I understood the appeal. It gives pleasure to be so excited one is willing to toss away something precious; and beer creates a lovely sparkling arc in the air and gives one's clothes an aroma of authenticity to carry wherever one goes--out into the streets full of high-fiving fans, into bars for more beverages, or simply home to tell what happened. I was there, I saw it all, smell for yourself. That is yet another aspect of this great game not captured on TV.