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Last Sunday morning, as I was out for a constitutional (suited to my kind of constitution, complete with cigar), I was met on a shady side street by the scraping, jangly noise of an aluminum baseball bat being dragged on the sidewalk behind a medium-size boy of about ten. The boy came on, shoulders slumped, bat dragging, but as we neared he quickly scooped the bat up and held it in two hands in front of him, so that he could speak without any background noise.

"Going to the game today?" he asked.

I was, indeed, on my way to the game, and I looked it--with hat, shorts, sandals, polo shirt, and, as I mentioned, cigar--so it wasn't so unusual for him to ask. I nodded my head.

Then, however, he surprised me.

"Got any extra tickets?"

"Nope," I said. "Sorry."

The noise of the bat scraping the sidewalk resumed, and we went our separate ways.

Yet, why would he have wanted to go to the game? The Cubs, even though they had won the previous two games, remained under .500, double digits out of first. What's more, they were actually painful to watch. The most excruciating game to sit through is one where the team one is rooting for takes a seemingly insurmountable lead and then loses it, and the Cubs have made a season out of doing just that. Why would anyone want to go see any of their games?

Of course, that begs the question, why was I going to the game? Well, I wasn't, really; I was simply out for a walk, and the Cubs' game made a convenient destination. Apparently, 33,749 other people felt the same way, because Wrigley Field was once again packed last Sunday, just as it had been a week ago Thursday night, for the first game of the second half of the season, when 32,312 people joined me at the ballpark.

What were we doing there?

I didn't think those thoughts at the night game. I hustled out of work to get there on time and spent the evening catching up with my season-tickets seatmate. But on Sunday, with its uniquely slow-paced and contemplative atmosphere, I was alone. The game began early, just after noon, and as the seats slowly filled for the next hour I kept thinking, "Just what am I doing here?"

Almost absentmindedly, I started the game keeping track of the pitches. Of course, I was keeping score. Even Thursday night I kept score, for crissake.

It was one of those summer days when, after a brief rainfall the day before, the sky starts out cluttered with puffy clouds that gradually disperse in the sun. The wind was blowing in, but that didn't prevent the Houston Astros' leadoff man, Steve Finley, from rocketing a pitch out onto Sheffield Avenue only a few yards foul. The very next pitch he hit equally hard, but this time a couple of yards fair, and the Cubs trailed 1-0 without an out in the game.

The Cubs' pitcher for the day--at least, to start the day--was Mike Bielecki, the herky-jerky righthander with a motion in which he contorts like a freshman pledge with the dry heaves. Bielecki brings his hands over his head and kicks in typical fashion, then reaches back for the something extra they write about in children's baseball books and lunges forward as if it's his back--and not his arm--that's actually throwing the pitch. He was a promising pitcher in the Pittsburgh organization until chronic back troubles led the Pirates to sour on him. He straightened his back out enough with the Cubs to win 18 games in the 1989 division-champion season, but suffered renewed problems--physical and mental--last season and has been inconsistent this season. New pitching coach Billy Connors appears to be trying to smooth Bielecki's motion out, but to the effect that Bielecki now appears to lunge twice--not merely once--in delivering the ball to the plate. He soon settled down, however.

On the mound for the Astros was rookie Darryl Kile. I confess I was neither uninterested nor disinterested in the day's events, as Kile is on my (disappointing so far, but not without its chances) Rotisserie League team. He's a big kid, so big he makes his glove look like a fashion touch Michael Jackson might adopt. He has a short stride, however; he has what's referred to as a live arm, with the arm doing the throwing and the short stride adding snap to his breaking pitches, and they break a good deal. The Cubs got the run back in the bottom of the first, with utility man deluxe Chico Walker leading off with a single, moving to second an out later on a hit-and-run ground out by Ryne Sandberg, and scoring on a liner Andre Dawson smoked into left field. After that, however, Kile settled down--for a time, anyway--and struck out four straight Cubs, each of them on a curveball.

