The home opener was snowed out, but the Cubs got off to a hot start. They were 7-5 when I saw them play their first home night game two Mondays ago, and though they lost that game badly they followed it with five straight wins, all of them impressive, to seize first place in the National League’s Central Division. They were crunching the ball on offense and playing well enough to get by on defense, while the pitching excelled, even when the wind blew out at Wrigley Field. Was this the same team that lost almost 100 games last year?
For the most part it was. It was a team that still relied on young starters and powerful but strikeout-prone sluggers. But there was a different feel to the club, a change that had to be attributed to new manager Dusty Baker. Baker is no miracle worker, and no master strategist in game situations. He guided the San Francisco Giants to the World Series last year, but when he replaced game six starter Russ Ortiz in the potential clincher with a 5-1 lead and presented him with the game ball for all the world–and the Anaheim Angels–to see, his hubris called down the immediate anger of the baseball gods. The Angels came back to win the game and the championship. Baker was already rumored to be heading for the Cubs, having fallen out with the San Francisco owner, and I thought at the time, “Yes, that’s just the sort of bonehead move a Cubs manager would make.” Yet I recognized that every year I’d considered the Giants overrated, a team with a patchwork pitching staff and little star quality behind Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent; and almost every year Baker’s teams had defied expectations, winning 90-plus games the last three seasons and five times in all over his ten-year tenure.
Baker teams typically play alert, confident baseball, and that’s exactly what the Cubs have shown in the early going–the same qualities they lacked under Don Baylor when they underperformed so badly last year. Baker brought in a reputation for preferring veterans to young players, a bias that threatened to sidetrack the team’s arriving young talent, yet he went two for three before the season began in picking youth over experience. When the Cubs dumped catcher Todd Hundley on the Los Angeles Dodgers, the cost was taking on two high-priced potential stiffs in return, first baseman Eric Karros and second baseman Mark Grudzielanek. These two played the same positions as the Cubs’ top hitting prospects: Hee Seop Choi and Bobby Hill. When Hill played himself back
into the minors during spring training, Baker went eagerly to Grudzielanek–let’s save space and strain on my index fingers (I’m a two-finger typist) by calling him Grudzie from here on out–but Baker showed remarkable confidence in Choi, starting the left-handed hitter on opening day in New York against the Mets’ new lefty, Tom Glavine. Choi responded with a couple of key hits slapped to left field. Even more impressive was Corey Patterson, another lefty swinger, who exploded for two homers and seven runs batted in. Patterson, who lost his way and walked only twice last season after the All-Star break, has been perhaps the most impressive of Baker’s three critical choices. Left to his own devices in the seventh spot in the order, he’s responded with a strong offensive start accompanied by good play in the outfield. Choi, meanwhile, has shown opposite-field power and a keen batting eye. I think his most impressive at-bat of the season came against the Cincinnati Reds last week at Wrigley when, with the bases loaded, he worked the count full and drew a walk on a pitch just below the knees to force in a run. Between Choi and third baseman Mark Bellhorn, each of whom drew 15 walks in the team’s first 19 games hitting ahead of Patterson, the Cubs generated amazing offense in the bottom half of the order, a particular weakness of last year’s squad.
But with all that said about the team’s rising stars, Grudzie was the Cubs’ most valuable player in the first weeks of the season. A 32-year-old veteran who used to steal bases and hit for average when he broke in with the Montreal Expos, he’d seen both talents fall off in recent years with the Dodgers. His lifetime .282 batting average coming into the season looked OK, but his .324 on-base percentage–Grudzie has never drawn 50 walks in a year at any level–was insufficient for a leadoff man. But after beating out Hill for the second-base job, Grudzie opened the year peppering the ball. He entered this week hitting .352, which compensated for his paltry three walks to give him a more-than-respectable on-base percentage of .387. (For an idea of how important walks are, consider that Bellhorn, hitting .231, still had a better OBP at .391.) When Grudzie singled in front of a Sammy Sosa homer to start Sunday’s game, the Cubs had scored 26 first-inning runs in 20 games. The early leads allowed the starters to be more aggressive–and flamethrowers Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Matt Clement, and Carlos Zambrano need little excuse to be that. Grudzie on base also means better pitches for shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who hits ahead of Sosa. Last year Gonzalez struggled with strikeouts at the bottom of the order, but moved up to the two slot he became an offensive force, hitting .342 going into this week. The change mirrored a shift Baker made in San Francisco, where he moved shortstop Rich Aurilia up in the order ahead of Bonds and Kent and watched him become a 30-homer slugger.
