Going from the Bulls to the Cubs was going from one end of the sports spectrum to the other. A winning team–especially a championship team–gives off a hum of activity, the players are happy and comfortable with one another, and difficult achievements therefore come easily. A losing team, on the other hand, is quiet and sullen, stuck in the doldrums. The players show up to do their jobs and constantly expect bad things to happen. That’s been the apparent state of mind of the Cubs the last few weeks. They suffered through a long, brutal road trip on the west coast–where struggling Cubs’ teams have traditionally had problems and where they lost nine in a row–then they went east to Pittsburgh to win one and then lose a couple more, blowing a three-run lead in the ninth inning in one of them. The total record on the trip was 2-11. They returned home last Friday and were slaughtered 14-6 by the Saint Louis Cardinals. By the weekend, batting practice was quiet and businesslike, and not even the usually effusive Shawon Dunston had words of cheer for anyone around.

Now, the Cubs of 1991 are not all that different from the division champions of 1989. Catching is a problem, with Joe Girardi out and Damon Berryhill struggling, but the Cubs won two years ago with Berryhill hurt at the end of the season and a young Girardi sharing the job with Rick Wrona. At first base, Mark Grace is a better player than he was two years ago; ditto Ryne Sandberg. At third, after replacing rookie Gary Scott, Luis Salazar is not noticeably worse than Vance Law. Dunston is struggling at short, but should even out in the second half; he usually does. In left, George Bell is even better than the ’89 platoon of Dwight Smith and Lloyd McClendon, and right fielder Andre Dawson has improved on his own play since he had knee surgery after the 1989 season. In center, Jerome Walton has drifted from his 1989 rookie-of-the-year form and has caught much of the blame–as center fielder and as leadoff man–for the Cubs not performing up to potential this season. Still, that’s five of eight positions where the Cubs are at least as good as they were two years ago, and the other three are not so diminished in quality–not enough to explain a fall in the standings from first to fifth.

What has happened?

The 1989 Cubs did not have a single significant injury on the pitching staff. After Mike Harkey failed to make the team in spring training and Mike Bielecki replaced him in the rotation, the staff was set for the season. This year, the Cubs have already lost opening-day starter Danny Jackson (a couple of times), Harkey suffered a relapse of arm troubles and underwent surgery, and Rick Sutcliffe came back from off-season surgery with about five feet missing off his fastball. Newly acquired bull-pen ace Dave Smith has taken days off at a time for minor ailments.

Those injuries have caused other problems. Former manager Don Zimmer overworked the bull pen early, and that is something difficult for a team to overcome; starters have to put together a series of late-inning outings to give the arms in the bull pen a chance to rest, and the Cubs starting staff–suffering from injuries and general inconsistency–hasn’t been able to do that. During the Cubs’ skid, the team hit the ball well, scored early, and took leads into the late innings, but lost five times in the bottom of the ninth. A good team shouldn’t lose five games in a season in the bottom of the ninth, much less five games on a single road trip.

The absence of Mitch Williams is a major difference between the ’89 and ’91 Cubs. Williams was shipped to the Philadelphia Phillies this spring when–it seemed–Zimmer threw up his hands and said he no longer knew how to deal with him. That deprived the Cubs of what became a much-needed extra arm in the bull pen. Williams should have been kept on and used–at very worst–as a setup man in relief (the way the Cincinnati Reds are now using the deposed bull-pen closer Randy Myers to set up Rob Dibble). Williams earned his 13th save for the Phillies last Sunday, on a day Smith was unavailable to the Cubs because of a knee injury. Williams’s quick revival with the Phillies–proving he was nowhere near as washed up as Zimmer thought he was–contributed, I believe, to Zimmer’s departure.

Although I originally cheered the firing of Don Zimmer for Jim Essian, and although I still cheer the firing of Zimmer, I now feel Essian was not the man for the job if the Cubs management actually intended to compete this season–and in firing a popular manager with the team only two games under .500, that is what they must have been thinking. Essian gives the impression of someone who knows he’s out of his depth and is hoping it’s only a little ways–someone with his head above water while his toes search urgently for the sand below.

