Last Sunday there was unfamiliar crispness to air; it gave one room to breathe for the first time, it seemed, in months. The sun was bright, and the sky was visibly blue. Wispy clouds rose far north along the lakeshore. As we sat in the upper deck reading the media notes for the day, we felt a freshness in the air–as if the poison had been turned into sweat and expunged an optimism that had been missing the previous Thursday. when the Cubs had resumed play for the second half of the season after the All-Star break. The hot, sticky weather had broken with rain on Saturday, turning a 2-2 tie game between the Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers into a nonevent where only the statistics count, and so Sunday’s game turned into a doubleheader. As game time neared, the players came onto the field to play catch in front of the dugouts, and even in the upper deck we could hear the crisp slap of ball in glove. It was still morning–game time was just after noon–and the grandstand was, for the most part, empty. The occupied seats were dotted here and there in colored shirts and pants amid the greater and prevailing green of the empty seats themselves. The sounds of the ballpark seemed fractured, separate. The usual din that surrounds one in a ballpark had been torn; noises came at one individually, one at a time–a whistle over here, a vendor’s call of “Pepsi!” over there, the sharp slap of one of those aluminum hot dog boxes echoing off the upper-deck roof, and, of course, the softer slap of leather as the Dodgers played catch down below. When the game began, and the scoreboard operators scurried to change the umpires’ numbers from yesterday’s positions to today’s (third base moving to second, second to first, first to home, and home taking a well-deserved day off down at third base), we felt we weren’t the only ones just catching up with the day; we felt, in fact, that initial optimism growing, as if it reflected what surely must be going on in the minds of our Cubs.

So much for mere impressions.

The Cubs lost a doubleheader to the Dodgers for the second time in four days, last Sunday, and the prevailing impression they left upon anyone watching them was a sense of the slack, uninspired nature of their play. Admittedly, they sent six players to the All-Star game–five starters in the first game of last Thursday’s doubleheader–but the entire team looked as if they had spent their three-day mid-season vacation if not at the All-Star game then at home, digging the foundation for a backyard pool they expected to install in the mornings before Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday’s games. The team looked sick.

Thursday’s first game, unfortunately, established the tone for the series. The Cubs got a man on base against the Dodgers’ pitcher Tim Leary in each of the first six innings–two men on in the first and fourth–yet the only man they could get to third base was Andre Dawson (who tripled with two out in the first after Shawon Dunston was caught stealing, and who watched Ryne Sandberg then ground meekly to third ). Then they went out not with a bang but a whimper, the last ten batters going down without incident, a full half of them striking out. In being shut out, the Cubs wasted a typically gruff outing by Rick Sutcliffe, who deserved the loss only in that he allowed his counterpart, Leary an RBI single with two out and an O-and-2 count in the second inning. It was the only run the Dodgers got.

The Cubs’ loss in the nightcap was different but equally bitter. They got men on base, they ever managed to score a few, but they lacked the big hit that would blow the game open, right down to the end, when Dave Martinez signaled his departure from the Cubs by leaving two men on. After the game, he learned he had been traded to the Montreal Expos for Mitch Webster. (More on this later.)

Friday, the Cubs wasted a Greg Maddux outing when they failed to exploit five walks by the Dodgers’ diminished former ace, Fernando Valenzuela. The Cubs scored first, they scored again, and then they found themselves going into extra innings tied 2-2. Manager Don Zimmer, showing the first signs of’ tenderness toward Maddux (who has labored like a pitcher from the 60s in amassing an immense amount of innings, who has done this on top of pitching in the winter leagues last year, and who has already gone into extra innings on I believe two occasions earlier this season), stopped him at nine and gave the ball and the game to the bull pen, which unfortunately was not quite ready for it. (Big decision: whether to let Al Nipper pitch to Franklin Stubbs or call on Frank DiPino to face Tracy Woodson. Wrong decision: Woodson got his first major league hit this season to win the game.)

