Over the last two weekends, Chicago has been the center of the sports universe. Only one of those weekends, however, met expectations. The New York Yankees came to town to face the Cubs in an interleague series two weeks ago, an event rife with talk of the 1938 World Series and Babe Ruth’s “called shot” off Charlie Root in the ’32 Series–the only times the teams had met previously in official games. Yet, above and beyond the almost playoff-level intensity in and around Wrigley Field–in fact, throughout the city and in much of the national media (two of the three games were carried nationwide)–the quality of play was exquisite. The games Saturday and Sunday, both won by the Cubs, were described by many onlookers as two of the best regular-season games they’d ever seen. People were still talking about them well into the following week, as the world’s best golfers arrived at the south-suburban Olympia Fields Country Club for the U.S. Open. With the Cubs by that time on the road, and with the maelstrom surrounding Sammy Sosa’s corked bat abating, the open had an opening. But it stepped through it like a wallflower into a kegger.
There is no doubt, in absolute terms, that a U.S. Open being played at Olympia Fields was more historic than a Yankees visit to Wrigley. Interleague play is a contrived stunt, designed to boost interest in the sport after the 1994 strike threatened to separate baseball from its fan base; by now fans are used to the artificial, early-summer round of games between teams from the National and American leagues. Yet there was no denying the incredible energy that was building as the Cubs and then the Yanks took batting practice before the Friday-night game. It was like a gathering storm, and the players were like so many lightning rods standing around. (Appropriately enough, overhead clouds were thickening by the moment, until the skies opened up and chased the players from the field shortly before game time.) Two of baseball’s most historic franchises were entering the series in first place. There was Sosa, looking almost like Mike Tyson in his new goatee and a blue skullcap, cracking out balls with a black and apparently untampered-with bat–as if glorying in his tarnished reputation, even if his timing still looked a little off. There was a huge media contingent, both local and flown in from New York City and points beyond. An Asian journalist came up and introduced himself to the Cubs’ Hee Seop Choi, apparently in his native Korean, and Choi bowed slightly before shaking hands. Corey Patterson seemed the same player yet greatly altered from when he played for the Cubs’ Class A Lansing affiliate in Kane County four years ago. He still has that mousetrap-quick turn on the ball, but he’s much more built up in his upper body and lean in the face, finishing each fluid swing with a complete follow-through. He’s become a full-fledged pro.
All these were minor distractions, though, compared with seeing the Yankees on the field. High-ranking executives from both teams milled around with the players and the media. Cubs president Andy MacPhail came out and shook hands all around before patting manager Dusty Baker on the back. Baker went on to greet moonfaced New York slugger Jason Giambi warmly, no doubt having known him when they were both in the Bay Area–Baker managing the San Francisco Giants and Giambi in his formative years with the Oakland Athletics. Former Cubs manager Don Zimmer, now of course a coach with the Yanks, held forth around the cage as he so often used to. New York manager Joe Torre greeted film director Penny Marshall, who was wearing a Yankees cap, and they delighted in the atmosphere of the Friendly Confines. “It’s a shrine,” Torre said, going on to schmooze her a little as they parted by saying, “You know, you’re in a league of your own.” In the outfield the New York pitchers, no strangers to dealing with abusive fans, were teasing the bleacher bums like zoo animals by faking throws into the stands.
The Yankees, however, would’ve been intimidating in batting practice even without their reputation to back them up–26 championships since the Cubs won their last. Alfonso Soriano, the Yanks’ whippet-slim second baseman, conjured up images of Ernie Banks with his powerful, wrist-driven swing, timed with a flexed inner turn of his front left knee unlike anything Banks ever developed. Soriano hit 39 homers last year, and arrived in Chicago with 18 over the first third of the season at the top of the order as the Yanks’ leadoff man. Shortstop Derek Jeter, with his bat held high, calmly dropped it onto each pitch and lined into the outfield. Giambi cranked two shots through the thickening air onto Sheffield, and the crowd–heavily infiltrated by New York fans–roared. A particularly explosive later turn in the cage by Giambi resulted in more cheers, and when the next hitter came in he stepped out smiling ecstatically.
That was when the raindrops began to fall, and I decided to watch the game the way the rest of the nation was watching it–on TV. The rain delayed the game’s start, but when it finally got going Giambi was still in the same groove. He bashed a two-run homer after a Jeter walk, and that gave New York starter David Wells all the cushion he needed. He cruised after Chicago starter Carlos Zambrano gave up three more runs in the third before settling down–too late. Wells gave up three runs, the last a homer by Patterson on a curve in the eighth, but Antonio Osuna came on to get the last out of the inning, and Mariano Rivera closed it out in the ninth for a 5-3 New York victory.
