It is midafternoon in Wrigley Field, and several dozen Chicago schoolchildren are sitting together in the stands, waving their arms and shouting, "We want out! We want out!"
Well, it is understandable. Wrigley is a salutary place in the spring, with the ivy on the outfield walls just turning green and the real biological grass nice and thick on the field and the sunlight pouring down unimpeded by apparatus for artificial illumination. But anyone familiar with the tradition of Chicago National League baseball—an inheritance of day games, rowdy bleachers and recurrent despair—can sympathize readily enough with these children, who evidently have been dragooned into going out and breaking their young hearts rooting for the Cubs, when they could be in class safely diagraming sentences.
But no! Wait! Correction. The children are not yelling "We want out!" They are yelling "We want an out!" And what's more they are getting it. Rick Reuschel, the Cubs' heavily stomached starter, is setting down the final splashily outfitted Astro (the new Houston uniforms appear to have been dipped into mustard, ketchup and other gaudy sauces) in a 4-2 Chicago victory last week. The children are whooping and holding up a bedsheet banner that says "Happiness Is Being a Cub Fan."
What a notion. But the fact is, it makes sense. The Cubs, who last year finished firmly at the bottom of their division, are in first place now, and for much of the season they have had the best winning percentage in the majors. Gone are such established luminaries as Ferguson Jenkins, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Randy Hundley and Glenn Beckert, but solid people remain: Rick (Road Apple) Monday, Don (Road Apple) Kessinger, Jose (Junior) Cardenal. And a bunch of new, largely unheard-of Cubs are acting confident and aggressive, including a poet-pitcher and a reserve third baseman who has eaten a Texas grasshopper.
It must be said that "Wrigley's Believe It Or Not" is a phrase being used in Chicago by cautious observers. Will the Cub bubble burst?
"The Cubbies're beautiful," cried a fat man named Vern in the center-field bleachers last week.
"The Cubbies're often beautiful," said a fat man next to him named Chuck, "this time of year."
"These're not the Cubbies we know," noted Vern.
"Yet," countered Chuck.
But let us not dwell on the past. Steve Stone's lifetime won-lost record through 1974, with the Giants, White Sox and, last year, the Cubs, was 25-34. This year he is 5-0, with an ERA of 1.02. His poetry has been carried by such diverse media as the National Jewish Monthly and the UPI wire. In Memories he comes out for living in the present:
Every once in a while our minds wander to bygone days of yesteryear...
The hours of loneliness are forgotten because we are pleasure orientated and memories are always sweeter....
But we must never go back because imagination knows no time and reality is harsh enough to spoil the best of events....
Let's talk and remember and laugh and cry; let's not relive, but live life every new day because soon enough, everything will be past and all we'll have are the memories.
Stone is one of the Cubs who spoke out in a team meeting toward the end of spring training, calling for a go-getting attitude. "The press was saying we'd be lucky to finish in the National League," he says. "We decided not to let the media bury us. We had nothing to lose and everything to gain." With that attitude the unburied Cubs seem hungry and eager for work; it is a pleasure to watch them attacking the ball and taking flyers on the bases. "We don't have one Big Boomer to fall back on for a lot of runs," says Stone. "We're going to basically have to steal a lot of games."
Monday, who is batting .346 and whose matured cleanup and center-field skills, whose forthrightness and hustle make him as valuable as most any Boomer, does not seem a likely thief, but he set the team's brazenly scrounging tone in the second game of the year by scoring the winning run from second on a sacrifice fly. In Stone's fifth victory, 2-1 over Houston, the Cubs' runs were scored by Third Baseman Bill Madlock's dash home on a passed ball which skipped only a few feet from home plate and by Kessinger's clever sudden jump off third which startled the Houston pitcher into a balk. "We've just decided," says Kessinger, "if we're going to get beat we're going to get beat getting after somebody."
Something which helped the Cubs get after the Cardinals, against whom they are 4 and 1, was Card Reliever Al Hrabosky's calling them "Teddy Bears" in an interview. "That allowed us an avenue of possibly a little extra adrenaline flowing," says Monday. Not wanting to give Hrabosky such an avenue, the Cubs make it a point to say what a fine pitcher he is, but they take great relish in having beaten him in the clubs' first meeting. Last year a brawl grew out of Madlock's refusal to stand in the batter's box while Hrabosky, as is his custom, turned his back to the plate for long self-communing moments. Then the Cubs cost St. Louis a chance to win the division pennant by losing to Pittsburgh on a dropped third strike the last day of the season. It should be a fine rivalry between the Cubs and Cards this year.
In 1974 Madlock hit .313 without attracting much notice. He is again hitting over .300 and is also winning affection from Cub fans with his fielding and base running. Second Baseman Manny Trillo, acquired in the off-season from Oakland in the Billy Williams trade, is batting .301 and turning lots of double plays, which the Cubs had been hurting for. In a sense Trillo is more than one person. His full name is Jesus Manuel Trillo-Marcano, and playing winter ball back home in Venezuela he is known as Jesus Marcane And then there are the two stars with the same nickname. For reasons of their own, roommates Monday and Kessinger call each other "Road," short for "Road Apple." Many of their teammates are too new to have learned that Kessinger's long-time nickname among the old Cubs was "Pete," dating back to his first big-league at-bat when he was mistakenly announced as Pete Kessinger.
