Watching this year’s Bears has sent me back to my childhood, to the Bears of the late 60s and early 70s, who were likewise an amalgamation of bright talent and mediocrity–a mixture that naturally tends toward the mediocre, given the ability of National Football League teams to exploit weakness. The Bears of my youth had Dick Butkus, and it was enough just to watch him play middle linebacker, driving through blocks and pursuing the ball. Butkus always had one or two able defensive colleagues, for instance outside linebacker Doug Buffone, who could stick a tackle with Butkus even if he didn’t play with the same ferocity. Yet the Bears also always seemed to have holes in the secondary and the defensive line, and these would cost them games–games that were there to be lost because the offense rarely played well enough to win. The Bears had one excellent receiver, Dick Gordon, but he was prone to emotional ups and downs (I remember learning the word “lackadaisical” when it was applied to him in a Tribune headline), and the team never seemed to have a quarterback who could get him the ball consistently. The Bears’ quarterbacks of that era were journeymen like Jack Concannon and promising youngsters who never fulfilled their promise, like Virgil Carter. Gale Sayers had the odd flash of his old form, but otherwise the Bears’ running attack was nonexistent until Walter Payton arrived a few years later. I remember a big fullback named Jim Harrison with a penchant for running three and a half yards and then falling down at the least resistance.
This year’s Bears can almost be superimposed over that prototype. Rookie middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, for all his struggles to learn the complex offensive and defensive schemes of today’s NFL, has immediately established himself as a player worth watching from down to down. (Eased slowly into the lineup, he had 13 tackles and a sack in his first start, the Bears’ home opener against the New York Giants two weekends ago, and followed that with 10 tackles, a sack, and an interception last Sunday.) He can run like a buck and nail a tackle. So can new safety Tony Parrish. But otherwise the Bears have a porous defensive line and little pass rush, which has forced them to blitz Urlacher and the other linebackers, putting additional strain on the secondary. On offense, the Bears have a talented receiver in Marcus Robinson, but erratic second-year quarterback Cade McNown has had trouble getting him the ball. The offensive line has had trouble opening holes, and when they’re there, Curtis Enis has had trouble getting to them. Enis is emblematic of the Bears’ offensive problems in that he can’t seem to decide what sort of football he wants to play. Last year he didn’t have the bulk to crash through tackles; this year he’s heavier but he doesn’t seem any harder to bring down. Like Harrison, he tends to topple at the slightest impact. Last year the Bears displayed a wide-open passing game, with journeymen Shane Matthews and Jim Miller mixing side-to-side patterns with over-the-middle routes, but this year McNown hasn’t found the same sort of rhythm. In hindsight, the Bears probably would have been better off beginning the season with Miller, but now they have to stick with McNown and his inevitable mistakes of inexperience and see if he shows any development at all.
The Bears lost their fourth game in a row Sunday, and the season now seems lost. Dave Wannstedt waffled this franchise into mediocrity and the Bears are still paying for it, each year trying for moderate improvement instead of crashing the team and rebuilding from the defensive line out, which is how the Bears constructed their teams of the mid-80s. This year’s Bears suddenly look a lot like the 1-13 team of 1969, and a fan can only hope that this time they don’t trade their top draft pick for a bunch of retreads from the Green Bay Packers.
The Olympics have offered a strange sort of respite for a Chicago sports fan. A passionate allegiance isn’t necessary to enjoy sports, but any sort of passion has been curiously lacking in NBC’s Olympics coverage from Sydney, Australia. Having spent $700 million on the TV rights, NBC has used focus groups and marketing to contrive its coverage for maximum appeal, and in giving the people what they want, the element of surprise has been lost. That’s why the unlikely story of Eric Moussambani, the swimmer from Equatorial Guinea who could barely tread water (the Eddie the Eagle of these games), created such a sensation.
Yet the lack of passion should not become a mere case of blaming the media messenger. Today’s Olympic athletes are so well trained, their skills honed by videotape and the most up-to-date bodybuilding methods, that they have become technicians. Australia’s Ian Thorpe is a thing of beauty in the pool, gliding effortlessly with a distinctive stroke in which his hands reach forward and slide under the surface of the water before pulling it toward him, but he makes one yearn for the days when a natural like Janet Evans splashed across the pool with a high-armed stroke like a rubber-band-driven toy paddleboat.
