Don Baylor likes to manage. He likes to play little ball, with sacrifice bunts and the hit-and-run. This is an odd tendency for a manager who previously served with the Colorado Rockies in Coors Field, the most homer happy of today’s new launching-pad stadiums, and who arrived in the majors with the Baltimore Orioles when Earl Weaver was preaching the benefits of pitching, defense, and the three-run homer. Baylor apparently was more influenced by the time he later spent with the California Angels under Gene Mauch, one of baseball’s fiercest proponents of the bunt.
Baylor’s kind of ball, which trades away the possibility of a big inning to manufacture single runs, didn’t suit last year’s Cubs, a slow-footed, strikeout-prone bunch who had trouble putting the ball in play, much less getting on base. And it didn’t suit the times, when home runs were flying out of big-league parks at a record rate. But this season things have changed–from the higher strike zone to much of the Cubs roster–and the Cubs entered this workweek not only first in their division but with the best record in the National League at 19-11. Though the new strike zone has killed the patient hitters of the White Sox, whose chopping swings were designed to attack low pitches, it has benefited the free-swinging Cubs, not to mention a pitching staff that’s led the league in strikeouts with only one real flamethrower, Kerry Wood. What’s most important is that the higher strike zone has diminished scoring, rewarding Baylor’s tendency to play for a run at a time. A good manager tailors his style to what he’s got to work with; he doesn’t wait for the team and the times to suit him. But for now that’s neither here nor there. This season’s Cubs, their manager, and the era suddenly seem in sync, and there’s a growing perception of this season as another of those glorious mirages, like the 1998 campaign.
Cubs fans, ever a suspicious if hopeful bunch, have been slow to acknowledge the team’s prospects. When the Cubs returned home last week for their first two night games of the year (an earlier one was snowed out) after compiling the league’s best record for April, they were greeted by warm weather but crowds merely in the high 20,000s–a fireworks-night throng for the Sox but something of a disappointment at Wrigley Field, whose upper deck was barely more than half filled, with wide expanses of empty seats in the corners of the lower deck. To judge from the team’s first game back, who could blame those missing fans for their trepidation? With the wind blowing out, the San Diego Padres–an even more anemic group of hitters than the Cubs–unloaded on Jason Bere for seven runs in the third inning and coasted to a 10-3 victory. All right, fatalistic Cubs fans had to be thinking, April’s over and here come the May staggers to prepare us for the June swoon. Yet the next night, with de facto ace Jon Lieber working quickly through the San Diego lineup, the Cubs came back from a 2-0 deficit with a barrage of their own. Sammy Sosa timed a Kevin Jarvis split-fingered fastball perfectly, smacking it into the pine boughs in center field to get things started, then the Cubs got two-run homers from the unlikely bats of Gary Matthews Jr., Bill Mueller, and Eric Young and added another run in the eighth to make the final 8-3. KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight,” that gonfalon song from 1998, played on the PA after the last out, but there wasn’t the same celebratory optimism in the air. The fans’ doubts were justified the following day; the weather suddenly cooled and the winds blew in, and Wood suffered the same tough luck that has afflicted him all year, losing the series finale 5-3. Yet the next day Kevin Tapani outdueled Chan Ho Park for his fourth victory as the Los Angeles Dodgers came to town.
Lieber, Wood, and Tapani are all holdovers, and their early season performances offered few surprises. Lieber was steady as ever; Wood was erratic and still seemed to be working toward a full recovery from the elbow surgery that threatened his career two years ago; and Tapani was in fine form (aside from a bombing in Colorado, where it can happen to anyone). What elevated the Cubs was the showing of bottom-of-the-rotation starters Bere and Julian Tavarez–newly acquired from the Rockies, where his sinking fastball had proved immune to Coors Field–and the sudden proficiency of the bull pen. The maturing Kyle Farnsworth and the revitalized Felix Heredia supplied decent middle relief and veteran Jeff Fassero saved a startling nine games in April, as newly acquired closer Tom Gordon continued to rehabilitate from elbow surgery. Baylor had built a good bull pen in Colorado; now he seemed to have faith in his Chicago pitchers and they were rewarding it.
The other pleasant surprise was the overhauled lineup. Most emblematic of the changes was the departure of third basemen Willie Greene and Shane Andrews–free-swinging, all-or-nothing sluggers in the classic Wrigley Field mold–for Mueller, a contact-hitting infielder best known for his defense. Mueller stepped into the number-two slot behind Young, and he did so well that Baylor had dropped him to third ahead of Sosa by the time the team returned home last week. Left fielder Rondell White, a midseason acquisition last year, and catcher Todd Hundley, a free-agent pickup over the winter, were both upgrades, but otherwise the main improvement came in the form of luck. The Cubs signed big, beefy veterans Matt Stairs and Ron Coomer during the off-season to play first base; they share belly-buster builds and uppercut swings more appropriate to 16-inch softball. In the process, the Cubs passed over Julio Zuleta, a proven minor-league slugger who for some reason had inspired no confidence in general manager Andy MacPhail. But when Coomer went down with an injury the first week of the season, Zuleta was recalled. He supplied much-needed power in some critical early victories and claimed a spot on the roster. The Cubs got lucky in being unlucky, an early earmark of a Cinderella season.
