Mark Derosa, theEveryman on Everyone's Team, was in rightfield early in the Chicago Cubs'recent 10-game homestand when he spotted a sign in the Wrigley Field stands:IT'S GONNA HAPPEN. There was something compelling, even mystical, about thewords. They stuck in his head, like the lyrics of a long-ago song on the carradio. The "it," of course, can be open-ended, ambiguous. (A meteor isgoing to wipe out the North Side? Will Ferrell is going to make a movie inwhich he doesn't strip to his skivvies?) Cubs fans, however, areglass-half-full people--usually after chugging the other half--and the sign'smeaning, in context, left little to the imagination. "When teams go on runsand good things happen to them, there always seems to be a slogan that followsthem," DeRosa says. "It seems that this one has been popping up abit."
Now in their 99thyear of rebuilding, the Cubs' losing is just a few rungs below death and taxeson the inevitability scale. But having perfected the art of defeat, losing intragicomic ways that challenge the mind and numb the soul, maybe at long last,to paraphrase scripture, the lion will lie down with the billy goat and theCubs will do something as delightful as win the...
No, the Cubs don'tneed to be burdened by another jinx. But they are looming, within 3 1‚ÅÑ2 gamesof the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central, despite a 3-0 loss to the ArizonaDiamondbacks on Sunday that left the Cubs with a 7-3 mark for the homestand.And even the players are beginning to believe that maybe, just maybe, It CouldHappen. "It has to, it's inevitable," says Cubs shortstop Ryan Theriot."We keep playing hard, sooner or later it'll happen."
They may be in amediocre division in a league as soft as a passing summer shower, but the Cubshave become a genuine presence. They have rapped out clutch hits and receivedsuperb pitching while putting together, at week's end, the best record inbaseball since June 3, recapturing the magic of the Wrigley experience as itwas in 2003 and '04, when the Cubs were star-crossed contenders.
Sure, it's beenaxiomatic for most of the past quarter of a century that not even bad baseballcan blunt good times in America's favorite baseball theme park. But that's likesaying the Vatican is more famous for its art than its religious significance."We're sold out, no matter what," All-Star first baseman Derrek Leesays. "But now the fans are on their feet, hanging on every pitch, where inthe past they were just out there drinking beer, talking to each other, havinga party. Now they pay attention."
The Cubs give themlittle choice because every win seems to contain a moment or two to burn on theCD of memory, providing the grand stories that a city tells itself about itswinning teams. Consider last week:
•Koyie Hill, one ofsix catchers who have started for the Cubs in 2007 and a guy who was barelyhitting his IQ, drove in five runs on Wednesday in the Cubs' 12-1 thrashing ofthe San Francisco Giants. Chicago scored seven runs after two were out, a trendthat extended throughout this homestand. Of the Cubs' 56 runs in the 10 games,25 came with two outs. "It's a little contagious," manager Lou Piniellasays, "and it demoralizes the other team a little bit."
•The following day,Barry Bonds hits two Ruthian home runs--a shot over the rightfield bleachersonto Sheffield Avenue and a homer to left center into the teeth of a15-to-20-mph wind--but the Cubs hung on to win 9-8. (The Chicago Sun-Timesheadline the next morning: NINE BEATS A PAIR OF JACKS.) Jacque Jones, tradebait in June, had four hits. Cliff Floyd, shaken moments earlier in a collisionat first with Giants pitcher Matt Morris, sprinted home from second on a passedball before leaving the game at the end of the inning. Cubs starter Ted Lillysingled with two outs in the fifth, swiped second for the first stolen base ofhis career and scored the eighth run on Alfonso Soriano's double. Chicago hadfive run-scoring hits after two were out. "For April and May," Floydsaid, still dazed after the win, "I think we had five total."
•In his team'sfirst 97 games, Piniella had used 84 different lineups, just none as differentas the one he used last Friday against the Diamondbacks and 2006 Cy Youngwinner Brandon Webb. Piniella gave first baseman Scott Moore, called up fromTriple A Iowa earlier that day, his first big league start of the season andused batboy-sized second baseman Mike Fontenot in the third spot in the lineupfor the first time in Fontenot's career. Asked what advice he received fromLee, the normal No. 3 hitter, who was serving a five-game suspension for a June16 fight with San Diego Padres' pitcher Chris Young, Fontenot replied, "Hitsome singles and steal some bases."
He singled twiceand stole two. Fontenot and Theriot, the flying Frenchman, also were attemptinga double steal in the eighth inning when third baseman Aramis Ramirez laid intoa hanging, 1-2 curve for a three-run homer that produced the final margin, Cubs6, Diamondbacks 2. Firewagon baseball. "I was talking to some Diamondbacksguys before the game, and they're like, 'The wind's blowing in today,' and Isaid, 'That's 80 percent of the time,' " says third base coach Mike Quade,a native of suburban Chicago. "If you think Wrigley Field is an offensiveparadise, well, no. When you've got kids like Fontenot and Theriot and Angel[Pagan, a second-year outfielder] who can run, you can execute some[strategy]."