Where are these people coming from? I wondered as the stands continued to fill. I usually know almost everyone sitting nearby, because we all share the same weekend-and-night-games season- ticket packages, but on this afternoon all the faces were unfamiliar. The regulars were missing, but they had found someone to buy their tickets; it did, indeed, appear that there's a sucker born every minute, and you could tell who they were: they were fans of the Cubs.

Bielecki tossed 27 pitches getting out of the first inning, settled down with a mere 13 in the second, then ran into trouble with two out in the third and took 23 pitches to strand two base runners. Kile also ran into trouble with two out in the third, but was not so fortunate. Walker singled again--this time off the tip of the mitt of diving Houston shortstop Rafael Ramirez. Mark Grace followed with a single. Kile threw three straight balls to Sandberg before walking him on five pitches to load the bases. A wild pitch brought Walker home, then Ramirez booted a Dawson grounder to score another. George Bell followed with a double just inside the line to complete the Cubs' scoring for the day.

If I had been told four runs was all the Cubs would get, I probably would have bet the Cubs would lose. Bielecki allowed a run apiece in the fourth and fifth and was clearly not going to last through the game. The Cubs' bull pen has been utterly undependable throughout the season. Why, only Thursday night, bull-pen stopper Dave Smith had come on in the 10th inning and lost in the 11th on a two-out, two-run double by the ancient Ken Oberkfell. That was a new way for the Cubs to lose; after becoming adept at blowing leads in the first half of the season, in this, the first game of the second half, they struggled back from a 4-0 deficit to tie the game at four and send it into extra innings, where, as I mentioned, Smith lost it. Second verse, same as the first.

Houston manager Art Howe has nursed Kile through the season so far, and he was not about to get tough with him here. Kile began the season working long relief, pitched no-hit ball for six innings in a spot start, then was returned to the bull pen to await his proper chance. Moved permanently into the rotation about a month ago, he has pitched well, and Howe did not intend to undo the psychological bolstering he'd done all season. He pinch-hit for Kile in the fourth and turned the game over to his bull pen, which was sharp.

After Bielecki allowed the Astros to close within 4-3, Chicago manager Jim Essian went to his bull pen--a dubious decision. Yet after a string of strong outings by the team's starters to end the first half of the season, and with the All- Star break added on, the bull pen--Smith aside--has shown signs of rejuvenation after being overworked by both Essian and the departed Don Zimmer early on. Chuck McElroy came on for Bielecki in the sixth and stranded two runners.

It's my usual practice to stop keeping track of pitches--on the days I keep track of pitches--when the starter leaves the game. In the seventh inning I stopped keeping score altogether. Instead I listened to the children playing nearby on their parents' laps, traced the path of each foul ball as it arced into the stands and was either caught or muffed, watched the clouds grow farther and farther apart and the day grow sunnier and sunnier. Somehow it got to be the ninth inning, and the Cubs still led 4-3. Smith had come on, however, and immediately surrendered a leadoff single to the pesky Finley. Smith got one out, then allowed another single to another Houston rookie, Jeff Bagwell, who with his erect posture and choppy swing--all forearms and a turn of the waist--looks like Steve Garvey reborn in the wrong uniform. Here, Essian trudged dutifully to the mound--his walk is graceless but very dutiful--and brought in Paul Assenmacher, an equally ineffective member of the bull pen during the first half. Assenmacher, however, retired the next two batters--the last with the fans on their feet, roaring in the stands, the way we used to when it meant something--and the Cubs had won, their third straight as it happened.

Wrigley Field percolated with the traditional popping of paper beer cups afterward. Thursday night, the noise had seemed bitter and snapping; now there was a celebratory burst to the popping, like fireworks. Perhaps that's just the difference between Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons. Perhaps it's simply the difference between winning and losing. In any case, listening for the subtle difference in tones is what continues to bring me out to the ball game, and in that I assume I am not alone.

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