September is the month when most baseball fans start looking ahead to the next season, because it's when rosters expand from a maximum of 25 to 40 and the phenoms come up from the minor leagues. The Cubs and their fans, however, are different. To love the Cubs is to love the past--the distant past, the more distant the better, all the way back to their last world championship in 1908. With this being the last year of the century (please, I'm trying to hold the line on the millennium rolling over in 2001, but the century ends with the 1900s), it's no surprise Cubs fans were even more nostalgic than usual. The last home stand of the season, two weeks ago, was dominated by the Cubs' all-century team, a group voted on by the fans largely via the Internet. (Cubs fans make use of the latest technology to go forward into the past.) If this diversion overshadowed the late-season debuts of Chad Meyers, Roosevelt Brown, Jose Nieves, Cole Liniak, and Andrew Lorraine, there's good reason for that. None of those players seems likely to join the Cubs' 150th anniversary team in 2026. None seems likely to make the difference in whether the Cubs become contenders next season.
It was an impressive group the Cubs amassed for their all-century team, and the fans were plainly thrilled--if not by the pregame ceremony (poorly attended, even though it took place before a 3 PM Saturday game) then by the seventh-inning stretch, when all 39,035 fans who eventually made their way to the game were on their feet and cheering, some shouting out the names of their favorites.
"Hey, Fergie!" one woman right below the press box yelled as Ferguson Jenkins and his all-century teammates prepared to sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" in the TV booth; it was as if she recognized a long-lost friend on the street. Future Hall of Famer Ron Santo--and that's not a title I use lightly--led the team in song, during the seventh-inning stretch and also in a warm-up for the media immediately beforehand in the press box dining room. Cubs management had arranged for nine of the surviving all-century team members to be available to the media during the middle innings of that last Saturday home game of the season, and the press box emptied out in the fifth as reporters ignored the game at hand to talk with the heroes of yesteryear.
The fans' choices were generally good, but a couple raised eyebrows. Frank Chance, "the Peerless Leader," was chosen over "Jolly" Charlie Grimm as manager (Chance did, after all, preside over the Cubs' only championships of the century, making him peerless indeed), but it was vice versa at first base. Chance actually had a very good if abbreviated career as a player, leading the league in runs scored in 1906, in on-base percentage in 1905, in steals in 1903 and '06, and in fielding percentage with a very slick (especially for that soft-mitt era) .992 in 1907. Grimm had 1,000 more hits, but he finished with a career average below Chance's while playing in a live-ball era, and he actually ended up with a negative overall rating according to the statistics kept by Total Baseball, my record book of choice. Chance's poeticized (but overrated) shortstop teammate Joe Tinker also made it, backing up the obvious choice of Ernie Banks. More deserving were bullpen aces Bruce Sutter and Lee Smith.
Yet Sutter and Smith also prompted what became an afternoon-long reverie recalling whom each all-century player had been traded for. Smith went for Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi, Sutter for Ken Reitz and Leon Durham, an only slightly better deal. (If Durham contributed to the Cubs' first-place finish in 1984, he also contributed to their loss to the San Diego Padres in the playoffs.) Jenkins went to the Texas Rangers for Bill Madlock, not bad (where was he on this team?); Billy Williams to the Oakland A's for Manny Trillo. Santo went to the White Sox at the end of his career for a group of no-names.
If the Cubs' glorious past served to remind us of how badly they've traded over the years since, what is the message in the White Sox' apparent future? The Sox, who ended the season at home last weekend, have been building for the future since the infamous "white flag" trade of 1997. That trade undeniably helped the Sox bull pen, bringing it closer Bob Howry and prime setup man Keith Foulke, but the only other player from the deal to make the majors is shortstop Mike Caruso, and the Sox seem uncertain how important he is to them. They brought up 1997 first-round draft choice Jason Dellaero at the end of the season to play short, apparently hoping to light a fire under Caruso and convince him to play winter ball. Dellaero fielded well--tall and thin, he was reminiscent of the Cubs' Don Kessinger--but was overmatched at the plate, failing to hit .100; that sort of performance won't make any player fear for his job.
Another late-season infield call-up, Liu Rodriguez, wasn't much better.
