Sports Section | Sports | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Sports

Sports Section

by

comment

In the bottom of the fourth inning of Bruce Kimm's Wrigley Field debut as Cubs manager last Friday, Mark Bellhorn led off with a double. It was the Cubs' first hit--their first base runner, in fact--and as they trailed the Florida Marlins 1-0, the old-school baseball book called for a bunt. Don Baylor certainly would have bunted; during his two and a half years with the Cubs they bunted more than any other team. Kimm allowed Bill Mueller to swing away. Mueller's grounder to second got Bellhorn to third the same as a sacrifice, but it felt different from a sacrifice, and when Sammy Sosa followed with a run-scoring single to right and Fred McGriff pounded a high, outside A.J. Burnett fastball into the left-field bleachers, putting the Cubs up 3-1, I wondered if Kimm was responsible for this outburst.

A sacrifice bunt is by nature a submissive play. It might increase the runner's chance of scoring, but at the cost of an out, lessening the possibility of a big inning. Earl Weaver, the great Baltimore Orioles manager, used to say a team had only 27 outs in a game and it was a crime to give any of them away; he was content to sit back and wait for the three-run homer, and over the years the teams he put together--full of bruising sluggers like Boog Powell--tended to oblige him. When a bunt puts a runner on third with one out the next batter will be thinking of hitting a sacrifice fly, and no doubt Sosa had that in mind. On the other hand, he'd just seen Mueller handle Burnett pretty well, hitting a crisp grounder in the general direction he'd wanted--to the right side of the infield. Perhaps that had an effect on Sosa. Perhaps a manager who eschews the bunt creates a team that is more aggressive at the plate. Perhaps. File these questions under the heading of baseball chemistry, the subtle interplay of personalities that's so intangible yet clearly the manager's responsibility to maintain. It's what makes the job so difficult.

Under Baylor this season, the team had bad chemistry, and mostly for reasons he brought on himself. The Cubs' pitchers went south without coach Oscar Acosta to psych them and stand up for them. Baylor was eloquent about his distaste for pitchers--he has an ex-hitter's bias against them--and he was asking for a mutiny when he fired Acosta at the end of last season. When the pitching soured, he had no resources to call upon to turn it around.

Baseball writer Bill James is fond of looking back at the playing days of managers to see what managers they served under and what tactics and methods they might have adopted as their own. Baylor seemed somehow to have picked up the worst qualities of Weaver, the manager he broke in under, and Gene Mauch, for whom he had his best years with the California Angels. Mauch had a keen baseball mind and an encyclopedic knowledge of the game, but Baylor acquired only his penchant for the sacrifice--Mauch was among the bunt's greatest proponents--and his refusal to tailor tactics to the situation. (Mauch presided over the Philadelphia Phillies' famous collapse in 1964 and a couple of late-season swoons with the Angels.) From Weaver, Baylor inherited imperiousness--Weaver was distant and cold and expected his players to be self-motivated professionals, not mollycoddled prima donnas, which is why he had such a stormy relationship with Jim Palmer--but none of Weaver's patience or his skill at constructing a batting order. To the very end in Chicago, Baylor insisted on leading off with Delino DeShields or Corey Patterson because they were fast (the way Leo Durocher used to bat Don Kessinger first), ignoring their failure to get on base often enough to give the heart of the order--Sosa, McGriff, and Moises Alou--much of a chance to drive them in.

Kimm immediately installed Bellhorn at second base and in the leadoff spot, because Bellhorn, despite a humble .264 batting average at the All-Star break, had a .391 on-base percentage, second on the team to Sosa's; Bellhorn's 32 walks put him behind only Sosa and McGriff. Sure enough, after Kerry Wood surrendered the 3-1 lead when Preston Wilson hit a hanging slider for a two-run homer in the fifth, Bellhorn led off the sixth with a walk, Mueller followed in kind, and after both moved up on a wild pitch, Bellhorn scored on a McGriff groundout.

Not to give anything away, but the Cubs won Kimm's Wrigley debut and went on to wallop the Marlins 9-2 on Saturday and 10-3 on Sunday, sweeping the series. How much of it was Kimm's doing, and how much was simply the familiar response of an underachieving team to a managerial change? After all, even the lowly Colorado Rockies had a nice spurt early in the season after Clint Hurdle replaced Buddy Bell as manager, only to come plummeting back to earth. But almost everyone agrees that the Cubs were a much better team than their 34-48 record under Baylor, and though Kimm was promoted from Iowa, the Cubs' AAA affiliate, he made it clear he'd come to try to win now with the current personnel, not usher in a youth movement with Bobby Hill and Hee Seop Choi. This gave underperforming veterans like Alou and Todd Hundley a new lease on life. (Kimm specifically singled out Hundley for a larger role.) During batting practice Friday he worked the players as if he were networking a cocktail party, hitting fungoes to Angel Echevarria at first, then chatting with Wood between his turns in the batting cage--something Baylor would never have done.

