After the rainfall Saturday night, the Cubs do not take batting practice Sunday morning. Wrigley Field is quiet as the New York Mets’ Keith Hernandez trots around the bases (working to rehabilitate his ailing knee), while Mitch Williams and Les Lancaster warm up in front of the Cubs dugout. Down in the dugout, encircled by a small group of reporters, Don Zimmer sits and talks. Zimmer, at these moments, is a pleasure to behold, and this morning he has even shaved for the occasion. A question about a certain player or a certain incident will set him off, reeling into the past for some ever-so-slightly related story. On this occasion a comment on Dwight Smith’s fielding recalls an event when Billy Williams was a rookie. “What year was that?” Zimmer says.
“Sixty-one, sixty-two,” says one reporter.
“It had to be ’61, then,” Zimmer says, “because I was gone already in ’62.” (A quick look at the Baseball Encyclopedia confirms this.) Slowly, then, he spins a tale of how he had been playing second base and Williams right field (a detail that in itself shows how disorganized the Cubs were back then, for both Zimmer and Williams were more comfortable on the other side of the field), when a pop-up was hit into short right, and Zimmer went back and back, waiting for Williams to call for it, then tumbled end over end trying to catch it–failing. A few innings later the same thing happened, and Zimmer backpedaled and backpedaled into short, then middle right field, waiting for Williams to call, then went tumbling over trying to catch it. “So we come back into the dugout,” Zimmer says, “and–Billy probably won’t even remember this story–but I ask him, ‘Billy, could you have caught either of those balls?’ And he says, ‘Yes,’ and I say, ‘Well, goddamn it, catch ’em!'” And the reporters laugh.
The tale lacks drama, but even so it’s well told, in some mysterious way, and the moral is clear enough: rookies make rookie mistakes. Williams turned himself into a decent left fielder after a while, and the implication is that Smith will too. In the meantime, Zimmer says, he’s told Joe Altobelli to have Jose Martinez throw balls into the left-field corner–where Smith had suffered a particularly difficult episode the day before, costing the Cubs a run they eventually found they could afford–for the rookie to practice on. That, too, prompts a laugh, and as the Cubs emerge one by one from the clubhouse, a few reporters drift off to do other interviews, but most stay put. The atmosphere in the dugout is relaxed, placid, but with a serious tinge all the more noticeable for its being unstated. The atmosphere around Zimmer has changed subtly from previous months, because the season is now two-thirds over, the games are growing more important, and during the games the scoreboard is attracting more attention–not merely attention to the Cubs’ score, but attention to doings elsewhere. In short, it’s August, and the Cubs are in a pennant race, and Don Zimmer is doing his best to project an attitude reflecting that nothing has changed while also suggesting that things have changed markedly. He’s doing his best to keep the pennant race at arm’s length–and reporters at arm’s length from his younger players–because the pennant talk, and its companion pressure, will be on the team soon enough, especially if the Cubs continue to play as they have been playing.
Pennant fever is contagious; the ball players must feel it all around them, in the air they breathe and in the unusual behavior of those nearby. The Cubs, however, make few comments on the race. Their comfortable place in the standings is suggested only by their confident demeanor and serious approach to each game. It’s difficult to say just when the season shifts from an apparently endless string of games–best taken one at a time–to more consequential events, best taken an inning, an out, or even an at-bat at a time. Certainly, there is a heightened importance to the games both immediately before and after the All-Star break.
The Cubs enjoyed a good home stand before the break, then went west for one of those telling trips along the coast immediately after. There was an urgency in Harry Caray’s voice when he pointed out, Wednesday two weeks ago, that the Cubs had completed their final west-coast trip of the season only two and a half games out of first. That set us up for what became the first game of the pennant race.
The Cubs played a night game on their return from the coast, and in spite of the extra rest they looked lagged out and spent. The first-place western-division San Francisco Giants were in town, and their pitcher Mike LaCoss made the Cubs look ridiculous. LaCoss is not an overpowering pitcher by any means; he has suffered career-threatening bouts with a sore arm, and he was never any too great to begin with. Yet he cruised through seven innings without incident, striking out nine along the way, including all three outs in the sixth. The Giants, meanwhile, bled Paul Kilgus for three runs–one apiece in the second, fourth, and fifth. The Giants’ manager, Roger Craig, then turned the game over to his bull-pen ace, Steve Bedrosian.
The wind was blowing in a gale, making Earl Weaver’s three-run homer a distant hope. The Cubs went quietly in the eighth and opened the ninth with another out. Then Mark Grace singled. In one of the key plays of the inning, Damon Berryhill reached base when Brett Butler let the wind pull a pop fly out of reach; it fell in front of him for a single. That a skilled outfielder accustomed to the swirling winds of San Francisco’s Candlestick Park would muff a fly ball in the ninth inning in Wrigley Field–well, it certainly seemed portentous, but Lloyd McClendon popped to the shortstop for what should have been the last out of the game. Yet Dwight Smith followed, slapping a single into right field to score Grace; when catcher Kirt Manwaring fumbled the throw to the plate Smith moved on to second base. With two outs and the tying run at second, Bedrosian–to his credit and to his eventual demise–wasted no time with Curtis Wilkerson. He hummed in a fastball for a strike, followed with another, and then went right back in with another. The placement of the last was poor, however –out on the far side of the plate, when a more challenging pitch, up and in, was called for if he was going to throw a strike on oh and two. Wilkerson flicked it into left field to tie the game.