Each of the three games was played before just under 40,000 greatly divided fans, but Saturday’s middle contest was something special. It pitted two Texas flamethrowers: the Yanks’ Roger Clemens, making the third attempt at his 300th victory, and the Cubs’ Kerry Wood, who worshiped Clemens as a boy. In the fourth inning Wood and Choi collided on a pop-up. Choi caught the ball but landed hard, his head bouncing off the packed base path between home and third. He was taken from the field apparently unconscious in an ambulance that arrived through the right-field gate. (He would later be diagnosed with a concussion.) A shaken Wood took his no-hitter into the next inning before giving up a homer to Hideki Matsui following a borderline two-strike checked-swing call. With Clemens motoring along, it looked dire, but Sosa started a seventh-inning rally with a one-out single, and Moises Alou walked. Clemens was reportedly less than full strength with a sore throat, and Torre brought in Juan Acevedo to face Choi’s replacement, Eric Karros. Shades of Lou Gehrig stepping in for Wally Pipp, Karros parked one in the left-field bleachers to put the Cubs up 3-1. The Yanks rallied in the top of the eighth, but the grizzled Mike Remlinger came on to strike out Giambi with the bases loaded to end the frame, and the Cubs added two insurance runs in the bottom of the inning. Joe Borowski, already warmed up in the bullpen, gave up a run in the ninth, working overcautiously, but sealed the 5-2 win to even the series.
Baker had rearranged his pitching staff in the week leading up to the series in order to get Mark Prior into the Sunday-night finale. Again, the weather turned as the game approached, bringing rain and cold in off the lake, but this time it cleared and the game started on time. Prior was facing Andy Pettitte, the Yanks’ elegant, Roman-nosed left-hander, but Pettitte didn’t have it at all. He gave up a three-run homer to Alou in the first and another homer to Ramon Martinez in a three-run second to give Prior a seemingly insurmountable 6-0 lead. Pitching confidently, mixing his fastball as ever with a jagged curve, he struck out ten in six innings, giving up three runs. The Cubs padded it out to carry an 8-3 lead into the late innings. Yet the Yankees came on, and there was an almost palpable sense–both in the park and on TV–of the Yankees’ tradition of victory in hot pursuit of the Cubs’ tradition for ignominy. They chipped away with two runs, then rallied off Borowski, again working overcautiously with bases on balls in the ninth. The Yanks scored two and got the tying run on, and Torre sent pinch runner Charles Gipson in for catcher Jorge Posada at first base. Borowski got ahead of the dangerous Raul Mondesi 0-2, but then averted danger entirely by picking the humiliated Gipson off at first to end the game. The Cubs had won the series, and if in their division they remained behind the Houston Astros, who had overtaken them Friday, that was secondary. The Cubs, who had never won a game against the Yankees in two World Series sweeps, had taken this solace–admittedly small solace, but it seemed important.
The U.S. Open, by contrast, began full of stories that threatened to flower into epic tales, but the blooms–the most stunning and colorful, anyway–died on the vine. The 53-year-old Tom Watson–winner of eight major tournaments and, as ever, bearing that gap-toothed Huck Finn grin–shot a 65 in Thursday’s opening round to claim a share of the lead with Brett Quigley and set a record as the oldest golfer ever to lead the open at the end of a round. Watson topped Julius Boros, a player I saw the last time the Western Open was played at Olympia Fields, in 1968, when Jack Nicklaus rode roughshod over the course. The performance of today’s pros was comparable to Nicklaus’s in spite of a course lengthened and toughened by the U.S. Golf Association.Their less impressive scores were disguised by the fact that the USGA had dropped two shots off par, to make it 70 for 18 holes. By the end of the second round, sturdy PGA tour veteran Jim Furyk had stepped forward, adding a 66 to his opening 67 to tie for the lead at seven under par, alongside Vijay Singh, who made up his seven under all at once with a second-round 63. Watson had fallen off, but Tiger Woods had climbed into contention at four under. The stage seemed set for a dramatic final 36 holes.
Yet Woods fell off, and Singh struggled before ending his third round with three straight bogeys as his putter utterly abandoned him. Furyk, with his hawk profile, loopy yet repeating swing, and unerring feel for the Olympia Fields greens, kept plugging away, ending his Saturday with a 67 to claim a three-shot lead. On Sunday, Singh dropped from contention early with an ugly third hole. Everyone dropped back toward par–and Woods even beyond it–as the USGA took revenge with greens shaved smoother than a slice of ginger on a plate of sushi, and only Furyk survived. Australian Stephen Leaney pressed him a couple of times, never more than with a two-shot swing by birdieing the 13th hole while Furyk missed a par putt–no doubt distracted by a topless woman who stepped out of the crowd on the 11th hole to hand him a flower. But Furyk answered by sticking his approach on the 14th for a birdie that reinstated his four-shot lead. He gave back two strokes to par along the way, playing ultraconservatively, but still tied the U.S. Open record at 272 for a three-shot victory. The record low proved that Olympia Fields was more deserving to play host to the Western than the national open.
Pity the poor White Sox, an afterthought in their All-Star summer. They lost again Sunday to drop six games under .500 and remain seven and a half games behind the first-place Minnesota Twins. They’re set to travel to Wrigley this weekend with nothing but pride at stake. It’s when they’re most dangerous, but it figures to be a far cry from the Cubs’ series with the Yankees.