Saturday’s game was a relief only in that the steamy rain that had been gathering since before Thursday’s game finally fell. Of course. it fell at a time that deprived the Cubs of their last ups and forced the deceptively crisp new beginning of Sunday. The game itself was–like most of the series–languid, as if played underwater. Webster, trying to atone for an error made in his first game with the Cubs, the day before, led off by slapping a double down the left-field line and scored on a groundout and a balk. The Cubs scored again in the third when Andre Dawson followed a Rafael Palmeiro double with an RBI single. On the mound, Jamie Moyer seemed sharp, sandwiching small streaks of five and six straight men retired around a harmless double and single in the third. He struck Mike Marshall out to end the first on an excellent change-up, then he got Kirk Gibson to end the third-inning threat when he turned the change-up over and got Gibson to reach and pop the ball to Shawon Dunston at short. Yet a Vance Law error cost an unearned run in the fifth, and in the sixth Moyer allowed two more base runners before departing for Lester Lancaster. Another ineffective move by Zimmer, whose luck was running no better than that of his team: Tracy Woodson responded again, this time with a sacrifice fly, and the game was knotted for good. (In the bottom of the seventh, with one out and nobody on, Zimmer allowed Lancaster to bat. He made an out. Webster followed with a two-out single, but was erased along with the inning on a force-out. Let’s say that Zimmer was “timid” and leave it until later.)

The less said about Sunday the better. Burned by his decision of the previous day, this time Zimmer left his starter in during a seventh-inning rally. Jeff Pico walked three in a row to open the frame, an unfortunate event in that he had entered the inning with a string of ten straight men retired. The game was tied, of course, 1-1. The only thing that had kept the bases from being loaded was that Zimmer (or someone, but let’s give him the credit because it was a tough weekend for him) caught the Dodgers stealing with a pitchout on a hit-and-run. So runners on first and second, one out, left-handed pinch hitter Stubbs coming up for the Dodgers, left-handed reliever Pat Perry ready in the bull pen for the Cubs, but Zimmer leaves Pico in. Stubbs has just seen Pico walk three straight men, has watched Zimmer come out and try to calm his pitcher, and looks fastball on the first pitch, which he hits into the left-field bleachers.

Game two: Webster breaks open a 2-2 tie, but does so while the Cubs are in the field. Makes second error of first weekend with Cubs, allowing fly ball to bounce off glove and lead to triple and game-winning run. Is booed lustily by Cubs’ fans.

I am torn up over the Martinez-Webster trade, not because I hate it or because I love it and shouldn’t but because as a trade it’s a tough one to read. Using the trade as a jumping-off point for assessing the Cubs at mid-season, let’s say, right off the bat, that Martinez’s failure this year–and compared with last year it was a failure–left the Cubs without a leadoff man. Now, the mistake almost everyone makes is in deciding what the first priority of a leadoff man should be. The first priority of a leadoff man is not to steal bases: it is to get on base. The Cubs, I believe, have improved themselves this year with better pitching, but offensively when the team has scored runs it has done so with mirrors because it has no effective leadoff man. In the most effective lineup the team has had this year, it attacks the opposition as if it were giving up the leadoff spot and beginning with the number two spot: Dunston, Palmeiro, Dawson. This is an excellent 2-3-4 series in a lineup; as a 1-2-3 series it is destined to fail, because Dunston isn’t drawing enough walks to be consistently effective as a leadoff man.

Webster solves that problem. His batting average at the All-Star break was barely better than Martinez’s: .255 to .253. Yet he had outwalked Martinez 36 to 20, making for a .354-.309 difference in on base percentage. Why were the Cubs first in batting average and fourth in homers and yet eighth in the league in runs scored at the break? Because their 202 walks were the fewest in the league–and the fewest by a wide margin. This, I believe, is the reason for these periodic run droughts the Cubs go through.

So Webster gives the Cubs the leadoff man they’ve been needing; it’s a good trade for the Cubs. Except there are significant “buts” to this trade. First, the addition of a leadoff man is minimized if the Cubs don’t give their number three and four hitters–and here I’m referring to Palmeiro and Dawson–room and another base runner to maneuver. Batting the team’s two best hitters second and third rather than third and fourth deprives them of the possibility of batting with two runners already on base, and deprives the leadoff man of certain options if he gets on base. Sandberg or Dunston should bat second–if not Mark Grace, an excellent slap hitter with the team’s best on-base percentage–so that if the leadoff man gets on the manager can do any number of things before his two big bats come up and work with whatever they’re left (runners at the corners and no outs at best, a runner on and one out, we hope, at worst).

