It was a steamy afternoon and the clouds seemed to grow out of the sickly white sky, as in the paintings of Dutch masters. Mickey Morandini, shorn for summer, took swings in the batting cage. Manager Jim Riggleman, off to the side, discussed in a weary, matter-of-fact voice how difficult it is to get even major-league ballplayers to hustle on every play. Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, in a funky straw hat, played catch with Mark Grace as if they were killing time at a church picnic. Sammy Sosa, in a Fila T-shirt sawed off at the shoulders and midsection, strolled in from the batting cage under the right-field bleachers and went to the clubhouse to get his jersey on; he emerged a few minutes later with a plastic bottle of water bulging in his back pocket, an accessory also adopted by Glenallen Hill. Sosa took his place in the on-field cage and began launching bombs to the bleachers, that little tippy-toe ballet step inward with the left foot triggering the forcible stride and thrashing swing that produced 42 home runs going into this week. Mark Grace followed, deflecting pitches into the left-center-field gap with that stiff-armed old man’s swing of his. Vedder, having shed his hat to unveil a mane of peroxide blond hair, shagged flies and threw the ball in–not to the backstop behind second base but to some nonexistent cutoff man in the infield. Just leaning against the batting cage I cracked a sweat, and a mood settled over me of such calm contentment that not even Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca” on the PA system could ruin it.
The Cubs and their fans settled into the dog days with a sort of peaceful resignation this season. Wrigley Field became the land of the lotus-eaters, a place where, for a few hours at a sitting on summer afternoons or evenings, time came to a standstill and all thoughts of achievement were laid aside. It was at a game between the Cubs and the New York Mets two weeks ago that I first recognized myself and those around me in that peculiar state of mind. Drips of rain fell from sullied, black-bottomed clouds, which moved off to make way for intense sunlight–the outdoor-sauna treatment. Watching the Mets’ John Olerud, Mike Piazza, and Robin Ventura take batting practice in the same group, I mused on how it would be a dilemma on the order of the Judgment of Paris to pick the most beautiful swing of the three: Olerud’s crisp brush stroke, Piazza’s woodchopper’s cut with that graceful high finish, or Ventura’s smooth, level, torque-enhanced roll of the wrists. Those three were followed by a group of unsightly hackers including Rey Ordonez, Luis Lopez, and Edgardo Alfonzo, and with my aesthetic sensibilities duly dulled I marched for the press box as fast as the rising steam would carry me.
Yet there was no escaping the oppressive mood of the day. Although the Cubs’ starter, Jon Lieber, worked a brisk first inning, he was followed to the mound by the Mets’ Octavio Dotel, a tentative rookie. Whether from deliberate temperament or cowardice, Dotel didn’t seem to want to pitch–not with the wind blowing straight out to right field–and he waded through 54 pitches in that first frame on the way to giving up seven runs, walking in two men with the bases loaded before surrendering a grand slam to Gary Gaetti on a full count. Though the Cubs eventually blew that lead, allowing the Mets to tie the game at nine in the fifth, they pulled away again to win by the tight football score of 17-10. The win did nothing to dispel the air of inconsequence surrounding this year’s team, and general manager Ed Lynch recognized it. Before the day was done he’d traded shortstop Jose Hernandez and pitcher Terry Mulholland to the Atlanta Braves for their race with the Mets, getting pitching prospects Micah Bowie and Ruben Quevedo in return and thereby conceding the rest of the season.
