So much for promise. The Cubs' fading fortunes paralleled the fickle Chicago weather in the weeks leading up to Monday's home opener at Wrigley Field. Hopes for a speedy return by Kerry Wood proved to be as unrealistic as that 70-degree heat wave in March. Wood's return was pushed back, and his rehabilitation regimen at times seemed confused. General manager Ed Lynch promised an early return--perhaps because he's the one whose job is on the line this season, after he fired manager Jim Riggleman last year--but new manager Don Baylor promised not to hurry Wood and said a June season debut wasn't out of the question. Wood himself was saying one day that he wouldn't be throwing curveballs, in order to protect his reconstructed elbow, and another day that he'd refrain from throwing the even more damaging slider, but reported last weekend after pitching in an extended-spring-training game that he'd thrown both. Yet his prospects glowed next to those of Ismael Valdes, the starter picked up from the Los Angeles Dodgers along with second baseman Eric Young over the winter. Valdes went down with shoulder tendinitis in spring training (at least the Cubs hoped that's what it was); he's still throwing, and it looks at this point as if surgery won't be necessary. (Even so, his injury puts me in the lead for next year's BAT.com Award: I'd pointed out in this space over the winter that he was at risk for arm trouble after throwing 200 innings three years in a row in his early 20s with the Dodgers.) Elsewhere, newly acquired third baseman Willie Greene suffered through a miserable spring training. Arriving late in Arizona because of family illness, he passed out his first day in camp thanks to dehydration brought on by the flu, and then sustained a cut to the hand serious enough to put him on the disabled list. Less dramatically, left fielder Glenallen Hill suffered a hamstring pull that kept him from opening the season with the club.
On the field, things were no better. The Cubs won their wacky, international-marketing-minded season opener in Japan (4 AM start Chicago time--now that's rising to greet the new campaign!), thanks to a fine outing by de facto ace Jon Lieber against the New York Mets, but after that they looked discombobulated--perhaps from jet lag, though Baylor refused to permit his players that excuse. They lost the second Japan game to the Mets, and with but a few days off to reacclimate themselves to the western hemisphere, opened the Cardinals' season in Saint Louis. The Cubs were swept in three games, thanks to horrific pitching and some abysmal base running by the overeager-to-please Young, then went to Cincinnati, where they won a game thanks to a fine starting effort by Andrew Lorraine (as with last year's mirage of a shutout against the Houston Astros, don't get used to it), but dropped two in a row in the 11th inning thanks to the fire-starting efforts of the bull pen, principally Matt Karchner. The last loss was the toughest. The Cubs blew a 6-0 sixth-inning lead and squandered a fine starting effort by phenom Scott Downs, up from Class AA West Tenn to make his major-league debut. The Cubs returned home Monday with a record of 2-6, with their two top pitchers sidelined and their bull pen in a muddle, and with the offense sputtering, particularly last year's righty-lefty power tandem of Sammy Sosa and Henry Rodriguez. What's more, the city had been dusted with sleet and snow only two days before--there's nothing as depressing to a Chicagoan as waking in April to the sound of people scraping ice off their cars. The game-time temperature was 39, the sky was cloudy, a chilly wind cut in off the lake, and rain if not more snow had been forecast. As if all that weren't bad enough, the Atlanta Braves, the defending National League champions, were in town. A fresh slate of Bears games seemed more appropriate to the conditions than a new baseball season.
But Cubs fans are a unique breed of lunatic, and a crowd of 38,655 (counting no-shows, of course) came out to greet them. As the Cubs and Braves took batting practice, the left- and right-field bleachers buzzed with energy. One fan wearing a Cubs jersey, warm-up jacket, and floppy hat stood in the front row near the Cubs' dugout with a banner designed to look like the big, red, welcoming Wrigley Field sign at the main gate. The message on it: "Maybe this millennium?" Another voice in the crowd screamed out, "World Series, baby!" (Make that a voice in the wilderness.) As the teams were introduced, Baylor was warmly greeted and Karchner roundly booed (he'd be dispatched to AAA Iowa by the end of the day), and there was a smattering of boos for third baseman Shane Andrews, whose 11th-inning error contributed to that final loss in Cincinnati. Mark Grace, being honored as the Cubs' player of the 90s, got an ovation as large as Sosa's.
Yet the promise of opening day dwindled away early. The Braves' Chipper Jones hit a solo homer in the first, and the aged, gray-at-the-temples, just-back-from-chemotherapy first baseman, Andres Galarraga, followed with a two-run shot in the fourth. Andrews remained in a funk, missing a hit-and-run sign from Baylor in the second and causing Grace to be thrown out trying to steal second. In the Cubs sixth, Lieber, pitching well and allowed to hit for himself, slapped a one-out single, and Young and new shortstop Ricky Gutierrez followed in kind to load the bases for Sosa. He worked the count to three and one against the Braves' talented young starter, Kevin Millwood, who threw a high fastball for what would have been ball four. Sosa, however, swung under it for a strike, and then dribbled a fastball on the outside corner to second to start an inning-ending double play. On defense, the Cubs survived an inning-ending double-play grounder that turned into a hit when the ball bounced off second base, and an umpire who failed to see Grace tag out Javier Lopez after Lopez rounded first base too wide on a hit to right; but that the Cubs survived those gaffes was just an oversight on the part of the baseball gods. Going into the bottom of the ninth they were down 3-0 and things looked dire. The misty raindrops had turned to full-fledged snow flurries, and the remaining fans were bordering on miserable.
Millwood's replacement, Mike Remlinger, walked the leadoff man and departed for Kerry Ligtenberg, the Braves' razor-sideburned former closer who, thanks to the suspension dealt out to John Rocker, has resumed the role after a year off due to arm surgery. Ligtenberg walked the first batter he faced, putting men on first and second with no outs. Fortunately for the Braves, the goatish Andrews was up. Ligtenberg got two quick strikes on him, the second a fastball that Andrews didn't come close to catching up with. Ligtenberg wasted a pitch, then made a fatal mistake, hanging a rolling slider over the plate. Andrews pounced on it and hit it to the perfect part of the ballpark given the direction of the wind, left center. The breeze blew the ball away from deep center and just over the short 365-feet sign on the wall; it dropped into the bleachers for a game-tying home run. The rattled Ligtenberg then allowed a single to new center fielder Damon Buford, and Joe Girardi showed a little of the proficiency he developed with the New York Yankees by bunting him over to second, in spite of the high, hard-to-handle fastballs thrown by new reliever Luis Rivera. (Organist Gary Pressy was urging Buford on by playing "Show Me the Way to Go Home.") Up came backup catcher Jeff Reed as a pinch hitter, and lo and behold, he slapped a double down the left-field line to score Buford and win the game. Just like that, four runs and a victory.
The players were even more ecstatic than the fans (what fans remained) and suddenly things didn't seem so bad. Maybe Valdes will be back soon, and Wood with him, and Willie Greene. Yes, the weather forecasts were right: snow was general all over Wrigleyville. It was falling on the ivy and the sidewalks, wafting down upon the Waveland fire station and, farther east, the inviting, suicidal waves of Lake Michigan. It was falling, too, upon the green spire of Saint Alphonsus to the south and the Jewel to the west and all the drunken fans going from bar to bar in between. It fell and swirled like a day's grace upon every Cubs fan--but most of all, of course, upon the diehards.