Meanwhile, defensively Webster isn’t in Martinez’s league. He doesn’t have Martinez’s range, and he certainly doesn’t have Martinez’s arm (which Zimmer himself recently ranked with Dawson’s as two of the five best arms he’s seen in the league). Ignoring Webster’s dual muffs in his first weekend series, and discussing in and of itself Martinez’s newfound propensity this year to drop routine fly balls, I think this was the sort of aberration a manager or general manager should expect from a 23-year-old in his second full major-league season. A manager kicks the center fielder’s butt and then forgets about it, because just as the center fielder sometimes loses a game by dropping one he is also winning games by turning doubles in the gap into outs.

Zimmer’s comment on Martinez’s baserunning was that he was “timid” and wouldn’t run on the green light. What kind of horse-shit manager’s excuse is that? If a base runner isn’t running when the manager gives him the sign to run, then the manager throws that sign in the garbage and brings out the very same sign and instead of calling it a “green light” he calls it a “go” sign and if the base runner doesn’t go on that pitch he’s fined $100. Martinez is, no doubt in my mind, a timid player. Not everyone is Pete Rose. Yet he showed early an ability to respond to challenges, when Gene Michael told him to hit or go back to Iowa, he started to hit, and he wound up last year hitting .292. I think Martinez would, eventually, have become a pretty good base runner–and will yet–but we’re talking subjective rather than objective assessment of talent here, and that puts us on uncertain footing.

What’s certain is this: yes, Webster has 12 stolen bases to Martinez’s 7 this season. He has also been caught stealing ten times to Martinez’s three. That cuts Webster’s 16-walk lead in times on base over Martinez to a mere 9. There is also no doubt in my mind that if Martinez were ordered to steal 22 times he would come in with more than 12 stolen bases.

And this to the Sun-Times’s Joel Bierig, who is quickly becoming the number-one owner apologist in the city’s sports sections, and who wrote in a column that the poor response to the Martinez-Webster trade shows that the Cubs’ fans don’t want to win: the Cubs are not going to win this year. They are not going to catch the Mets and they are not going to catch the Pirates because they are not yet as good as either of those teams. The way they are going right now they are not going to catch the Expos. Mitch Webster doesn’t change that. No doubt, the Cubs could package minor-league phenoms Mike Harkey and Dwight Smith in a deal that would improve their chances of finishing first this year. No doubt, the Philadelphia Phillies would part with Mike Schmidt in a second if offered these two, and the odds are good they would throw in Kent Tekulve if not Steve Bedrosian. Yet to do so would be to mortgage the near-certain future for the uncertain now.

The Webster-Martinez trade, I believe, helps the 1988 Cubs. Perhaps general manager Jim Frey foresaw the circumstances in which a Smith might challenge Martinez for the center-field job in a year or two, and therefore made the decision that he would get something more suitable to the team’s needs now. Webster being 29 years old and Martinez being 23 doesn’t mean that Martinez is the better player, nor does it mean necessarily that Martinez has a brighter future. What it means is that Webster is a known commodity; Martinez is not. Martinez is already one of the two best center fielders in the league, but his offensive future is uncertain, and that cuts both ways. That’s what prompts the usual comparisons with Lou Brock, whom the Cubs had as a kid and then traded to the Saint Louis Cardinals. Brock’s statistics in his two seasons with the Cubs are, if anything, inferior to Martinez’s (Brock’s stolen-base total in his first full season: 16, the same as Martinez’s). Now, I’m not saying that the Cubs just traded the next all-time base-stealing champion. I’m saying that’s the gamble: not whether the Cubs will finish first this year or not (they won’t) but whether Martinez has a future as a top-quality ballplayer or not. I think he does. I think the year or two it would have taken to find this out for certain is not worth the benefits Webster brings to the team in the short run. Whatever the case, if the Cubs’ farm system doesn’t produce a center fielder to replace Webster in the next two years (Smith being the prime candidate) this was a bad trade for the Cubs.