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Original Issue

Next act is a Cub flub

At least, it always has been—first in June but then nowhere when it counts

The scenario runs something like this: Cookie Rojas, the Cubs' first-base coach, strolls into the local Seno's men's wear store before the opening game of the 1978 World Series. "How many dinner jackets you got?" he asks.

The salesman proudly thrusts out his chest. "Over 400—shapes, sizes and colors for every occasion," he says. "What sort of occasion do you have in mind?"

"A ball game."

"A ball game. Very good, sir. Very...appropriate. Any particular color?"

"I was thinking of something in true blue."

"True blue. Yes, charming. Of course we don't have any color with exactly that name, but we do have a dinner jacket that would match that ridiculous Cub cap you're pointing to."

"That's the ticket," says Rojas. "Deliver them to Wrigley Field."


"All you have. Give them to the bleacher bums. Tell them Cookie wants them looking nice for the Series. Say, you got an extra-large? Make sure you bring an extra-large for the fat guy by the foul pole."

"Fat guy by the foul pole?"

"Big fat guy. Can't miss him."

"Yes, and who's going to pay for all this?"

"The Cubs'll pay for it. We owe them this one."

No team in baseball is as beholden to its fans as the Cubs. Conversely, no fans in baseball are as patient—and forgiving—with their team. This marks the sixth time in the last 10 years that Chicago has been in first place in June, and it has nary a divisional championship to show for it. The pennant has not flown over Wrigley Field since 1945. (It also flew there in 1918, lending substance to the theory that it will require the end of World War III for the National League flag to gallantly stream at Wrigley once more.)

And while Cub fans are much too savvy—given their team's past performances—to be struck by pennant fever at such an outrageously early date, they have learned it is best to get their shouting in early, and a wave of reckless excitement is sweeping over the city with the nation's shortest memory. Attendance at Cub games has passed half a million earlier than ever, and the crowd of 45,777 on April 14 was a Wrigley Field record for a home opener. "There's not a skeptical Cub fan alive," says Lou Boudreau, one of the club's broadcasters. "Sure they've been disappointed before, but who hasn't?"

If ever there was a team capable of disappointing Chicagoans again, it would seem to be the 1978 Cubs. As a club, they are hitting less than .250. Their opponents have out-homered them, have a better earned run average and have stolen more bases. And Chicago has been shut out six times. Yet, somehow, by the end of last week the Cubs had put together a 34-25 record, good enough to lead the East Division by 2½ games.

"They're battlers," says Ken Holtzman, who is back with Chicago after three championship years in Oakland and two years in mothballs in New York. "And they're deep. We never had a team this deep," he says, using "we" to refer to the 1969-71 Cub teams of which Holtzman was a member and which always found a way to die.

Indeed, this season's offense seems to come from a different quarter every night. Larry Biittner has put together a 12-game hitting streak and he and Bill Buckner are the only Cubs hitting better than .300; Greg Gross is among the league leaders in triples; Ivan DeJesus is one of the most prolific run scorers; and Dave Kingman is high on the list of home-run hitters.

"Everyone's involved here," Holtzman says. "They reach down for the 25th man, and he might be the one to win a game for you. The old Cubs always used to lose the heartbreakers in the damnedest ways. This team can win the heart-breakers. They remind me of the old Oakland A's in that way."

Chicago Manager Herman Franks is fed up with reminders of Cub collapses of the past. "Hey, why should I give a damn about what Santo and Williams and Banks did 10 years ago?" he says. "I wasn't here then. My players weren't here then. That's history."

But Franks and most of his players were there in 1977, when he managed the Cubs to a startling 8½-game lead on June 29. They hung on until the All-Star break, but after Aug. 1, the time of the season that, Rojas says, "separates the men from the boys," the Cubbies toddled in their diapers, playing 19 games below .500 and finishing the season 20 games behind the Phillies. The Santo-Banks-Williams bunch could hardly have folded more convincingly. Youngsters around Chicago are growing up thinking that the dog days of summer refer to the way the Cubs play in August.

