As a spectator sport, baseball is a game that exists in the creases between plays, something I couldn’t help noticing as I returned to it following the Bulls’ long playoff run. Sure, there’s the impression Cal Ripken makes with the fluid way he fields a grounder and throws to first. Yet baseball comes to life in its fringes–the calm, threatening confidence of Frank Thomas standing erect at the plate and waving the bat past his head, or Ryne Sandberg spitting into his glove every few pitches and rubbing it in. Last weekend the Houston Astros came to town, and their shortstop, Andujar Cedeno, made a nice play on a ball that bounced off the glove of third baseman Chris Donnels and right to him. Cedeno scooped the ball up and, flat-footed, made a lightning throw to first; but what stuck in the mind’s eye was the way that after slinging the ball across the infield he turned his head away and didn’t even bother to watch the runner nipped at the bag–a hot dog’s gesture of insouciance that made a great play a little more stylish.
Still, my favorite between-play moment of the season has to be whenever Randy Myers enters a game from the bull pen. The Cubs’ new closer has a cartoonish sort of slow-motion gait, part swagger and part trot. He looks like Popeye the sailor transported into a Ren & Stimpy episode, or–sticking to reality–like an 18-month-old boy trying to run with a load in his pants. He then comes in and blows the other team away. I’ve loved Randy Myers since he came into the league with the New York Mets, and to see him saving games now for Cubs–back in peak form after an abysmal season two years ago with the Cincinnati Reds and an uneven campaign last year with the San Diego Padres–is the summer’s most consistent source of sporting joy.
So, as Myers laboriously trots in from the bull pen, let’s take this chance–and the All-Star break– to catch up with our baseball teams. Myers has earned all 27 of the Cubs’ saves this season and has blown only two save opportunities. He has been one of the few bright spots for the Cubs. No, wait, that’s not quite right. The Cubs, in fact, have had a number of pleasant surprises this year; they outnumber their misfortunes, when one actually gets down to counting them. Yet the Cubs haven’t translated them into success. The All-Star break finds the Cubs tied for fourth in the National League East, 141/2 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies and, really, out of the race. Yet Mark Grace is having a career year at first base, batting .332 with 60 runs batted in. Sammy Sosa has become the star general manager Larry Himes always expected him to be, hitting 17 homers with 51 RBI and a .264 batting average. Rey Sanchez and Jose Vizcaino have both hit well while filling in for the injured Sandberg, Steve Buechele, and, alas, Shawon Dunston, who has yet to return from back surgery and who may never return. And Derrick May and Rick Wilkins have both developed into productive major leaguers, hitting .300 with some power.
So why have the Cubs struggled?
The answer is in the starting pitching, but not merely the pitching. Having lauded the Cubs’ hitters, we have to hand out a few demerits before we start whacking the team’s pitchers. It’s true, the Cubs are third in the league in both batting average and home runs, but they are tenth in runs scored. How can that be? They are 11th in on-base percentage. The Cubs remain a team that all but refuses to take a walk, they can’t find a leadoff man to get on base even a third of the time, and it’s hurt them.
The starting pitching has been a mess, and not only because the rotation has been racked with injuries. Promoted to ace and thrown up against the league’s best pitchers, Mike Morgan has come up short, falling to 6-9. Greg Hibbard, Mike Harkey, and Jose Guzman have all shown flashes, but have suffered from both injuries and inconsistency. And Frank Castillo has simply stunk. Has pitching coach Billy Connors lost his touch? It’s more likely that the pitchers have fallen victim to the team’s poor fielding, especially in the outfield.
It’s true the Cubs are steady fielders and have been near the top of the league in fielding percentage all season. Yet fielding percentage is no indication of range, and the range of the Cubs’ outfielders and infielders is not all that great. The Cubs have resorted to playing Dwight Smith in center field for much of the season, but that’s a mistake–Sosa would make a better center fielder. But neither Smith nor May has the arm to play right and make the long throw to third base. Free-agent acquisition Willie Wilson was supposed to play center, but he has been by turns moody and inept.