The quality that was admirable in the Cubs a year ago is mildly disturbing about them this year: they are on an even keel day after day. They project relaxed professionalism. From the shit Sosa and the Mets’ Rickey Henderson blew each other during batting practice, one would have thought that these were two competitive teams trying to psych each other out. The Mets certainly are competitive this year, after getting squeezed out by the Cubs and the San Francisco Giants in last season’s National League wild-card race, but things couldn’t be more different for the Cubs. They entered the game at 47-53, in last place in the NL Central, while the Mets were 62-42, a half game ahead of the vaunted Braves in the East. And after lackluster performances against the Montreal Expos and the Houston Astros, the Cubs entered this work week at 50-60. The funny thing was, if one couldn’t tell the difference in fortunes from the team’s demeanor on the field, it was just as puzzling to study the fans’ demeanor in the stands. The four-game series with the Expos, which started out as a battle of last-place teams until the Expos used the Cubs as a stepping-stone to climb above the Florida Marlins, drew full-house crowds every game. After one of the losses, the fans gave Grace a standing ovation for his 2,000th career hit. Grace, Sosa, and Henry Rodriguez, the heart of the Cubs batting order, have been the bright spots this year. Grace came into this week among the league leaders with a .322 batting average. Sosa’s 42 homers put him in another dogfight with the Saint Louis Cardinals’ Mark McGwire for the major-league lead (though without the urgency of last year’s race to top Roger Maris’s 61, McGwire’s 70 having obliterated that mark). And Rodriguez had 22 homers, 77 runs batted in, and a .340 average. Lieber and newfound bull pen ace Terry Adams aside, the pitching’s been lousy when it isn’t merely erratic, but it doesn’t seem to matter. The fans come out to cheer Sosa and Grace and Rodriguez–even if, under the threat of legal proceedings, they now keep their Oh Henry! bars in their pockets when Rodriguez homers–and they’re enough.
But talk about sedate and soporific–last Friday’s series opener against the Astros epitomized the affliction. My friend and colleague Neil Tesser, sitting in the upper deck behind home plate, described it as the most boring game he had ever seen. There was no great defensive play, no memorable hitting or pitching–though the Astros’ Jose Lima stymied the Cubs on six hits and one run in seven-plus innings–just a three-run homer in the first inning by Houston’s Carl Everett off the Cubs’ Kyle Farnsworth that gave the Astros all the runs they’d need. The view wasn’t a whole lot better from the bleachers, not when one was looking toward the field anyway. There were the usual bleacher diversions–the laughing flesh, the swirling aromas of beer and sunscreen, the requisite heckling. But even that last element had an obligatory quality: the guy in front of me could find nothing more harsh to yell at Houston right fielder Derek Bell than that his pants were baggy. In the top half of the innings he couldn’t cheer Sosa without adding what a bum he thought McGwire was. Hadn’t he learned anything from Sosa and McGwire’s frequent displays of friendly sportsmanship last year?
The sun seemed to halt just beyond its peak. Innings passed, but there was nothing to mark the passage of time except the flapping of the pennants above the scoreboard and the mounting shells at my feet as I cracked open peanuts for my three-year-old daughter. She was thrilled to see Sosa up close, but less charmed when he threw a ball to the row behind us and we all went tumbling into a pile. She was a little shaken, but it was nothing another peanut couldn’t cure. The clock? It read some nonsensical message from an alternative universe of no consequence to those of us in the bleachers. We hurried home after singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at the seventh-inning stretch in order to squeeze in a nap; in hindsight, she might as well have stayed and napped there with the rest of Cubs fandom.
Given the atmosphere, the three-hit shutout Andrew Lorraine threw in his Cubs debut in the nightcap of that day’s doubleheader had the aspect of a mirage. The 27-year-old left-hander had arrived in town the same day from Triple-A Iowa, and nothing he’d done there–or anywhere in his minor-league career–suggested he was capable of shutting down a potent right-handed lineup like the Astros’. Though Houston manager Larry Dierker later said it was a more impressive performance than Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game against them a year ago, there were ameliorating circumstances. The wind was blowing in, and the Astros were playing their third game in just over 24 hours. Was it for real? What was real? Who could say?
Cool weather arrived the following day, and the Cubs tried to shake themselves awake. When umpire Eric Gregg called a Grace smash down the first-base line foul in the sixth inning, both Riggleman and Grace were eventually tossed for arguing the call. Yet the Cubs went on to lose 10-4 before a crowd of 38,413–in the rain yet. The following night, Sunday, was equally autumnal, but the chill didn’t rouse anyone. The Cubs lost 6-2 to fall ten games under .500.
I watched the last three games of the series on television at home; that’s where I noticed a small bruise in the shape of an isosceles triangle on my forearm, apparently sustained in our tumble after the ball tossed by Sosa. The bruise didn’t hurt, not even when pressed with a finger. For all I knew it wasn’t a bruise, but a mysterious mark of the sleeping sickness epidemic at Wrigley Field.