The black cloud hovering over Chicago sports actually deepened and darkened with the arrival of the baseball season, usually an optimistic time in these parts. It says something about the state of the Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, and White Sox that earlier in the year the Cubs looked like our best hope of actually winning something. But Kerry Wood’s career-threatening elbow injury ended all that cheap talk. His injury was as traumatic as Michael Jordan’s retirement or even Walter Payton’s health woes; in fact, its impact struck in a way that made it more upsetting. Jordan’s career had traced a full arc. While no one welcomed his retirement–except maybe Pat Riley, Karl Malone, and the rest of the National Basketball Association’s also-rans–it was readily accepted. Payton’s career, too, was over. Not to sound cavalier, but while his health problems involve real issues of mortality–not the usual sports metaphors of life or death–prospects for a healing liver transplant remain good, and the city’s fans are rooting for a full recovery almost as they would the rebuilding of a sports franchise. Back in the sports arena proper, the Bears, Bulls, Hawks, and Sox all entered the troughs that normally follow peaks–relatively speaking from team to team–and simply asked for patience from fans, a quality Chicagoans have in abundance (witness the sellout crowd that bid adieu to Chris Chelios last weekend in the Hawks’ final game of the season). Yet Wood’s injury didn’t seal off and preserve the past, the way Jordan’s retirement did. It undercut the future; and hope for the future–more often than not ridiculous hope for the future–is the Chicago fan’s most precious commodity.
Wood’s career was almost entirely potential. He came to the majors two weeks into last season, fanned 20 Houston Astros in his fifth start to set a National League record, went on to win 13 games to boost the Cubs’ playoff drive, and by September was through, but for one gritty performance in the final game of the playoff series against the Atlanta Braves. Though he may well return to full health after having a ligament in his elbow replaced, in the now almost routine “Tommy John” surgery (the Los Angeles Dodgers’ hard-throwing Darren Dreifort, also a “Tommy John” patient early in his career, outdueled Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks just last week), that’s by no means certain. In any case we’ve probably seen–and heard–the last of that hissing, bristling curve that dropped for the dirt as it went past a batter like a razorback rooting for carrion. In fact it’s difficult right now not to refer to the 21-year-old’s career in the past tense. Right about the time Wood was blowing his arm out in a spring-training game last month, I was rereading Robert Coover’s Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., with its tale of the death of pitching phenom Brock Rutherford, and even though Rutherford is a fictional creation of a fictional creation–nothing more than a name made up to go with some dice-baseball statistics–the book brought home the loss of Wood with full impact. For anyone who experienced the excitement of a Wood outing, the fans packed in along the left-field stands craning their necks to get a better look as he warmed up in the bull pen, then watching him blow batters away, the loss was profound. It also left the Cubs bereft.
Cubs president Andy MacPhail and general manager Ed Lynch have said all along that they intend to build a team the slow and steady way, by developing prospects, but Wood is the only player of star potential they’ve produced. There’s hope for 23-year-old pitcher Kyle Farnsworth at Iowa and also for last year’s top draft choice, Corey Patterson, now in the low minors, but that’s about it. Of the team’s position players this year, the only homegrown starter is Mark Grace, drafted by Dallas Green back in 1985. This is a patchwork team, not without ability but hardly awe inspiring in its potential. Unless starting pitcher Jeremi Gonzalez makes a full recovery from elbow surgery and recently acquired Japanese reclamation project Hideo Nomo pans out, this team isn’t likely to challenge for a playoff spot.
And don’t talk to me about payroll and the rigors of playing in tiny, bucolic Wrigley Field. So-called baseball experts are full of complaints about how the sport is no longer competitive, with only the high-payroll teams having a prayer of competing. But baseball is already changing in the way it develops winning teams–changing for the better in my opinion–and those changes won’t be manifest for another year or two. Still, if one looks closely at the way the Houston Astros and Saint Louis Cardinals have built their teams, one sees a couple of interesting approaches. The Cards have spent money on young talent considered too pricey by other teams, for instance claiming outfielder J.D. Drew and pitcher Rick Ankiel in the draft after other teams shied away from or failed to sign them the first time through.