The Cubs’ Les Lancaster stranded three Giants over the next two innings–one at third base in the top of the 11th. In the bottom half of that inning, the Cubs got the leadoff man on, but Smith grounded into a double play. Wilkerson then singled again, bringing up Lancaster or–strategy would have seemed to dictate–a pinch hitter. Zimmer let Lancaster bat, however; with two outs, he wanted Lan-caster’s arm in the game more than he wanted to gamble for a run–a doubtful choice. Lancaster, how-ever, made the point moot by doubling down the left-field line, and with Wilkerson running all the way, with two outs, he scored easily.
When a team wins a game like that–a game it was hardly even taking part in, a game it really had no business winning–it sets off alarms, not only for the fans but for the players. The Cubs played the Giants tough through the rest of the series, then went to Saint Louis, where they beat up on the Cardinals–with Vince Coleman killing a rally in one Cubs’ victory with a base-running boner; how’s that for a break?–then returned home, a week ago, to face the hated and fading New York Mets.
No fan of the Cubs needs to be told how they fared. They were important games–for the Mets as well as the Cubs–and all three were sold out before the Mets arrived in town. The three games drew a combined 112,000 fans. When it was over, the Cubs had won all three, but it was the way they won that was most impressive. All three–but especially the games Friday and Sunday–shared with that Giants game the feeling that the outcome meant more than just another game in the standings. One could almost feel the gathering strength of the Cubs as each day passed. As in 1984, good plays tended to encourage other even better plays, home runs encouraged home runs, and if there was a chance to win a game, then it would be done. There was that momentum a team produces when 24 or 25 players keep trying to play at the same level and a few of them turn their games up a notch. Shawon Dunston was, perhaps, the most impressive player on the team during the entire stretch. As the games added up after the All-Star break to produce some meaningful statistics, it soon became apparent that Dunston was already off to an excellent second half. As his hitting improved, his defense went wild. He made a wonderful play in Saint Louis, charging a high-hopping grounder and pushing the ball toward first in the flash of an eyelash–little more than a basketball touch pass, but with enough on the throw to get the batter. Then, in the first game of the series with the Mets, not only did he pick up three hits, a run batted in, and a run scored, but he played an essential part in the Cubs’ four-run seventh inning as they came from a 5-2 deficit to take a 6-5 lead. He ended the game with an astonishing play– one that perhaps only he was capable of making, among all the major-league shortstops–running deep into left field to catch a texas leaguer, then whirling to throw to first base and double up the Mets’ Juan Samuel, who had been going on a hit-and-run. It was the shortstop’s equivalent of Willie Mays’s 1954 World Series catch. In the words–and other forms of communication–of Zimmer two days later: “When you see him good…” and he whistles. “It’s pretty tough to play any better than he plays.”
The Cubs blew the Mets out with a no-brainer the following day, then won another in impressive fashion Sunday. The sense of momentum was palpable, as Ryne Sandberg scored in the first inning on a play that should have had him out. On third base with one away, Sandberg took off for home after Andre Dawson flew to short left field. Kevin McReynolds made a perfect throw home, but Gary Carter just plain dropped the ball in struggling to prepare himself to tag Sandberg. The Cubs scored again in the third–with Zimmer calling on the base runners to take off, with the bases loaded and a full count on the batter, McClendon, who eventually walked after fouling off a couple of strikes–but they left the bases loaded. Dunston kept the momentum up with a home run the following inning and some aggressive baserunning–going from first to third on a sacrifice bunt–that produced another run in the sixth. When Mike Bielecki weakened and Mitch Williams blew his eighth save opportunity, the season threatened to sway. The Mets, if they lost, would be as out of it as they could be going into August. The Cubs, if they lost, would have blown a chance to gain ground on the Expos, who were losing, the scoreboard said, and–more important–would have failed to sustain the momentum. They won; was there any doubt? Jerome Walton jabbed the Mets with his third bunt single of the series–all to the right side, past the pitcher, a play the Mets never mastered–to lead off the ninth, and with two outs Mark Grace faced the Mets’ bull-pen ace, Randy Myers. Myers missed with a slider on the first pitch by the slimmest of margins (if it’s called a strike, Grace doesn’t touch him in that at-bat), and with Grace ahead in the count and guessing fastball he homered on the next pitch.
Again before the game, Zimmer is taking questions. One of the reporters asks if in the pennant race he might go to a four-man rotation. Zimmer ponders. “Where’d the five-man rotation come from, anyway? Who said a pitcher needs four days’ rest?” Then the inevitable tale: “I had a rotation in Boston–one guy wanted five days’ rest, one guy said he pitched best with three days’ rest, and the other three said they wanted the ball every five days. Try to figure that one out.” Again, everyone within earshot laughed. The original question, however, was never really answered. It would take someone thinking about the pennant race to do that, and Zimmer–wise man that he is–is trying to avoid that for as long as possible. Next week, however, he may have to address the topic. The Montreal Expos come to town Monday.