The White Sox took the black clouds and bad weather that seem to have plagued them ever since the 1994 baseball strike and used them as a weapon against the Cubs in Wrigley Field. They practically ran the Cubs off their own ball field in the early going of each game two weeks ago, and whenever the Cubs threatened a comeback the dark forces the Sox know so intimately thwarted it. The Cubs trailed 5-3 but were on the charge when a downpour that lasted for hours stopped Friday’s opener in the sixth inning. On Saturday, the Sox took another early lead and this time kept extending it until they were out of the reach of even the cardiac Cubs. Even so, the weather remained at the Sox’ beck and call; the Cubs at last scored and loaded the bases in the ninth inning, but the game ended when a Mark Grace drive to right field was knocked down by the wind, which had turned in off the lake after wafting out to straightaway center most of the day. If Grace had hit the same ball in the first inning, it would have wound up on Sheffield Avenue instead of in Magglio Ordoñez’s glove. Sunday, with the dubious Jaime Navarro starting for the Sox and thus giving the Cubs an excellent chance to save face, the game was tied at two when the skies opened again and forced a rain delay of over three hours. This sent Navarro to the showers and chased away all but the most rabid Cubs and Sox fans, who gathered behind their teams’ dugouts when play resumed like warring armies hunkering down in the mire. It was then that the Sox crushed the Cubs and their fans’ spirit by beating them at their own game–long ball.
Of course I don’t really suspect the Sox of turning their bad karma into a weapon through the use of the cabala or the black arts. Yet the series did seem a defining moment for the south-side team. They’d already become a slashing, scrapping, rah-rah running squad–they had to, after the departures of Albert Belle and Robin Ventura–that produced games like the 2-1 early-season victory in which Ray Durham scored the winning run on a potential inning-ending double play broken up at second by Mike Caruso. Yet with the city’s sports spotlight on Wrigley Field, the Sox seemed to take a special pride in their role as underdog spoilers. In the first inning Friday, Caruso scurried from first to second on a Frank Thomas groundout and scored on an Ordoñez double that might not have scored Thomas. Later, Durham went from first to third on a hit-and-run groundout; he didn’t score, but he showed up the Cubs. Ordoñez scored from third on an infield grounder by going as soon as batter Carlos Lee made contact with the ball and another time was thrown out at the plate after running through a stop sign by third-base coach Wallace Johnson. Even that was simply overaggressive baseball with two outs. Meanwhile, the Cubs’ Jeff Blauser was letting Ordoñez score on that infield grounder by nonchalantly taking the out at first; and when Cubs scrub Manny Alexander wasn’t muffing plays at second base–he let a slow roller by Chris Singleton bounce up and bite him, resulting in two unearned runs when Greg Norton followed with a homer–he was getting himself into boneheaded fixes on offense by dashing around the bases with his head down. If the Sox couldn’t have looked any better in winning that game, the Cubs couldn’t have looked worse.
A large part of that impression was created by the sudden mastery of the Sox starters. Jim Parque, the epitome of a crafty little left-hander (5-foot-11 and 165 pounds in your program), made the Cubs look silly Friday, moving the ball in and out, up and down, and changing speeds. Parque performs a dainty little curlicue gesture with his glove out in front of his body as he delivers a pitch, but he was utterly fearless about throwing inside to the Cubs’ right-handed lineup, and he kept them completely off balance until the Cubs scraped together their three runs just before the rains came. Mike Sirotka, the most dependable Sox starter, has a slightly better fastball than Parque and the same array of breaking pitches, and used the formula to even greater success Saturday, dangling pitches on the outside and then cutting hard sliders and fastballs in on the Cubs’ hands. The Cubs, unlike the Sox, have a fearsome lineup of bashers, and hitters like Sammy Sosa and Henry Rodriguez will get to a pitcher who keeps the ball consistently away by mashing it to the opposite field. Parque and Sirotka kept the Cubs honest.
“They’re a very good hitting team where you have to show them enough inside to open up the outside part of the plate,” Sirotka said afterward, “because they can hit anything, basically.” Like the rest of his teammates, Sirotka, who didn’t get out of the third inning last year when the Cubs swept the Sox at Wrigley, radiated a quiet sense of accomplishment. Without gloating, he said, “This is about the most fun I’ve had playing baseball in a long time.”
