You are a Chicago Cub fan, and for a short time you thought you
were free. The habit of a lifetime had been kicked. You no
longer were the long-suffering, forever-doomed,
excuse-me-while-I-kill-myself sad sack in the far corner of the
banquet hall of American sport. No more heartache. No more
``The baseball strike was the best thing that ever happened,'' you
said. ``It was an eight-month, all-expenses-paid trip to the Betty
Ford Clinic for the Diamond Addicted. Eight months of cold turkey.
I do not need baseball in general, and I certainly do not need the
Cubs in particular.''
The eight months of inactivity followed a shortened 1994 season
that was a low point even for this team that specializes in low
points, this team that hasn't won a World Series in 87 years and
hasn't even appeared in one in 50. Was there ever a better time to
make a break? You suffered through that terrible losing streak at
the start of '94, 12 straight losses at Wrigley Field. You winced
when the manager, what's-his-name, Tom Trebelhorn, went to the
firehouse on Waveland Avenue after the ninth loss and talked
baseball with the fans. You went to the firehouse. You listened to
There was so much animosity, so much discord, everyone on that
team hating everything, that the best player, second baseman Ryne
Sandberg, a Hall of Famer for sure, walked away in the middle of
June. Walked away. Gave back $16 million in future contracts! Was
there a team in worse shape than the 49- 64 Cubs?
``I am with Ryno,'' you said. ``I'm walking away. I have better
ways to spend my time and my emotions.''
You lasted 25 regular-season games.
The 25th game was the killer. Who could resist? Who could hold
strong? In the ninth inning of the last game of a nine-game road
trip, on May 24, Shawon Dunston rolled home from third with the
go-ahead run in a 5-3 victory over the Colorado Rockies. It was a
crazy play that started with a ground ball hit to Colorado second
baseman Roberto Mejia by pinch hitter Brian McRae. Mejia fired
high toward home. Rocky catcher Jorge Brito had to jump to catch
the ball. Dunston slid underneath, missing the plate, and then
crawled back to tag the plate with his hand. Then he lay on the
ground, dizzy from the collision between his head and Brito's
right knee. No team in baseball felt better about itself than the
Cubs. When he finally returned to the dugout, Dunston was greeted
as if he were Lindbergh newly arrived in Paris.
``This is the best I've felt with this team since 1989,'' first
baseman Mark Grace said in the clubhouse after game number 25.
``This might even feel better. This might be the highest I've ever
been as a Cub. To compare it to last year . . . not even in the
same zip code.''
``I've had more fun in the last month than I had in my previous 2-1/2 years combined in Chicago,'' third baseman Steve Buechele said.
``Dunston says he's still dizzy,'' a reporter said to Cub trainer
``Dunston's always dizzy,'' Fierro said. ``What's new about
The win gave Chicago a 7-2 record for the trip, a 17-8 record for
the season. This was the Cubs' best first 25 games in 20 years.
Chicago was the most unlikely of division leaders, in first place
by three games over the Cincinnati Reds in the National League
Central. ``Rejuvenated'' was a description of the new attitude.
``It's all so different now,'' says Buechele, who had described
1994 as ``baseball at its most miserable.'' ``It's a whole new
mind-set. Guys get here early, three hours before the game. Guys
want to be here. I was thinking that this was going to be my last
year, that I didn't want to play anymore. Now it's so different.
You actually see guys smiling on the field.''
The indignities of a year ago have been washed away with the
arrival of a new, kinder and gentler administration. While the
strike was dominating headlines, the Cubs quietly were
restructuring their entire operation. Gone is autocratic general
manager Larry Himes, who insisted on daily team meetings and
seemed to have his hands and eyes everywhere. He has been replaced
by Andy MacPhail, the 42-year-old architect of two world
champions with the Minnesota Twins. MacPhail is now the president
of the Cubs, and he hired Ed Lynch from the New York Mets as his
general manager, and Lynch hired Jim Riggleman from the San Diego
Padres to replace Trebelhorn as manager, and Riggleman hired
Ferguson Jenkins from the Cubs' past as pitching coach, and
Jenkins has talked long on the virtues of throwing strikes and
keeping the ball low, and . . . first place? Everything has worked
faster and better than anyone could have expected.
``The strike gave us time to get organized,'' MacPhail says. ``We
were all new, and we had time to organize a system. By the time
that one important week in April arrived, when everything started
again, we were ready.''
``We had three priorities when we took over,'' Lynch says.
``First, we wanted to re-sign Mark Grace. We did that. Second, we
wanted to upgrade our defense in centerfield. We not only did
that, getting Brian McRae from Kansas City, but he brought along
some extra offense. Third, we wanted to upgrade our pitching.
That's a goal you'll never fulfill in this league, because as a
general manager you'll go to your deathbed trying to upgrade your
pitching, but we did make some moves. The big one was signing
Jaime Navarro, from the Milwaukee Brewers. That really has worked
Grace, a free agent who had looked at moving crosstown to the
White Sox, was brought back on a one-year deal. McRae was obtained
from Kansas City for two minor leaguers in one of those 1990s
trades that really is not a trade, a small-market team dumping a
large salary to a large-market team. Navarro was enticed from the
Brewers by an incentive-filled contract with an $850,000 base
``The important thing is that the guys we got really wanted to
come here,'' Lynch says. ``You have a lot of things to offer with
the Cubs. Does a player want to play in a big market? Does he want
to play every day on national television? Does he want to play
mostly day games at home, living a relatively normal lifestyle?
