The Cubs have put together a comfortable ball club, and in this turbulent sports age comfort is an underappreciated quality. Others have called general manager Ed Lynch cynical for assembling a patchwork team last year that was just good enough to reach the postseason without really threatening to go on to the World Series--and for making only minor alterations this season. It's hard to argue with cynical, especially with Lynch standing pat though Kerry Wood is out with a reconstructed elbow and the other Cubs pitchers have suffered a D day rate of casualties--no fewer than seven have been on the disabled list in this young season. Watching what's left of the Cubs staff on TV has been difficult at times; the Cubs don't have a pitcher (or a team) to strike fear in the heart of anybody, much less class teams such as the Atlanta Braves, who dispatched them last October in three straight games. But the Cubs have something other teams don't. The temptation is to quote from Damn Yankees and call it "heart," and if the Cubs manage to hang around in the playoff race again they may prove deserving of the label. But for now I think a better word is "character," especially if denuded of moral implication to mean simply a group rich in personality. The Cubs have character where better clubs have talent, and while this may not exactly be Lynch's intention I'm not sure that isn't how Cubs fans prefer it.
It took me one full day at Wrigley Field this year to come around to the Cubs' way of thinking--and playing. What baseball fan could ever resist Wrigley, especially on a beautiful spring day in May? While the White Sox remained cursed with cold, wet weather and struggled to draw 10,000 fans a game even as they ended April at 11-9 and in second place in the American League Central Division, the Cubs returned home from a short road trip last Friday to clear blue skies and rising temperatures. This reprised the teams' weather fortunes on opening day, and one must wonder if some greater force is at work punishing the Sox and rewarding the Cubs for the different ways they've treated their fans.
Jerry Reinsdorf's ownership has done everything it could for more than 15 years to alienate the Sox' south-side fan base--from SportsVision to Ribbie and Rhubarb to Hawk and Wimpy to the new Comiskey to Waldo the Wolf to the bush-league sound effects now twanging away into the ether. Meanwhile, the Cubs have resisted calls to dramatically restructure the ballpark (I remember sitting behind two team officials in the press box 15 years ago and hearing them discuss how they simply had to put an upper deck on the bleachers; thank the baseball gods that never came to pass), have protected Wrigley's bucolic environment while making room for relatively low-key promotional displays, and while bringing in lights have kept their promise to limit night games to 18 a season. As a result, the Sox can't drag people in to see their talented newcomers this year, and the Cubs didn't drive fans away even when they slipped to 5-9. And it wasn't just Beanie Babies bringing people out to the park.
By accident or design, the Cubs have put together a team that is nearly perfect for their park--perfect strategically and, even more important, perfect in the way the players both withstand and encourage the intense scrutiny such an intimate setting puts them under. Almost to a man they are familiar veterans oozing character, from Rod Beck of the dishrag hair and Fu Manchu mustache to Terry Mulholland of the raffish goatee (that suggests both a riverboat gambler and Civil War historian Shelby Foote). These two are veteran pitchers with the temperament to tolerate the capricious winds of Wrigley Field. Beck, with his tilted pirate's posture on the mound, right arm ticking back and forth, and Mulholland, with the distinctive way he drops his hands behind his body in mid-delivery, as if he were a pitching machine dropping the ball down a chute and onto a hurling arm about to come clanging over the top, have looks that complement their characters: Beck the closer, Mulholland the pitch-anytime-anywhere automaton. And the Cubs hitters are even better suited to the park. Last season Lynch finally accepted the conventional wisdom that the Cubs need power in the corner positions to compete at Wrigley, and he outfitted the team accordingly. Sammy Sosa in right and platooning Henry Rodriguez and Glenallen Hill in left are all big sluggers, seemingly even bigger this year after a winter of weight training. Throw in stiff 40-year-old third baseman Gary Gaetti, and I don't think there's a player among them with the flexibility to touch the spot between his shoulder blades. But Gaetti and Hill both have short, choppy swings--all shoulders and torque--and Sosa and Rodriguez, of course, have pure power. Combine those guys with swashbuckling center fielder Lance Johnson, scrappy second baseman Mickey Morandini, and ever-steady first baseman Mark Grace--his level practice swing awaiting a pitch seemingly borrowed from carpenters or stonemasons--at the top of the batting order ahead of the power. At the bottom of the order put free-swinging shortstop Jose Hernandez and catcher Benito Santiago, a fine budget-conscious pickup of the sort Lynch is becoming famous for. Santiago, like Gaetti, is an older player who should hit better as the weather warms. That's the nature of a veteran team--it's slow to warm up, but a dependable track record encourages, and usually rewards, patience.