In short, Baker has displayed an astute understanding of holistic baseball. The Cubs instantly became a more enjoyable team to watch and, not coincidentally, more successful as well. Wood and Prior were a pleasure last year with their high-90s fastballs and knee-buckling breaking pitches, but struggled to achieve winning records, finishing 12-11 and 6-6. It was a kick to see them getting the benefit of early leads and mowing down the opposition. Wood won his first three decisions, and Prior turned in a seemingly effortless 3-0 shutout of the Expos in that chilling first week at Wrigley, striking out 12 while throwing only 113 pitches. Clement and Zambrano won two early games apiece, and even token lefty Shawn Estes, a reclamation project trying to regain his 1997 form (when he won 19 games for Baker in San Francisco), turned in a marvelous performance with the wind blowing out to win his first game.
So although I regarded the White Sox as the more talented Chicago team going into the season, the Cubs have been the more impressive in the early going in developing chemistry–the intangible that’s key to all winning baseball teams. In Pittsburgh last Saturday, Prior took a 1-0 lead into the ninth inning but gave up the tying run after Choi dropped a catchable foul pop-up, allowing Jason Kendall a chance to line a single off Grudzie’s glove and score on two groundouts, a walk, and a wild pitch. The Cubs didn’t fold, exploding for five runs in the top of the tenth to give Prior his third win. “We are coming together as a team,” Baker said afterward, sounding like the fictional Dutch Schnell of Mark Harris’s New York Mammoths in The Southpaw and Bang the Drum Slowly. By this week team performance had overshadowed Sosa’s 500th career homer, which came the first week in Cincinnati.
Yet it’s still early and much can go wrong. Almost everything that can did during that opening night game at Wrigley. It was a glorious evening that felt almost like midsummer; the game-time temperature of 79 was 47 degrees higher than it had been for the first home day game the week before (the day after the scheduled opener was snowed out). Wrigley and the surrounding buildings looked lovely, the infamous windscreens finally removed by the recalcitrant Tribune Company. Prior was on the mound, pitching as ever with that simple, poised, efficient motion, as purposeful as a tax accountant in April. When he walked Adam Dunn in the second inning the crowd gave an audible awww, as if to say, “There goes the perfect game.” The next batter doubled Dunn in, Prior ran into more trouble in the fifth and sixth, and he left with the Reds up 5-1. Grudzie went 1-for-5, reaching base only with a two-out single in the fifth. With two on in the second, Patterson faced left-handed starter Jimmy Anderson and did just as a hitter is taught, going with the pitch and lining to left; but Dunn made the grab and doubled Karros off second to end the inning. The Cubs rallied for a run in the fourth and two more in the sixth, but their bullpen, an early-season strength, suffered rough outings from Juan Cruz and Kyle Farnsworth, both looking very much as they did last year. The final was 11-3, the emblem of the night’s frustration the upper-deck section filled with Korean fans–the yin-yang symbol of the South Korean flag painted on their cheeks, many banging away with Cubbie-blue thundersticks–all rooting for Choi, who didn’t draw a start against the left-hander or even get to pinch hit.
The Cubs followed that loss with the five-game winning streak, but another bad game ended it last Sunday. Estes was bombed in Pittsburgh, and Sosa, after homering in the first, had the ear flap of his helmet shattered by a Salomon Torres fastball. Sosa left the game but appeared unhurt, and Cruz got even by conking Torres on the knee later on. Retribution seemed to reinforce team chemistry, but that’s a tenuous quality: great as it was to see the Cubs put team ahead of personal accomplishments, there’s no denying that losing Sosa for any length of time would be a great blow to the Cubs as a whole.