Though Cubs fans became enraptured by the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home-run chase, they proved more resistant to the fate of the Cubs as a whole. No less an optimist than Jack Brickhouse, when asked about the Cubs’ chances in the week before he died, said with a note of despair in his voice, “Well, we’ve been here before, haven’t we?” The hated New York Mets had improved themselves by adding Mike Piazza and Hideo Nomo, and everyone agreed the San Francisco Giants had the better schedule down the stretch. The Cubs embarked on road trip after road trip after the All-Star break, stopping at Wrigley Field, it seemed, only long enough to get their laundry done, and even though they kept returning home tied for or actually in the lead for the wild-card playoff spot, fans were dubious.
I’ve written in years past that Cubs fans, burned many times before, are reluctant to commit themselves to the team; Sosa’s pursuit of McGwire and, of course, Roger Maris’s home-run mark of 61 seemed to give those fans a safety valve. They could go to the park, root for Sosa, and get carried away without really believing the Cubs had a chance to make the playoffs. Even when the Cubs won games by kismet–as they did on August 1 against the Colorado Rockies, when an apparent game-tying triple rolled under the padding on the right-field wall and became a ground-rule double–Cubs fans resisted, because they know the fates are fickle and that for every 1984 there is a 1985, for every 1989 a 1969, and that even ’84 and ’89 turned out poorly. So they came to Wrigley Field in droves of 40,000 and rooted for Sosa to homer, and if the Cubs happened to win so much the better, but they weren’t going to let themselves get involved.
All that changed last Saturday.
Saturday’s victory over the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field had to be one of the five most thrilling baseball games it’s been my privilege to see in person, and it wasn’t even the best game of the weekend. As for its effect on fans, it was the season in miniature. From the get-go, the Cubs dared, no, encouraged fans to give up on them, but they prevailed regardless–prevailed this time, I might add, not on kismet but on their own skill and determination. When the game was over, Sosa had hit his 60th home run, joining the elite ranks of McGwire and Maris and, of course, Babe Ruth. But more than that, the Cubs had overcome deficits of 10-2 and 12-5–and it seemed that every one of the 39,170 persons who had paid their way into the park was still there, every one now a convert ready to tell the world that the Cubs were worth believing in.
The Cubs began Saturday tied with the Mets for the National League wild-card spot, with the Giants two and a half games back. The Cubs had learned only the day before that rookie phenom Kerry Wood would be out for at least a week and perhaps for the season with a sprained ligament in his pitching elbow. Their starting pitcher was Mike Morgan, a veteran who’d been seized off the ash heap to fill out the rotation down the stretch, and they were facing Rafael Roque, the Brewers’ long-limbed, impressive rookie. Meanwhile, Mets ace Rick Reed was pitching against Montreal’s Javier Vazquez, a rookie who had already lost 14 games, and the Giants were going against the Rockies’ Pedro Astacio, who’d also lost 14. Talk about fate: every statistical tea leaf boded ill for the Cubs. Yet at the end of the day, the Mets had lost, the Giants had lost (1-0!), and the Cubs had won to move into the wild-card lead.
Not that Morgan didn’t pitch true to form. After startling the fans with a one-two-three first inning, he gave up a double and a walk in the second but pitched out of it before finally getting shelled in the third. A Jose Hernandez error opened the gates; giving a major-league team four outs in an inning is always bad, and asking Morgan to get four outs is worse. The error left runners at the corners with one out, and the Brewers built on that with a single, a triple, a double, and a homer. After what should have been the last out of the inning, Milwaukee added two more homers for eight in the frame–this after the Cubs had taken the lead with two in the second. Manager Jim Riggleman had used almost his entire bull pen in the 13-11 loss the day before (the wind blew out throughout the three-game series), so he left Morgan in to suffer, bringing the ire of the fans down upon his head.
“Hey, Riggleman, get somebody in there!” yelled a leather lung in the upper deck.
“Who do you want him to put in?” called a vociferously rational fan two sections over.
“Anybody!” answered the first guy. “You! You could do better!”
Riggleman settled on Dave Stevens, who slowed the Brewers to four more runs over the next three innings. By that time it was 12-5, as the Cubs had scored three runs on homers by Hernandez and the aged Gary Gaetti, who since being salvaged from the Saint Louis Cardinals has hit the way he’s always hit at Wrigley. The fans were irate, not just at Riggleman and the Cubs’ pitchers–remember, at the time, who really believed the Cubs were contenders?–but because the Brewers had twice walked Sosa, sitting on 59 homers and three behind McGwire.
