Julio Zuleta lay awake into the wee hours of May 19, mind
racing, heart pounding, angry and frustrated. The previous
afternoon, Zuleta's team, the Chicago Cubs, had lost its eighth
straight game and gotten just one hit in a 4-0 loss to Randy
Johnson and the Arizona Diamondbacks. Even though Zuleta is only
a rookie reserve first baseman, the futility was eating at him.
He tossed and turned. He got up and paced in the dark. Suddenly,
he stopped and asked himself, What would Pedro Cerrano do?
Ever since spring training 2000, when Cubs catcher Joe Girardi
took one look at the 6'6", 245-pound Panamanian's bald head and
bulging muscles, Zuleta has been nicknamed Cerrano after the
hulking, voodoo-practicing first baseman from the 1989 film Major
League. In the flick Cerrano prays for hits by offering cigars
and whiskey to Jobu, a small, Buddha-like statue.
The next afternoon Zuleta gathered two oranges, an apple, a
banana, sunflower seeds and a tube of the analgesic Flexall. He
placed the items on a white towel in a sunny spot in the Cubs'
dugout. Then he took a bat from each member of that evening's
starting lineup and stacked them atop the mishmash. "I can't
explain it all," says Zuleta, "but I thought that maybe the bats
were hungry, so I gave them some fruit. I put them in the sun so
we could get hot."
During that afternoon's game, against Arizona, Zuleta returned
each piece of lumber to its respective owner before that player
stepped to the plate. As the leadoff hitter, second baseman
Miguel Cairo, approached, Zuleta rubbed Cairo's bat with a bone
used to harden the wood, then squeezed the bat in his hands and
passed it to Cairo. Zuleta did the same thing for the number 2
hitter, shortstop Ricky Gutierrez. And for number 3, rightfielder
Sammy Sosa, and so on and so on. "I don't practice voodoo," says
Zuleta. "I am Catholic, and I believe 100 percent in God. But the
way we were losing, something had to be done."
That day the Cubs beat the Diamondbacks 6-2. Chicago won its next
game too. And the next. And the next. And the next. And the next.
And the next. And the next. And the next. And the next. And the
next. And the next. In 1965 the Pittsburgh Pirates became the
first team to win 12 consecutive games immediately after losing
eight in a row. With last Saturday's 10-4 defeat of the Milwaukee
Brewers at Miller Park, the Cubs became the second. The streak
was Chicago's longest since it won 15 straight in '35, and it
lifted the Cubs from 21-20 and fourth place in the National
League Central to 33-20 and first place. During the 12-game run,
the Cubs batted a robust .287. Sosa went 18 for 41 with 14 RBIs;
first baseman Matt Stairs scored eight runs and contributed eight
RBIs; and Cairo performed admirably (6 for 11 and five runs
scored) while replacing regular second baseman Eric Young for
three games. Do you believe in miracles? No. Do you believe in
Zuleta was still performing his rituals on Sunday, when the Cubs
finally lost, 4-2 to the Brewers. The oranges, apples and bananas
had traveled with the club from Chicago to Cincinnati to
Milwaukee, religiously placed in a freezer after each game. The
same towel--unwashed--had served as a mat. "Look, I don't know what
the heck Julio's doing," said third baseman Ron Coomer on Sunday,
"but as long as he's not killing any chickens in his hotel room,
I'm not going to complain. Winning is winning."
For this 126th edition of the Cubs--who, despite having had
their winning streak snapped, were 2 1/2 games ahead of the
second-place St. Louis Cardinals through Sunday--their
early-season success has been invigorating. This is a team that
last season tied with the Philadelphia Phillies for most losses
in the league (97), had a staff ERA of 5.25 (14th in the league)
and hit .256 (13th). This spring the Cubs were widely picked to
finish last in their division.
In the off-season, after free-agent lefthander Mike Hampton
spurned Chicago's $100 million-plus offer and signed with the
Colorado Rockies, the Cubs were left to pick up the pitching
scraps: 30-year-old righthander Jason Bere, a starter who hadn't
won 10 games in a season since 1994; 38-year-old lefthander Jeff
Fassero, a starter turned reliever who had an iffy left
shoulder; and 28-year-old righthander Julian Tavarez, who had
started in only 24 of his 364 major league appearances but whom
the Cubs counted on to plug a hole in the rotation. Most
startling was the two-year, $4 million contract given to Tom
(Flash) Gordon, the former Boston Red Sox closer who had missed
the past 1 1/2 seasons with a torn ligament in his right elbow.
"I'm sure people looked at our moves and weren't impressed,"
says Jim Hendry, Chicago's assistant general manager, "but we
believed these were the pieces we needed to rebuild."
It turns out that the least-publicized acquisition of all may
have had the biggest impact. Shortly after he was named
Chicago's manager in November 1999, Don Baylor asked the front
office to hire Mack Newton, a well-known Arizona-based fitness
consultant and motivational speaker, to serve as a spring
training guru. The team brass refused. This spring Newton was
allowed to come aboard. He ran training camp in Mesa, Ariz., as
if he were a hybrid of Richard Simmons, Dr. Wayne Dyer and Vince
Lombardi. Each day began with a grueling 75-minute
stretching-and-exercise routine put to funky music and nonstop
banter. All the while Newton was guaranteeing that come October,
Chicago would be in its first World Series since 1945. On the
final day of spring training Sosa led the Cubs in a standing
ovation for the departing Newton.
"When we left Arizona, I truly believed we would go from last to
first," says Sosa, whose 16 homers and 50 RBIs ranked sixth in
the league in each category as of Sunday. "Mack gave us
confidence we hadn't had. But the most important thing about
spring training was watching our pitchers take off. When you can
pitch, you can win. This year, we can pitch with anybody."
