My brother came downtown last month, on a day I had to work, and he and a friend went off to the bleachers to watch the Cubs. Later that night, I asked how the day had gone--I believe the Cubs had lost, although I've forgotten--and after he recalled the highlights of the game my brother went on and said he had enjoyed nothing so much as watching Dave Martinez and Andre Dawson warm up between innings. He was going on to explain how it was interesting to watch their contrasting styles--even in just warming up--how Martinez throws with an outfielder's motion, his arm straight over the top, like a catapult, while Dawson throws off his ear, like a catcher, and how Martinez puts an arc on his tosses, while Dawson's warm-up throws have the same trajectory as his hits--line drives--and that perhaps the most amazing thing about them is the pinpoint accuracy they routinely display--lob, liner, lob, liner--almost willing the ball into each other's glove at a distance of 200 feet--anyway, be was explaining all this when I interrupted, "Yes, yes," because I and my season-ticket seatmate had noticed the same thing only the weekend before from our vantage point in the upper deck and had marveled at these two players for the same reasons. I mention this to show not that brothers' minds sometimes work in the same odd fashion, but that baseball fans' minds and thoughts are often alike--to remind us that this sort of moment is what most of us find endearing about the game, a moment difficult to convey to the unconverted. Here are two fellows, really just playing catch, that's all, yet we find that in even this small act they establish their field personae with clarity and grace. We've talked with players recently, and soon we expect to find room for their comments in the space of this column, but for the time being I'd like to step back again and expand on an idea mentioned a month ago--about how the Cubs are undergoing a subtle but almost all-consuming change in character, from a team of exciting and demonstrative personalities to a team of younger and--on the surface, anyway--more professional players, no less exciting.
The player who acts as the bridge from the 1984 division-winning Cubs to the new, promising Cubs is, of course, Ryne Sandberg. Unlike Gary Matthews, who made even the act of catching a routine fly ball an act of heroism, or the fiery Keith Moreland or the overtly emotional Leon Durham, Sandberg stood out among his teammates by his talent and his very blandness on the field. Now, four years after his MVP season and bearing down on 30, he is making the transition in our minds to elder statesman and representative of what the new Cubs are, the kind of baseball they play. Sandberg, with his smooth work in the field, his knowing exchange of whispered signals with the shortstop between pitches, and the efficient way he glides around the bases from home to third on a triple, is obviously a player who has given thought to the most minute aspects of the game. His batting stance is, literally, almost cut from a textbook (I remember the first baseball instruction manual I ever saw, in grade school, and aside from his hands being a little lower, a little closer to the body, Sandberg--with his bent knees, his back bent faintly forward, his body perpendicular to the pitcher--holds the same position as what that book called the "ideal" batting stance). Sandberg is a player who does things correctly, and in this I think he is the spirit of the new Cubs.
Martinez was the first of the new Cubs to arrive on the scene after the descent of the 1984 division champs. At first he seemed timid and overmatched within the major-league setting, but again he showed himself, almost immediately, to be a player of ability, whose timidity was perhaps a function of his very thoughtfulness toward the game. His fielding was, first and foremost, what attracted attention. He runs in a fleet and mannerly fashion, chasing down fly balls with a stride that seems to depict a trained British track star of the Chariots of Fire era; his back is almost overly erect, even at top speed, and he reins himself in until the last moment, until he makes whatever lunge or leap is necessary to catch the ball. The accuracy and strength of his over-the-top throwing motion were especially noticeable when compared with Bob Dernier, who never threw well, not even in his best seasons. At bat, Martinez has retained a stance in which he holds his hands out, away from the body, meant both to prevent him from developing a hitch in his swing and to better cover the outside part of the plate with a quick bat. At first, he was tentative; even in batting practice he tried merely to slap the ball into left. Early last season, told to improve at the plate or go back to the minors, he got aggressive and began pulling the ball, and he has turned into one of the team's better hitters. Yet, ever thoughtful and alert, he's been hurt more than most players this year by the new, larger strike zone, which has taken the initiative away from the more watchful hitters.
