Up, up, up they go—skirts, rents, rockets—yes, and the price of whiskey and the speed of your grandmother's jalopy and the cost of stomach operations and the Chicago Cubs and—. And the Chicago who? Now, wait just one minute. That is Wrigley Field, isn't it? Look, no light towers. Ivy on the walls. Not a billboard in the place. And that is Ernie Banks out there on first base, right? The Cubs don't change. You love them, you root for them, you laugh at them—and you lose with them. So tell me about skirts and all that, but do not tell me about the Chicago Cubs. I know about them.
Excuse me, sir, but you do not. Take a long, hard look at the National League standings. No mistake, those are the Cubs up there, fighting the Pirates and the Braves and the Giants for third place. And those are the very same Cubs that made history last year by finishing behind the Mets. Now, look out there on the field and maybe you'll see why—if they will just hold still for a few minutes. It may be asking too much. The Cubs are young. They bubble, they move and they can astound you with the things they do right—and wrong. But whatever mistakes the Cubs make now, they make them with an all-out, legs-churning, hold-on-to-your-hat approach that has had wise old heads in Chicago shaking in disbelief. Cubs bounce off walls, ignore the stop-here signs of third-base coaches and steal home for the sheer joy of it.
Coming as it has after all those years of stark inactivity (a Cub who scratched the back of his head was said to be hot-dogging it), all this energy is highly disconcerting. Will the rest of the National League regain its composure and send the Cubs kicking and screaming back into last place? Or is that really talent out there? Real, live, squirming talent? It's possible. Any team with Ron Santo at third base and Billy Williams in left field is two All-Stars ahead of the game right off the bat. What else is new? Well, try it up the middle. Catcher Randy Hundley, age 24, unwanted by the San Francisco Giants, spent his first full season in the majors with the Cubs last year and hit 19 home runs. Don Kessinger, age 24, tried switch-hitting in midseason and became one of the better hitting shortstops around. Glenn Beckert, age 25, is just this side of Bill Mazeroski as a second baseman and a .287 hitter to boot. And Adolfo Phillips, age 24, last year a moody, lonely Panamanian who was just as likely to sulk at a fly ball as catch it, has become Mr. It for the Cubs this season, at bat, in the field and, if you can get by his accent, in the clubhouse.
Then consider such starting pitchers as Ferguson Jenkins, 23, rookie Dick Nye, 22, and Ken Holtzman, 21. (You will have to consider Holtzman quickly. After winning five games without a loss this season, the left-hander marched off last weekend for six months of active duty with the Army.) In those three you have the nucleus of a staff that can go on terrifying batters for the next 10 years.
Now add Leo Durocher as the manager of all this and you know that whether it is really good or maybe not so good, it is not dull. It may come as a keen disappointment to those who love to hate Leo—those who joyfully collect and turn back on Durocher such pronouncements as "Nice guys finish last" (circa 1943) right on up to "The Cubs are no eighth-place team" (circa 1966)—but it is Leo who has gotten the Cubs off and racing in all directions.
When the news came in late 1965 that Durocher was to be their new leader, it was received with terror by the Cubs, especially the young ones who had heard all those hair-raising stories of what happened when you did not come on like Willie Mays. It was a bum rap. Leo has nothing but fondness for the eccentric, the impetuous and the young. It is middle-aged indifference that drives him up walls. The Cubs were loaded with that when Leo took over. Then crash, down came an eighth-place dynasty. The halt and the lame and the bored were sent scurrying off to other teams, and their places were filled with raw youth. For half a season, it was disaster. There were all kinds of pitches, exactly wrong, thrown to just the wrong people. "We had a 3-and-0 count on Richie Allen," Hundley recalled. "Durocher was yelling, 'He's swinging,' so what does Allen get? Fast ball. Top of the roof."
Even more galling, the Cub outfielders had an instinct for throwing and missing the cutoff man—every time. "Then we had this drill," said Santo, "and if there was any doubt before about who to throw the ball to, there was none after. Absolutely none."
In fact, if the young Cubs could find a way of turning a perfectly routine play into something terribly weird, you could bet on it. But here is where Leo surprised everyone. If the mistake was made with zest, he was patient. That's right, skeptics, patient. "We were told what we did wrong," said Beckert, "and we knew it was killing him, but he never blasted us for it."
It was midseason before the Cubs fully understood Durocher's principle of perpetual audacity. "I bet Leo would have shelled out $50 if Ernie Banks had gotten himself far enough off first to get himself picked off," said Santo. It was the safety-last approach. When in doubt, go, man, and the Cub who came balling into third late but bloody was greeted at the bench with a handshake.
The one Cub who had the pure talent for that sort of thing was Adolfo Phillips, and the man least likely to do it was, right, Adolfo Phillips. Meandering was the best way to describe the young outfielder's approach to a fly ball, and when he did get to one it was even money he would kick it. Late in the season, when the Cubs had caught the zest of winning, such indifference had Phillips' teammates demonstrably hostile. In fact, after one such butchering of a routine fly ball, a teammate nearly choked him to death in the Chicago dugout one day.
"I don't know who did what to him before," said Durocher, "but he came to us one whipped dog." Perhaps it had started way back in 1961 when Phillips came to the U.S. from Panama armed with the following vocabulary: "chicken" and "macaroni." What he wanted most was a big, fat, juicy steak. What he got was chicken and macaroni—over and over and over.
Durocher knows talent when he sees it. The problem was how do you get it out of a lonely, bitter young man. Again, surprise. If anyone was fair game for a ranting, red-faced, explosive Leo Durocher, it was Adolfo Emilio Phillips. And what did he get? Patience. Tender, loving, ego-building patience. After the season, Durocher dispatched Phillips to the Arizona Instructional League where Cub Coach Pete Reiser, who was managing there, applied more of the same.
It worked. Oh my, how it worked. This spring Phillips greeted reporters by saying: "Last year I see my name with bad words after it. This year I make you write nice things." With that, he began playing as if a small, furry demon were dogging him every step of the way. It was tonic. What the Cubs have been yearning for for years is a center fielder who will bounce off walls if need be (Phillips has done it three times thus far), run the bases with carefree abandon (he has nine stolen bases in 10 attempts, including one of home, and he would have had another steal of home last Saturday except that the pitch was accidentally fouled off) and who will conduct a full-scale war against National League pitching (he drove in six of the 20 runs the Cubs scored in that exhilarating rout of the Los Angeles Dodgers last Saturday). And even on hitless days there is no sign of a pout.
No, sir, these are not the Cubs we used to know. Nowadays a thing like a three-game losing streak is a civic calamity, and that hasn't been the case in 20 years. What, a pennant? No, forget that, for now. The Cubs are young and strong and vigorous, but it is a long way up from dead last. When games are tight and Durocher needs a strapping relief pitcher, his only hope is Dial-a-Prayer. And you cannot lose your best left-handed pitcher for the season and expect to make a run for the pennant. Not even the defending-champion Dodgers can manage that.