Those who write about baseball for a living tend to forget that for many fans the sport serves not as a source of inspiration or edification but simply as an escape. They go out to the ballpark not just to enjoy the game and the players and the grandstand camaraderie, but to get away from it all for an afternoon or evening. The game's leisurely pace lends itself to that purpose. Football and basketball are more urgent altogether, and while hockey does have its two intermissions to recommend it, the play can be intense. (Truly it can, though Blackhawks fans might need to be reminded of that.) Soccer has elements of baseball's Zen placidity, but as uneventful as it tends to be I always get the anxious feeling I'll miss something--one of those goals out of nowhere--if I don't pay close attention every moment.
Without going into detail, I'll admit I felt the need for a healthy dose of baseball's unique healing qualities in recent days, and the first Cubs-White Sox doubleheader of the year--what my friend Dave Jones always refers to as a "doubleday," with a nod to the sport's apocryphal inventor--offered a perfect opportunity last Friday. I left the house just before noon for a 2:20 game at Wrigley Field, to be followed by a 7:05 night game at Sox Park, and while I didn't quite not care if I never got back, I was thinking the longer I'm gone the better.
The day wasn't quite as accommodating as it could have been. It was clear, without a cloud in the sky, but crisp and cold, with the wind off the lake blowing straight in over the scoreboard when I got on the field at Wrigley. Even worse, the Cubs, having returned after midnight from a road trip ending in San Francisco, had eschewed batting practice--so it was cold and there was nothing to watch. I resolved to be self-indulgent: I'd monitor both games from the comfort of the press box and pull the game in around me like a down comforter.
When Dusty Baker, the Cubs' new manager, opened his office to the beat writers before the game, I tagged along just to get out of the cold. The office is a cozy little sanctum with a wall-unit CD player kitty-corner from a couple of crosses--one of carved wood, the other a leafy Palm Sunday construction--and with pictures of great baseball players (Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Roberto Clemente, and Baker himself with Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and the like) sharing space with musicians John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, and Miles Davis. Sitting in first place at the end of his first month with the club at 16-12, Baker was pleasant and welcoming, but also insightful.
"May's going to be a real test for us, more than any other month," he said. "It's going to put a real test on our team." He was looking ahead to a 14-game road trip against National League Central Division rivals, including the completion of May's home-and-home series with the Saint Louis Cardinals. Having considered the big picture he zoomed in on the afternoon, bemoaning the need to play a day game on returning home from a road trip simply because a city ordinance prohibits Friday-night dates at Wrigley. He said Billy Williams had warned him he'd almost need "a turnaround team" of bench players to let the starters rest on such occasions.
He did that at the top of the order, giving second baseman Mark Grudzielanek the day off and moving center fielder Corey Patterson into the leadoff spot. The Colorado Rockies' chunky starter, Shawn Chacon, came into the game undefeated with four wins and a sparkling 1.04 earned run average, and he threw two straight fastballs by Patterson. He failed to observe the three-on-a-match proviso, however, and Patterson laced the next pitch, another fastball, into right field for a single. He stole second, and Alex Gonzalez walked, but Sammy Sosa took a called third strike when Chacon shaved the corner with a curve, and Moises Alou ended the inning with a double-play grounder.
Chacon has a kick in which he glides his left foot just above the dirt, giving him, because of his girth, the look of Jackie Gleason saying "And away we go" as he strides down the mound. But this surface elan eluded him in the next two innings. Hee Seop Choi, whom Baker calls "Big Choi," smacked a leadoff double to center in the second, finishing his swing with that effortless one-handed flourish that has already become so familiar, and Mark Bellhorn doubled to right to drive him home. After a walk to Paul Bako, Bellhorn was thrown out at third on a double-steal attempt, but Cubs starter Shawn Estes, who bats the way a rich man does housework, shocked everyone by scoring Bako with a looping single to center. Gonzalez opened the third with a single, and Sosa followed with a long fly to right field. He considered giving his homer hop, but thought better of it with the wind blowing in at 20 miles an hour and took off at a run. Good thing, too, because while the ball might have wound up deep in the right-field bleachers on a warmer day, the wind grabbed it and pushed it toward the line, where it dropped in front of a speeding Larry Walker for a double that scored Gonzalez. A couple of walks loaded the bases, and Ramon Martinez, playing for Grudzie, cued one off the end of his bat in front of the plate. Chacon had trouble picking up the slippery grounder and had to settle for an out at first as Sosa scored to give the Cubs a 5-0 lead.