Milwaukee’s rookie reliever Valerio De Los Santos opened the Cubs’ seventh by committing the cardinal sin of walking the leadoff man with a big lead. He got the next guy to strike out, then allowed a double to Mark Grace. That put runners on second and third with Sosa up and the baseball book calling for a walk. After working the count full, De Los Santos did try to walk him with a low fastball, but Sosa swung at it and just barely fouled it off. The crowd was up on its feet and roaring by that point, and Sosa swung at the next pitch, a borderline high fastball, and fouled that off too. De Los Santos then threw a good slider low on the inside corner, but Sosa dropped his bat on it and drove it over the left-field fence onto Waveland Avenue for his 60th homer of the season. The crowd was wild, they’d seen what they’d come to see, and when Glenallen Hill followed with a homer to make the score 12-9 most people thought only that it made Sosa more likely to hit again in the bottom of the ninth. Even with the wind blowing out, nobody was thinking comeback–except on the Cubs’ bench.
Felix Heredia, Terry Mulholland, and Rod Beck got through the last two innings without any additional Milwaukee damage, while Tyler Houston came off the Cubs’ bench in the eighth to hit a home run to make it 12-10. The Brewers’ bull-pen closer, Bob Wickman, came in to open the ninth and face Sosa, who hit the first pitch through the left side of the infield for a single. That’s when the entire tone of the ballpark changed. Did people head for the exits after Sosa batted? No, the crowd was in full roar as Hill singled, putting runners on first and second with no outs. Riggleman then called on the red-hot Gaetti to bunt–yielding more boos from the grandstand managers (I marked it on my scorecard with an “S34!?” in the manner of a surprising chess move)–and then Mickey Morandini worked the count full before walking to load the bases. That brought up Houston, who rifled a single to right to tie the score at 12. Then pinch hitter Orlando Merced, needing only a long fly to win the game, hit one into the right-field bleachers to end it at 15-12.
I don’t think a thousand people in the standing-room crowd had left. Every seat seemed filled, and the aisles were jammed with people jumping up and down and screaming as the PA system played KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight.” As raucous as the crowd was, that’s how calm and even-tempered Riggleman was in the interview room the team has opened under the first-base grandstand to deal with the media crush surrounding Sosa. He called it “probably the sweetest win I’ve ever been involved in, if not the strangest,” and went on to crack wise by saying, “The players were feeding off the fans, and the fans were going to feed on me early, I think.”
Sosa, having bartered with the guy who wound up with the ball on Waveland to get his 60th homer back, sat down with a bashful, “Hi, sorry to keep you waiting,” then talked about how all along this season he has simply tried to help the team. That’s the irony of Sosa’s year, that he’s enjoyed his greatest personal glory while playing team baseball–drawing walks, getting big hits. By the time Sosa was done answering reporters’ questions–in both English and Spanish–the game had been over 45 minutes. But a couple of skyboxes were still filled with fans, and as he walked back across the field to the Cubs’ locker room, they came out to yell, “Sammy! Sammy!”–as did the few fans still loitering around the exits. In the locker room all was calm and quiet. Grace, Mulholland, and Beck–smoking next to his official National League ashtray–sat in their uniforms having a few beers and chatting over the day’s events. The professionalism of this veteran team is a quality on display from its businesslike demeanor around the batting cage before a game to the easy way it unwinds–win or lose–afterward. It’s a rare attitude for a team to posses, especially remarkable in the whirlwind of Sosa’s home-run chase, and it’s the quality that has made the Cubs–yes, I fully embrace the idea now–true playoff contenders.
That team approach may also enable Sosa to surpass McGwire. McGwire’s 62nd homer, hit off the Cubs, was one of the great moments in baseball history, with Sosa coming in from right field to embrace him, but McGwire seemed to go totally slack afterward, and even left Sunday’s game with back spasms. Sosa, focused on the playoff race, crushed his 61st homer on a hanging forkball to pass the Babe Sunday, and then caught McGwire with his 62nd homer in the bottom of the ninth. The first homer staked the Cubs to an 8-3 lead that the Cubs’ bull pen squandered; the second–a mighty shot onto Waveland off an Eric Plunk fastball–made it 10-9 Milwaukee, and then gimpy Henry Rodriguez came off the bench to double and a pinch runner scored on Gaetti’s game-tying single. Beck held the Brewers in the tenth, and with two out and nobody on in the bottom of the inning Grace homered to win the game. Cue up “Get Down Tonight” as the stadium went ape, and nobody seemed to mind that the man left in the on-deck circle to welcome Grace home was Sammy Sosa.