Sports Section | Sports | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Sports

Sports Section

by

comment

On the long way home from Troy, Odysseus and his men made an early stop among a people who greeted them warmly and offered them the lotus, the native delicacy. But those who tasted this fruit lost their memory--and all desire to continue the journey. Odysseus had to force these men back aboard the ships and tie them down before he could push on.

Wrigley Field is baseball's land of the lotus-eaters, a place so warm, intimate, and beautiful that it's easy to forget about the importance of winning. This charm drives "serious" baseball fans to distraction, and one hears more and more the argument that the Cubs will never win so long as they play in the Friendly Confines. (As if these harder-hearted fans will ever round up their mellow fellows, drive them to some domed stadium in the suburbs, and force the Cubs to compete.) Fortunately, the Tribune Company has come to embrace Wrigley Field as the cash cow it is. Unfortunately, a conglomerate like Tribune always wants to get a little more milk out of the cow, resulting in battles over bleacher expansion and adjacent rooftops. The season ended with more conflict surrounding the Cubs and their park than there was on the field of play. And I join what seems to be the vast majority of Cubs fans in contentedly thinking, so be it. Tear me off some more of that lotus.

The Cubs ended the season at Wrigley two Sundays ago. Their record going into the game was 66-95, putting them a full 30 games behind the National League Central champs, the Saint Louis Cardinals. This performance cemented the Cubs in fifth place in the division, ahead of only the woebegone Milwaukee Brewers, and well behind the day's opponents, the bedraggled Pittsburgh Pirates at 72-88. Yet 37,541 fans came out--even as the Bears were playing a critical early season game on TV against the Buffalo Bills. At the end of the day, there probably wasn't a fan in the stands who regretted that decision.

The main attraction was Sammy Sosa, who'd hit a dry patch as he tried to become the first player ever to hit 50 homers five times and, coincidentally, reach the monumental figure of 500 for his career. He sat on 48 and 498 at the start of the day and--obviously pressing and swinging at bad pitches--had not homered in more than a week. The last homer had come against the Pirates, however--a good omen, as was the weather. A heavy morning rain washed out batting practice, but by game time the skies had cleared to reveal a glorious fall day. There wasn't a cloud to be seen, only a steamy, pale quality to the light as one looked off into the distance, and a brown haze along the horizon. It was 78 degrees at Kerry Wood's first pitch, with the wind wafting straight out to center--ideal hitting conditions.

That didn't seem to fluster Wood, who looked determined to finish ahead of the league after entering the game at 11-11, the victim of several bull-pen collapses during the season. Kicking high, knee against chest, and striding purposefully straight down the mound--to keep from throwing across his body--he displayed an exploding curveball early. He threw one that made Jack Wilson hit the ground--only to watch the ball dip across the plate for a called strike. Wilson got back up and singled to center, but Wood got out of the inning with a 3-6-3 double play smoothly turned by Hee Seop Choi, the mammoth Korean first baseman freshly arrived from the minors.

Choi, however, constituted a problem for Sosa. Hitting cleanup behind Sosa, Choi wasn't as threatening as the veteran Fred McGriff, meaning Sosa was getting harder pitches to hit. Interim manager Bruce Kimm was caught in a bind of circumstances--as he had been in so many ways during his half season as skipper, which ended just that morning with the official announcement that he wouldn't be returning to the job next year. (A likable baseball workhorse, Kimm never really seemed to belong in a major league manager's office. The Cubs lost one game on a late-inning homer, and his only response afterward was an awed, "You know, the players are pretty good up here." He took the news of his firing like a man, though he did keep his wraparound shades on throughout his pregame session with reporters.) Kimm had been blistered for playing McGriff when the club should have been looking at Choi, but after McGriff reached the personal goal of 30 homers Kimm had no choice but to start Choi, and it was up to Sosa to reach 50 and 500 on his own.

Rookie Bobby Hill led off the first with a triple to right center and stayed put on a pop fly by Mark Bellhorn. That brought up Sosa, and if the game had meant anything Sosa certainly would have been walked--to avoid him and to set up an inning-ending double play. Pittsburgh starter Josh Fogg, one of the two fine White Sox pitchers the Bucs received for Todd Ritchie, honorably went to work on Sosa--albeit with caution. He got ahead 1-2, then nibbled at the corners. On a full count, Fogg threw a curve--a selection as timid as it was savvy. But Sosa clubbed it to straightaway center. The ball went on and on and dropped in the bleachers, where the fan who caught it was immediately surrounded by security and escorted out--like a practice drill for Sosa's 500th. Sosa rounded the bases and the fans roared, knowing that every trip he made to the plate the rest of the day would be loaded with drama. I had images of Andre Dawson's last-at-bat-of-the-season homer in 1987, which gave him 49 for the year, sealed the most valuable player award, and brought a dramatic end to a season that had begun with his signing a bargain-basement contract just to join the Cubs. The Cubs finished last that year, but I've treasured that memory with the best of Michael Jordan. Now Sosa had a similar chance to redeem the seemingly irredeemable.

