The large crowds pouring in and out of Wrigley Field are no longer so offensive now that the Cubs are playing better; that is, the people in the crowds might still be offensive, from person to person, but the Cubs’ attracting sold-out crowds is no longer so objectionable. For a while there, it was almost disgusting that the Cubs, kicking the ball around like cast-offs from the original New York Mets, were drawing packed houses. Loyalty–so often cited as one of the prime characteristics of fans of the Cubs–had little to do with it; the motives that brought the fans to the park in such large numbers were deeper and baser. Certainly, there were those who came because they had bought their tickets when snow was still on the ground last winter, but there were also those–a great number, in fact–who went to the game simply because it was the thing to do, because that’s what the old gang had decided upon that day, or because all their Simpsons T-shirts were dirty and they needed to buy more. These were people who approached a baseball game the way a baby does: as a total experience, not as anything of substance in and of itself.

This, of course, is a delightful attitude in its place, one we’ve often adopted ourselves and one we’re certainly tolerant of when it comes to real babies of the one-year-old variety and thereabouts, but in recent months at Wrigley Field this attitude ran amok. The quality of the play was noticeably bad, but that really didn’t matter. The game itself wasn’t merely secondary; it was beyond consideration. When and where it took place was all that was important, because it was the site of the party. We left the stadium early on more than one occasion, and the thought that people were still in there, enjoying themselves, was, yes, repugnant. Baseball was something that ought to have meant more to the fans, and it certainly should have meant more to the players, and we looked back over our shoulders at the stadium the way one looks at one truant leading another away from school–wishing we could be so stupid, but knowing we were right. Which only made us feel curmudgeonly.

The reasons for the Cubs’ revival are as elusive as the reasons for their slump. That decline was brought on, in part, by Rick Sutcliffe’s spring-training injury, which caused a crack that soon split the pitching staff wide open, and by the loss of Jerome Walton, the Cubs’ center fielder and leadoff man. But neither of those losses fully explained the Cubs’ malaise, the lack of any real spark or delight in their play. The Cubs slipped into the morass the way a day worker does, comfortably and without resistance, only–unlike the day worker–quickly, rather than over the course of months or years. There the Cubs were, booting grounders, allowing passed balls, missing the cutoff man, and committing balks. What snapped the Cubs out of this is, as we said, elusive, but it can be tied to manager Don Zimmer’s insertion of Dave Clark in the lineup in left field in the leadoff spot.

The move was vintage Zimmer, in that it made almost no sense, but worked out anyway. Clark does not have blazing speed, and neither does he have any great reputation for getting on base: he batted .300 only twice in seven minor-league seasons. Clark himself, when asked what Zimmer was thinking, said, “I really don’t know. I just took it as a chance to get in there and maybe get some at-bats.” Yet he homered the first day and occupied the leadoff spot for about a week, and when Walton returned Clark slipped down in the batting order but remained in the lineup, because he was crushing the ball and playing well in the outfield.

Clark replaced Dwight Smith, providing a perfect instance of that age-old baseball lesson about a player filling in for a more talented teammate and yet somehow improving the club because he answers its needs better. Dwight Smith is an able player, almost certainly a .300 hitter at the major-league level–a rare commodity these days–but, during the Cubs’ slump, his offensive skills answered none of the team’s problems, while his defensive skills created problems of their own. He approaches the outfield the way an intern approaches his or her first rectal exam: with one glove, eyes closed. At the plate, he has a wonderfully constructed swing, as level as if built by a carpenter, but this alone does not a major-leaguer make, and at this point he is looking more and more like the African American Rafael Palmeiro.

When the Cubs were slumping, their needs were apparent: they required better pitching (which would almost certainly improve with better outfield defense), they required someone to get on base at the top of the order, and they required someone more threatening than Marvell Wynne to hit behind Dawson. Wynne at the time was playing center field for the injured Walton and batting fifth in the order behind Dawson. Dawson was getting his hits–his batting average has remained high throughout the season–but he wasn’t driving in large chunks of runs because other teams pitched around him whenever he came up with men on base.