While Zuleta's ritual was intended to cure offensive impotence,
it has been Chicago's arms--not its bats--that seem possessed by
mystical powers. Even with Sosa's production the Cubs have
struggled at the plate, hitting .253 (12th in the league) with 61
homers (ninth). Meanwhile, Chicago's pitchers ranked second in
the league with a 3.79 ERA and topped all of baseball with 503
strikeouts (chart, above). During the winning streak the Cubs
held opposing hitters to a .190 average. Last season Baylor used
14 pitchers as starters; this year, save for one emergency
appearance by reliever Manny Aybar, righthanders Kevin Tapani
(8-1, 3.47 ERA), Jon Lieber (5-3, 2.95), Kerry Wood (4-4, 4.07),
Tavarez (3-4, 3.46) and Bere (4-2, 5.13) had started 53 of the
team's 54 games.
Looming largest among them is the 23-year-old, 6'5", 230-pound
Wood, whose masterly 6 1/3-inning, five-hit, 10-strikeout
performance in the Cubs' 4-3 triumph over the Brewers last Friday
night was more proof that he's approaching his rookie-phenom form
of '98, when he went 13-6 with 233 strikeouts in 166 innings and
stole the breath of a city. As has been well chronicled, Wood
missed the following season with a torn ligament in his right
elbow and then struggled through an up-and-down, 8-7, 4.80 ERA
run in 2000. Wood seemed to announce his return to prime time on
May 25, when--a day after Lieber had one-hit the Cincinnati
Reds--he allowed one hit and struck out 14 in a 1-0 win against
Milwaukee for the Cubs' sixth win in the streak. "When you see
the way Kerry carries himself, you can't be surprised that he's
so good again," says Lieber. "He's always had the attitude that
winning is the only way. I would never bet against him."
Lieber also would be wise not to wager against baseball's most
unaccountably effective bullpen. When Gordon missed the season's
first month with a strained right triceps, Fassero converted 10
of 12 save opportunities. Since his return, Gordon--whose fastball
is again reaching the mid-90s--had converted seven of nine. "I'm
95 percent back to where I was at my best," says Gordon, one of
five Chicago relievers to average more than one strikeout per
inning. "It's just a matter of fine-tuning."
Fassero and Gordon are not only effective stoppers but also
mentors to Chicago's young relievers. The newcomers who have
benefited most are righthanders Courtney Duncan, 26, and Kyle
Farnworth, 25, a pair of soft-spoken middle men with closer
potential. Last year Chicago shuttled Farnsworth from the Triple
A Iowa Cubs to the Cubs' rotation to the Cubs' bullpen, and his
numbers (2-9, 6.43 ERA) reflected the wear and tear. A devout
Mormon, Farnsworth has connected with the equally quiet Fassero,
and the two discuss mound strategy. Farnsworth allowed one run in
the inning he pitched in last Friday's win but used his 100-mph
fastball to strike out three of the four batters he faced. "With
Kyle and Flash, it reminds you of Ron Davis and Goose Gossage
with the old Yankees," says Baylor. "Very, very tough."
Duncan, who made the jump from the Double A West Tenn Diamond
Jaxx to the majors after a stellar spring, experienced a life's
worth of trauma last November. His oldest brother, Thomas, shot
and killed his pregnant girlfriend and then turned the gun on
himself, committing suicide. "I've been asked if the tragedy
affects my pitching," says Duncan, 3-1 with a 2.13 ERA and 30
strikeouts in 25 innings. "It does in one way: It allows me not
to take the worst baseball situation too seriously. I know there
are much worse things in life than the bases loaded with no
outs." In Saturday's 10-4 defeat of the Brewers, Duncan faced
that precise situation upon entering the game in the eighth and
immediately giving up a single and two walks. He struck out the
next three batters. "Courtney is one tough fella," says bullpen
coach Sandy Alomar. "Maturity like that doesn't usually come with
that age. It's unbelievable."
Nothing is unbelievable in Wrigleyville these days, what with
the motivation-charged, pitching-rich Cubs in first place. It's
magical, isn't it?
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID DUROCHIK Close out Chicago's defense hasn't been too shabby either, as Girardi showed by taking a throw from Sosa and nailing the Padres' Mark Kotsay.
COLOR PHOTO: RYAN MCKEE/CLARKSON AND ASSOCIATES Cub rubs Sosa (far left) and Young were among the players to participate in Zuleta's batty rituals.
COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN GREEN [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER
Blowing 'em Away
One reason the Cubs have been so successful is that opponents
are having trouble making contact against Chicago pitchers.
Through Sunday righthander Kerry Wood (above) led all big league
starters with 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings, while righty
setup man Kyle Farnsworth was tops among relievers with 15.2. As
a team the Cubs led the majors with 503 strikeouts in 484
innings, a rate of 9.4 per nine innings. At that pace they would
fan 1,523 batters for the season, breaking the big league record
of 1,245 set by the 1996 Braves. Here are the staffs that had
whiffed the most batters this season, with the starter and
reliever who led each team in strikeout ratio (minimum 25
innings for relievers). --David Sabino
TEAM INN. K's 9 INN. STARTER (K's/9) RELIEVER (K's/9)
Cubs 484 503 9.4 Kerry Wood (13.8) Kyle Farnsworth (15.2)
Red Sox 486 1/3 450 8.3 Pedro Martinez (13.4) Rolando Arrojo(8.1)
Dodgers 497 2/3 459 8.3 Chan Ho Park (9.3) Jeff Shaw (9.9)
Yankees 489 450 8.3 Mike Mussina (8.6) Mariano Rivera (9.5)
Phillies 493 2/3 415 7.6 Randy Wolf (10.6) Wayne Gomes (8.5)
"When you can pitch, you can win," says Sosa. "We can pitch with