As of late last week I was still resisting that moment when a Cubs fan finally surrenders wholeheartedly to the team’s good fortunes. Though the Cubs were in first place in late July, I just didn’t believe they were good enough to finish on top, not even in the mediocre National League Central. Manager of the year candidate Don Baylor struck me as more lucky than good. But as 40,125 watched at Wrigley Field last Friday afternoon–and who knows how many more on TV–the moment of commitment arrived for holdouts like me when the Cubs announced on the center-field message board that they had finally, officially obtained Fred McGriff in the long-delayed trade with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
McGriff was just the latest in a series of midseason acquisitions by general manager Andy MacPhail. For the most part, these deals–which safeguarded the team’s talent base in the minor leagues–brought in underachieving journeymen to stock the Cubs bench with interchangeable parts and give Baylor more game-situation options. Delino DeShields, who had seen his long career come crashing to a halt this year in Baltimore, was picked up at little cost to the Cubs. Along with much-needed speed, he brought his distinctive Little League-style double-flap batting helmet, and he became, I believe, the first Cubs player ever to sport cornrows (the media guide is vague on the subject). DeShields helped fill in after left fielder Rondell White went down with an injury the Cubs could ill afford. Then the Cubs got more left-handed batting help by bringing in Michael Tucker from the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for a couple of less-than-promising minor league no-names. With his wide-eyed gaze and nervous intensity, Tucker has always seemed a squirrelly, uncertain player, but he has pennant-race experience from his tenure with the Atlanta Braves a couple of years ago, and he helped sway whatever fans were still on the fence after the McGriff announcement Friday when he hit a game-winning homer in the eighth inning. Swinging from the heels, he smashed the ball with everything he had and then abruptly dropped the bat as if it had scalded him, his hands flapping at the wrists behind his back as if he were about to break into a long-forgotten dance from the disco era, something that might have been called the Home Run Trot.
At that point even I had to admit that the Cubs were ringing up an awful lot of critical victories in a manner that sang of kismet. Earlier that week they had picked up what had to be considered their biggest win of the year, beating the Astros on Monday to escape with a split of their four-game series in Houston. A loss would have sent the Cubs out of town with the Astros only one game back. But the Cubs got a commanding home-state performance from Texas flamethrower Kerry Wood, and a game-winning home run from freshly arrived phenom Corey Patterson, who turned on a pitch much as I had seen him turn on one two years ago–with the instantaneous thwack of a mousetrap springing shut–when he was playing for the Cubs’ Class A Lansing affiliate against the Kane County Cougars.
If there was a downside to the McGriff deal, which cost the Cubs only a couple of borderline prospects, it was that it cut short Patterson’s stay. To be sure, he looked uncertain at times, as almost anyone who’s trying to establish himself in the majors will. When I’d sat down and studied him during batting practice a couple of Fridays before–when the White Sox were playing the Cubs at Wrigley–he looked overmatched by the half-speed fastballs, dribbling them through the infield or lofting soft liners into short center field. Yet he triggered a game-winning five-run comeback against the Kansas City Royals barely a week later, starting the rally with a lovely bunt single, and at all times he played a fluid center field. Especially impressive was his demeanor after hitting that critical homer in Houston. He didn’t celebrate or even so much as smile, but soon took up a scowling position against the dugout railing and watched the Cubs take the rest of their licks in the inning. It was the pose of someone who has done his job and made no bones about it. It was a shame to see him sent back down to the minors when McGriff arrived.
But somebody had to go. And while Patterson is clearly a better center fielder than Tucker (the Cubs might get away with playing Tucker there in the Friendly Confines, but they’re apt to be unpleasantly surprised by his fielding in the more spacious outfields on the road), and Patterson is already a better overall player than Gary Matthews Jr., the Cubs could rationalize that he was the youngest player, with the least seniority, and that he needed to play every day, which he’ll do back at Triple-A Iowa. Patterson accepted the demotion philosophically, saying, “I’ll just go out and keep playing and see what happens come September.” That’s when rosters expand from 25 to 40 and he’ll certainly rejoin the team. In the meantime, he got to take major-league batting practice one last time Sunday before shipping out, and he lanced some shots to the outfield, turning on the ball, as he always does, without a stride–all his power coming from the shoulders and the torque of his midsection. He may not be Willie Mays, leading the New York Giants to the NL pennant in his rookie season, but he’ll be back soon, and he’s sure to play some sort of role in the September race.
