Decades make for arbitrary divisions, but there’s no denying 1990 was the year Wrigley Field became an upscale, yuppie ballpark. Wrigley could be forgiven before for attracting college kids to its bleachers and suit-and-tie types to its box seats, but this year they took over. Combining with others of their ilk, known by their fondness for Simpsons T-shirts and neon-pink caps, the yups bought season tickets in order to attend the All-Star Game, then the not-quite-so-upscale moved in to buy the rest of the seats months in advance. This spawned an unpleasant little cottage industry of scalpers, who routinely sold pairs of box seats (face value, $20) for $50 and upward, and–on warm, sunny, weekend afternoons–got at least as much for a pair of bleacher seats. Attendance averaged more than 30,000 for most of the season, sending the Cubs toward the 2.5 million mark for the year.
Didn’t anyone remember the spring-training lockout and the delayed opening day?
This party atmosphere could be delightful, of course, but there was always an uneven element about it, as the neighborhood was overrun by what Wrigleyville’s own Lynda Barry called an “inferno of studs.” Returning home late one evening after a night game, I saw a group of four adult boys literally and sincerely chasing a pair of young women. The women were, fortunately for them, wearing short skirts and flat shoes, enabling them to outrun the boys, who were prone to staggering, and when they got a safe distance away they turned and gave the boys the finger, sending them into hysterics. That was the point, for me, when Wrigley’s party atmosphere became almost unrecognizable. Throughout the year, what I yearned for was one of those bracing cold and sunny afternoons with 5,000 people in the park and the voices of the vendors echoing around the grandstand. It never came, and with the New York Mets in town this weekend for the Cubs’ final home games of the season, it isn’t likely to, not even for Monday’s originally unscheduled finale.
The Cubs management, of course, can’t be entirely blamed for their clientele. They should never be forgiven for selling bleacher tickets in advance, but on the other hand how can they be held responsible for the problems of society at large, for “Bo knows your mother/sister/wife” T-shirts replacing Simpsonwear as fall’s fashion statement of choice?
As for the team itself, on the other hand, it was delightfully retro. It had the inept-but-promising flavor of the classic Cubs of the middle and late 70s and early 80s. After they worked their way through a miserable mid-season stretch of thoughtless or just plain awful play, eliminating any realistic chance of competing with the Mets and the Pittsburgh Pirates, the players relaxed and displayed some real talent. It was one of the more interesting north-side teams in recent memory. For one thing, there was the arrival of Joe Girardi, a classic-model catcher who harked back not to the 70s but the 40s. Short and stocky, with a face only a mother could love, Girardi looked like one of the first-generation immigrants who dominated baseball in simpler, earlier times. He was given the starting catcher’s job during spring training, with Damon Berryhill still on the mend from shoulder surgery, and while Girardi had always had excellent defensive credentials, he soon showed he could also hit. He has a short, crisp swing, all shoulders and a turn of the waist, and he threatened to hit .300 for most of the year, slipping to a respectable .279 toward the end.
His young battery mates were equally refreshing, even if they did conspire with Girardi to pitch the wrong pitch in the wrong spot, or to cross signals so that Girardi went falling after a curveball he thought was a fastball. I wrote earlier this season that Shawn Boskie and Mike Harkey had simple, direct motions that made no real impression on the fan, but their tics and gestures eventually began to establish themselves. Boskie had a prim way of holding his hands together as he strode down the mound, giving him the aspect of a choirboy. He won five games and compiled a respectable 3.69 ERA, however, before departing with elbow problems. Here’s hoping he makes it back. Harkey, meanwhile, developed his own dance step: after a bad pitch, he’d make a little hop and quickly shrug his shoulders–as if a tight sweatshirt were responsible–then kick once at the dirt before accepting the ball from Girardi. He always wore an unemotional expression on the mound, which we at first mistook for apathy (like Eric Davis and a surprising number of major leaguers, if he had his druthers he’d be a basketball star, but he turned out to be better at baseball so, well, there he is), but in more than one game this year he showed his demeanor is actually more of a determined asceticism. He could get tough and work himself out of a jam. He threw enough bad pitches to make his dance step a trademark, but overall he did not pitch poorly at all. He won 12 games with a 3.26 ERA, low among the team’s starters, and that included two abysmal outings in which he did not survive the first inning: one in Saint Louis, another in Cincinnati. He was in the process of challenging the Atlanta Braves’ Dave Justice for rookie of the year–and as Justice hit his 25th homer on Sunday that had to be quite a challenge–when tendinitis in his shoulder sidelined him this month. He came up short of his own humble goal for the season–200 innings pitched–but aside from that almost everything he did had to be considered a success.
