We packed up the wife and child and dutifully marched off to the Cubs game last Sunday in observance of Father's Day, but there was something very pro forma about the whole affair. The five-year-old didn't clamor to see batting practice, not even with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Mike Piazza in town--unlike us as a kid when the San Francisco Giants were visiting and we'd make sure to get there early to watch Mays and McCovey. So we got the grocery shopping out of the way beforehand. The Boomer was tied up in his own Father's Day formalities and had conceded us the tickets; after putting away the frozen goods and picking up the family, we parked outside his house, briefly saw him and his new son, Max, and walked over to the game.
We stopped along the way at a lemonade stand on Waveland--sister and brother sitting behind their little card table, both dressed in bathing suits--and this turned out to be the most delightful bit of summer pageantry of the day. At Wrigley Field, we had to step out into Clark Street to get around the will-call line, and there was a busy, bustling mood about the whole place. Inside, after standing in line for our food, we sat down and watched the day get hotter. The scorecard was used as much as a fan as to document the day's events. The sky was an almost uniform grayish blue, with puffy white clouds emerging from the background the way they do in 19th-century landscape paintings. Yet when we tried to root the Cubs on in the top of the first, with a few claps and a "C'mon Jaime," for Jaime Navarro, the Cubs' starting pitcher, people turned and shot us the strangest looks.
What do you think this is, a ball game?
The crowds are returning to Wrigley in suitable summer numbers. The outside corners of the upper deck were vacant on Sunday and there were bald patches in the lower deck, but attendance was in the respectable 30,000 range and the previous day the Cubs had drawn a near-capacity 36,310. Both days the bleachers were filled with the usual laughing flesh. Yet it would be a lie to say things have returned to normal--aside from on the field, that is, where the Cubs were doing what they usually do this time of year, that thing that rhymes with "June."
Is it mere coincidence that the Cubs, after a promising start, are once again wilting as the weather warms? We'd argue no, that it's endemic to the Cubs' lack of power, and point to last year's awful start, when the weather was relatively warm from the get-go and balls were flying out of the nation's ballparks from opening day. The Cubs play half their games at homer-happy Wrigley Field, and they need power at the corners of their fielding alignment--first and third, left and right--to compete. Even traditional weak-sister hitting franchises, like the Dodgers and the Houston Astros, come to Chicago packing more punch than the Cubs. On Saturday the Cubs slugged three home runs, but so did the Dodgers; and with the Dodgers drawing seven walks to the Cubs' three--each of the Cubs' five pitchers walked at least one batter--the result was a 12-5 Los Angeles rout.
Indeed, those have been the Cubs' twin hitting ailments for a decade now: lack of power and an unwillingness to take a walk. The Cubs entered Sunday's game fourth in the league in homers (merely respectable, considering they play in one of the league's best hitter's parks) and last in walks and on-base percentage. (When the Cubs won in 1989, remember, the wind blew in for most of the summer; and the Cubs benefited from some near-mystical managing by the recently retired Don Zimmer, may the gods rest his baseball soul.) There is good news, however: the Cubs' new management-- specifically president Andy MacPhail and general manager Ed Lynch--has made it clear it's rebuilding, regardless of the Cubs' relatively hot cold-weather start. If anyone knows how to build a team around its ballpark it's MacPhail, who put together the Minnesota Twins' recent two-time champions with an emphasis on defense and power on the fast turf inside the Hubert H. Humphrey Homerdome.
Last week Lynch made one of his first big trades, and he immediately addressed one of the Cubs' pressing offensive needs. With the team turning to young pitchers as the foundation of the future and finding them surprisingly capable, former de facto ace Mike Morgan (the man who moved up to replace Greg Maddux; please don't cry) became expendable. So Morgan was traded for Todd Zeile, a powerful third baseman with the Saint Louis Cardinals.