Clark immediately answered the team’s need for better defense, with able play in left and a decent arm (he played right field in the minors). He came to the Cubs during the winter from the Cleveland Indians for Mitch Webster, in a trade of disappointing players both teams hoped would do better elsewhere. He had no great reputation as an outfielder, but he said, “I feel like I can play some good defense. It’s just that, coming from the American League, where I wasn’t really given the chance because usually I DH’d over there, it was my own fault for really not keeping my defensive skills sharp.” That ended with his trade to the Cubs, where defensive coach Jose Martinez is charged with keeping the outfielders sharp–even those who are riding the bench. “You don’t have a day off when he’s working with you,” Clark said.

Clark has a wide face and widely spaced eyes, and his body too is wide and almost waistless; his trunk seems to grow out from under his shoulders and straight down to his belt. Standing in the on-deck circle, however, he certainly supplies more inspiration for the opposing pitcher to pitch to Dawson than Smith did. And in the batter’s box he is fearsome. His chin is held high; his stance is open but the weight is back. He looks like some ill-tempered camera subject, posed by a studio photographer and then told to “look natural.” He has a powerful swing, however; not as pretty as Smith’s, but more menacing, and that is what the Cubs needed.

Clark is the sort of player that Wrigley Field usually improves just by his playing there. He is possessed of no great speed–a defect that will be largely hidden by Wrigley’s small outfield–and he hits the ball hard, a quality that will be enhanced when the wind blows out. Wrigley helps this kind of player the same way the Astrodome helps weak-armed sinkerball pitchers, and Clark, in spite of his disabilities, is likely to put up some good numbers here. Whether they’ll be for months, like, say, Mike Vail’s or Lloyd McClendon’s, or for seasons, like Leon Durham’s or Keith Moreland’s, we’ll have to see.

The recent turnabouts of the Baltimore Orioles, the Cincinnati Reds, and our own White Sox have shown that, while the game is based on individual versus individual–pitcher versus batter, base runner versus outfielder–all facets of the game are interrelated. Dependable middle relief sets up better starting pitching and better late relief. Better defense makes for better general pitching, and scoring runs makes for more tactical pitching (i.e., working ahead in the count, throwing strikes). When the Cubs began playing better defense and scoring runs, the pitching got better, too, and the team began to streak. Greg Maddux revived to win five straight after losing eight straight, and rookies Mike Harkey and Shawn Boskie both began to develop consistency. Neither has anything unusual about his pitching motion; both are sound fundamentally, with Harkey possessing a better fastball and Boskie an erect, prep-school posture while delivering the ball. Both have a remarkably humorless presence on the mound, the dour demeanor of medical students, and we’ve come to like that. In fact, Boskie might have contributed to the Cubs’ turnaround by overstepping the usual bounds of rookie behavior. The Cubs’ bullpen– amply aided by the defense–blew a lead for him one day last month, and in the clubhouse Boskie all but berated his teammates–polite but firm. He said he was tired of coming into a locker room that was more like a morgue every day, and that he didn’t know how long it could go on. If Dawson had said the same thing, it would have sent shivers through the whole team, and at first we thought someone would put Boskie in his place. Yet no one did. How could anyone object? The kid was right.

It would be wrong to play up Clark’s contribution to the level of, say, the arrival of Willie Mays with the New York Giants in 1951, when he led them to the pennant. Yet Clark did do something to the Cubs–to the batting order and the defense–when Zimmer stuck him in the lineup. Rather than drawing parallels with Mays, we should perhaps compare Clark with McClendon, who arrived from Iowa last year when Andre Dawson was injured and who gave the Cubs the same sort of lift that Clark has delivered this year, only earlier in the season. Ironically, Clark’s increased playing time has now signaled the departure of McClendon, who was recently sent back to Iowa after failing to come anywhere near last year’s production. Leaving him to ponder, like most of us, about the differences between last year and this.