If only the Cards could keep their young pitchers healthy, they’d have a budding dynasty on the order of the Astros’. The Astros have largely built their productive farm system through intensive scouting efforts in Venezuela. Two of the three prospects they used to outbid the Cubs for Randy Johnson last year were products of that scouting system. That’s how championship teams will be built in the next few years–by spending money and other resources not on free-agent talent at the end of the line but on young talent in the draft and on amateur free agents from Central America. The Cubs have resisted spending money on free agents, but they haven’t spent it in those other areas either.
The Sox actually have more potential, for this year and the years to come. Their “white flag” trades of a couple of years ago produced a number of pitchers for the team to sort through as they develop, and pitching coach Nardi Contreras looks to be the person to nurture them, especially if manager Jerry Manuel can resist the impulse to beat up their egos in the press, which is how he treats young position players like Mike Caruso. Catcher Brook Fordyce was a stopgap acquisition at the end of the spring, but he allows the team the luxury of bringing Mark Johnson along slowly. The Sox have two excellent third-base prospects in the minors: Carlos Lee, who has a stiff glove but a major-league bat, and Joe Crede, who is said to be the real deal, the powerful, slick-fielding sort of player a team can build around. If Lee could be converted to left field, the Sox would only need to spend money on a fleet center fielder to put together a very solid lineup. An infield of Crede, Caruso, Ray Durham, and the revitalized Frank Thomas–it’s great to see him trim and bashing the ball again–with Lee and Magglio Ordonez in the outfield corners and Johnson behind the plate is promising indeed. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers, and Kansas City Royals–in order of likely success–are likewise building from within. The Cleveland Indians should waddle into the playoffs this season in the Sox’ American League Central, but this is going to be a very competitive division very soon, and writers now moaning about the problems of small-market teams are going to be pointing to this group as an example of the sport’s renewed vitality.
Of course it would help if the Sox started drawing like the big-market team they are. Unfortunately the team began this season in the same dismal straits they’ve been in since the Jerry Reinsdorf-inspired baseball strike of 1994. The Sox sold 26,000 seats to the home opener two weeks ago, a cold and dreary day. The fans tried to rouse the team but were discouraged by fielding errors and bad pitching, and the Sox got lumped. The next day attendance dropped to just over 10,000, and the Sox went on to be swept in the series. It was hard for any Sox fan to be optimistic.
While the Sox have promoted their season with the slogan “The kids can play” (they might want to consider the addendum, “…and thank God the ones still to come are even better”), the Cubs began by trumpeting broadcasters. Opening-day ceremonies were dedicated to the late Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse–which suggests a pitch along the lines of “Who cares about the players? It’s the broadcast booth that matters.” A baseball purist might hoot, but fortune still shines on the Cubs and not the Sox. The day of the Cubs’ home opener was crisp and clear, and though the Cubs would lose 7-2 to the Cincinnati Reds, that didn’t seem to matter. It was the event that people welcomed, the return of the Cubs to Wrigley; the pageantry, not just the baseball, was what people came for. I have to say I started the day in a cynical frame of mind about the unveiling of the Caray statue at Addison and Sheffield. A proud franchise, like the Cardinals or–how quickly they fall–the Bulls, might put a statue of a great star like Jordan or Stan Musial outside a stadium. What kind of sports franchise gives that treatment to its TV announcers? Yet despite the canned production–the tape of Caray highlights set to Frank Sinatra singing “My Way”–the statue itself was impressive when finally revealed: Caray caught in mid-seventh-inning stretch, waving the microphone for the fans. If the ceremony was contrived by the team as a distraction from the baseball, at least it was well contrived, and the unveiling brought one authentic moment. With Caray revealed frozen in bronze, fans across Sheffield outside the Sports Corner bar began a spontaneous rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The fans seemed to be singing a dirge–for a team dead in the water, for Kerry Wood’s dead arm, and most of all for a beloved dead announcer. Cubs fans were doing what they do best–commiserating. They know how to deal not just with losing but with the very idea of loss.