What’s worst, though, is that the Cubs seem listless on the field. They have little team speed to make things happen on the bases; they refuse to walk, so they never get anybody on base to begin with; and their defense, while steady, rarely makes the eye-opening play that turns the momentum of a ball game. Unlike the startling Philadelphia Phillies, who made themselves into colorful contenders by dutiful, savvy acquisitions, and unlike the Saint Louis Cardinals, who have rebuilt from within–especially with young pitchers–the Cubs seem directionless. The temptation is to look at their batting statistics and think their record should be much better, but the fact is it could be much worse–and it may get to that level before the end of the season.
The White Sox have the exact opposite record of the Cubs–still no great shakes at 45-41–yet they find themselves in first place at the break in the American League West, a division marked by mediocrity from top to bottom. The last-place team, the Minnesota Twins, is eight and one-half games back, closer than the second-place Atlanta Braves, nine games behind the San Francisco Giants, in the NL West. Yet the same sort of ennui prevails on the south side as on the north. Jack McDowell won his 13th game last Sunday; Alex Fernandez has 10 wins and Wilson Alvarez 8. Fernandez and Alvarez, two question marks at the beginning of the season, have proved to be resounding successes, providing the team with the second and third starters it needed. Yet Kirk McCaskill has been miserable, and the fifth spot in the rotation has been a hole throughout the year. Roberto Hernandez has proved it was no fluke that he replaced Bobby Thigpen as the team’s closer, but Thigpen again has struggled, and this year he’s been joined by Scott Radinsky. Unlike the Cubs with Myers, the Sox can never count on being able to get the outs they must.
Even with the Sox in first place, there’s an aspect of disappointment and bitterness about the club, in part due to the mighty-have-fallen decline of Thigpen and his offensive counterparts, Steve Sax and George Bell. Bell may yet come around– he’s a notorious streak hitter, and he has always put up the numbers in the past–but Sax is a white elephant. He is hitting .214 at the break, and his fielding grew so bad in spring training that he was exiled to the outfield. In addition, the team is aware that in dealing Melido Perez and then-minor-league-phenom Bob Wickman (now 8-3 in the bigs) to the New York Yankees for Sax, they crippled their pitching staff and denuded their farm system.
The other reason for the sour taste to this year’s White Sox, I believe, is the Carlton Fisk situation. Fisk stuck around in order to break Bob Boone’s mark for games caught in a career, but there was little glory or enjoyment to be derived from it–for him, the team, or the fans. Like Pete Rose, Fisk overstayed his welcome for egotistical reasons, and to set a record considerably less noteworthy than Rose’s mark of career hits. Fisk’s last two seasons were marked by diminishing returns at the plate and in the field, and by increasing acrimony between himself and management. It might be too strong to say he poisoned the team, but he was certainly an unwelcome distraction. Now, like the crusty New Englander he is, he goes home to live out his retirement begrudged and embittered.
Of course, there have been bright spots too. A team can’t get to the All-Star break in first place without a few successes. Tim Raines has continued his resurgence of last season, and Lance Johnson and Joey Cora have hit well while playing splendid–if less than perfect–defense. Ozzie Guillen and Ellis Burks both returned to form following career-threatening injuries, Burks while adjusting to Chicago after being signed as a free agent over the winter. Ron Karkovice has ended his apprenticeship under Fisk and emerged as a finished product. And Thomas, more muscular than ever, remains the game’s top young slugger, even if he also remains slightly muscle-bound in the field.
Yet the brightest spot of all remains Bo Jackson. He returned from having an artificial hip installed to claim a rightful spot on the roster, and he hit a pinch homer in the Sox’ home opener–the baseball moment of the season, no doubt about it. It’s amazing to think of what’s going on inside that leg when he swings or runs–really, it’s almost incomprehensible–and that he hasn’t yet played 600 major-league games and is still learning his craft while trying to overcome this hindrance. It doesn’t matter whether the Sox are winning or losing, by how much or how little, I love to see him come to the plate, the way he grabs the barrel of the bat and bounces the handle off the ground and back into his hand. Are those the moments that make baseball the sublime game that it is, or is it that with the Cubs and the Sox looking apathetic and laggard, one comes to appreciate and seek out what little beauty there is? That’s a question more and more baseball fans are asking, and I’m not sure we want to know the answer.