It seems to be an era in which the unthinkable has become routine. Sammy Sosa hits 64 home runs, the next-to-last one an inside-the-park gallop around the bases last Saturday like a kid in a Little League game, yet still finishes nine behind Barry Bonds and his record 73. Jon Lieber, traded for the disgraced Brant Brown not three years ago, withstands the pressure of being the Cubs' ace and wins 20 games. The Cubs' entire staff cuts its earned run average by a run a game to climb to fourth in the National League, yet pitching coach Oscar Acosta is relieved of his duties before the end of the season. Finally, the Cubs do indeed play into October, but without making the playoffs, thanks to the added week of rescheduled games brought on by the terrorist attacks on September 11 and, of course, to their own ineptitude.
In such a crazy, mixed-up world, isn't it comforting to know that the Cubs remain utterly, incontrovertibly, eternally the Cubs?
This year's Cubs flop at least didn't sting like the playoff losses in 1989 or, worse yet, 1984, much less like the trauma of 1969. Quite simply, it seemed inevitable. The euphoria brought on by the acquisition of Fred McGriff in August was fleeting, as McGriff fell into a slump readjusting to the National League; and other pennant-race pickups acquired on the cheap, like Michael Tucker and Delino DeShields, proved you get what you pay for. Plainly put, the Cubs didn't have the lineup or the young arms to compete with the Houston Astros and the Saint Louis Cardinals, who both passed them to claim the Central Division title and the wild-card playoff spot. In the end, quality showed, as it usually does over the course of baseball's 162-game season.
Even so, the Cubs and their fans were blessed with such moments that it seemed they should have been something more at the end. Sosa, for one, was a marvel, especially considering that not a year ago his future in Chicago was uncertain. Signed to an extension and challenged by manager Don Baylor to become a more well-rounded player, Sosa did just that. With the help of Baylor's fitness guru, Mark Newton, he took off pounds, added speed and strength, and enjoyed what might have been his best season. His 64 homers were two shy of the 66 he hit chasing Mark McGwire in 1998, but he drove in a career-high 160 runs and amassed over 100 walks for the first time in his career. He led the league with 146 runs scored, and his .328 batting average was well above his .308 of 1998. His play in the field was outstanding, his added speed and quickness allowing him to expand his range. Yet what made the strongest impression on me was how before each game, wearing that no-earflap catcher's helmet during batting practice, he would crank out shot after shot, line drives pulled down the line or sent soaring into the right-center-field gap, as well as titanic cannonades dropped on Waveland beyond the left-field fence. Though on a given day he might have seemed a little more focused, charged up a little extra--as on the night McGriff arrived in town--his production never diminished below some minimum level of excellence. He was a machine. Yet Sosa being Sosa, he was never less than human, as on the night the Cubs returned for their first home game after September 11, and Wrigley Field was all lit up and shining like a national campfire upon the flag-bedecked apartment buildings that surround it, and Sosa homered for his 59th of the season and rounded the bases brandishing a little George Foreman-size U.S. flag. Unfortunately, the Cubs lost that game, and they lost again when Sosa hit his next homer to become the first person ever to hit 60 three times, and that loss eliminated the Cubs from playoff contention.
Kerry Wood returned from arm troubles rumored to be career threatening in September to duel turncoat Greg Maddux and the Atlanta Braves in a game the Cubs desperately needed. Wood looked marvelous, taking a 2-1 lead into the sixth, only to watch reliever David Weathers allow the tying run. Fireballing Kyle Farnsworth gave up the game winner, a windblown homer by Andruw Jones. But Wood kept going, winning two later games to finish 12-6. His injury is what had thrown the Cubs' rotation into disarray, and a later injury to closer Tom Gordon did the same to the bull pen. The Cubs lost five in a row in early September, and another four in a row later in the month when they could least afford it--in Houston and Pittsburgh. That stretch sealed their doom and they staggered home, though not without throwing a scare into the Astros by winning three of four at Wrigley in what should have been the last series of the season.
