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By Ted Cox

There was a clear blue sky above and a fringe of clouds to the north and west, and as evening fell the clouds closed like a tightening aperture but never did quite seal up the sky. Slashes of red fell across the base of the clouds in the dusk, and even in the press box someone felt compelled to say "That's a hell of a sunset out there" after coming back from the men's room, where a wide window faces west to show what's behind the grandstand.

The bleachers had filled in quickly to the brim of the high center field section, and standing fans rimmed the area behind the lower-deck seats. Attendance would be announced as over 38,000, amazing for a weeknight--though it was the first game of the second half, sort of a second opening day after the All-Star break. This crowd purred between innings and grew politely attentive during play, but without a hint of intensity. There was the pop of the gloves and the crack of the bats, pigeons and a mourning dove flying back and forth, settling occasionally on the cable holding up the screen behind home plate. Later on, nighthawks tumbled up and down in the lights, feeding on insects. For a moment it seemed as if we could feel our pulse slowing and our worries fading into darkness like the eastern sky. Wrigley Field was once again working its magic, as it has every year of our existence and long before that.

Of course, it helps that the Cubs have once again fielded a mediocre team. If the Cubs' executive management is "working on it," as the team's TV ads suggest, it's working at the measured pace the Cubs have always operated at. The team is poised between competing and rebuilding, without really being committed to either course. As we write this, neither the rumors that have the team trading for pennant-race help nor the ones that have it trading off old veterans for prospects have congealed into anything substantial.

The Cubs are in limbo, as they and their fans have been since 1908, and that was what made itself felt as we took in the spectacle of Wrigley Field two weeks ago while absentmindedly keeping a scorecard right down to the pitches. After the thrilling brilliance of the Bulls and the so-far-so-good anguish of the White Sox, it was a comfort to find the Cubs right back where we usually find them: in their Edenic ballpark, somehow returned to a state of nature, to an innocence beyond winning or losing. With a win, the W flag would go up above the bleachers and the music would play loud and festive in the Cubs' locker room; with a loss, the L flag would go up, and as we made our way down the grandstand ramps kids would stomp beer cups sending that woeful pock-pock-pocking sound into the sky like a dirge.

The Cubs found themselves 41-46 at the break, five games under .500, but only five games behind the first-place Saint Louis Cardinals in the generally unimpressive National League Central Division. The Cubs finished 73-71 and only four games out of a wild-card playoff spot a year ago but this year the wild card appeared to offer only a slightly better playoff opportunity than finishing first would. With the ever young and talented Montreal Expos chasing the Atlanta Braves in the East, the Cubs were even further behind the Expos in the wild-card race than they were behind the Cards at the break, and the first results of the second half were hardly encouraging. The Cubs entered this week six games under and seven and a half out of first, and while the Expos too were fading, the Cubs remained seven games behind them, pushing the trade rumors in the direction of rebuilding.

Team president Andy MacPhail and general manager Ed Lynch don't deserve the blame for this team's performance. While they were clearly looking at a five-year rebuilding plan (the Daytona Class A team, with pitching phenom Kerry Wood, is the cream of the Cubs' minor-league system right now), they also didn't want to rule out the team's chances this year. They made the decision to let bull pen closer Randy Myers depart as a free agent, rightly believing he wasn't worth a multiyear contract, but kept the rest of the team together in hopes that it could once again compete.

Nor is it right to blame manager Jim Riggleman, who's approached the team's uneven fortunes with a clear-eyed pragmatism. The bull pen isn't at fault either. The wacky Turk Wendell has calmed down and established himself as a big-league pitcher and a decent closer while promising Terry Adams serves his apprenticeship in middle relief. Wendell saved his ninth game last weekend, and going into this week had blown but three saves. Rather, the main culprit has been the team's starting pitching. Paying Myers millions of dollars this season to close out victories would have been wasting money, for the bull pen has had few leads to protect.

Last year the team's surprising starting pitching kept it in the race. This year, however, has seen Frank Castillo, Jim Bullinger, and Kevin Foster all backsliding. Foster, in fact, has returned to the minors; 1995 was his first major-league success, so it was probable that the league would catch up with him this season and he'd have to make adjustments. He's been replaced by rookie Amaury Telemaco, a typically unpredictable but delightfully enthusiastic pitcher. (His gleeful expression while rounding first base after his first big-league hit earlier this year was one of the moments of the season.) Yet Castillo and Bullinger had already suffered through rough patches, and it was hoped that they'd continue their development as quality major-league starters this season. That hasn't happened. Bullinger entered the second half of the year at 3-7 with a 5.96 earned-run average and 40 walks in 80 innings--prompting a demotion to the bull pen where he could try to get his confidence back. Castillo, meanwhile, has simply been too hittable, allowing a frightful 111 hits in but 96 innings in the first half. Where a year ago he was throwing everything down and with good movement, this season he has too often been up in the strike zone and out over the plate. Both pitchers remained uneven--mixing good outings with bad ones--to open the second half, and Jaime Navarro was the same. He shut out the Cards on five hits that placid night two weeks ago to improve his record to 7-8, and in the locker room afterward he was cool and confident.