Don’t get me wrong: I think he’s going to be a good manager, and he may even wind up being a good manager this year. He has already proved himself superior to Zimmer as a game-situation strategist. Where Zimmer excelled was in making his players comfortable, making them believe in themselves–until, of course, they came to believe they couldn’t overcome his repeated strategic mistakes. For now, Essian strikes me as ill-suited to this team of veterans, as someone who’d be more comfortable with a young team where both players and manager could settle in without the pressure of being expected to win and win now.

The game a week ago Thursday in Pittsburgh was the worst. Frank Castillo was called up from the minors to make his major-league debut as an emergency starter. He pitched eight shutout innings and took a 3-0 lead into the ninth before tiring. His outing was almost poignant in that his mother, father, and sister had made the trip to Pittsburgh, and the WGN TV coverage devoted much time to their fidgeting through the game. Castillo, however, allowed a couple of base runners in the ninth and was removed. Paul Assenmacher came on and allowed a couple of hits to tie the score. The disappointment on the faces of the Castillo family as he was deprived of his first win was clear and saddening. Heathcliff Slocumb came on, walked the bases loaded, and allowed the winning run to score on a wild pitch; he left the field almost in tears. Then came the 14-6 shellacking at the hands of the Cardinals last Friday.

Last Saturday, with the wind blowing out, the Cubs finally caught a break, as the Cards’ starter Bob Tewksbury was slow to warm up on a very hot day, was hurt by an infield error, and then gave up a three-run homer to the Cubs’ latest catcher, Rich Wilkins. Of the Cubs’ six first-inning runs, five were unearned. Lester Lancaster, who has moved from the bull pen to the rotation to become something of the team’s stopper (he won the skid-ending game in Pittsburgh), seized on the lead like a puppy being swung by a sock clutched in its jaws, and handed a 6-3 game over to the weary Assenmacher in the eighth. Assenmacher allowed three hits and a run in the ninth, facing the Cards’ dangerous Pedro Guerrero with the tying run at first in the ninth, and all of Cubdom–the fans at Wrigley, those watching the CBS broadcast, and those listening on WGN–were expectant of tragedy. Guerrero grounded sharply out, however, and the Cubs had won one.

This victory, much closer than it should have been, had little effect on the team’s dreadful mood. The following morning, things were still quiet around the batting cage, and the game got off to a bad start as Greg Maddux allowed four runs in the first. Dunston committed an error on a grounder up the middle, and as he stood with his head down and Sandberg chased the ball into center, batter Todd Zeile took the uncovered second base. The following two batters tripled and doubled, with Gerald Perry making up for his shorter shot by stealing third. The next batter, Felix Jose, fanned, but catcher Wilkins dropped the ball, picked it up, looked Perry back to third, and threw to first to get Jose, with Grace having to stretch wide into foul territory to make the play. It was one of those games where every out was a struggle.

At the plate, the Cubs looked flat and the Cards’ Jose DeLeon looked awesome. He retired the first 11 Cubs he faced and took a shutout into the sixth. There, however, the Cubs scratched for a run, put two other men on, and Dwight Smith tied the game with a two-out, three-run homer. That was the sort of big blow noticeably lacking from the Cubs of late. When Dunston led off the seventh with a windblown Texas League double, the momentum had shifted completely, and he scored on a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly by–of all people–light-hitting utility man Jose Vizcaino, who seemed more a candidate for a suicide squeeze than a long fly ball when he stepped to the plate. These things, however, happen when a team begins to go well. The Cubs added a pair of insurance runs in the eighth, with Chuck McElroy–who had come on in the seventh–earning the victory without requiring a save; he finished up himself.

Afterward, however, the mood in the locker room wasn’t notably better. Light rock was playing, most of the players were in the trainer’s room, away from the media, and Essian was celebrating with soft words and a decaffeinated Diet Pepsi. It did not seem as if the team had finally turned a corner.