Things were better on the pitching side, as they have been historically for the Sox. The composed Kip Wells, their top 1998 draft choice, won four of his seven big-league starts this season and posted a 4.04 earned run average, very decent in this rabbit-ball era, especially considering that in one game he got pasted. But he's the only new sign of hope. Aaron Myette pitched well in the minors but was discomposed in three late major-league starts. Among the current mainstays, Mike Sirotka pitched well but in tough luck all season, finishing with a 4.00 ERA and persevering to win 11 games. James Baldwin won 12, having his usual strong second half after his usual abysmal first half. That "progress" was tempered by the bad second halves suffered by John Snyder, who started out 6-1 and among the league leaders in ERA only to wind up 9-12 with a 6.68 ERA, and Jim Parque, who stymied the Cubs but few others with his junk-ball repertoire. Tanyon Sturtze pitched six innings of shutout ball in the season finale, but that performance wasn't something to base expectations on; he was facing the woeful Minnesota Twins, and he's been around before--even the Cubs gave up on him. Furthermore, there was the continuing dilemma of the Sox trying to develop young pitchers on a team that couldn't field the ball; their 136 errors in 162 games was worst in the American League.
Fielding figures to be a continuing bugaboo, as the Sox' best young hitters tend to be butchers in the field. That goes for Carlos Lee and Paul Konerko, both of whom made great strides--at the plate--this year. Both flirted with .300 while showing flashes of power--16 and 24 home runs--but neither settled on a position. Lee looked better in left field than he had at third base, but that's not saying much. He looked even better at first late in the year. In fact, he and Dellaero pulled off a nifty 6-3-2 double play in the final game: Dellaero looked a runner back to third as he fielded a grounder and fired to first as the runner took off, and Lee nailed him at the plate with a throw to catcher Brook Fordyce. Where did that come from? But I'd hate to count on Lee to dig Caruso's throws out of the dirt for a season. Konerko was even more homeless than Lee, looking uncomfortable at third, at first, and in the outfield. The team could probably live with Konerko at first and Lee in left, especially with Chris Singleton patrolling center, but as good as Singleton was in his rookie season--.301 batting average, 17 homers, 77 runs batted in, and 20 stolen bases--I'm not sure he's going to be able to keep it up. His 22 walks were only two more than the notoriously impatient Caruso got, and that doesn't bode well for future development.
Of course there was Ray Durham, who posted another great season, and Magglio Ordonez, who had a breakout year. With Frank Thomas's famed consistency suddenly out the window, it was Ordoñez who put up solid, Thomas-type numbers: 30 homers, 117 RBI, 100 runs scored, and a .300 average. He played right field well if not spectacularly, running down fly balls in his flat-footed way, like a man in stocking feet hustling across a newly waxed floor.
For all the changes on both sides of town, there was a sameness to things as the season came to an end. The Cubs played their last home game on a balmy fall afternoon with the wind blowing out and Wrigley Field packed to the rafters with fans cheering for Sammy Sosa to homer. Looking increasingly tense and tired as the season dwindled, Sosa went hitless, and eventually Mark McGwire passed him in the home-run race in the final week for the second year in a row. Yet the Cubs at least know who they are: the sunshine boys, the team of day baseball and marquee players and the Friendly Confines. The Sox played their last home game in the rain, just as they'd played their first game this season. As I rode down on the CTA Sunday for the last Chicago baseball game of the century, I was startled to find that I wasn't alone getting off the train at 35th Street. There were even peanut vendors in the drizzle on the street. The crowd, however, came up well short of the announced 18,694. For the most part they huddled in the last few rows of the grandstand lower deck, under the slight upper-deck overhang, watching the Bears game on the jumbo scoreboard TV while waiting out a 44-minute rain delay at the outset. They crept out like Munchkins and down toward the field-level seats as the game began, but retreated again when the rain resumed, just as it was becoming an official game in the fifth inning. The rain grew slowly but steadily heavier for the next couple innings, and the umpires called out the grounds crew just as the Twins tied it in the seventh. That decision elicited boos from the fans and groans in the press box and sent anyone who was free heading for home. I joined them, looking back over my shoulder only once to reflect on the Sox' dreary prospects, which appeared as blue as the empty seats, as black as the hitting background imposed by the departed Albert Belle, and as gray as the clouds hanging over the stadium.