Is it only the weather, or have the days actually melted, one into the next, in the same manner that spring has bled into summer? It seems the ivy at Wrigley Field has been green for months, that we are forever under a bleached-out blue sky, crisscrossed by vapor-trail clouds that don't scud so much as they hang in the same place and wait for the earth to move. In this dreamlike trance, the Cubs have no acknowledged chance at challenging for the division lead, but they are playing well nevertheless. Greg Maddux seems always to be on the mound, setting down the opposition in short unmemorable innings; to quote a favorite writer on our mind last week, Greg Maddux deals with batters the way a butcher deals with meat. He works patiently into the middle innings, waiting for Vance Law to provide the inevitable two-out RBI, then he closes down the other side with dispatch, relying ever more on fastballs as the day goes on. Mark Grace, Darrin Jackson, Rafael Palmeiro, Damon Berryhill--how long have these guys been here? It seems like forever.
Don Zimmer is holding forth, standing in front of the Cubs' dugout. If there are disciplinarians and players' managers, curmudgeons and communicators, Zimmer is not merely a communicator but a media manager. Like Whitey Herzog, Zimmer realizes that a goodly portion of his job is to entertain--or, to put it more adroitly, to guard his club of young players from undue media attention--and he does so by distracting the writers and cameras that hover about. His pregame interviews with Harry Caray on radio's Don Zimmer Show are always well attended by beat writers, who turn their tape recorders on and wait for something of interest to be said. On this occasion, however, he is warming up for the show to come, talking about his managing coup of the day before--as always with a note of self-deprecation. His chin, as usual, drips from his face in the manner of a dollop of honey hardened under the mouth of a jar. He reminds the writers of the situation: one out, bases loaded, two strikes on Vance Law, who executes a suicide squeeze bunt to win the game. One of the writers asks what if Law misses the bunt. Zimmer smiles. "If he misses that squeeze," Zimmer says, "I might've been floating down the Chicago River." He pauses to let the ambiguities, the illogical jump of that statement sink in. Then he adds, "And with this belly I'd sink, that's for sure."
That same day, I believe, the San Diego Padres' John Kruk steps into the batting cage, twirls his bat a couple times over his head like the reluctant propeller of a biplane, then smacks the first pitch into right field. As if he has an eye on himself, he says "Contact," and Keith Moreland, standing next to the cage, echoes the same and adds "Ready for takeoff," and the two of them go about their flight fantasy, tagging line drives out between pitchers running sprints in the outfield.
Larry Bowa, the late Padre manager (is he dead already? it seems like only yesterday he was still in there, playing cards in the locker room, telling interviewers he was busy), leans against the cage and says to Kruk, "C'mon Fat Albert." He also keeps referring to "cabesas," as in, "Let's have the cabesa. We need some cabesas." Does this make sense to anyone?
Sandy Alomar, a Padre coach, is pitching batting practice to a group of players that includes his son Roberto, a rookie with the team. Alomar, too, was a baseball player; he had a successful career and spent a couple of seasons with the White Sox. I am wondering how much his career has to do with his son's success, how often he was able to take time out to throw batting practice to his sons while he was still playing ball. Amos Otis, the Padres' hitting coach, says to Roberto in the batting cage, "Your dad throws you more strikes than he throws anybody else."
The Saint Louis Cardinals' Willie McGee--like many players--shortens his stride in batting practice; in fact, he takes little stride at all, the better to work on the balance of the stroke itself. He is all waiting and a flurry of wrists as he swings, and on an inside pitch he appears, for a moment, like a man fighting off a swarm of bees with a rolled-up newspaper.
A scalper is working on a pair of fans outside Wrigley Field. He holds up his hand to shoulder height, brandishes the stubs like a telling hand of cards, and looks off down the distance of Clark Street. He says, simply, "It's the chateaubriand of tickets."
The Ted Butterman Quintet--the small Dixieland combo--is forever playing "Puttin' on the Ritz." Before the game, the Wrigley Field public-address system plays host to a medley of Beach Boys hits, a medley of Motown hits, or a medley of 60s hits, the latter usually featuring Creedence Clearwater Revival. On those odd days that we lose, organist Gary Pressey serenades the fans as they file out with Debbie Gibson's "Only in My Dreams." He also cheers balks with a quick version of "The Hokey Pokey." But no one I know has yet figured out what it is he plays when Rafael Palmeiro comes to the plate.