Meanwhile, photographers lined up outside the Cubs dugout before Sunday’s game to await McGriff’s arrival. They settled for shots of the new number 29 batting helmet with a left-handed ear flap until he finally emerged from the clubhouse in the flesh. The photographers’ cameras flashed, and McGriff responded with a huge smile. “Good decision, Freddy!” called a fan behind the dugout, referring to his wavering, waffling decision on whether to waive a no-trade clause and move away from his hometown of Tampa Bay. When the deal was first announced he said he’d stay, but he changed his mind when the Rays started trading away other veterans, making it clear they were going with youth. At that point, McGriff was faced with the possibility that he might be benched and fail to get the plate appearances necessary to guarantee next year’s contract. The Cubs made it clear they would guarantee next year as part of the deal, or make him a free agent if he so desired, and pragmatism won out over sentiment.
McGriff is the sort of player who gives a contender instant credibility. He has an erect, dignified bearing–at the plate and in the field–with a thick, stiff neck that rises from his shoulders like a lone tree standing on a ridge. In his career he’s averaged about 30 homers and 100 runs batted in a year, and he’s made it to the playoffs five times–including in 1993, when he joined the Braves equally late in the season. He went on to play a critical role for the 1995 Braves, the team’s only World Series champions during the 90s. In short, he is one of the few baseball players with a legitimate reputation as a clutch hitter, and he gave the Cubs an immediate jolt. Sammy Sosa seemed especially focused in batting practice Sunday, smacking three straight shots into the seats, and McGriff responded with one into the right-field bleachers, finishing it off with that signature high one-handed flourish of his–Zorro punctuating a slash with an “Ole!”
The Cubs needed the jolt after Saturday’s game. Wood, back on the mound and looking fine with his own flourishing follow-through, in which he seems to pull a cape around himself, took a 2-1 lead into the fifth. Then he left a fastball over the middle of the plate for Albert Pujols, who pumped it into the left-field seats. Obviously irritated, Wood hurled the rosin bag to the ground as Pujols rounded the bases, but then he served up a go-ahead gopher ball to the Cards’ Craig Paquette leading off the sixth. The Cubs got it back in the bottom half with an RBI double by Robert Machado–fast developing his own reputation as a clutch hitter. Mark McGwire hit one out to put the Cards one up in the top of the seventh, and of course Sosa answered in the bottom half to tie a game that had turned into a back-and-forth slugfest. But the Cards dealt the knockout blow in the eighth with three runs off the usually reliable Jeff Fassero. The loss kept the Cubs from taking advantage of Houston’s blowing a six-run ninth-inning lead against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first game of a doubleheader. When the Astros rebounded to win the nightcap they ended the day three and a half games behind the Cubs, with the Cards four games farther back.
So Sunday’s finale of the four-game Cards series at Wrigley was critical, and McGriff’s arrival produced immediate dividends. His leadoff walk in the second keyed a four-run inning, with Machado providing a two-run homer, and he drove in a run an inning later as the Cubs went up 6-0. The Cards rallied to within a run with the help of a three-run Edgar Renteria homer, but the Cubs won 7-5, scoring the insurance run on a third-strike wild pitch. The evidence that something special was happening continued to mount. The Astros had lost, so the Cubs were now four and a half games ahead of Houston, eight and a half ahead of Saint Louis. Even so, I found myself doubting. DeShields and Tucker were probably enjoying an adrenaline rush in their first weeks with their new team, and would probably soon come down to earth. McGriff had been having a banner year in the American League, batting .318 with 19 homers and 61 RBI, but the law of averages figured to catch up with him, especially as he turns 38 before the end of October. What’s more, Kyle Farnsworth’s elbow had turned balky, cutting his workload as a middle reliever, and contributing to Saturday’s loss to the Cards–though he did return Sunday to fan McGwire before handing the lead off to closer Tom Gordon.
What I suddenly realized was that I wasn’t trying to talk myself into believing in the Cubs, I was trying to talk myself out of it despite increasingly compelling evidence in their favor–such as White and third baseman Bill Mueller being due back soon and a more experienced Patterson returning from the farm in September. Which meant on some deeper level I did believe–do believe. Such is the incontrovertible logic of the Cubs fan.