News & Politics » Sports

The Sports Section

by

comment

Something there is that loves a loser. Fans of the Cubs feel compelled to deny that, especially when the White Sox are in first and the Cubs are muddling through another mediocre season, but, really, who are we kidding? Losers put no pressure on the audience. A fan feels entitled to take the game on whatever level seems appropriate at the moment, whether that be concentrated frustration or, at the other pole, benign neglect. The game is there to be picked up and studied, a piece of bric-a-brac meaningful in and of itself, like an elegant paperweight; or it is simply an excuse to get out and reconnect with friends--or connect with strangers, for that matter.

The Cubs outdrew the Sox for the first five months of the season, to the distress of Sox fans, and only in the last month of the season has the trend reversed itself so that the Sox may yet catch the Cubs. But, really, who should that offend except maybe the players, who come to realize that it's not them but the game itself that is baseball's biggest draw. It's not the national obsession, after all, but the national pastime; the nickname implies a certain second-echelon but self-satisfied rung on the social scale.

Last week, early into September, we went out to Wrigley Field and were overjoyed with the evening. The sky was overcast, ruining the sunset, the weather was cool and damp, and the Cubs were playing the even-more-woeful New York Mets. The college kids had returned to campus, and the serious baseball fans had gravitated to the south side. Leaving, what, the undiscerning fans of the Cubs? The diehards? The remaining ranks of Lee Elia's unemployed 5 percent? Or, just maybe, not fans of real baseball but real baseball fans. Two lovely amazons, one wearing Shalimar, briefly sat in the row right in front of us. They wafted their way further down the aisle when our season-ticket neighbors, the family of four--husband, wife, and two daughters, one of whom we've known since she was a baby--arrived belatedly. We talked of this and that, and paid enough attention to keep an error-free scorecard (no MOs, short for "made out," a common abbreviation of ours at Wrigley Field this summer). When the seventh inning ended and we had sung "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and the Cubs still trailed 7-0, we went home, without a pang of guilt or regret. The game had done its duty. We were refreshed, placid, content, prepared to face another day. And while Wrigley Field had much to do with it--the skyline backdrop, a swirling gauze of insects in the lights, nighthawks feasting on those same insects, and the organ keeping us all almost subconsciously attuned to what was happening in the game (an unabashed nyah, nyah to Sox fans on all those counts)--the Cubs had little to do with it. What they provided was that censer's aroma of defeatism common to September baseball on the north side, that air of no longer disappointment that, well, may not make life worth living but makes it not worth hating, which will suffice under certain circumstances.

Because these 1993 Cubs were losers neither lovable nor laughable. They had an air not of utter ineptitude but of mere incompetence; in other words, they weren't bad enough to be charming, they simply were. Mike Morgan was the very symbol of these Peter Principle Cubs, a decent number two starter (but a better number three, if a team had the luxury) promoted to ace when the Cubs lost Greg Maddux to the Atlanta Braves. Maddux and the Braves have provided us of late with a glimpse of real baseball, both in a short late-season visit to Wrigley and on television in their set of showdowns with the San Francisco Giants. Maddux's cool blue flame of competition is what the Cubs lacked this year--not that they had it in spades last season but at least they put it on display once every five games or so. Morgan entered September with a decent if unimpressive 3.96 earned-run average but a disappointing 8-13 record--mainly because he was matched with the opposing ace in many of his starts. Other starters Jose Guzman and Greg Hibbard both reached ten victories without pitching noticeably better than Morgan, but that was the Cubs' story this season: they had three guys who would make a good third starter on a solid staff, and two or three other guys who might have made a good spot starter somewhere.

In an expansion year, the Cubs typified the age by having to rely on players who were in over their heads. All around, only catcher Rick Wilkins was an unqualified success. After a miserable start, he entered September hitting almost .300, with 25 homers. What's more, in slugging percentage (total bases per at-bat) he trailed only Barry Bonds in the entire league. His defense was, on the surface at least, solid, although the fragility of the pitching staff should no doubt be blamed in part on his pitch selection, with manager Jim Lefebvre in cahoots on that.

