Apparently it wasn’t the manager.

The Cubs went through the same sort of August swoon that last year eventually cost manager Jim Riggleman his job. Over a two-week period that began with a crushing loss to the Cincinnati Reds August 11–when they blew a 4-0 lead in the eighth inning–the Cubs won 2 games and lost 12. They’ve been a difficult team to figure this season. They never seemed as bad as they were when they were playing poorly, falling 17 games under .500 going into the all-star break, but then they never seemed as good as they were when they started playing well, reeling off 17 wins in 22 games almost immediately after the break, during which time Mark Grace had led several players in shaving their heads. But yet another August swoon seemed to settle things once and for all, just as last year’s 6-24 August did for Riggleman. Plainly put, this was not a very good team–it played as ugly as, thanks to Grace, it now looked–and to make matters worse, its prospects seemed little improved from a year ago, when the Cubs were paying the price for the way Ed Lynch mortgaged the future for the 1998 wild-card playoff appearance.

By the time this August rolled around, Lynch had gone the way of Riggleman, and Andy MacPhail had stepped down from the team president’s office to assume the role of general manager, a position he’d held previously in Minnesota, where he won two world championships with the Twins. Yet the sort of team MacPhail was putting together seemed no clearer a concept than Lynch’s teams, which were usually ragtag bunches that mixed obvious talent with obvious deficiencies, thanks to Tribune Company budget constraints. Were this year’s Cubs a veteran team or one building for tomorrow? Veteran, until they went in the tank and started trading for younger players–but even then they would take a chance on someone like Rondell White, the Montreal Expos’ undeniably skilled but often injured outfielder, who is not exactly a kid. Were they a team based on power or on speed? Maybe both, maybe neither; after Sammy Sosa they had little power, but after Eric Young they had little speed. Were they a team based on hitting or on pitching and defense? They entered last week ranked 14th out of the 16 National League teams in batting average, and 10th in runs scored–atrocious results given that they play half their games in Wrigley Field, a notorious hitters’ haven. They were a respectable third in fielding percentage but 15th in double plays, despite pitchers who permitted no shortage of base runners who might be doubled up. The one thing that could definitely be said about the Cubs is that they weren’t a pitching team, ranking 11th in earned run average–well, and also that they had no real identity beyond being Sammy Sosa’s team, the crowd-pleasing but generally inept Wrigley Field fun bunch.

Not to indulge in New Age baseball analysis, but I think a team’s sense of identity is important. This dawned on me thanks to the struggles of the 2000 Houston Astros. The Astros entered the year with what appeared to be one of the best teams in baseball. They were the defending Central Division champions, and while they’d traded away veteran talent in Carl Everett and Mike Hampton and allowed Ricky Gutierrez to leave as a free agent (he signed with the Cubs), they looked ready to replace them with such talented youngsters as Octavio Dotel, Daryle Ward, and Mitch Meluskey. The odd thing was they’d also replaced their home stadium, the Astrodome, a pitchers’ paradise, with Enron Field, which has turned out to be the closest thing to Denver’s Coors Field there is at sea level. The Astros were a team that traditionally prided itself on its pitching–just as the Cubs have always prided themselves on their hitters, with statistics inflated by Wrigley–but the little-known story of the great Houston teams of the 90s was that they were awesome hitting squads whose stats were always held down by their ballpark. It took great hitters like Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, and Moises Alou to look as good as they did in the Astrodome. Yet with Enron Field turning visiting banjo hitters into home-run threats, Houston’s offensive advantage was negated. As the Astros found themselves losing games 14-12, they lost confidence in their pitching and defense and the hitters began to press to make up the difference. When Houston came to Wrigley early in the season with the worst record in baseball, I thought, “Here is a team that has lost its sense of self.”

That’s the situation the Cubs find themselves in, only they don’t have as much pure talent as the Astros, who have lately found a way to win by bashing teams with offense and closing out close games behind new ace Scott Elarton, with Dotel now the closer in the bull pen. A sense of self, of the sort of team one is becoming, is essential, because it simplifies everything else and helps small details fall into place. Look at the White Sox, who established themselves early as a bashing offensive team made up of butchers in the field and inexperienced kids on the mound. If that’s the sort of team the general manager is assembling, he makes the decision to bring in Jose Valentin at shortstop and to play Carlos Lee and Paul Konerko in spite of their defensive liabilities, and the pitchers learn to live with it. This approach has worked wonders for the Sox and figures to continue to work–until they find themselves facing a Pedro Martinez twice in a five-game playoff, with the daunting prospect of having to hit like Dick Butkus in the other three games in order to advance. The Cubs, of course, don’t have even a self-image going for them, and the first thing MacPhail and manager Don Baylor are going to have to do is decide just what sort of team they’re trying to build.

The process figures to accelerate this month, when Cubs fans get a glimpse of Corey Patterson, who will be called up from AA West Tenn after their playoff run is ended. He’s the sort of player a team builds around, and the idea of him hitting third ahead of Sosa as soon as a couple of years from now is awfully enticing (if Sosa is re-signed after his current contract runs out next year). If the Cubs are smart they’ll also call up Ben Christensen, the flame-throwing right-hander who ruthlessly beaned a batter in the on-deck circle during his college career. The Cubs made him their controversial first-round draft choice a year ago when other teams shied away, and he looked rattled making his minor-league debut. This season, however, he has put up some impressive statistics, and if the Cubs are sensitive to his situation they’ll bring him up with no fanfare and get his big-league debut out of the way while knee-jerk press box moralists like Jay Mariotti and Skip Bayless are preoccupied with the Bears.

But before that happens they’ll have to decide who stays on the mediocre current roster and who goes, with an eye to removing the merely proficient and revamping the team toward certain identifiable strengths. The Cubs have gotten better results than anyone might have expected from catcher Joe Girardi, center fielder Damon Buford, and shortstop Gutierrez, but if those guys stay then the team sorely needs to find a left-handed thumper to play third or–to think the unthinkable–first base. Don’t fear for Mark Grace, who has a long career as a broadcaster ahead of him (and if he can’t get his average to .300 it should begin sooner rather than later). Do fear for Willie Greene, whose bat speed is gone and whose career is over (and I say that as someone who used to be among the biggest of Willie Greene fans). The best scheme for the Cubs might be to follow the old Astros model in reverse, by building a deceptively strong pitching staff for a hitters’ park. If the Cubs and MacPhail were to open their wallets and bring in an ace ground-ball pitcher like Mike Hampton, they could line up Kerry Wood, Jon Lieber, and Kevin Tapani behind him and have a starting rotation to compare with almost any team in the league. Let’s say they went back to San Francisco to get Robb Nen, the closer who replaced Rod Beck after the Cubs spirited him away from the Giants a few years ago–they’d probably have enough pitching to be competitive right away. Whatever they got out of Patterson or Christensen (or Julio Zuleta or Hee Seop Choi) would be gravy, and the team could then make the decision about how dearly to pay for Sosa for how long.

For now, however, Sosa defines this team, from his dash out of the dugout to take the field to his muscle-bound flexing and stretching at the plate to his impressive homers. After his status with the team was cleared up by not being cleared up at all–the club simply decided not to trade him for prospects–he erupted with one of his typical hot streaks, and he entered the workweek with a team-high .315 batting average, 43 homers, which led the majors, and 117 runs batted in, with more than a month to go in the season. If the Cubs had rashly traded him away at midseason, they would truly have become a team with no identity.