The White Sox and Cubs experienced a reversal of fortunes the first week of the baseball season. Like the two bears in A.A. Milne's poem "Twice Times," "one got better and the other got wuss." The Sox started with high expectations, the Cubs with low. No less an optimist than Ernie Banks has been reduced to predicting simply that "the Cubs will have more fun in 2001," while the Sox begin with legitimate expectations of repeating as American League Central champs and advancing farther into the playoffs behind newly acquired ace David Wells, a renowned big-game pitcher.
The Sox couldn't have begun with a bigger game, playing their archrivals, the Indians, in Cleveland. The Indians dominated the AL Central in the years between the Sox' aborted 1994 crown and last year's surprising first-place finish, and the Tribe was clearly intent on regaining what was theirs, having augmented their lineup with slugger Juan Gonzalez over the off-season, while the Sox spirited away their catcher, Sandy Alomar Jr. The first game was a grudge match on a personal level as well: opening day starter Wells also had some history in Cleveland, where fans rode him mercilessly a few years ago in the playoffs, when he was pitching for the New York Yankees and his beloved mother--who, evidently, instilled many of Wells's rowdier qualities--was newly deceased. The Cleveland fans raised the subject while he was warming up, and Wells responded by beating the Indians soundly. Now here was Wells warming up against the Indians again, this time for the hated White Sox, and again some Cleveland fan--not having learned from history--asked him, "How's your mom?" before dashing off. Wells had reportedly awakened that morning with a rumbly tummy--and with a tummy of his size that is no small ailment--but if he needed a bracing bromide that was it. He shut down the Indians with dispatch and the Sox romped to victory.
That same day the Cubs were preparing for their home opener, and the weather was every bit as uninviting as it figures to be in Chicago on April 2. It was bitterly cold as the Cubs took batting practice that morning, and even their famed die-hard fans had trouble warming to the occasion. Few were on hand when the gates opened; most apparently stayed in neighborhood bars, stoking up on antifreeze in the form of beer. Yet a full house had gathered by game time (or shortly thereafter), and as promised by weather forecasters the sun came out, though it didn't warm things much, and it didn't brighten the Cubs' prospects. Behind 4-1 to the Montreal Expos--de facto ace Jon Lieber gave up a single and a homer on his first two pitches of the year--the Cubs came back to tie it at four, but squandered a ninth-inning rally and lost in the next frame. The following day was even worse, as Kerry Wood likewise fell behind right away, giving up three runs in the first inning; the Cubs came back to make it 3-2, but once again spoiled a ninth-inning rally. This time there were runners at the corners with one out when Sammy Sosa inexplicably fell victim to the old fake-to-third-and-throw-to-first pickoff executed by Ugueth Urbina. That left a runner on third with two outs, and Rondell White grounded out to end it. In their first two games at home, the Cubs appeared every bit as inept and listless as last year. Already it looked to be a very long season.
Then suddenly Kevin Tapani turned in a remarkable outing against the Expos for the Cubs' first victory. Next they went to Philadelphia and won again, beating the Phillies with the help of a home run by Julio Zuleta, who was recalled that week when Ron Coomer went on the disabled list with a knee problem that required arthroscopic surgery. Zuleta drove in five runs the following day in another Chicago victory. Though Lieber came back to get shaved again Sunday, the Cubs finished their first week at an even 3-3, which seems to me emblematic of where they'll be at the end of the season. They don't have a very good team. Leadoff man Eric Young figures to struggle with the new high strike zone, and Damon Buford remains no great shakes as a center fielder. Third baseman Bill Mueller is the new Mickey Morandini--solid if unspectacular both offensively and defensively--and the veteran first-base platoon of Coomer and Matt Stairs is just a stopgap until the next platoon is ready: Zuleta and minor-league phenom Hee Seop Choi. The starting rotation looks serviceable but unimpressive--unless Wood comes all the way back from elbow surgery--and the bull pen remains iffy, with designated closer Tom "Flash" Gordon yet to make it off the disabled list (journeyman Jeff Fassero is filling in short term). The Cubs are a .500 team--perhaps a little better, perhaps a little worse, depending on how the breaks fall--and will be until their crop of promising phenoms arrives.
