There was no real reason for any of us to be at Wrigley Field last Sunday. Sure, the Cubs had won two in a row, seven out of the last ten, and ten of the previous fourteen games, and were going for their second straight sweep of a three-game weekend series, and it’s true they were a season-high two games above .500, only seven and a half games out of first. But the pennant race–if there is, in fact, a pennant race–won’t begin in earnest until next week, when the Cubs renew play against their East Division competitors.
As it was, they were playing the woeful San Francisco Giants, sold and set to move to Florida next year, losers of five straight, and in fifth place in the West Division, behind even the Houston Astros. And there was nothing exciting about the pitching match-up: San Francisco’s disappointing left-hander Trevor Wilson against the Cubs’ Jim Bullinger, a rookie right-hander who had been converted from shortstop only three years ago. No, the only thing to recommend Wrigley Field on this afternoon was the weather–a clear, windswept sky, with the breeze blowing out at 20 miles an hour, and the temperature steady at a near-perfect 71 degrees. But let’s be realistic–there are places at least as good as Wrigley to enjoy such weather. So what were 32,429 of us doing there?
Sports owners take this sort of attendance figure for granted these days. On a clear, temperate day toward the end of summer, why shouldn’t the Cubs draw 30,000 fans? Yet sports owners–in Chicago especially–have grown a little too comfortable of late. Both the Cubs and the White Sox are leading the effort to remove commissioner of baseball Fay Vincent, whose main sin appears to be standing up for the fans, the game, and rationality itself. And the Bears–well, the Bears have irked me too much to spoil a column so early on with their dealings; I’ll save them for later.
In fact, I’ll deal with all those owners later. I went to Wrigley Field last Sunday in a strange sort of attempt to leave sports owners behind, to crawl inside the game and pull it in on top of me and leave the owners and their latest high jinks somewhere outside. I don’t know how many of my fan comrades had the same aims, but I imagine that–in some small way–such thinking played a part in the thoughts of most fans there. It takes a real baseball fan to attend a nearly meaningless game at the end of August, on even the best of afternoons–especially on the best of afternoons. Owners, who consider the fans a cash cow that must be milked or else it will go dry, don’t seem to understand that the fan is a thinking, feeling being who actually derives some sort of pleasure from watching the games athletes play.
The Cubs took batting practice with professional dispatch; they showed neither the giddy game playing of their good years nor the dutiful apathy of their bad years. Down the left-field line, pitching coach Billy Connors put Mike Morgan through the paces of his between-starts throwing. He halted Morgan between pitches and guided him through his motion. Connors has a reputation as a hands-on coach, and the label fit literally here, as he took Morgan by the shoulders and showed him how to delay his delivery to the plate to add snap to his pitches. Morgan, it should be stressed, is fourth in the league in earned-run average, but there was still work to be done.
The Giants followed the Cubs onto the field a little more at ease–a little too much at ease, actually, considering their place in the standings. Alfonso Carlos pitched batting practice wearing those angular sunglasses that are all the rage now, topped off with a white rag tied around his brow, making him look something akin to a middle-aged mutant ninja baseball coach. Will Clark slashed line drives to left- and right-center; his swing remains inexplicably elegant for someone with such a pompous bearing. Hitting coach Dusty Baker watched each player take his turn in the cage. “Good things in left-center,” he said to Mark Leonard. And he chided Royce Clayton with the advice, “Use that little peanut ass of yours.”
Bullinger is tall and thin, with a direct, erect delivery and a high, flourishing kick of his trailing leg in his follow-through. His rookie season has been noteworthy mainly for his hitting a home run in his first major-league plate appearance, making him only the third Cub to do so. He arrived in the majors after establishing himself as the bull pen closer at Triple A Iowa, and he enjoyed some success in the pen with the Cubs, but the trade of Danny Jackson, an injury to Mike Harkey, and the demotion of Shawn Boskie left manager Jim Lefebvre looking for a starter, and Bullinger was volunteered. He fields his position, well, like an ex-shortstop. He leapt to stab a high hopper in the second inning, retiring the sixth batter in a row.
Wilson, his San Francisco counterpart, is a bit of a throwback in his motion. He reads the sign with his hands on his knees, then takes a full stretch, gives a high kick with his hands held low, and makes his delivery to the plate. He ran into trouble in the second inning when the red-hot Andre Dawson led off with a triple. Dawson took a couple of strikes, fouled one off, then drilled one out of the park on the wrong side of the left-field foul pole. Wilson tried to come back with an outside fastball, but Dawson pounded it off the right-field wall. Luis Salazar brought him home with a sacrifice fly.
Bullinger helped himself out in the fifth when he advanced Rey Sanchez to second with a sacrifice bunt after a one-out walk. Doug Dascenzo followed with an RBI single, and the Cubs were up 2-0.