As a sports fan, I’m not really sure where I stand on the triumph of technical prowess over impassioned resolve. The end of “amateurism” has allowed Olympic athletes to extend their careers and specialize their skills, and I love it that I can root for a 40-year-old, someone my age, competing for the title of “world’s fastest woman.” Yet something is missing when an athletic competition like the men’s 100-meter backstroke turns into an answer to the question of whether Lenny Krayzelburg can swim his perfect race. The pursuit of technical perfection, so exciting back in the days of Nadia Comenici, has drained the Olympics of some of their excitement. It’s almost more pleasurable watching Brian Urlacher race around trying to correct his own mistakes and those of his teammates.
Perhaps that’s just the Chicago sports fan’s dysfunctional upbringing coming through. If it’s comforting to watch the Bears struggle to attain mere mediocrity, well that’s the essence of being a Cubs fan. The Cubs, as usual, are using September to look to the future; they’re trying out some minor-league phenoms, just as they have almost every year for the past half century. Corey Patterson made his Wrigley Field debut last week, and though it was immediately clear that he’s a key element of the Cubs’ future, it was just as clear that he’s not ready for the majors today. Patterson can turn on a fastball with a rare beauty; he homered on the road in his second game after being called up. He also can motor around the bases, hitting an inside-the-park homer Sunday in the Friendly Confines, where even triples are hard to come by. (He hit one down the right-field line, and it rattled around in the bull pen gutter just long enough for him to circle the bases.) But he seemed incapable of handling major-league off-speed stuff. In his first game in Wrigley he looked terrible trying to bunt off a left-hander and he made a truly inept and almost dangerous attempt to slide into third base on a steal. Patterson’s front leg popped up and missed the bag, and then his back leg folded up under his body as he reached it. He looked safe on slow-motion replays, as the Saint Louis Cardinals’ third baseman, Fernando Tatis, tagged him high on the thigh, but having seen Patterson’s miserable slide, the umpire called him out.
It’s obvious that Patterson still needs work on the fundamentals. I wouldn’t expect him to open the season with the Cubs next spring, meaning there will be no dream outfield of Patterson, Sammy Sosa, and Rondell White unless the Cubs find a way to extend Sosa and White’s contracts beyond next season. In short, it’s more of the same for the Cubs as well as the Bears.
The Bears, the Cubs, and the Olympics (yes, even the U.S. women’s soccer team) all took a backseat last Sunday to the White Sox, though I wore out the remote control on a couple of televisions. The Sox had whittled the magic number to one the previous night, beating the Minnesota Twins while the Cleveland Indians were beating the Kansas City Royals, and the Sox were full of bold talk about how they preferred it that way, wanting to clinch the division themselves with another win over the Twins. The situation aroused fond memories of 1983, when the Sox won at Comiskey Park to cut the magic number to one and then the fans took the field to watch the Kansas City Royals stave off elimination on the scoreboard TV. Everyone went peacefully home, and the next night they took the field again, after Harold Baines’s sacrifice fly scored Julio Cruz to give the Sox the clinching victory. How we all howled up Lake Shore Drive afterward, honking our horns to tell the city that the Sox had clinched. Also recalled was 1993, when Bo Jackson’s rainmaking parabola of a homer at the new Comiskey Park clinched first place for a young team that would peak the following year (only to see the baseball strike, not the playoffs or World Series, end the season). Even the legendary 1959 clinching came to mind, when the Sox won at Cleveland and Chicago’s fire chief celebrated an end to four decades of misery, dating back to the Black Sox, by blowing the city’s air-raid sirens, causing not celebration but mild hysteria in those cold war duck-and-cover days.
On Sunday the Sox looked ready to live up to their boasts, taking a 1-0 lead with a run-scoring Charles Johnson single in the fifth and a 5-0 lead with the help of two more Johnson RBIs in the seventh, as spot starter Sean Lowe pitched shutout baseball. But the bull pen couldn’t hold the lead, the Twins sent the game into extra innings, and the Sox backed into the title with the news that the Indians had been beaten 9-0 in Kansas City. The Twins won the game with a walk-off homer in the tenth and the Sox celebrated in their locker room, but it felt very anticlimactic back in Chicago. Pockets of excitement were reported on the south side, but on north-side streets there were no scenes, no triumphant celebrations, and only the usual honking. If only they had blown the air-raid sirens! Then again, no one would have known what the sound was. At best, it would have been mistaken for the haunting moan of the past.