"I'm going to be aggressive. You better be ready," he said. "That's what I'm going to do, throw strikes and let everybody catch the ball. Last year we surprised a lot of people over the last few months, and this year we're going to do the same thing."

Yet his next outing saw him take a pasting, after which he avoided reporters. Through it all the team's only solid starter was Steve Trachsel, the Cubs' lone All-Star representative, who went to 8-6 with a pretty 2.39 ERA after a victory over the Cardinals last Saturday in Saint Louis.

The Cubs' fortunes, of course, have been diminished by the lack of more than one dependable starter. Yet if there is one shortcoming that can be laid directly at the feet of MacPhail and Lynch, it's the Cubs' awful on-base percentage. For years now the Cubs have been unwilling and unable to accept a walk--Mark Grace solely excepted. And this is usually not a quality that changes during a player's career. Batters either have a good eye or they don't, and it's a GM's job to recognize those players who do and get them on his team. When the White Sox' Ron Schueler needed to do a quick-patch rebuilding job during the off-season, he went out and got Tony Phillips and Harold Baines, both veterans with a good batting eye. Everyone knew a year ago that the Cubs needed a leadoff hitter, preferably one who plays left field or third base--which just happen to be two of Phillips's positions--but they added nothing along those lines. The result is that the Sox had an on-base percentage of .366 at the All-Star break, while the Cubs had only two players--Grace and the newly acquired Tyler Houston--with an on-base percentage better than the Sox team average.

The Cubs' anemic .315 on-base percentage was second worst in baseball, better than only the Los Angeles Dodgers'. Sammy Sosa is often criticized as a player who hits a lot of home runs with nobody on base, and rightly so. Yet this is in part because the Cubs don't put many people on base to begin with. Worse yet, not only do the Cubs not know how to draw a base on balls, they are inferior hitters overall. Their .246 batting average at the break was also second worst in baseball, ahead of only the Philadelphia Phillies'.

Poor hitting combined with erratic starting pitching is a formula for failure, so the Cubs' league-leading .984 fielding percentage was squandered. The only thing to cheer for in the first half was the return of Ryne Sandberg, and even that was a mixed blessing, as Sandberg has come to epitomize the team's strengths and weaknesses in equal measure. Sandberg is now even more of a mistake hitter than before: he will punish a bad pitch but rarely a good one. At the break he had 14 home runs and 49 runs batted in, but only a .247 batting average (one point better than the team's) and a .314 on-base percentage (a point worse than the team's). Sandberg turns 37 in September, and as Bill James showed in a study a few years ago focusing on George Sisler, it's unfair to expect a hitter of any age, no matter how great, to return to peak form after a year or more away. So Sandberg is what he is: a good but no longer great hitter, a sound fundamental player, a sweet fielder (only one error in the entire first half), and, in spite of his flaws, a joy to watch: in short, the perfect Cub.

In the Chicago first inning that night against the Cardinals, Doug Glanville reached base on an error with one out and Grace followed with an infield single nubbed off the end of his bat. Then Sosa singled solidly to left, scoring Glanville. Saint Louis pitcher Donovan Osborne got behind on Sandberg 3-1 and threw him a fastball, and Sandberg--a fastball hitter if ever there was one--smashed it into the left-field bleachers. He rounded the bases with that trademark humble gait in which his eyes seem focused on a spot about five feet in front of him on the ground, and the Cubs were up 4-0. They added a couple of insurance runs in the eighth, and in between the scoring was a crisp and well-played game. Navarro finished with no help from the bull pen; in fact, he took a toss at first base from Grace on a grounder for the final out, and he pumped his fist in triumph.

But the Cubs remained far removed from the usual sports turbulence of winning and losing. A loss would follow the next day, Navarro would lose his next start rather miserably, and then lose to the Cards in another poor performance the following Sunday in Saint Louis to drop the Cubs eight and a half games out of first. Of course none of this has been too distressing for Cubs fans. We live for the odd victory, for the rare shutout, for those moments when Sandberg homers or--better yet--drives a ball into the right-field corner for a triple, when he circles the bases in that lovely, geometrical arc of his, as if it were traced with a compass.

As we left the ballpark that night to head up Clark Street, past a garden apartment we'd lived in and down streets we'd lived on, we noticed that much had changed and, really, nothing had changed. In a packed Clark Street parking lot people were waiting, their cars blocked in, for the straggler fans behind them. They were standing outside their cars or sitting on the hoods, in various stages of repose, and no one seemed at all bothered or impatient--not in the slightest.

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