The night the lights go on at Wrigley Field—Aug. 8—the Chicago Cubs, if not their sun-loving fans, will be ready for prime time. Considering that the club finished in last place last season and was picked by many for the cellar again in '88, this fact should carry no less shock value than a finger inserted into a socket of one of Wrigley's new megawatt light towers. But thanks to some bright young talent, the Cubs are, yes, contenders.
This timely coming of age is attributable largely to three players: righthander Greg (Mad Dog) Maddux, 22, whose 13 wins at week's end tied him for first in the majors; leftfielder Rafael Palmeiro, whose .319 average was third best in the National League; and first baseman Mark (Amazing) Grace, 24, who made veteran Leon Durham expendable. But they are only part of the Wrigley youth movement. Four fifths of the starting rotation are under 26, and the roster houses more homegrown talent (11 players) than it has in years. Shortstop Shawon Dunston, a three-year vet, is quick to remind people that he's just 25—and he finally has a peer group in the clubhouse. "It's good to play with guys when you know what they're thinking," says Dunston. "Even if they're smarter than you, they can't be much smarter."
It's a little scary to think what might happen if the young Cubs get much better. Consider last week, when they cruised into L.A. to take on the Dodgers, the NL West leaders, who were on a roll of their own. Boom. Cubbies win two out of three games, as Grace drives in six runs, one of which was the game-winner on Sunday. Or take Chicago's 5-2 win over the NL East-leading Mets recently at Wrigley. Lefty starter Jamie Moyer, 25, and reliever Les Lancaster, 26, held the New York bats in check. Switch-hitting backup catcher Damon Berryhill, 24, knocked in one runner and threw out another. Palmeiro jerked a game-tying solo homer. And Grace's two-out, two-run triple in the eighth provided insurance runs. The next day, with the Mets leading 1-0 in the sixth, a Palmeiro single, a Berryhill single and a Dunston single fueled a six-run inning and a 6-3 win. Oh, yes, the key hit was a single by centerfielder Dave Martinez; he's 23.
The Cubs' recent surge—they have won 13 of their last 17 games—has boosted their record to 43-36, and a collapse like last season's is not imminent. "These guys seem to have had less experience," says wise old reliever Goose Gossage, 36, "but they seem to act more experienced."
Mature on the field, perhaps, but still callow in the clubhouse. Moyer and Maddux recently held a shave-off to see who could put the most stubble in the sink, but the results were too minimal to call a winner. Maddux lugs a Nintendo video game system on the road, and half a dozen Cubbies often stay up playing with it until 2 or 3 a.m. Even second baseman Ryne Sandberg joins in. "It's a little childish, I guess," says old man Sandberg, 28.
The man who has raised these kids is Gordon Goldsberry, a 60-year-old bespectacled gent with silver hair and a gentle voice. A scout for 22 years, Goldsberry was put in charge of revamping player development by Dallas Green when Green became Chicago's general manager in 1981. Goldsberry merely rewrote the club's scouting and instructional manuals and replaced half the scouting staff with young, hungry part-timers. "I went into Dallas's office three or four times to resign," says Goldsberry. "He just laughed."
Dunston was Goldsberry's first choice in the June draft of '82. From '83 to '85 he picked up six more current Cubs. Goldsberry trained his scouting troops to interview potential draft choices with a battery of questions culled from professional mind-probers. "We ask kids if they were interested in being a class officer—something non-paying that shows they want to do a little extra," Goldsberry says. Such lines of inquiry in '85 netted Palmeiro, who had slipped as a junior at Mississippi State after having had a sensational sophomore year. "Our scout came away saying this guy knows what he can do, knows what he wants to do and knows how he wants to get there," says Goldsberry.
When Palmeiro, the 22nd choice in the draft, made the majors in '86, he showed immediately that he also knew how to hit. In his first 29 at bats every swing made some kind of contact. When Mets ace Dwight Gooden finally slipped a fastball past him, Palmeiro homered off him on his next trip up. But in his own mind, Palmeiro has a long way to go. "Most of the times I get out it's my fault," he says. "I get myself out and that's when I get mad." In Double A he used to become so upset with himself that he would soak his cap in mud and wear it onto the field.
Palmeiro, a lefthanded batter, has a wrist cock at the start of his cut that at first seems the fuse for some explosive action to come. Instead, an almost serene stroke follows. "If I could have a swing," says an admiring Grace, "it would be Raffy's." Palmeiro's swing has been compared with Rod Carew's, but since college his looks have been likened to those of Keith Hernandez. "At least he's not a bad-looking guy," Palmeiro says of the Mets' first baseman.