Rafael Palmeiro arrived on the scene almost immediately after Martinez, in 1986, but failed to make the team the following spring. His skill with the bat was always evident, however, and now he is among the league's leading hitters. At the plate, Palmeiro is of that rare sort who combines a knowledge of the fundamentals with a certain amount of extraordinary skill to form a swing that is really better than textbook, that has that quality of ease and efficiency we call grace. Sandberg has a textbook swing. Palmeiro has a textbook swing that is augmented by a fluid roll of the wrists that cannot be taught; it must be inborn and then developed. Watching Sandberg is watching a player who made himself a major leaguer; watching Palmeiro is watching a player who was destined for the majors from the moment he picked up a bat. He is not without his deficiencies, however, and in the field the perspiration of having to work at his craft shows a bit more than it does at the plate, although with the result that--with his two-handed catches on routine fly balls--he has made it evident that he is a pretty good left fielder. He's made some excellent plays this year, and he covers his assigned territory well, but his strength and weakness were best shown last weekend in a game against the Mets. Shifted to right field for the afternoon, to give Dawson a rest, he charged one grounder aggressively and threw Gary Carter out going from first to third. Yet a few plays later he was fooled on the spin of a line drive (the spin of a ball going to right field is the opposite of balls hit to left and must be learned and relearned) and he couldn't quite get to a ball that was really rather routine. Even so, it's refreshing to see a player who appears to have such an easy time of it at the plate having to struggle to make himself a passable fielder; it's the inevitable sign of humanity in a person who is hitting .332 54 games into his first full major-league season.
This new quality of correctness is not limited to the Cubs' hitters; their pitchers demonstrate it as well, none better than Greg Maddux. Maddux, again, has a textbook pitching motion, and when one realizes there is much greater variance in pitching motions than in swings, Maddux says at least as much about the new character of the Cubs in his carriage on the field as does Sandberg or the other hitters. There is nothing complicated about Maddux's motion: he raises his hands, turns perpendicular to the plate, kicks, and delivers. Especially noticeable are the controlled energy of his kick and the hop at the end of the motion--two functions of the speed of his fastball. Like Ron Guidry, Maddux is a small man who throws hard but with an easy, fundamental motion: the strong kick gives him momentum coming down the mound, momentum that must be then cushioned by the left leg, which bends to absorb the shock and then flexes, just as anything that is struck then strikes back (thus the hop). Last year, as a fastball pitcher being rushed to the majors, he struggled a good deal; this year, with a much-improved curve, he has had the pitches to keep the batters off stride and has become the Cubs' ace. It's beautiful to watch him blaze a fastball on one pitch and then roll the curve gently off his fingers, out of the same motion, on the next.
The newest Cubs appear to fit very well within this character of correctness we've established. First baseman Mark Grace is, as many people have commented, peach-faced and fresh-looking, but he, too, has that easy yet studied swing. He assumes a position at the plate that seems a little unnatural for its naturalness, his elbows stuck out in the manner of an affected 17-year-old leaning over the bar so that he'll be more likely to be served a drink. Once the swing begins, however, it is smooth and flat, with an elegant, Charlie Lau-ish one-handed finish. He has been especially adept at hitting to the opposite field--a fine quality for a rookie; he practically blocks the ball into left field, all forearms, like Errol Flynn deflecting a low, slashing sword thrust. He appears to be better than average in the field, and if he is not quite as good as Durham at throws in the dirt, we hope to find out, eventually, that he is better than the Bull at fielding ground balls hit right at him in important play-off games.
Catchers really aren't any fun unless they're a bit odd, and Damon Berryhill seems, thus far, to be as correct as we can expect at this position. Yet it's really too early to say, and besides we haven't yet given up on Jody Davis, so there will be time, in the future, to study Berryhill at better length. On the pitching staff, as we said before, there is a bit more room for difference. Of our two most promising newer pitchers, Jamie Moyer and Lester Lancaster, neither is exceptionally strong on fundamentals. Moyer works his gum on the pitching mound the way a puppy worries an old shoe, with his jaw muscles ever tensing and flexing. His arm lags behind ever so slightly in his pitching motion, making his change-up all the more difficult to decipher. Lancaster, meanwhile, rushes through his pitching motion like the most committed of coffee achievers; sometimes, when he pitches, it seems for an instant that there must be a rain delay and that we're watching, instead, one of those early World Series films, from 1945 or '48, where all the motions are slightly speeded up. As if to counter the uniqueness of these two pitchers, the Cubs recently called up Jeff Pico. I watched his first major-league game last week and was impressed by the simplicity of his motion--just kick and throw, not even any pump of the arms--and the way he knew his own strengths and limitations and just kept the ball around the plate and made the Cincinnati Reds hit it. He pitched a four-hit shutout; we'll have to wait to see whether it was fluke or fundamentals that did it.
Yet Lancaster, Moyer, Shawon Dunston, and Calvin Schiraldi are the odd examples that give the club variety. What typifies the new Cubs is their correctness, their knowledge of fundamentals, and the one benefit sure to come from a team of ball players that thinks about and concentrates on the fundamentals and the reasons behind them is that they are sure to stay of their games longer than most players; and with so many new Cubs coming up within the last couple of years--and so many, including pitcher Mike and outfielder Dwight Smith, on the horizon--that is likely to be a long time indeed.