It's a little more difficult every year to shift from the Bulls to the Cubs. This year, which ended in defeat for the Bulls, proved once and for all that the issue is not merely that the Bulls are winning championships and the Cubs are not. There is a completely different level of competition between the two sports. To move from the Bulls, who approach not only every game but every possession of the ball as a test of strategy, tactics, and intensity, to the Cubs, for whom the outcome of each game seems almost incidental, is to go from the highest level of sport to something that barely qualifies as sport.
At first this might seem unnecessarily harsh on the Cubs. After all, imagine that--somehow, some way--the Cubs had reached the World Series. How would November basketball compare with October baseball? Yet if the powers of imagination are finite, so that the very idea of the Cubs reaching the World Series is incomprehensible, don't let the brain overheat. Simply remember last year, when the White Sox were playing in October and were immediately followed by the Bulls. Sure, the Bulls were prone to the usual early season lapses in November and December, but their level of play--and their attempts to gel as a team--were already marked by intensity and determination. Those qualities seem completely foreign to the Cubs.
And that seems to be just the way the team wants it, from the highest levels of the front office to the lowliest peanut vendor.
The Cubs knew they needed a pitching ace going into this season, yet they made no attempt to obtain one. The same goes for a leadoff man, someone with speed and a decent on-base percentage to bat at the top of the order. No one doubts that Larry Himes, the team's vice president of baseball operations, is an astute and competitive baseball executive. So how could he leave such clear needs unfulfilled?
Unanswered questions like that leave the Cubs open to nasty rumors, such as the one that suggested that Himes wanted to trade first baseman Mark Grace during the off-season, but was prevented from doing so by the Tribune Company powers that be, who wanted to keep the photogenic first baseman on their WGN superstation for at least another year. That effectively tied Himes's hands, as far as trades went, because aside from bullpen ace Randy Myers (an untouchable as long as the team at least pretends to contend), catcher Rick Wilkins, and outfielder Sammy Sosa (the sort of young slugger one builds around), he had no other marketable quantities. Ryne Sandberg may be a future member of the Hall of Fame, but his salary made him overpriced. Shawon Dunston and Derrick May were both recovering from injuries. The team couldn't well deal pitching for more pitching; there wasn't even enough pitching to deal for a leadoff man.
The Cubs embarked on the season with a mediocre team, and their performance to start the season couldn't even be called mediocre. They did not win a game at Wrigley Field in April. The de facto ace of the pitching staff lost his first seven decisions (and counting). As of June, the rotation as a whole had the worst starting earned-run average in the league. Not only was the pitching staff 11th in ERA, the team was 11th in stolen bases, meaning that not only were the Cubs losing and losing ugly, they were also losing boring.
As Harry Caray put it during last week's six-game skid at home: "When a team isn't hitting, they just couldn't look any deader."
That insight aside, however, Caray himself was a bone of contention. A butcher of names, scores, events, and the language, he was the embodiment of the Cubs' will to mediocrity. How could a team be expected to perform when management--from the announcers on down--rated performance second (at best) to persona and audience appeal?
In the equation of a recent home-game sign: "Cubs - Wrigley = Padres."
But that Wrigley makes all the difference.
Now that I have the reader all set up for outrage, I'd like to knock him or her over with a feather. I, myself, wouldn't change a thing about the Cubs.
I said the shift from Bulls to Cubs was difficult; I didn't say it was impossible. For the first two months of the season I accepted the Cubs like a balm; Wrigley Field--or WGN--was the place I went when I needed a break from the Bulls. Who cared if the Cubs were losing? They were a diversion.
It's true that the first couple of weeks after the Bulls' season ended, when I turned my full attention to the Cubs, they were aggravating. A week ago Tuesday they blew a 7-1 lead to the Philadelphia Phillies at home to begin the aforementioned six-game skid. But last Sunday I made it a point to go to the game early. Ronnie Wickers was woo-woo-wooing over the Cubs' new lineup while sitting outside Yum Yum Donuts. A bunch of cops were talking traffic woes--elsewhere in the city, not around the ballpark--while mingling outside the McDonald's across the street. Inside, the pennants on the top of the grandstand were whipping, the wind was blowing out, and there was a new generation of glove guys waiting in the bleachers to catch batting-practice home runs. The team seemed loose and uncaring around the batting cage, so why shouldn't I adopt the same state of mind?
We can sometimes forget that for a great number of sports fans--and for a great majority of the Cubs' fans--winning and losing don't only seem secondary, they are secondary. What's primary is enjoying the afternoon away from one's personal worries. That is achieved nowhere so well as at Wrigley Field. Of course Wrigley makes all the difference. That's why the San Diego Padres have made themselves so awful, to turn themselves around as fast as they can. The Cubs can afford a little consistency, a smoother transition, even if the goal of the transition is always just out of sight. Harry Caray can broadcast as long as he wants. Ryne Sandberg can earn $7 million a year until his contract runs out. And the odd thing is, bad as the Cubs are they do seem to be getting better.
Himes has brought in three promising young pitchers since last year: Willie Banks, acquired from the Minnesota Twins; Anthony Young, from the New York Mets; and Steve Trachsel, who looks to be the best pitching prospect the team has produced since Greg Maddux. At the start of the season, not only were their talents unproven, so was the talent of new pitching coach Moe Drabowsky (previously most famous for trying to call China from a bullpen phone). But with Banks leading the way, and Drabowsky presumably doing the teaching, all three have learned to change speeds with skill and tact, and one gets the impression they have already turned the corner toward respectability.
With the three, four, and five starters in place, however, the one and two spots remain a problem. Both 0-7 ace Mike Morgan (a baseball illustration of the Peter principle) and 2-3 Jose Guzman have atrocious ERAs and are now on the disabled list. Guzman was brought in to take Maddux's spot on the roster when Maddux signed with the Atlanta Braves, with Morgan moving into Maddux's spot in the rotation. It's the worst decision Himes has ever made, and--more than any other single move--it has put the Cubs where they find themselves today.
On offense, things look more familiar, but they're really no better. Just as the team lacks an ace, it lacks a leadoff batter. With May, Grace, and Sosa, there's ability in the heart of the order, but no classic slugger. Sandberg is four years removed from his 40-homer season of 1990, and he hasn't shown consistent power since breaking his wrist last year in spring training. Shawon Dunston has returned, but no more knowledgeable of the strike zone than he was before his back injury two years ago. In fact, ignorance of the strike zone has been a consistent team failing for several years now. Among the regulars, only Grace and May have on-base percentages above the decent mark of .350, and without runners on base or a conventional slugger the team will never produce runs in any quantity--except when the wind is blowing out at Wrigley, when they are likely to be outscored by the other team's sluggers.
My, but those are fun, exciting games when the wind blows out. Who cares whether the Cubs win or lose? Year in, year out, they're a staple of the season. And so, that's the state of mind we adopt, because it's the state of mind the Cubs encourage. Other teams go through competitive eras, championship seasons; the Cubs seem to be in a state of perpetual rebuilding, and that's how we like it. Give us Wrigley and the ivy and Harry singing at the seventh-inning stretch and a few decent prospects to monitor and keep our hopes a-glimmer, and we'll come back. Without Wrigley Field, the Cubs aren't even the Padres. With Wrigley, however, if the Cubs fail to fit the definition of sport, it's because they transcend sport.