Ryne Sandberg, rehabilitating a broken wrist suffered in spring training, is hitting baseballs off a tee into a net behind home plate. Mark Grace is standing at the batting cage with his Killer Loop sunglasses perched atop the bill of his cap, in the manner of a Hollywood agent or Moses Malone shooting free throws. General manager Larry Himes, outfitted in a dress shirt and pants, blue sweater, brown-and-beige saddle shoes, an aviator jacket with the Cubs insignia, and a brand-new baseball glove, is shagging throws for coach Chuck Cottier, who is hitting grounders to the infield. Cubs pitching coach Billy Connors and Philadelphia Phillies third-base coach Larry Bowa are ribbing one another--not so very gently--at the other side of the batting cage. There's a high sky with wispy, puffy clouds, and the wind is wafting out. The pennants ripple on the roof of the grandstand. Sportswriter Joe Mooshil's cigar smoke nevertheless manages to linger in the air around the cage, where Derrick May is spraying line drives to left, right, and center. A tan Harry Caray is chatting with manager Jim Lefebvre. Spring has finally sprung at Wrigley Field.
Once again, baseball renewed itself. The game is basking in the afterglow of an attendance record set at home openers. No one is thinking about how much money this player or that player is making per annum, or whether the owners will any moment order the cage carted away, the bases removed, and play halted. The national pastime has reasserted itself, with its rhythms so right for contemplation and the preservation of images. It's not that baseball has more details than other sports; it's that it allows the proper time to digest those details.
May is stinging the ball. If anything, he has improved from last year, when he hit .274 with 8 home runs and 45 runs batted in in part-time duty, .296 after the All-Star break. He has always had an elegant swing but he appears to have tightened it up. His wide batting stance isn't as pronounced as last year's, but he continues to crouch, his weight back, his hands cocked comfortably at shoulder height. Beginning with a small step forward and a quick, energetic turn of the waist, his swing opens now with a quick explosion like that of flower buds shot in time-lapse photography. Bill James dismisses him in his 1993 player ratings as the new Mel Hall, but I think James has missed one here. Mel Hall came to the majors with great confidence, little of it justified because his swing and his fielding were so unsound fundamentally. May's fundamentals, on the other hand, are solid, especially his swing, and he is tentative but with a sense of confidence that is obviously growing--and rightfully so. He was on the fast track to the majors, rising steadily through the minors and hitting everywhere he went, until he broke a wrist two years ago. He has never had a double-digit homer season, but at six feet four inches and 225 pounds, and with three homers in the first two weeks of the season, he has the look of a former whippet who has filled out. I haven't felt so sure about a player considered a marginal prospect since I saw Shane Mack come up with the San Diego Padres about five years ago.
The Phillies are spilled across the grass in front of the visiting dugout, all of them stretching. Connors is coughing on a chaw of tobacco; Bowa seems to think it's over something he said. Every time Connors bends over to hack out a little more tobacco juice the Phillies crack up.
The Cubs head for the dugout as the Phillies take the field. The two most noticeable players are the bull pen closers, the Cubs' Randy Myers and the Phils' Mitch Williams, both of them flaky left-handers, both wearing white samurai bandannas knotted around their foreheads.
Lenny Dykstra's hands are so fidgety as he stands in the batting cage that his gloves make little squeaking noises, like mice scurrying behind the floorboards. John Kruk, among the league leaders in hitting, stands alongside the cage, his Goliath ringlets curling out the back of his batting helmet, and discusses his swing with Philadelphia hitting coach Dennis Menke. Kruk stands in with that stance in which he looks like a commuter straphanger pressed up against a seated pregnant woman. Then he follows his considerable tummy into a swing as free and natural as moonshine, lashing a ball into left field.
The game starts with the stands about half filled and the fans still trickling in. The wind is picking up. Holstein dapples of shade and sunshine wash across the outfield grass--cut in a green plaid pattern--and up the sides of the lakefront skyscrapers. Greg Hibbard, who looks even more leggy in the Cubs' pinstripes than he did with the White Sox, is the starter. He walks the second man, and Kruk follows with a homer halfway up the green expanse of tarpaulin in center field. Fergie Jenkins excelled on days like today; he threw the ball low and hard and he threw strikes--give up the occasional solo homer, but not the costly two- or three-run blast. Hibbard will either learn that or leave town.
Hibbard gives up another homer, this one a windblown, pop-fly cheapie to Wes Chamberlain, to lead off the second, fortunately before it was possible for him to have put anyone on base. He then comes high and tight with a little chin music to the Phillies' Darren Daulton in the fourth. Philadelphia starter Danny Jackson (yes, that Danny Jackson) responds by plunking May in the leg to lead off the bottom of the inning.
Jackson, however, looks solid, with that familiar kicking motion in which he sometime ends, as if in prayer, with his trailing knee on the ground. Kruk supplies him with another two-run homer (this one following a single) in the sixth, to give the Phillies a 5-0 lead--the most dangerous lead in baseball, an old friend of mine used to say. The Phils add another in the seventh to make things more secure.
The Cubs chase Jackson with two runs in the bottom of the inning--all of the action coming with two out--but the Phils get them back in the eighth. Chamberlain joins Kruk in the twice-is-nice club, this one--a no-doubt-about-it shot onto Waveland--off new reliever Dan Plesac following (yes) a walk. The Phils lead 8-2 going into the bottom of the eighth--one of the safer leads in baseball.
The Cubs' Steve Buechele is fooled and fails to check his swing on one Larry Andersen pitch, then swings wildly at the next, way outside. "Boo!" we say. Having lulled Andersen into a false sense of security, Buechele hits the next pitch, a 2-2 fastball, into the center-field bleachers. "Boo this next guy, too," says the fan to our left.
The Cubs add another in the eighth, then May leads off the ninth with a double, and an out and a walk later in comes Williams, the former relief ace of the Cubs. He gives up a windblown single to pinch hitter Tommy Shields and a pop fly Dykstra misplays, gets an out, then surrenders a game-tying three-run homer to pinch hitter Candy Maldonado that sends the game into extra innings.
The temperature is holding, even in the shade of the upper deck, a gull hovers overhead as if on a wire connected to the grandstand, and--even though the Bulls are about to come on television--it never enters our mind to leave.
Chuck McElroy works a three-up, three-down tenth for the Cubs; Rey Sanchez leads off the bottom of the inning with a hit and gets around to third, but fails to score. The Cubs' Bob Scanlan gets two quick outs in the 11th, then gives up a double, intentionally walks the ever-dangerous Kruk, and allows a three-run homer to right to Dave Hollins.
Backup catcher Matt Walbeck responds with a one-out, two-run homer (after a walk to Buechele) in the bottom half, and Maldonado follows with a single, but the Cubs' bench is bereft; sending out Myers to pinch-hit is the only hope. With two strikes, he bunts into a game-ending double play.
The stands, which had filled up to accommodate almost 30,000 fans, empty slowly. Amid the disappointment, there's a buzz of early season satisfaction in the air. The organist plays "Never on Sunday." The park seems unusually silent--what's missing?--until some traditionalist pops a paper cup with his foot.
The walk across Addison is leisurely and pleasant. The angle of the sun is high, even in the late afternoon, and the temperature is holding. The Cubs, after all, remain a .500 team, at 6-6. Forsythia along the route is just beginning to bloom; the bushes are green, not even yellow yet.