Why might 1978 be different? "One year more experience, better pitching, and righthanded power," says Franks, who at 64 is the oldest manager in the major leagues. If it were not for the fat cigar he wraps his mouth around and the occasional smile that sneaks out of him, Herman does a nearly perfect imitation of a sea lion with belly cramps.

The new righthanded power comes from Kingman, who signed with the Cubs last fall after being peddled from the Mets to the Padres to the Angels to the Yankees in 1977—leaving 26 home runs and 143 strikeouts in his wake. In Kingman, the Cubs have their first home-run threat from the right side since Santo left in 1973. He also gives the city its first slugger with his ego in an eggshell since Richie-call-me-Dick Allen left the White Sox in 1974. Teammates, coaches and reporters tiptoe around Kingman, hoping they will not find out what it's like to see a 6'6" man burst into tears while armed with a bat. Asked how he feels about being with the Cubs, Kingman sat back on the bench and said, "I've had a wonderful day. I'm in a great mood. If I talk about baseball it will ruin it."

If Kingman were to let his bat talk for him, his interviews would be long periods of anguished silence interrupted by occasional wild-eyed screams. More than a third of his hits have been homers, but more than a third of his times at bat have resulted in strikeouts. The Cubs knew what they were getting when they signed him—before this season Kingman had whiffed 853 times in 2,657 at bats—and his run production has offset the inconsistency that is the mark of streak hitting. He leads the team with 39 RBIs, and his 14 homers are 11 more than any other member of the Cubs, whose power from the left side—in the form of Bobby Murcer—has fizzled into oblivion.

The I-hate-you-ball swings that Kingman takes lead his line-driving teammates to see him for what he is: a potential game breaker who more often than not will kill a rally. "He will hit his 30 home runs and knock in 100, but I will be on the bases many times before I come home," says leadoff man DeJesus, one of the best—and most underrated—shortstops in baseball. During the ninth inning of a 1-0 loss to Cincinnati last week, Kingman stepped to the plate with men on first and third and one out. Not surprisingly, he fanned. Asked if he had considered pinch-hitting for his top strikeout and RBI man—which Franks has done in the past—the manager said, "If I knew then what I know now, yes, I'd have pinch-hit for him."

Such surly wisdom is vintage Franks, who only steps far enough onto the limb of predictions to say, "We will go as far as our pitching will carry us this year." With a starting four—Rick Reuschel, Ray Burris, Dave Roberts and Dennis Lamp—that entered the season with a lifetime record of 220-227, such a statement should bring helpless laughter and the retort, you're going nowhere, son.

But consistent pitching is what has lofted the Cubs to the top. Reuschel, 20-10 last year, leads the league with a 2.07 ERA and is 8-4. The other starters have kept the games close enough for the strong Cub bullpen, led by Bruce Sutter, to take over. Sutter had 31 saves a year ago, throwing a "split-fingered fastball" and averaging better than a strikeout an inning, a ratio he has maintained this year. So far in '78 he has eight saves, four wins and a 1.62 ERA.

It was an injury to Sutter that precipitated the Cub fall last year. On Aug. 2, with Chicago two games in front of the Phillies, Sutter went on the 21-day disabled list. When he returned, the Cubs trailed by nine games. If there is any hope of the bleacher bums being decked out in finery come October, Sutter's arm will have to stay sound.

Holtzman, who has lived near Chicago since 1965, the year the Cubs signed him, has dressed for five World Series, as many as any other active player. However, he does not wear any of his championship rings. He keeps them locked in a vault. "But when this team gets in, you'll see me wearing that ring around," says Holtzman. "I'll be strutting."

On the off-chance that the dog days lay waste another Cub team, Chicago fans will still have the words of syndicated columnist George F. Will to console them: "In the deepest sediment of my soul, I know that the Cubs have been good for me. They have taught me the first rule of reasonable living: discern the inevitable and submit to it without tears."

Never. Never!


Kingman has 14 home runs—and 62 whiffs.