Basketball has replaced baseball as the sport of choice; at least in my life it has. Football, of course, remains Chicago's obsession, but basketball has caught and, I believe, surpassed baseball as the sport that mirrors our lives. Its hectic pace, leading up to unexpected epiphanies, is both how our lives seem and how we wish they could be. It helps, of course, that in Chicago we have Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant weighing in in favor of basketball; they're so far ahead of their baseball counterparts, on both sides of town, that it's not worth comparing them. And it's not merely that they win--we've never been fair-weather fans--it's the style in which they play the game.
Still, baseball is back, and I am once again enraptured. That's the thing about baseball: it no longer mimics the pace of society--if it ever did; rather, it imposes its own pace on those who watch it. I've been so enmeshed in the Bulls the last few months that this small epiphany--the epiphany of baseball--struck me with new force last Saturday, at Wrigley Field. Where basketball sometimes takes on the aspect of high-paced, barely structured chaos, baseball is ordered in the extreme. It is almost hypnotic in the way each play begins like the one before it--after the first play of the half-inning, that is--with the pitcher kicking into his unique and distinctive motion. That's what the game shares with cricket: the same orderly beginning, repeated 10 to 30 times a half-inning in baseball, even more regularly in cricket.
I feel--as no doubt most people living in the city do--that my life is too hurried and hectic. Baseball pulls one out of that state of mind. Myths and sandlots aside, major-league baseball has always been an urban game, and for 100-plus years now it has offered fans the same peaceful respite from the rhythms of life, offered it to both the modernist factory worker of the 20s and the postmodern advertising flack of the present day. People who think baseball captures the rhythms of the past are naive; baseball captures nothing so much as its own rhythms, the rhythms not of our lives but of the ages, of our lives in ideal form. It's true: if I had to pick a place to spend tonight, it would be Chicago Stadium watching the Bulls. Yet if I had to pick a place to watch the rest of eternity, it would be Wrigley Field, watching the Cubs and the Saint Louis Cardinals.
These were the strange, peaceful thoughts I was thinking as I watched the Cubs and Cards last Saturday. Shawn Boskie was on the mound for the Cubs, and compared with the acrobatic and amazing Jordan and Pippen he seemed to offer the wonder of the plain and the routine. He was as mechanical as a young pitcher can be. Following each return throw from the catcher, he set himself, received the sign, touched his mitt briefly to the forehead of his cap, kicked high but straight down, and then strode down the mound, delivering the baseball. He did this 116 times over six and two-thirds innings, by my count. Think about that. No doubt there are people so rabid for the Bulls that they would pay to watch Jordan shoot 116 free throws in two hours, but would 30,000, outdoors, on a cold, damp, brisk spring afternoon? I think not. No, there's no denying, there's something about this baseball thing.
In sorting out its players one by one--pitcher, batter, fielder, base runner--the game deemphasizes teamwork, yet somehow the team aspect remains essential to the sport. It's obvious when a basketball team is unified in purpose; in baseball, team play is less tangible, but no less important. There's something about a ball team functioning well, something about relay throws and the way a batting order works when it's working. The Cubs, on this afternoon, had a very good feel about them. They presented an unlikely set of heroes who nevertheless seemed, when it was all over, to have been preordained to succeed.
They were up against the ace of the Saint Louis pitching staff, Jose DeLeon. The temperature was 43 degrees at game time, and the wind was blowing in from the northeast at 14 miles an hour. Obviously it was going to be a game of pitching and defense, the kind of game the Cardinals have excelled at for going on ten years now. So the Cubs' new manager, Jim Lefebvre, countered DeLeon with a lineup of slap hitters and fleet fielders--in part because of strategy, in part because he had no other choice (both Andre Dawson and Shawon Dunston were out for the day with leg problems). This was the Cubs' scorecard for the second home game of the season, 1992:
Not only is this not the 1927 New York Yankees, this isn't the '84 or even the '89 Cubs. So what the Cubs did was play errorless ball behind decent pitching--Boskie allowed only four hits, one walk, and one run--and scurry for runs.
Sandberg led off the second with a walk. He was thrown out stealing, but the running game nevertheless paid dividends. DeLeon hurried his throw to the plate with Sandberg running, and fell behind 3-1 to Sosa with a ball. He then walked Sosa, and allowed a hit to Smith on a hit-and-run, with Smith taking second on a throw to the plate. Then Sosa scored on a wild pitch, Smith moving up to third, and Smith scored on a groundout. Two runs--all the Cubs would need, as it turns out. Chuck McElroy came on in relief of Boskie and not only stifled the Cardinals but tripled in the seventh and scored the first of three insurance runs on the way to a 5-1 final.
It's tempting to look at the Cubs' lineup for that day and think, "Ah, the utter unpredictability of baseball. Who woulda thunk the Cubs would beat the Cards with a team like that?" Yet the game had the feel of a greater intelligence behind it, and that intelligence belonged to Lefebvre. When he was hired, he spoke of his awareness that Wrigley Field was two ballparks--a hitter's park when the wind blows out, and a pitcher's park when it blows in--and on this day he put that awareness to use. "Keeping the ball low, stealing bases, hit-and-running--pressing," he said afterward. "You can't sit back. You've got to be pretty strong to hit the ball out today. Gary Scott, the ball he hit," (in the fourth) "he crushed that ball. It just got up and the wind held it back." In fact, it didn't even make the warning track. So the Cubs got their runs in other ways.
Lefebvre has a compelling presence. He has a firm chin, a strong brow, and a set of light-blue eyes he focuses on reporters in his office after a game. He has a way of seeming to devote himself entirely to whatever it is he's thinking about, and an ability to put that thinking across--to players as well as to reporters, I imagine. He's a product of the new Tony LaRussa managing school--he coached under LaRussa in Oakland before managing in Seattle--and the most prominent book on the desk in his office is George Will's Men at Work. He is almost the exact opposite of the man he replaced, Jim Essian. Essian was quiet, self-deprecating, and uncertain. He left behind a team in a mess when he was fired. Here the Cubs were, well out of the race, and yet at the end of the last season they still didn't know whether Ced Landrum and Derrick May were major-league players. Lefebvre is sorting those questions out, and in the meantime he's doing all he can with the things he's certain of.
The Cubs this season look as if they could be very much like the Cardinals of last year: a team that plays within itself and surprises people as a result. I'm predicting them for third place, but closer to first than to sixth, putting up a strong fight before the very real shortage of talent gets the best of them. They'll avoid long slumps, impress fans with their fundamental soundness, and--in the end--put themselves back on the road to respectability. If Boskie and Frank Castillo pitch as well as they've shown, Scott develops as a hitter, Sosa turns himself around, and they call up May and put him in left, with Sosa in center and Grace hitting leadoff, they might do even better than that. Those, however, are mighty big ifs. Still, in baseball's weakest and most balanced division--the National League East--they've got as good a chance as anybody. I'm picking the Pittsburgh Pirates to repeat only because they have the fewest glaring weaknesses. Out West, it'll be the San Diego Padres, who will win the NL pennant.
In the American League, I'm picking the White Sox in the West, but not without trepidation. The sooner they ditch Charlie Hough and commit themselves to their young pitchers--Greg Hibbard, Alex Fernandez, and Wilson Alvarez--the sooner one of those three will emerge as the second starter the team needs between Jack McDowell and Kirk McCaskill. In the meantime, I think they'll score enough runs to get through the rough stretches. In the East, it'll be the Boston Red Sox, who will upset the White Sox and--in the summer Babe Ruth was once again thrust upon the pop culture--end the 74-year Ruth curse with their first championship since World War I.