Zeile is an excellent acquisition; he gives the Cubs their first true power-hitting third baseman since Ron Cey. He was available because he had fallen out of favor in Saint Louis. He averaged 18 home runs and 89 runs batted in the last two seasons, in a notorious pitcher's ballpark, Busch Stadium, and last year he had the best fielding season of his career. Yet the Cardinals, who'd lost Gregg Jefferies in something of a bidding war with the Philadelphia Phillies, felt compelled to move him to first base, bringing in Scott Cooper from the Boston Red Sox to play third. Zeile also was singled out as an old-guard holdover on a team with new management, just as Morgan was associated with the Larry Himes regime here in Chicago. Zeile replaces Steve Buechele, an excellent-fielding third baseman whose rather measly power stats--he averaged about 15 homers and 60 RBI the last couple of years--were actually inflated by Wrigley Field. (Howard Johnson, whom the Cubs claimed off the scrap heap just before the season began, has proved to be a shadow of his former self with the New York Mets.) Zeile is 29 years old, meaning he is coming into his prime as a power hitter and probably has five good seasons left.
Best of all, the Cubs made this move without damaging their foundation of young pitchers. Jim Bullinger looked good before he went down with a sore arm. He has been replaced as the team's de facto ace by Frank Castillo, a smart young pitcher with good stuff who took a perfect game into the seventh inning last week against the Giants. Castillo is reminiscent of a young Maddux in that he sets up a merely decent fastball with a terrific change-up, and he has a better curve than Maddux ever had. (Maddux has gone more to a cut fastball over the last few seasons, but that's another story, and a heartrending one for Cubs fans.) Steve Trachsel, the team's best pitcher a year ago, has suffered from sophomore unsteadiness this season. Even so, he may wind up seeming consistent next to Navarro.
Navarro was another reclamation project, signed as a free agent from the Milwaukee Brewers after the strike ended this spring. He is a big right-hander with a big, slow, deliberate motion, but he is nowhere near as big as he had been with the Brewers, when weight problems contributed to arm problems after a promising first couple of seasons in the majors. This season he seemed rededicated, and he won his first five decisions with the Cubs. Last week, however, he pitched poorly against the Giants, and on Sunday he committed the pitcher's worst sin with the wind blowing out in Wrigley.
Obviously refiguring things after his bad previous outing, he walked two men in the first inning. He then threw a ball to the next batter, Eric Karros. The Cubs' new pitching coach, Fergie Jenkins, trotted out to the mound. Jenkins is no doubt a large part of the Cubs' pitching success this season. He won 20 games six years in a row with the Cubs, and he knows how to pitch with the wind blowing out at Wrigley. He was no doubt telling Navarro what he had told all the Cubs pitchers before: when the wind blows out keep the ball low, and whatever you do, don't walk anybody; make the inevitable home runs solo shots, not three-run blasts. The advice, however, came too late. Pitching behind in the count, Navarro surrendered a three-run homer to Karros.
That and the sultry weather took a good deal of oomph out of the crowd. The temptation was to identify the fan apathy as residue from the strike, but that gets to be an old saw after a while. (Although it should be noted that midway through the game the right-field bleachers mounted a "Left field sucks!" cheer and the left-field bleacher bums didn't bother to respond.) Navarro steadied himself, but the Cubs were simply, well, swooning offensively, leaving eight men on base in the first seven innings. The Dodgers' pencil-thin starter Ismael Valdes was all arms, legs, and motion, but the Cubs couldn't touch him when it counted. Navarro threw five straight shutout innings, but when the bull pen went to work in the seventh the Dodgers exploded for three more runs. Sammy Sosa, suffering from an apparent case of heat stroke, left three men in scoring position with inning-ending outs his first two times up, then heaved the ball into the grandstand trying to get a runner at the plate in the seventh, allowing the Dodgers' final two runs to score.
We stayed and sang at the seventh-inning stretch, then left after the Cubs drew two walks (hurrah!) but failed to score in the bottom of the seventh. The 6-0 score turned out to be the final, the game over before we could turn on the TV at home. On the way to the the car, child on our shoulders, our wife asked her if she'd had a good time.
"No," she said.
"Sadie!" said our wife. "You're supposed to lie about things like that. Now, did you have a good time?"
"Most of the time," she said.
Out of the mouths of babes.