That understood, the Cubs were doing well to finish April at 10-10 by winning five of their last six. They began May last Saturday with a game that epitomized the team's strengths. De facto pitching ace Kevin Tapani--another veteran, this one hardened by years of pitching in the even more treacherous environs of the Minnesota Twins' so-called Homer Dome--came off the disabled list to face the San Diego Padres' hard-throwing rookie Matt Clement. It was a classic confrontation of styles. Tapani, working with the calm dispatch of a dad spooning up ice cream cones at a church picnic, mixed his pitches, changed speeds, and took a perfect game into the fifth inning. Clement, a tall, thin phenom with a simple rock-and-fire motion and what might be called a "flying elbow" if his windup were a golf swing, took a no-hitter into the fourth throwing almost nothing but his live fastball. Yet by that time he had also walked three men, and in the fourth--his second time through the lineup--the Cubs started timing that fastball. Grace, Rodriguez, and Hernandez all got out in front of pitches and pulled them for singles, scoring Grace and putting runners at first and second. Trying to jump-start the struggling Santiago, manager Jim Riggleman called a hit-and-run. Santiago missed a fastball that buzzed in on his hands, but San Diego catcher Greg Myers skipped his throw past third baseman Dave Magadan and Rodriguez scored. Santiago eventually struck out, and Gaetti popped out to end the inning, but the Cubs had the only two runs they'd need.
Tapani allowed a walk and a hit in the fifth but got out of the inning with the help of a double play turned by Morandini. He opened the seventh with a walk and two singles to load the bases. But Riggleman left him in, and he pitched out of the jam with only one run scoring on a groundout. That was his day: 87 uneventful pitches. Then, in a dramatic change from last year, Riggleman got two fine outings from his middle relievers. Rodney Myers pitched a one-two-three eighth with two strikeouts. The Padres having loaded their lineup with left-handed hitters against Tapani, Riggleman called on Felix Heredia, the hunch-shouldered, left-handed slinger, to finish up for the save. Beck warmed up in the bull pen, just in case Heredia passed the left-handed core of San Diego's lineup and faced some righties--but Heredia didn't. He walked a right-handed pinch hitter leading off, but then retired Tony Gwynn, Wally Joyner, and John Vander Wal on pop flies to end the game. Riggleman has mismanaged his bull pen--especially middle relief--almost every year he's been with the Cubs, but this year, with the help of hands-on pitching coach Marty DeMerritt, he's shown more confidence in his middle relievers because they've proved themselves worthy of it. Afterward, Riggleman said Beck was still his "save guy" but that Heredia was pitching as well as he'd seen him pitch in the majors. He called on him the next day to do the same in the eighth inning, but this time Heredia wasn't up to it, blowing starter Scott Sanders's shutout and falling behind 2-1. But the Cubs scored two in the bottom of the frame, and Beck earned the save in the ninth for the series sweep.
What most struck me about the Cubs' win on Saturday was the placid atmosphere in the clubhouse afterward. No music played; in fact, the TVs were still tuned to Channel Nine as Chip Caray did the postgame report. Riggleman talked with the media. Some players sat and ate from the postgame buffet. Beck and Jeff Blauser sat smoking cigarettes, shooting the breeze with Mulholland and blowing Sanders some shit for his "fubu" shirts. ("Fucked-up beyond ugly," Beck explained.) This was not a team about to get excited about going above .500 on the first of May. And this wasn't a team juiced up by the arrival of a Kerry Wood--though rookie Kyle Farnsworth did pitch well enough in his recent debut to fill a hole in the rotation, even if his stuff didn't merit comparison with Wood's.
Last year's team had a gleeful camaraderie; this year's team seems less elated but steadier. They know they can only hope to hang on in the race, and maybe Lynch will pull off a deal if they're close in August. That's when the excitement will come--if at all. It's a mellow, professional approach to suit the mellow-sometimes-to-the-point-of-distraction approach of fans at Wrigley Field, and it seems to work for everyone, as the Cubs drew almost 100,000 fans for their three-game sweep of the Padres last weekend. The Bulls won five championships and had to plead to be kept intact to win a sixth, after which they were scattered to the winds. The Cubs barely made the playoffs and were kept intact, though this aging group of veterans could hardly be called a team on the rise. Management might be open to charges that it's not trying to be competitive, but the fans seem to prefer rooting for players they know and love. I respect the Cubs for recognizing this. And doesn't all marketing involve some measure of cynicism?