Even as that pointless final home stand continued with the week of games that had been postponed following September 11, there were surprises. The erratic Julian Tavarez, who had begun the season looking unbeatable only to get booted out of the rotation for ineffectiveness, ended the season as he began it, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning last Saturday against the Pirates. He couldn't throw a straight pitch; his ball was weaving and darting, and everything was knee high. He wearied, walked a couple of batters, hit another, and finally allowed a hit, but the bull pen came on to seal a 13-2 victory and make him the Cubs' fourth ten-game winner, along with Lieber, Wood, and Jason Bere.
The funny thing was, most of those pitchers sided with Acosta in his feud with Baylor, which came to a head with Acosta's forced resignation last week. Baylor had a strained relationship with his pitching staff last year, so Acosta should be credited with its improvement this year--and many of the pitchers were willing to say so in the press. Now Baylor faces a full-scale mutiny by his pitchers. Baylor won 88 games with a team most had picked for mediocrity; but considering the ineffectiveness of the veteran hitters he went with down the stretch--like Tucker, Matt Stairs, and Ron Coomer until he was injured--and the manager's inability to work in talented youngsters like Roosevelt Brown and Corey Patterson until it was too late, the future did not look bright.
And then Arne Harris died.
As the producer and director of the Cubs' broadcasts on WGN-TV for the past 38 years, Harris not only developed his own distinctive style of presenting a ball game but taught Chicago baseball fans how to watch a game. There was no better match between artist and subject than between Harris and the Cubs, because in his mind's eye--in the pictures we saw--winning and losing were less important than the people and other fine details surrounding the athletics.
I was thinking of Harris as I sat in the press box last Sunday for the final game of the season and gazed out at the sailboats on Lake Michigan--a favorite Harris view even in the tightest of contests. It wasn't that the game wasn't interesting. It was captivating, even though the outcome was meaningless. The Cubs threw their new pitching phenom, Juan Cruz, at the Pirates, and Cruz looked almost as impressive as Tavarez had the day before, slinging the ball with that big, whip-armed motion of his toward the plate, sailing fastballs away from left-handed hitters and sliders away from righties and generally dropping a lovely curve over the plate whenever the hitter least expected it. He left after five innings--the minimum required to earn the victory--having amassed eight strikeouts and a 2-1 lead, the second run coming on Sosa's 159th RBI of the season in the first inning. The bull pen could carry him home.
Unfortunately, Carlos Zambrano came on in the seventh inning with that short-arm delivery of his--the antithesis of Cruz's--and he didn't get a man out. The three-run homer he delivered to Chad Hermansen gave the Pirates a 4-2 lead. By this time I'd moved down to the seats behind home plate--vacant, although the announced crowd of 35,083 brought the Cubs' season attendance to 2,779,464, second-highest in team history--and found myself paying homage to Harris by watching the game through his eyes. I saw hat shots: two guys wearing billed toques, a guy wearing a bedraggled U.S. flag bandanna, a boy wearing a plastic toy firefighter's helmet. I saw women talking together, fathers explaining the game to sons, and two mourning doves resting on the cable that suspends the screen behind home plate. It was too cold for the women in halter tops that Harris was so fond of putting on camera, and there was something Harris had never been able to convey on TV: the faintly chalky smell of a hot chocolate vendor going down the aisle.
In the bottom of the eighth came a moment he would have captured perfectly. Sosa stepped to the plate for what was probably the last time of the season. The crowd gave him a standing ovation and remained on its feet. I could see Harris dissolving from shot to shot and back to Sosa, who proceeded to hit a pitch into the center-field corner of the left-field bleachers for his 64th homer and 160th RBI of the year. He rounded the bases. The crowd cheered, and kept on cheering until Sosa had no doubt gestured to the dugout camera and then climbed the dugout steps for a curtain call.
But the Cubs still trailed 4-3, and they went without a fuss in the ninth. The crowd offered a sustained round of applause, but the Pirates had the field and were congratulating one another as the Cubs disappeared to their locker room. The season was over, gone like mourning doves into the distance, gone like sailboats along the shore, gone like the laughing flesh of summer, gone like Arne Harris and too many others to name.