If the Cubs keep on winning, these irregularities of nomenclature will doubtless be straightened out, or complicated further, by the media. And the fact that few people outside Chicago have heard of most of the Cubs—for instance, Right-fielder Jerry Morales, batting .282 with 20 RBIs—will be rectified.
The team's credibility as a first-place club is bolstered somewhat by the number of former Oakland A's on the roster. Besides Manny-Jesus, these refugees include Monday, reserve Outfielder John Summers, Catcher Tim Hosley and Relievers Bob Locker and Darold Knowles. Knowles and journeyman Oscar (Z) Zamora have been particularly strong in relief, which is a good thing because starters Reuschel, Ray Burris and Bill Bon-ham have performed unevenly. "Our starters fall into the category of improvement," says Manager Jim Marshall, who is in his first full year as a big-league pilot and who looks something like Gene Hackman. That the starters need to improve would seem to be the thrust of Marshall's remark. Against Houston last week Burris fell into the category of a five-run hole while failing to finish the first inning. The Cubs eventually lost that game 11-7, but they kept trying to make a contest of it. "The Cubs're chipping away," said the fans to one another. "The Cubs aren't dying."
Knowles feels that the infusion of A's—"guys who know what it's like to win"—has helped the Cubs' attitude, and the ex-A's tend to see their new team in sharp contrast to the old one. "Here everybody's pulling for each other," says Summers. "The last time I struck out for Oakland I felt like my world had dropped from under me. I came back to the bench and maybe somebody said something but most of them looked away. Here, everybody's patting you, saying, 'Hey, tomorrow.' "
"On this team," says Monday, "I can get on a young player for not running something out and he won't take it wrong. Not like the other team."
Indeed there seems to be an atmosphere of bubbly good nature around the Cubs, as if they haven't realized yet the terrible pressures of being Eastern Division leaders. "I'm losing my hair," Coach Jim Saul exclaimed suddenly last week, "but I don't care. My wife still loves me, and I can still hit fungoes."
Some of the Cubs even make conscious efforts to spread their cheer into the stands. Cardenal, a longtime crowd pleaser, is hitting .336 and endearing himself to left-field bleacherites by such antics as holding out his cap and pretending to drink from it, in order to persuade the umpires to call a rainy game. Backup Third Baseman Ron Dunn—who like Summers and former Twin George Mitterwald has hit with authority when he has played—puts on a little show for the fans just before each game in Wrigley. The organist plays The Entertainer and Dunn, using two bats and a catcher's mitt as props, stands out by the bullpen and simulates playing a flute, a trombone, a tuba, a banjo and bagpipes.
"Daffy" is what the Cubs call Dunn. "I got to know Ron in Midland, Texas," says Peter LaCock Jr., who was, in Stone's phrase, "a spare part" when the season opened but stepped in effectively at first base when Andy Thornton got hurt. LaCock looks like Peter Marshall, the host of TV's Hollywood Squares, which makes sense because LaCock is the son of Marshall, who changed his name for Hollywood. LaCock attracted public notice last year in the minors by apparently throwing a baseball at the governor of Colorado, who was sitting in the stands. LaCock says he wasn't really throwing at the governor—he didn't even know the governor was there—but at the official scorer, with whom he had a disagreement. And he wasn't really trying to hit the official scorer, just trying to scare him.
Anyway, LaCock and Dunn got to know each other as teammates in Midland. "Once we got grasshoppered out," says LaCock. "The grasshoppers were so thick in the air that after each pitch there would be a long line of dead grasshoppers between the mound and the plate. Dunn ate a grasshopper."
Dunn is called over. "Did you really eat a grasshopper?" he is asked.
"Well...for money," he answers. "First I ate the wings, to build the betting up. Then I swallowed the rest all at once."
"Didn't it wiggle in your mouth?"
"No, it didn't have room. I had a chew of tobacco in there."
LaCock, a choosier eater, enjoys being a Cub. "We like each other," he says.
Which calls to mind Stone's poem, Friend, which goes in part:
To define our friendship would be ludicrous, but the intangible feeling is everpresent.
Stone wrote that poem while he was a Giant. Its publication, he says, caused a San Franciscan to write him and say he was going to come out to the games at Candlestick for the first time, "because the poem made him feel there must be something out there."
So far this year there is definitely something out there at the Cubs' park. As Stone says, in an offhand remark, not a poem, "Everything's rosy in Wrigley."
WALTER IOOSS JR.
Pitcher-Poet Steve Stone, heretofore no big deal, has become the Cubs' ablest starter.
WALTER IOOSS JR.
Young Pete LaCock heads toward first base, a position he has occupied handily as a fill-in.
WALTER IOOSS JR.
Jose Cardenal takes a back seat to no one.