Elsewhere, there was little for the Cubs to gloat about. Derrick May proved himself a major-league hitter and a minor-league outfielder. Sammy Sosa has had a spectacular season, the sort general manager Larry Himes can gloat about; it looks as if he'll become a 30-homer, 30-steals player, while competing for the league lead in outfield assists (going into September, he trailed only the Saint Louis Cardinals' Bernard Gilkey, a weak-armed left fielder who racked up a lot of assists because so many base runners tried to take advantage of him; Sosa, whose throwing arm is renowned, had to earn each of his). But Sosa would be better off in right field if the Cubs had a decent flyhawk to roam center, which they don't. Dwight Smith was pressed into center, even though his defense was inadequate and without him the bench was bankrupt of left-handed pinch hitters.

Up the middle, Jose Vizcaino proved, at least for this season, that he is a major-league shortstop. But after hitting in the mid-.300s through May, he dipped to .280 in September, meaning that the jury is still out. If the Cubs could add a better-hitting shortstop (Shawon Dunston?), they'd be advised to. Ryne Sandberg had a disappointing season and received much of the blame for the Cubs' being an unexciting team. That's the criticism that comes with a salary in the $7 million territory, deserved or not. Sandberg's spring-training broken wrist robbed him of much of the snap in his swing, resulting in a power dip from 26 homers the last two seasons (40 only three years ago) to 9 entering September. But he put together a good hitting streak in late August and early September (17 games, with a batting average up above .300) and it looked as if he was returning to form. A broken wrist is a difficult injury for a hitter to recover from, and Sandberg's power should return next season after a full year of rehabilitation.

At the corners, Steve Buechele isn't worth commenting on; 12 homers and 50 runs batted in for a Wrigley Field third baseman are numbers to sour even the most distracted of Cubs fans. Mark Grace is the only member of the Cubs in the top ten in batting average and on-base percentage, but the season has not been an unqualified success for him. His post-All-Star-game RBI drought has already been pointed out here and elsewhere, and he showed a disturbing tendency to be involved in double plays. Going into September, only the Mets' aged first baseman Eddie Murray had grounded into more double plays. Worse, Grace kept getting doubled off the bags on line drives. In an early-season piece in the New Yorker, Roger Angell devoted himself to baseball fundamentals, and spoke with Merv Rettenmund--a present-day coach older fans should remember from his days with the Baltimore Orioles--about just this knack. Rettenmund said getting doubled off a bag was a cardinal sin to manager Earl Weaver. A player had to study every pitch--pitches up were likely to be line drives, down were likely to be grounders--to earn that extra step on grounders, while making sure line drives went through the infield. That's the sort of baseball that still escapes Grace--considered one of the better players in the National League today. That night against the Mets, with the game still scoreless, Grace led off the second inning with a double, then was doubled off the bag when Buechele lined one to Murray at first.

Yet that was one of the few things that managed to annoy us that evening. When a foul grounder dribbled up the line past Mets first-base coach Tom McCraw, who made no effort to bend over and stop it--well, who could be offended? McCraw reflected the mood on the field and in the stands, and we went with it. The bitter young fans who demand victory are now gone for the season--and good riddance. Their finest moment came in August, when on Randy Myers poster day the Cubs' bull-pen ace blew a save, and fans in the bleachers threw the posters onto the field. Myers had only saved 35 games at that point, and had kept the Cubs respectable while providing the sole source of that cool blue flame of competition that Maddux took with him when he departed. Myers went into a funk for about two weeks after that, but he then righted himself and has now saved 40 games on the season, a team record for a franchise that has only produced Lee Smith and Bruce Sutter, two of the greatest bull-pen aces of all time.

This will be the last time we devote our attention to the Cubs this season, but that doesn't mean we won't get back to Wrigley Field this month. With Lorado Taft's Great Lakes sculpture still under repair at the Art Institute, Wrigley just might be the most placid place in the city right now, an excellent spot for autumnal reverie, a sanctuary of sorts. When I look back on this season, I'll think of Myers trotting in from the bull pen, of betting a beer that Wilkins couldn't possibly hit another line drive--and losing--but I'm also liable to take a look around the park and think, yes, this is what this season and almost every season is about for the Cubs: it's about the game and its sounds and its fans, about the golden glow of the sun on the redbrick buildings on Sheffield and the thoughts that meander through our heads while we're here--whatever they are --and about those all-too-rare moments when a player does something that demands attention, and about not minding so much when those moments fail to come.

Add a comment