"He's a lot more intense," Echevarria said after Friday's game. "He goes around the field and talks with all the players. In that way, he's a little different."

"We're going out and playing the game and having a good time doing it," Wood added. "That's what he preaches--that this is a game, and we're going to go out there and have fun and we're going to go out there to win."

Just so: nothing is better for chemistry than winning, and nothing worse for it than losing. All through Kimm's first home game his fortunes and the team's seemed to hang in the balance--and it was a long time getting to a final decision. Wood, again showing an irritating proclivity for giving up the lead, allowed the Marlins to tie the game at four in the top of the seventh. Pesky Luis Castillo doubled down the left-field line with two out and scored when Wood left a fastball over the plate and Andy Fox smacked it into center. But that was it for the Marlins on the day. Five Chicago relievers combined to pitch nine shutout innings, and the Cubs finally pushed a run across in the 16th.

I don't believe Baylor, with his disdainful ways, ever got the Cubs' bullpen to string together nine straight shutout innings. Kimm was nothing but supportive of the pitching, saying afterward, "It doesn't surprise me. I like these pitchers . . . . These guys are all quality pitchers, in the bullpen and the starters." It was probably the biggest compliment the Cubs staff had received since Jim Riggleman was manager in the late 90s.

The game went on forever, but it was a wonderfully exciting afternoon spent under a beautiful clear sky with the wind wafting in off the lake. As dusk settled on the ballpark the bleachers slowly cleared of sunburned fans and the scoreboard posted the first night-game scores from the east. The lights slowly took effect and the field seemed to glow. This was a veritable primer on the sport's distinctive rhythms--the ebb and flow of momentum and tension--and on its disdain for any sort of clock or arbitrary ending. Which of course put the game in marked contrast with the All-Star Game, played earlier in the week in Milwaukee and called a tie at the end of the 11th inning by commissioner Bud Selig once both managers had used up all their pitchers trying to get everyone into the game. That distasteful conclusion had seemed emblematic of everything wrong with the national pastime, right down to the wishy-washy commissioner--and on Friday the baseball gods seemed to respond by saying, "You want extra innings, you got 'em."

Kimm made the questionable decision to let relief pitcher Joe Borowski hit for himself in the 12th even though Alex Gonzalez was on base with a walk, and Borowski struck out to end the inning. But Kimm had only two other pitchers available in the bullpen, Jeff Fassero and Tom "Flash" Gordon, and Fassero had been ineffective this year while Gordon needed to be handled with kid gloves, having just returned from a shoulder injury. Borowski pitched three effective innings but tired in his fourth, the 14th. He gave up a leadoff single to Derrek Lee and booted Mike Mordecai's bunt to put two on. The next batter also bunted to advance the runners, and then--with the Marlins calling the run-on-contact play--Eric Owens hit a sharp grounder back to Borowski. He snagged it, and just as you're taught in Little League he ran right at the runner hung up between third and home. Lee froze and Borowski tagged him out, then looked up and saw Owen racing for second. Borowski threw to Bellhorn at second base, Owen reversed field, and as Bellhorn threw to McGriff at first, Mordecai, who'd advanced to third on the groundout, took off for home. McGriff fired to the plate, and as Mordecai slid in trying to stab the plate with his left hand, Hundley tagged him--out, as umpire Marty Foster called it, although I have to admit I saw the replay several times and still couldn't make up my mind. In any case, it was a routine inning-ending 1-4-3-2 double play.

Every move Kimm made in this game seemed to be the right one, just as every move Baylor made this season seemed to be wrong, which is the clearest manifestation of baseball chemistry there is. Fassero came on and pitched two good innings, and in the bottom of the 16th the Cubs finally got something going. With two out, Patterson singled to right. Hundley, hearing boos while suffering through a 1-for-6 afternoon with three strikeouts, quieted the fans for a moment with another single to right. Now Kimm pinch-hit for Fassero, sending up Echevarria. Working the count against Florida pitcher Carl Pavano he smashed one down the left-field line--just foul. Then Echevarria hit one straight as an arrow deep to center field, where Wilson gloved the ball running at full speed, hit the ivied wall, and collapsed in a heap as the ball trickled from his mitt. The runners went spinning around the bases, although only Patterson's run counted to make the final 5-4. The fans, those several thousand aficionados who remained, went wild. They cheered the Cubs as they congratulated one another on the field, then stayed on to applaud the dazed Wilson as he was led off to the visiting dugout.

"That was a baseball game!" Kimm said in the Cubs' interview room a few minutes later. "There was intensity on both sides, both teams really scrapping away to get the job done." It sounded as if he wasn't just a manager but also something of a baseball fan. I don't know what manager he learned that from, but it wasn't Don Baylor.

Add a comment