Andre Dawson was resurgent after being the main goat in the Cubs’ loss to the San Francisco Giants in last year’s playoffs. Dawson’s swing began with the same noticeable hitch–the flick of the tiger’s tail before the pounce –but throughout the year, and especially with two strikes, he displayed a newfound ability to handle the outside pitch: instead of lashing at it, he’d try to wrist it into left or right field. Compared to his usual swing, this was like the subtle deflection of a cricket batsman, but it made him the team’s leading hitter as we begin this week, with a career-high average of .312. Mark Grace, too, staged a comeback–not from last season’s slump but from this season’s early dry spell. Early on I wondered whether Grace was any better than the Pirates’ Sid Bream, but that sort of thinking was soon dispelled, as Grace raised his average above .300 and fit into the lineup as the prototypical number-three hitter, supplying timely extra-base hits while drawing frequent walks to get on base ahead of Dawson. At this point, it’s still defensible to say, “If Grace doesn’t hit .300, he’s hurting the team,” but it says no more than a sentence such as, “If the sun rises, it’ll be another day.”
Manager Don Zimmer ran out of magic, but that was no surprise. One can survive on extra-inning, game-winning doubles by relief pitchers and 12-homer, .286 seasons by career minor leaguers only so long–a point emphasized this year after being established last October. There was nothing Zimmer could do to replace Rick Sutcliffe, Mitch Williams, and Jerome Walton when they went down with injuries. He adopted a stoic attitude toward the media; whether he was in the dugout, on the field, or in his office, he never invited a question, but he never dodged one either. On the whole, he remained a knowledgeable baseball man with unique strengths and notable weaknesses–a penchant for following hunches foremost among them–who won’t hurt the Cubs until they get into a short series that means something.
The last, best thing to be said about the Cubs’ 1990 season was that it was the year Ryne Sandberg established himself as a Hall of Famer. During his MVP season of 1984, Sandberg’s classic style, his emphasis on doing everything precisely and correctly, from fielding a ground ball to rounding the bases, inspired some elevated comparisons with Joe DiMaggio. Those comparisons seemed inflated until the last couple of years–especially this season, when he proved last year’s 30-homer campaign was no fluke by becoming the first second baseman in history to post back-to-back 30-homer years. Last weekend Sandberg took the league lead in homers with 36. He got his 1,500th hit this summer, giving him an outside shot at 3,000. Don’t forget, over the last two seasons he also put together his 123-game, 584-chance errorless streak, setting big-league records for second basemen and for all infielders except first basemen. Over the years, Sandberg was so dependable, so deliberate, and so understated that it became easy to take him for granted. The power he’s disclosed the last couple of seasons has done away with that; he is now impossible to ignore. Clearly the best second baseman of his era and already an MVP-winner, as a home-run titlist he’d suddenly become a very viable member of the Hall of Fame, although not yet a shoo-in. Dale Murphy, for instance, won back-to-back MVP awards, but two straight subpar seasons have diminished him as a candidate and left people muttering about how his home ballpark in Atlanta inflated his stats–a criticism Sandberg, too, is sure to come in for.
Earlier this month, Sandberg was standing near the batting cage being interviewed by Jerome Holtzman, the dean of baseball writers and a member of the Hall of Fame himself. Bob Verdi had somehow found a bat in his hands, and he approached them pointing the bat from one to the other and saying, “Two Hall of Famers.” Not that Verdi’s acknowledgment made it so, but the whole image made such an immediate picture, laced as it was with instant and intentional nostalgia, that I’m sure we’ll remember it some years from now when it becomes true.