Grace, who admittedly idolizes Hernandez, looks nothing like him. Grace has short blond hair, pink cheeks and eyes that are pools of green. He has some similarities to Palmeiro: Both hit lefthanded, use the entire field and are nearly impossible to fan and even harder to walk. "Having two contact hitters that young on the same club is unusual," says Cub manager Don Zimmer. "But I don't know how to teach a walk."
"Hitting to all fields is something I take pride in," says Grace. "When you're one-dimensional, you're easy to defense."
A 24th-round pick out of San Diego State in '85, Grace began this season in Triple A Des Moines, where he slumped badly. But when Jim Frey, who replaced Green as G.M. in November 1987, went out to watch Grace, the kid went 10 for 18 and made four spectacular fielding plays in five days. Two weeks later, Durham was dealt to the Reds. Since coming to the bigs, Grace has hit .303—and batted 1,000 in personal public relations. Chicago Sun-Times sportswriter Dave van Dyck recently showed Grace a letter from a fan who said he could never like the young first baseman because he spit too much. A few days later, Grace informed van Dyck that he had ceased expectorating altogether.
As much as the no-K kids have helped the team, a Maddux redux has been even more vital. One of just two Cub pitchers with a winning record, Maddux is 13-3 in 16 starts, with a 2.16 ERA. That's after a rookie year of 6-14, 5.61. Last winter, however, Maddux went to Venezuela and pitched for a team in Maracaibo under Cub coach Dick Pole. Pole had a hunch it would pay off. "Greg's the kind of kid you have to convince all the time," he says. "But I figured after he lost 14 games he would be more open to suggestion." Pole resurrected Maddux's confidence in his curveball and changeup. "And his fastball," says Pole, "does something different every time."
While growing up in Las Vegas, Maddux learned that by throwing at a lower, three-quarter arm angle, he could make his ball do unusual things. But his tenacity came naturally: He is 4½ years younger than his brother, Mike, who now pitches for the Phillies, and as a kid Greg wanted to keep up. "For his age, Greg is probably as supremely confident and supremely competitive as anyone around," says Goldsberry, who selected Maddux in the second round of '84.
"We're still new to the game, still learning what it takes to win," says Maddux. "We come up just happy to be here, but when that wears off you start thinking about winning." Moyer (5-7, 3.17 at week's end), with a little more support, could be an eight-or nine-game winner by now; the league is hitting just .238 against him. Jeff Pico, 22, has already thrown a shutout. Lancaster is being groomed as the stopper of the future. The new youth crew has helped lop almost a run off the team ERA of '87. And the veterans have taken notice. With a 7-5 record and a 4.28 ERA, Rick Sutcliffe is even contemplating a night of Nintendo. "If that's what it takes," he says.
What it usually takes to bolster a young pitching staff is defense, and Chicago's ranks near the top of the league. For that the Cubs can thank a ripened Dunston. When Zimmer took over before the season, he claimed Dunston as his project. "I told my coaches in spring training, "Nobody else monkey with him,' " says Zimmer, who felt that Dunston suffered from excessive advice. Zimmer's patience seems to be working. Through June 26 Dunston had raised his fielding average to a league-high .978, and at week's end his batting average was .305. "People have said I'm out of control and I don't think enough to play shortstop," says Dunston. "It takes some people more time to mature. I'm mature now."
Meanwhile, the really mature Cubs are doing more than baby-sitting. Former MVPs Sandberg and Andre Dawson, 34, are heading for All-Star berths, and third baseman Vance Law, 31, is off to a career start. "I'm getting the same feeling that I had in '84," says catcher Jody Davis, 31, referring to the last year Chicago won the NL East. Despite the age differences, the team has come together; for a recent off-day golf outing, 21 of 24 players showed up. "These guys don't make me feel any younger when every day they're asking, 'Who's the oldest guy around?' " says Dawson. "My comeback always is, 'Just make sure you stick around this long.' "
Says Zimmer, "I've got a pretty easy job. These guys are easy to manage. They get along, they play hard." And apparently they're not burdened by the Cubs' dreary history. Second-year man Martinez offers this thoughtful assessment of Chicago's budding organization: "It's like Harry Caray says every day: 'Cubs win! Cubs win! Cubs win!' " Well, not every day, but more often than not. And for Cub fans, that's a lot.