The Cubs do nostalgia as well as anybody, perhaps because they usually have little to celebrate in the present. Funny, isn’t it, how the Cubs are always celebrating a glorious past that was never quite glorious enough to produce an actual championship?
Even so, Sunday’s ceremony retiring jersey No. 31 for Ferguson Jenkins and Greg Maddux — two of the Cubs’ best pitchers ever, both of whom wore that number — was a joy, in part because it celebrated two greats who were for the most part quiet and understated. From the trumpet fanfare to the raising of the numbered flags in the outfield corners, it was pure pleasure, for the players as much as the fans, who showed up remarkably early on this Sunday. Beforehand, in the media interview room, Fergie Jenkins seized the stage with his eloquence, especially reminiscing about Cubs manager Leo Durocher, who with his old-school ways got the Cubs out of the second division in the 60s, but drove the team so hard he could never get them to the playoffs, worst of all in 1969, when the gassed Cubs blew a big lead in September and watched the younger, fresher New York Mets pass them on their way to a championship. “He was tougher than a night in jail,”Jenkins recalled of Durocher, but “he was always fair to me.”
If Jenkins was more talkative, Maddux somehow found a way to steal the show with a couple of well-placed remarks, like the deceptive pitches he’d typically use with guile rather than strength. Asked to comment on Jenkins’s pitching style, Maddux had to admit he hadn’t seen him much growing up, but as a youngster coming up with the Cubs, drafted a year after Jenkins retired, Maddux had Jenkins’s methods drilled into him: “He could paint.” The same could be said of both. Both worked the corners and rarely left pitches over the middle of the plate with their pinpoint control, which produced 3,000 strikeouts for both against fewer than 1,000 walks. Both spoke of how they felt a duty to team and teammates. “I always felt like it was a privilege to wear that uniform,” Maddux said. “Because I felt that way, I tried to do it right.” That was the essence of both, players who did things correctly and let the wins and losses fall where they may — an attitude that served them through thick and thin with the Cubs.
The Cubs won their second in a row, by the way, 6-4, as they showed signs of life after their disappointing last road trip. Still, one can’t help thinking that Derrek Lee and Carlos Zambrano and Geovany Soto are heading for their own career celebrations without a celebration of a championship team along the way. The Cubs, anyway, didn’t look much like champs in the early going this season. May they be as inspired as the fans were by Sunday’s ceremony.