In his first springtraining press conference in February, Piniella, lured back to the dugout fromthe broadcast booth at age 63, introduced the phrase "Cubbie swagger,"which seemed a contradiction in terms. Although the Cubs at last had weanedthemselves from their dependence on eternally brittle starters Mark Prior andKerry Wood, they were also coming off a 96-loss season. Despite general managerJim Hendry's taking on $300 million in contract commitments over thewinter--including $136 million to sign Soriano for eight years and $75 millionto keep Ramirez for five--it still did not seem like enough to erase acentury-long institutional memory of losing.
Piniella, hopeful,spoke of a "change of culture." Of course, he also committed the fauxpas of placing the White Sox on the city's North Side and referred to theMagnificent Mile as the "Michigan Mile," but anybody can make mistakes,which is what the Cubs proceeded to do for the season's first two months.
"We didn't havea good start, but we weren't playing horrible baseball," Lee says. "Wewere losing a lot of one-run games"--12 of 14 through May--"and then wefollowed that with a stretch when we really were horrible. That was better forus, kind of. It forced us to look in the mirror and say, 'O.K., we're not good.We've got to start playing to our potential.' So we kind of hit rock bottom,and the whole team had to look in the mirror."
When catcherMichael Barrett looked in the mirror on the first day of June, he saw a splitlip repaired with six stitches. If he and ace righthander Carlos Zambrano wereon the same page that day, it was page¬†58 of the Ring Record Book. Theystaged a two-rounder, the first in plain view in the dugout, the second laterin the clubhouse. But unlike some of the season-sabotaging moments in theenduring and endearing history of the Cubs, this fight may have redefined theteam rather than ruined it. It wasn't as cinematic as a team rallying around adying catcher as in Mark Harris's classic novel Bang the Drum Slowly, but ithad its sense of theater.
Against the AtlantaBraves the following day--"The Last-Straw Day," Hendry callsit--Piniella threw a tantrum over a call at third base, kicking dirt on umpireMark Wegner in a display as puerile as it was potent. "I'm not going to sayit was intentional, but truthfully I had to go out and argue that day,"says Piniella, who was suspended for four games. "I knew that before theball game. There was just too much scrutiny on our team. And when there'sscrutiny on the team, basically a manager has to take the load of it. Butthat's not why we've turned around."
Of course not. Thepitching grew sharper--Zambrano is 7-2 with a 1.43¬†earned run averagesince his fisticuffs with Barrett--and Soriano started to hit home runs androokie righthander Carlos Marmol's dancing stuff, together with the heat ofsetup man Bob Howry, eased the loss of closer Ryan Dempster for nearly a monthwith a strained oblique muscle. Still, Dempster notes, "I think Lou did atremendous job of taking the heat off the players after everything that went onin the dugout and clubhouse. If he didn't get thrown out, we'd probably stillbe answering questions about Carlos and Michael [who was traded on June 20 toSan Diego].
"The wholefocus was on Lou for four days. Longer. Two weeks. It gave us a chance tobreathe, to just play, get on a roll, and all of a sudden get our confidence.Now it feels like the fight never happened."
(Almost. LastSaturday morning, on Carlos Zambrano Bobblehead Day, one Cub took a Zambranofigurine from a box of them on a table in the clubhouse. To no one inparticular, he said, "I guess I'll put this next to my Michael Barrettdoll.")
Since last-strawday, the Cubs' stars have realigned. Through Sunday, Lee was the NL's No. 3hitter (.337) and Ramirez had improved his RBI total to 64, despite missing 21games with patellar tendinitis. DeRosa, meanwhile, has done more than find theCubs a motto. He has been the most versatile player--and one of the mostvaluable--in Piniella's mix-and-match lineup. He has started at four positions(second, third, right and first) and has also played shortstop. DeRosa, whosigned a three-year, $13¬†million free-agent contract last winter, washitting .353 with runners in scoring position, an average that leaps to .452with two outs. "He's been making game-changing plays in the field, thengetting two-out RBIs," Dempster says.
The blue LanceArmstrong-style IT'S GONNA HAPPEN¬†bracelets in DeRosa's locker aren'tworth much now, but if 2007 turns into the Summer of Cub, they could turn togold on eBay someday. They were sent to DeRosa by John Murray, a commoditiestrader who trademarked the slogan with Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympics inmind and now hawks his wares outside Wrigley and on the Internet. Unlike theCubs' playoff chances, of course, the bracelets are in the bag. "I don'tknow if I'm going to go as far as to start wearing one," DeRosa said,"but I think it's pretty neat."
Sometimes, if notinevitably, "it" happens. Even to swaggering Cubbies.
Find out how high the Cubs have reached, in John Donovan's PowerRankings.
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"Now the fans are on their feet, hanging on everypitch," says Lee, "where in the past they were out there drinking beer,HAVING A PARTY."
Photograph by Tom Fluegge/US Presswire
The Cubs have invested more than $275 million in Ramirez (above, and inset, farright), Lee (inset, middle) and Soriano, each of whom is batting around .300and slugging over .500.
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MARK COWAN/ICON SMI
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STEPHEN GREEN/CHICAGO CUBS
Behind the power arms of (from left) Zambrano, Rich Hill and Lilly and a solidD, the Cubs were 29-15 since June 3.
JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES
SIGN OFTHE TIMES
The Cubs are selling out, as usual, but Wrigley's festive vibe has more to dowith baseball than bacchanalia.