Struggling with his rhythm in the second, Wood gave up a homer to Aramis Ramirez on a predictable 3-0 fastball, but then he settled down and retired 12 batters in a row, half of them on strikeouts. Sosa came up in the third with runners on first and second, meaning Fogg had to pitch to him, and the fans gave him a standing ovation. But as they wouldn't in a game that meant something, the fans grew almost silent with every pitch as if to allow Sosa to concentrate, like a golfer lining up a putt. Sosa fanned on a well-placed inside fastball and the fans went Awwwww, but with a hopeful note to it, as Sosa would be coming up again.

But in the fifth Fogg was on the ropes and not so chivalrous. There were runners at the corners and two out when Sosa came up, and Fogg gave him nothing to hit. He threw a curve for a ball, a slider for a ball, and then another ball. The fans booed, but after a token 3-0 strike Fogg walked him and there was a sustained chorus of boos. Choi coaxed another walk by fouling off a couple of full-count pitches, thus pushing a run home, and Angel Echevarria made Fogg pay with a two-run double to put the Cubs up 5-1. Even the self-reliant Wood seemed comfortable turning that lead over to the bull pen after working through the top of the sixth.

Yet the Cubs' lead likely meant no bottom of the ninth. So this would probably be Sosa's last chance when he came to the plate against Pittsburgh reliever Al Reyes in the seventh, again with Hill on base thanks to a leadoff double. Boos greeted ball one and intensified when Sosa received a little chin music from a high, tight fastball for ball two. Reyes went to 3-0 before working back. Sosa fouled off a plum pitch, missed a high fastball, and waved through another for strike three. Fans cheered him regardless, and Sosa walked back to the steps in the middle of the dugout as if to soak it in. Again Choi walked, and when Echevarria blooped a single to center, a ball misjudged by Rob Mackowiak, Choi huffed all the way home behind Hill to score and make it 7-1.

In the bottom of the eighth fans rooted for every pitch, knowing it would take three base runners to get Sosa to the plate. Alex Gonzalez was booed when he took a called third strike. Joe Girardi was cheered for legging out an infield single. Pinch hitter Roosevelt Brown took two balls, and people actually began to get hopeful--the crowd buzzed with anticipation--but then he flied to center. Hill, two batters in front of Sosa, took a 3-1 pitch that looked high and fans booed when it was called a strike. He grounded to second on the next pitch.

If they'd held a fan vote to see if the Cubs should surrender their big lead to get Sosa to the plate again, I'm not sure which side would have won. The Cubs certainly gave up too many leads with far less to gain during the season. But the dependable Joe Borowski, one of the few Chicago relievers to conduct himself well this year, completed a workmanlike season by giving up a run over two innings, and Juan Cruz, auditioning for a chance to become the Cubs' closer next year, struggled in the ninth but escaped with the bases loaded to preserve a 7-3 victory.

Along about the seventh inning, an inappropriate roar rolled through the crowd--the result of fans with radios responding to the Bears blocking what would have been a game-winning field goal to send their game into overtime. After that fans concentrated on Sosa, and there was little discernible response when the Bears soon lost. What did that matter in the ultimate scheme of things? What mattered was the scene, the camaraderie, and the drama to be gleaned from small moments on the field.

After Sosa's seventh-inning strikeout, I left the press box, where I'd been sitting to study the replays on TV, and moved down to the lower deck, settling into some vacated seats just behind the first crosswalk. I noticed that those gray bleacher "windscreens," put up to block the view from the rooftops, still served above all to mar the panorama of the surrounding neighborhood from the low-level seats. But the proximity of the play--closer than one can get to most high-school games--soon overwhelmed even my pique at the Tribune Company. All around I heard chimes of "Seeya next year"--from vendors to their regular customers, from fans to ushers, and from seat mates to each other.

Next year indeed looks more optimistic. Hill hit over .300 for most of September, and I like how both he and Choi know how to take a pitch--something they can teach Corey Patterson by example, one hopes. I like the idea of platooning Choi with Julio Zuleta, especially if Moises Alou can return to form and protect Sosa by hitting in the cleanup spot. The starting pitching is young and strong, and other teams have recently shown that the bull pen is an easy fix with some astute free-agent signings. Cruz would certainly seem to have the stuff to duplicate what the young Eric Gagne did this year with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Bellhorn is serviceable at third, but could be upgraded if the Trib opens its hefty pocketbook; the same goes for catcher, where Todd Hundley is less than serviceable but could play a role if the team gets a dependable backstop in the meantime.

The fans rose to their feet with the final out, and cheered the Cubs long and hard--Sosa above all. He doffed his cap as he got to the dugout, then tossed it into the stands. Several other Cubs followed suit. Then they were gone, leaving the fans who had stayed to the end quite sated, and leading me to think that if the Cubs ever, somehow, bring a World Series to Wrigley Field--much less win one--it might be too much joy for anyone to endure.

Add a comment