A vendor sells his peanuts by advertising them as "Brown's chicken in a bag."
A week ago last Monday, the three of us--myself, Mark the south-sider, and his friend and former Radio Free Europe coworker Chris, a Briton who still works for RFE in Munich--are dodging the sun in the shade of the upper deck. Chris for a moment can't seem to understand why we're not sitting in the seats we purchased. We're sitting in the first row, looking down on the field, behind home plate, and the rest of the people who bought tickets with us are down the grandstand, behind the aisle, away from the action. Chris eventually comes to trust us on this. He is also quite impressed that I've seen one of the greats of cricket's fast bowlers, Dennis Lillee, even if it was at the end of his days. Mark, and I are both, I think, looking at the game of baseball with new eyes, trying to imagine what it would be like to be unfamiliar with something so ordinary and everyday, and we try to handle Chris's questions without condescension. Yet we both shake our heads when, in the sixth inning, Shawon Dunston grounds to the shortstop and goes tearing down the first-base line, and Chris says to us, "Why did he run? Why didn't he take another ball?"
The warm, sunny, hazy weekdays are the days of school buses and field trips, in which Ryne Sandberg's every groundout is greeted as if it were news of nuclear holocaust--at least to the pre-teen girls who hang on his every at-bat. Someone in the Cubs' front office, it seems, takes a strange sort of glee in sitting these busloads directly behind and under the press box, and if the screams of these girls themselves wont raise a smile on a hot day, then the churlish complaints of the press box--holding their ears, shaking their heads--is sure to do trick.
The Boomer, my season-ticket seatmate, and I are both impressed with Mark Grace's refusal to wear a long-sleeved shirt under his jersey on hot days. We also like it that he chokes up on the bat--not merely on two strikes, but all the time. Talking on the topic of players as they warm up, Boomer is impressed with the realism Grace tries to put in his between-inning warm-up tosses, and he calls them "earnest grounders."
Rick Sutcliffe has won the day before--hasn't he always?--and Maddux is on the mound again. His opponent this afternoon is John Dopson, the designated tough-luck pitcher for the Montreal Expos this year. He always seems to pitch well, but only on days the Expos are destined to be shut out. Last year, Bob Sebra had the same problem with the Expos, but he is now back in the minors. (The players change, but the roles do not.) Dopson strikes out two in the first, but in the second he walks the leadoff man, Ryne Sandberg, who takes off running on the first pitch and, yes, Mark Grace is swinging, and with that dreamlike inevitability the ball goes sailing into left field, just past the spot the shortstop has vacated to cover second. Law, of course, is next, and he punches a single to right to score a run. The next inning, back-to-back two-out doubles by Palmeiro and Andre Dawson score another run.
We win again.
Last Sunday, we wake to a cloudy morning. The clouds are not heavy, and neither are they dark. In white they cover the sky--for the first time, it seems, in weeks--and in spots the bleached blue of the sky shows through the way a knee peaks out from frayed denim. The wind, however, is again blowing out. Two runs in the first inning. A Dawson homer in the third for two more runs. We are giving a friend his second annual Father's Day vacation by taking his three-year-old son off his hands (they have a newborn in the house and can use the break). Three more runs in the fourth, a Sandberg homer in the fifth--none of which charms or tames the child. He has to go to the bathroom, which turns out to be a ruse, his way of getting near the ramps so that he can go careening up and down, past fans and fun lovers, the committed and the merely diverted. Some innings later, we return to find Dawson taking a curtain call, having just tripled and been replaced by pinch-runner Dave Martinez at third. What's the score, 9-1? Are we still in third place? The Mets are whipping the Phillies. The sun is coming out. The clouds are dispersing. It will be another fine sunset.
And the days roll on, through afternoons of sunshine that weighs on the shoulders, with the wind blowing out, with the Cubs ahead but their pennant only midway up the pole above the center-field scoreboard. An endless series of summer afternoons, until that day--now set--when we'll be cast into darkness.