The funny thing was, the Sox looked very much the same by the end of that first week, which saw gaping holes open up in their roster. Number-two starter Cal Eldred, pitching with a screw in his arm, got hammered in the second game in Cleveland, reminding fans not only about the elbow but that he hadn't exactly been a sure thing a year ago until he put together a hot streak that made him 10-2 before the onset of new arm woes. If that wasn't bad enough, the Sox came back to Chicago last Friday for their home opener at Comiskey Park only to suffer through weather even worse than the Cubs' opener. The temperature warmed, but it was dripping and misty into the early afternoon. Things cleared enough to bring in a nearly full house of 43,000 paying fans--many of them drawn to cheer the Sox' all-century team as they marked the American League's 1901 debut--and the Sox went on to open a big lead. But Jim Parque couldn't hold it, bringing back memories of how he wasn't exactly a sure thing a year ago. New reliever Antonio Osuna--brought in from the Los Angeles Dodgers to replace Bill Simas, who is out for the season--poured gasoline on the fire, and the Tigers took a 9-5 lead, scoring eight runs in an endless sixth inning. The Sox rallied, tying it up on a sacrifice fly by Frank Thomas in the bottom of the eighth, but they couldn't push the lead run across. They lost in the 10th. Saturday the Tigers ripped Mark Buehrle--the against-all-odds fourth starter--to claim victory, with the help of four Sox errors, and then it was time for Wells to make his home debut.
It was a beautiful day. Where the previous day had been balmy but blustery, this was slightly less warm but nowhere near as windy. The team was dressed not in the usual home pinstripes but in all-white uniforms styled after its last championship, in 1917. Wells looked good, though less like a ballplayer than a cartoon character out of William Joyce's Rolie Polie Olie: a smudge of a goatee and a round torso with spindly limbs sticking out. Still, he has an efficient, functional motion--he has a soft leg kick, and his left arm hangs behind his body, then as he strides down the mound he comes rolling over the top, bringing his arm straight overhand, which allows him to throw a fastball, cut it, turn it over, or spin his great curveball with the same delivery. He retired the Tigers on ten pitches in the first inning, nine in the second, and seven in the third.
Yet Wells again found himself in a grudge match, this time without a personal investment. He was pitted against Jeff Weaver, the embodiment of one of the most costly gaffes of the Ron Schueler era. When he was general manager, Schueler drafted Weaver, only to see him declared a free agent after agent Steve Boras--a longtime Sox nemesis--argued that the Sox hadn't tendered him a formal contract offer by the deadline set by Major League Baseball. Weaver went on to sign with the Tigers, and since making the big leagues he's seemed intent on embarrassing the Sox at every opportunity. He is a tall, thin pitcher with a unique motion--he bends over, seeming to shine the tops of his shoes with his mitt; then he stands, kicks, turns, hides the ball behind his body, and slings the pitch. All the torque in his sidearm delivery gives him an active fastball and slider, as well as a nasty curve that cuts across the plate on a diagonal. He held the Sox scoreless, while Wells weakened and gave up a couple of runs in the fourth, then two more in the sixth--it would have been worse if the Sox hadn't cut down two runners trying to stretch doubles into triples. The Sox rallied in the ninth with the help of three Detroit errors, but it wasn't enough. They lost 5-3, to lower their record to 1-4 at the end of the first week of the season.
What was troubling wasn't that the Sox were losing; what was troubling was that they seemed to deserve it. The starting pitching was erratic, especially after Wells, who can't do it all alone. New shortstop Royce Clayton, while undeniably slick in the field, was off to an awful start at the plate, hitting under .100. Last year's shortstop, Jose Valentin, was shuttling between center field and third base, which didn't seem to please anyone.
Oddly enough, it looks to me as if the answers to the Sox' problems are to be found in the same place as the answers to the Cubs' problems: down on the farm, and the Sox' hope is a lot closer to actually helping. I still like the Sox to win their division and get deep into the playoffs--yes, perhaps the World Series--but that means they'll look quite a bit different in the fall than they do now. I'd look for phenom pitchers Jon Rauch, Jon Garland, and Kip Wells to fill out the rotation. Joe Crede should return to stabilize third base and force manager Jerry Manuel to make a decision about where to play Valentin once and for all. I also look for Mark Johnson to return and help out behind the plate. Otherwise, with Ray Durham at the top of the lineup and Thomas, Magglio Ordoñez, and Carlos Lee in the heart of the order, the Sox remain strong. They just might need a few more changes and some strategic reinforcements to make them realize how strong they still are--and how much stronger they can be.