Bullinger, meanwhile, was slowly, quietly creating something of a stir. He walked two men in the third inning but worked out of the jam, and in the fifth walked the leadoff man, who was eventually retired stealing; otherwise, he wasn’t letting anyone reach base–no hits, no errors. The crowd started out very subdued, seeming more intent on enjoying the day than the ball game. The pock of batted balls echoed around the stands, caught balls popped in gloves, and one could even hear the clapping of San Francisco third-base coach Wendell Kim between pitches. Yet in the seventh the buzz picked up in volume, especially after Bullinger got Clark on a deep fly to center. He then walked cleanup hitter Mark Leonard, but struck out the not-so-threatening Matt Williams (he’s suffering through a sub-.220 season). When he got Greg Litton on a fly to left that Salazar made a nice, if routine, running catch on, the fans took the seventh-inning stretch with a sense of anxious expectancy. Bullinger also received a warm reception when he batted in the bottom of the inning.
Bullinger later explained that there was nothing special about his stuff on this afternoon except that he had good command of all his pitches. “It wasn’t that I was throwing unusually hard. It wasn’t that my breaking ball was breaking great. I was just able to put them where I wanted them.” With the wind blowing out, he knew he had to concentrate on every pitch, and he did so.
Except for one. He hung a slider to San Francisco catcher Kirt Manwaring to open the eighth, and Manwaring hit it into the left-field bleachers. Lefebvre came out to steady him, however, and he retired the last six men. Mark Grace made the ninth a little more comfortable with a homer of his own to lead off the Chicago eighth. Final: 3-1.
Bullinger had just turned 27 a week before. He no doubt makes the major-league minimum of just over $100,000, and while that might seem maximum enough to most of us, it seems fair when one thinks of the pressure involved. Even after a one-hit, complete-game victory, Bullinger sat facing his locker after the game, answering the questions of a pack of reporters with his back to them, speaking softly, clearly uncomfortable with the furor he’d created. He said he first became aware of the potential no-hitter in the sixth or seventh inning. “No one was talking to me,” he said.
“There’s a lot of emotion involved,” Lefebvre said, talking of his trip to the mound after the Manwaring homer. “You’ve got 30,000 people and teammates and coaches all excited and then you give up a homer. I just went out there to settle him down.”
That’s why fans turn out on a beautiful Sunday for a game that, in the grand scheme, doesn’t mean anything, and isn’t even packed with meaning in the small scheme of a pennant race that hasn’t really begun yet. It’s the chance for small dramas–a rookie pitcher throwing the game of his life–of watching things done well–Cubs third baseman Steve Buechele and the Giants’ liquid-smooth rookie shortstop Clayton were especially impressive in the field–of observing the dragonflies swarm above the field, feeding on city insects lured by the promise of the green grass.
I think Fay Vincent has some blind spots in how he rules the game–his insistence on abandoning the designated-hitter rule for one, his pleasure in exercising the powers of his office for another–but I think the sport is in basically good hands with him at the helm. He believes in preserving the basic elements outlined in the preceding paragraph, dragonflies and all. Now it’s said that the owners want to remove him in order to free their hand to deal harshly with the players’ union, perhaps as soon as this winter, and because he supposedly overstepped his bounds in telling the Cubs to move west in a postexpansion realignment next season. The Vincent firing could come at any time, and may already have occurred by the time you read this; the owners were to meet in suburban Rosemont Thursday to discuss Vincent specifically.
Bernie Lincicome wrote a great column defending Vincent a week ago Wednesday, and I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it already. Lincicome is an eloquent ignoramus who seems to take pleasure in diminishing everything he observes and what little he enjoys, and he has probably never seen a beautifully turned double play–reason enough to lose your sportswriter’s license, to my mind–but in attacking the owners and defending Vincent as “my” (read “our”) commissioner, he was the right man for the right job. Vincent should be retained, and if he’s fired something drastic should be done. If the owners are intent on breaking the players’ union, perhaps Vincent’s firing can be the issue that galvanizes the fans’ union that is being started up.
I can dream, can’t I?
Jay Hilgenberg will play with the Bears, from now on, only in our dreams. He was dealt to the Cleveland Browns last week for a draft choice, simply because he wanted $50,000 more than the Bears were offering–$900,000 total, very much within the parameters for the best center in the game. As it is, he’ll be paid $2.1 million over the next two years by the Browns.
The Bears have made a tradition of mistreating their players over the decades, but this was the latest and most painful of several recent slights. Don’t these owners realize that there’s more to their games than just the bottom line, and that if they insist on treating the bottom line as paramount the games are diminished? It seems such a simple point to have to make. It takes someone with an independent mind like Fay Vincent to state it, because company yes-men like Mike Ditka won’t.
So I’ll pick the Bears to finish 7-9 this season, and I hope they do much worse than that.