This is the one place he can do that.''
Navarro, who had a 4-0 record as of Sunday, has become the ace of
a young and surprisingly effective pitching staff that after the
25th game was leading the majors with a 3.30 earned run average.
Holdovers Kevin Foster, Jim Bullinger, Steve Trachsel and Frank
Castillo, who suffered through the long afternoons of 1994, have
benefited from Jenkins's gentle advice. With 284 career victories,
Hall of Famer Jenkins had nearly triple the total victories -- 106
-- of his entire rotation when the season began. In one nine- game
stretch his starters pitched through the seventh inning seven
times. Holdover closer and off-season college basketball shooting
guard Randy Myers has taken care of the rest of the business.
``I really haven't changed anything with any of these guys,''
Jenkins says. ``I just have gotten them to pitch aggressively.
It's so much easier to pitch, especially in Wrigley Field, when
you're ahead in the count. Everything has kind of grown from that.
One guy wins one day, then the next guy wins the next day. It's
become a situation where nobody wants to let everyone else down.''
``It's all so different now,'' Trachsel says. ``I was a rookie
last year, so I didn't know what to expect. I was in the
clubhouse, and players, especially the veteran players, all seemed
very tight. It was like they were afraid to make mistakes because
they knew they'd hear about them.''
The road trip made everything seem real. How good is this team?
Well, when was the last time a Cub team went west and came home
with a 7-2 record? Even the two losses -- on a two-run homer in
the seventh by the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds and a
two-run, ninth-inning rally by the Rockies -- were far from
discouraging. The 7-2 trip very easily could have been 9-0.
MacPhail worries about Cincinnati, a team that has the talent to
walk away from everyone else in the division. Dunston worries
about the Cubs' lack of power, with only rightfielder Sammy Sosa
as a genuine home run threat. Lynch worries about depth and the
untested pitching over a long season. What will happen if injuries
occur? What moves would have to be made? Grace and the rest of the
Cubs worry less and less.
``People ask us if we're really this good,'' Grace says. ``We ask
ourselves the same question all the time. The answer is, we're
doing it now, so why can't we keep doing it?''
``We're doing it, and we really haven't started to hit yet,''
McRae says. ``You go through our lineup, and nobody's having a
career year. Nobody's hitting any better than he ever has. Our
pitching has been keeping us going, and if our hitting kicks in
too, we could be hard to beat.''
Hard to beat? The Cubs? Who could resist that?
``I'm a [Cub] broadcaster, but I'm also a fan,'' former Cub third
baseman Ron Santo says. ``I look at this team and . . . who knows?
You get started like this, and all of a sudden you're doing things
you didn't know you were capable of doing. I played 14 years with
this team, and unfortunately we never won it, but someday it's
going to happen, and god, I hope I'm there when it does. Wouldn't
it be something?''
You are back. You are a Cub fan, and you spent part of your
Memorial Day weekend in nasty weather at Wrigley. Or you watched
and listened to Harry Caray gargle on television. Or you picked
up the Chicago Tribune and threw away the front sections and
went directly to the sports for scores and standings. Or you
picked up the Chicago Sun-Times and started reading from the
back, from the sports.
Thursday: Cubs lose 6-2 to the Reds as Reggie Sanders hits a
two-run homer for Cincy in the eighth. Friday: Cubs lose again,
5-3, to the Florida Marlins, who smack three solo homers.
Saturday: Cubs win 3-1 over the Marlins in a game extended by a
two-hour rain delay. Sunday: Cubs beat the Marlins 13- 8 as Howard
Johnson hits two homers and Dunston knocks in three runs.
``They're killing me,'' you said with each loss.
``This is the year it's finally going to happen,'' you said with
You thought you were stronger than that. Then again, you probably
knew that you weren't.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS:JONATHAN DANIEL Chicagoans young and old are excited about the surge by Dunston and the Cubs, who pray the team's fortunes don't slide. [cub fans celebrating in the stands; Shawon Dunston sliding head-first into base]COLOR PHOTO:DAVID WALBERG [see caption above--baby wearing Cubs hat and holding baseball]
COLOR PHOTO:STEPHEN GREEN The Cubs' only real source of power is Sosa, who had belted nine home runs as of Sunday. [Sammy Sosa batting]
COLOR PHOTO:TODD ROSENBERG Signing the graceful Grace was an off-season priority. [Mark Grace tossing ball with underhanded throw]
COLOR PHOTO:JOHN BIEVERRiggleman, the club's rookie skipper, has succeeded in keeping things loose for his Wrigleymen.[Jim Riggleman]
COLOR PHOTO:JONATHAN DANIEL Middle relief man Mike Perez is just one of several pitchers who have stirred Cub fans' hopes.[Mike Perez pitching]