As prepared as the Sox pitchers were for the Cubs, that’s how ill prepared the Cubs looked for the Sox. It wasn’t just a matter of the Cubs being outscrapped and outhustled, although they certainly were on Friday. Saturday the Sox simply crushed them, pounding out 18 hits. Two came from Sirotka, who as an American League pitcher isn’t used to batting. He slapped a single to left in the second inning and singled again and scored in the fourth, signaling the end for Steve Trachsel, who as usual was throwing everything at the same speed. This made his pitches little more than batting practice for the Sox. A couple of their slap hitters bat out of a crouch, but the heart of the order–Thomas, Ordoñez, Lee, and Singleton–all have erect batting stances and hold their hands high, so that when they’re on they seem to be simply dropping the head of the bat on the ball and driving it to all fields. Part of this is probably due to the natural leadership of Thomas, who hits in that fashion and who came into the Wrigley series on a hot streak. He was scalding the ball in batting practice Friday and soon extended a hitting streak to 17 games. He made it 18 on Saturday with a first-inning single that helped set up the team’s first run, and he crushed a Trachsel fastball onto Waveland Avenue to lead off the third inning. Yet that erect, slashing style is also probably due to batting coach Von Joshua, and no one has thrived under his tutelage more than Ordoñez. He was on a tear, going three for three Friday with two runs batted in and three for five Saturday with two more RBIs. On Sunday he added two more hits and drove in another run, giving him a team-high 50 RBIs on the season.
After watching Thomas mash the ball in batting practice Friday, I wanted him to homer in a game, if only to see how Sosa would respond. The intracity rivalry is made up of such player-to-player comparisons, and as hokey as they are one just knows that a player like Sosa–who had such a marvelous give-and-take with Mark McGwire last year–is aware of them. Yet Sirotka seemed just as aware, and used that competition to his advantage. Sosa extended his own hitting streak to 15 games with a first-inning double on Saturday, but when he came up in the third after Thomas’s homer Sirotka struck him out looking at a lovely change-up. In the sixth, Sirotka got Sosa to jump at a pitch and pop it straight up to the catcher. In the eighth, after retiring 14 straight batters, Sirotka allowed a couple hits, and Keith Foulke was brought in to face Sosa with two on and the Sox up 8-0. With that deceptive hesitation delivery of his, he struck out Sosa swinging. The Cubs rallied in the ninth with the help of Sox errors on two potential game-ending grounders: a double-play ball booted by Caruso and an easy roller that slid under Durham’s glove. Yet with Sox and Cubs fans screaming and shouting with equal fervor (most Cubs fans had gone home), Grace hit that long fly into the wind to Ordoñez to end the game. The Sox could have looked a little better at the end, but the Cubs still couldn’t have looked much worse.
It was the Cubs who came out swinging in the finale. Gary Gaetti hit a two-run homer off the dependable (for the opposition, anyway) Navarro. Yet the Sox nibbled back with a couple runs to tie it. Then came the deluge, which wiped out the Cubs’ home-field advantage by sending home all but the crazies. Because it was the Sox’ last game of the season at Wrigley the umpires waited forever for the rain to end, and it finally did. As if to signal a revival, the first batter after the rain delay, Grace, smacked a homer to right field. Playing station-to-station baseball, the Cubs loaded the bases and scored on a Gaetti sacrifice fly in the sixth to go up 4-2. Yet the Cubs reliever, Terry Mulholland, having an off day, was constantly in trouble, as was his successor, Scott Sanders, who allowed the Sox to tie the score at four in the seventh after Mulholland had left in a jam. Then the Sox delivered the coup de grace: a home run by the unlikely Caruso, his first of the year, with Durham on base in the eighth. That made it 6-4 Sox, and Sox manager Jerry Manuel went to the deceptive Foulke instead of the hard-throwing Bobby Howry to preserve the lead against the fastball-hitting Cubs. Foulke worked two uneventful innings for the save and the sweep.
So the kids can play indeed, and for the first time they seem to understand to a man how they must play to win–with little ball: the hit-and-run, taking the extra base when available, the odd home run, and most of all, savvy pitching. The sweep lifted them above .500 at 30-29 and to within three games of the Boston Red Sox in the American League wild-card race, a race they didn’t figure to be involved in at the beginning of the season. The Cubs slipped to 32-27, a game behind the San Francisco Giants in the National League wild-card race, while exposing themselves as a team prone to slumps and funks, as most power-hitting teams are. Since then their fortunes have evened out, and both entered this workweek at 33-33. The Cubs by that time had lost 10 of 11 and fallen well behind in the wild-card race. Manager Jim Riggleman pooh-poohed any notion that the Sox had transmitted their bad karma to the Cubs. “It’s not about being snakebit or any of that cosmic stuff. It’s real,” he was quoted as saying after Sunday’s loss in San Francisco, which sealed a four-game sweep. And the Sox came home with plenty of bad karma left over. Comiskey Park attendance was still in the teens last week, and the three-game weekend sweep at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles was particularly galling in that it was abetted by a couple pairs of homers by Belle and Harold Baines, both ex-Sox. After flirting with the idea of challenging for the playoffs, both teams find themselves with one thing to play for this season: the three-game rematch next month at Comiskey. So dust off the seats in that upper deck, because if Sox fans aren’t gullible enough to fill them, Cubs fans are.