That lead held because Estes was going in Chacon's opposite direction. Entering the game with a 7.43 ERA, the lean left-hander appeared to have altered his motion to bring it more over the top, and he proceeded to walk the leadoff man on four pitches with this new delivery. But then he settled down, and the upright arm motion proved to give extra bite to his curve, which he complemented by spotting his fastball. In one stretch he retired eight men in a row. Pinch hitter Gabe Kapler, batting for Chacon, led off the sixth with a double and scored on a single by the jug-eared, smiling Todd Helton, who plays baseball like someone granted a childhood dream. But Estes got out of the inning on a double-play grounder to Choi, Estes himself taking the return throw from Gonzalez at first base. Likewise, the seventh included a lovely double play, with Martinez stabbing a grounder up the middle and flipping to Gonzalez, who pirouetted to make a low throw to first, where a stretching Choi dug it out of the dirt.
In the meantime, the Cubs had padded their lead in the fifth when Sosa led off with yet another wind-blown double down the right-field line and scored on a single by Bellhorn. Sosa scored again after a leadoff walk in the seventh, coming home on another double by Choi and a sacrifice fly by Bellhorn. So when Estes lost his out pitch in the eighth, giving up three runs after Chris Stynes and Brent Butler each fouled off full-count pitches and reached base, there wasn't much cause for concern. The long-legged Kyle Farnsworth, who has tightened up his motion this year to give him better control, blew away Preston Wilson with a full-count fastball right down the middle--"Here it is, try to hit it"--and Joe Borowski finished up for the save. With Antonio Alfonseca still sidelined by a pulled hamstring suffered in spring training, Borowski, previously known as a regular-joe middle reliever, has become the Cubs' bullpen ace. The husky closer has a simple motion--his hands part as he kicks and then he strides straight down the mound--but everything he throws is low and on the corners. When Greg Norton popped to center for the final out of the game, Borowski gave a little kick of joy as Patterson gloved it to give the Cubs a 7-4 win. The Cubs lined up for congratulations on the infield--the players on the field in their uniforms meeting those off the bench in their warmup jackets--and as the fans poured out of the stadium and onto the streets, organist Gary Pressy played a jolly rendition of "Let a Winner Lead the Way."
After a brisk ride south on the Red Line, I was on the field at Sox Park watching batting practice in less than an hour. The Sox had finished and gone back to their locker room, but the visiting Seattle Mariners were still hitting. As the sun went down and the grandstand shadow crawled across the field, each pop fly burst briefly into the sunlight before descending back into shadow, and it took longer and longer shots to reach the sun as the evening began to cool. (Even so the game-time temperature was 49, two degrees higher than Wrigley's that afternoon.) Like the visiting Rockies before them, the Mariners were outfitted for the weather, with black fleece tunics and woolly winter caps. Mike Cameron, the old Sox prospect dealt away for Paul Konerko a few years ago, wore his cap rolled up like a sailor on watch, and during the game second baseman Brett Boone would wear his turtleneck unrolled to cover his chin and mouth; he looked like a bandit, or like Mort from the Bazooka Joe comics. But these fashion details soon yielded to the details of the Mariners' play, especially that of Ichiro Suzuki. His trademark sunglasses perched on the visor of his cap, he looked almost foxy, with keen eyes, wide cheeks, and a sharp, pointy nose and chin. What I hadn't noticed before was the coquettish way he brings his knees together while awaiting the pitch, to trigger the smooth, even swish of his hips as they lead the swing.