After seeing Lieber beat the Padres in person and catching most of the week’s other games on TV, I went back to Wrigley Field on Saturday to decide if the Cubs had the look of a legitimate Cinderella team. Tavarez drew the pitching assignment. Anything the Cubs get out of fifth starter Bere–who has never been the same since suffering arm problems with the White Sox–will be gravy; it’s Tavarez who’s critical to their long-term hopes. If he truly did learn to pitch in Colorado, and is as good as his league-leading 1.53 earned run average going into the game, he could make the Cubs something special. It was judgment day for him in other ways as well. He was coming off a five-game suspension stemming from a rare spring-training beanball skirmish, and he’d made himself notorious by attacking San Francisco fans with some ill-chosen words pertaining to its gay community. To add to the pressure, the team he was facing, the Dodgers, led the NL West, and he was up against Darren Dreifort, a hard-throwing pitcher with a nasty breaking ball.
Tavarez looked great from the get-go. He has a feminine motion, bringing his left leg up in a soft kick, then bending the knee in and flexing it down, like a ballerina stretching at the barre. Then he takes a long stride down the mound and slings the ball with a three-quarter delivery. This gives his fastball a lot of movement, and he can either run it away from a left-handed hitter or sink it hard by giving it a downward backspin. In his motion and in the way his fastball moves he is very reminiscent of Orel Hershiser, the old Dodgers ace. His breaking pitches aren’t as sharp, however; he tries to enhance a lame slider by throwing it sidearm to right-handed hitters, and he throws a change-up, but these pitches are there basically to set up the fastball and sinker. He worked briskly through the first inning, getting slugger Gary Sheffield on a perfect fastball tailing back over the outside corner, and weathered a couple of cheap hits in the second. In the third he really pitched. Dreifort went down swinging on a fastball, but leadoff man Tom Goodwin sat on a fastball and pulled it sharply foul down the right-field line. Tavarez came back with his change, and Goodwin, guessing right, volleyed it into left for a single. Mark Grudzielanek lined a fastball into left, and Goodwin hustled around to third right under White’s nose, with Grudzielanek following him to second on the throw. There were runners on second and third, one out, and the heart of the Los Angeles order coming up. Tavarez again got Sheffield looking with a fastball on the outside corner, this time setting it up with sliders and change-ups. He walked the left-handed Shawn Green to load the bases, then executed a gutsy pitch sequence against Eric Karros, throwing a change-up for a ball, then three straight fastballs, two of them for strikes. With the count 2-2 he threw a sidearm slider low and wide; Karros took it for a full count. The crowd of 38,468, largest of the season, started clapping and cheering. Tavarez threw the same pitch, this time over the plate but still low, and Karros couldn’t check his swing and struck out. From there on Tavarez was in command, his only mistake a pitch Sheffield hit into the left-field basket in the sixth. The ball bounced out and was fielded and no one seemed to notice–the Dodgers least of all–that it was actually a homer; Sheffield wound up on second. But he came home on a single by Karros, the only other hit Tavarez gave up after the third inning.
The Cubs, meanwhile, put leadoff hitter Young on with a single in the first inning, and then Baylor called on Ricky Gutierrez to bunt. Playing for one run in the first inning is vintage Baylor, and it produced familiar results. Gutierrez picked up two strikes waving at the ball as it went by and then grounded into a double play. In the fourth, however, Mueller led off with a walk, and Baylor did not ask Sosa to bunt. Sosa clubbed a high, floating inside pitch over the left-field fence. After White got on base, Hundley sliced a Dreifort fastball into the left-field bleachers, and it was 4-0. Four base runners, two homers, four runs–not the way Baylor normally tries to score them.
The Cubs added eight runs in the seventh, victimizing former teammate Terry Adams for seven of them, and eight more in the eighth, all without a home run–though it’s worth noting that Baylor had Gutierrez bunting again with the score 5-1 and runners on first and second in the seventh. There were a couple of other things worth noting as well. The Padres had knocked Zuleta down all week, putting him to the rookie intimidation test, and after a couple of hits Zuleta had been collared. In the seventh, with two men on, five runs in, and one out, Zuleta pinch-hit against lefty reliever Jose Nunez, who threw one at his belt and knocked him down. Zuleta hit the next pitch around the left-field foul pole and onto Waveland Avenue for a three-run homer. That’s how rookies–good rookies, anyway–are supposed to respond to intimidation.
In the bottom of the eighth, with the Cubs nickel-and-diming Nunez right out of the league with walks and singles, seven runs already in, two out, and the bases loaded, Sosa came to the plate. The crowd got to its feet and shouted the Peter O’Toole battle cry from Lawrence of Arabia: “No prisoners!” Sosa responded by hitting a pitch onto Waveland on the wrong side of the foul pole–Oooooooh! the crowd groaned–before walking to score another run. Los Angeles reserve infielder Chris Donnels had to relieve Nunez to end the inning. In the ninth, with the score 20-1, the fans got to their feet anyway with two out, and Courtney Duncan got the last out to seal the win and cue “Get Down Tonight.”
At that point it all did seem real, fully in keeping with the tradition established three years ago, and the same went for the Cubs’ tense victory the following day. Bere and Eric Gagne took a 1-1 duel into the late innings, and after the Dodgers clawed ahead the Cubs tied the game on a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the eighth and (after Gordon pitched a scoreless frame) won in the ninth on a White double and a Hundley single. With the enlarged strike zone allowing both teams’ fifth starters to look like aces, the Cubs prevailed on pitching, defense, and a run at a time. Maybe they are this year’s team of the moment.