After two years of chewing up the American League as Seattle's leadoff man, Suzuki came into the game hitting a humble .252. Things didn't get any better for him either--not in this game--as he went 1-for-5. But the Mariners didn't need him. The Sox started their surprising free-agent pickup Esteban Loaiza, who'd won five games without a loss in April, beginning with the home opener, when he put the Sox in the win column after three losses in Kansas City. His crisp, efficient motion sees him bring hands over head, kick, and then lean back, letting his rear end lead him down the mound. With the Sox offense sputtering in the early going, and co-aces Mark Buehrle and Bartolo Colon both off to uneven starts, it was frightful to think where the Sox would be without Loaiza. As it was, they were 15-13, only a game worse than the Cubs at the start of the day but already three and a half games behind the streaking Royals in the AL Central. Whatever the Sox' fate without Loaiza, it suddenly beckoned anew when his April magic ran dry, and after two quick outs the Mariners pounded him for two hits, a walk, a run-scoring walk, and a run-scoring single. It would have been even worse if left fielder Carlos Lee hadn't scooped up that last hit on the run and fired a strike on the fly to the plate, where Miguel Olivo tagged out John Olerud to end the inning.
The Sox defense offered Loaiza nothing so fine in the fourth. Cameron led off with a double to center, where the newly recalled Willie Harris grabbed the ball and hurled it blindly to second. The correct throw would have been to the cutoff man, shortstop Jose Valentin in the outfield, and for some reason second baseman D'Angelo Jimenez had moved over to back him up, leaving no one at second base. Cameron went to third on the error, which was charged to Harris, and scored on a sacrifice fly. The Mariners followed with three straight singles to center, and, after an infield fly, another single and a run-scoring walk, which finished Loaiza for the day with the Sox down 5-1.
When Cameron led off the fifth with a single and came around to score, official scorer Bob Rosenberg sounded clinically depressed announcing the sacrifice fly in the press box. Cameron opened the seventh with a homer, low and into the teeth of the wind, that banged off the back wall of the Sox bullpen and led to another three-run inning and a 9-2 score, which is where the game wound up.
Through it all the Sox looked listless and miserable. While the Mariners were putting base runners in motion on the hit-and-run, the slugging Sox were playing station-to-station baseball and grounding into three rally-killing double plays, including one by Magglio Ordonez with the bases loaded and nobody out in the first. What's more, in the sixth, with two on, one out, and one run already in, Ordonez lined to second base, and Harris fell down trying to scramble back to second and was doubled off. The Mariners' last two runs in the seventh came when Carlos Lee fell down chasing a fly ball in left. At that point, a fan in the grandstand below burst into hysterics that went on for minutes, like one of those old "Bag o' Laffs" novelty gags. Worst of all, while the Cubs played before 29,236 hardy fans on a chilly afternoon, the Sox drew a paltry 13,355.
The Sox' early-season woes had become habitual. Their slugging lineup again went silent hitting the heavy, cold rock of April baseball, and manager Jerry Manuel seemed powerless to do anything about it. Where before the weekend was over Baker would put both of his slow first basemen--Big Choi and Eric Karros--in motion on the hit-and-run, Manuel just sat there and waited for the homers to come. "I just have to keep the faith that it's going to come around," he said Friday, a sentiment he repeated almost word for word the following night after a 12-2 loss. The Sox went on to be swept 5-1 in a rain-shortened game on Sunday, after the Cubs, who'd blown a lead in a 6-4 loss Saturday, salvaged the rubber game of their series with the Rox with a 5-4 win on a tenth-inning walk-off homer by pinch hitter Gonzalez, fully rested thanks to the day off.
It was a tale of one city and two teams: the best of times for one, the worst for the other. The death watch thickened around Manuel, and I'd felt it descending. As I returned home Friday night, almost 11 hours to the second after leaving for the day, I thought that whatever worries I had, the Sox had worse.