Three days after his first at bat in the major leagues, Chicago
Cubs third baseman Kevin Orie could recall the historic occasion
with all the clarity of an automobile-accident survivor. "What
did I do?" he wondered aloud. "Hmmm. I think, uh, I think it was
a pop-up. A pop-up to first base maybe."
Having been blindsided by the ferocious fastball of Florida
Marlins pitcher Kevin Brown, Orie's recall was understandably
fuzzy. It was his misfortune to play his first game on a day
Brown was so sharp that Orie's teammate Mark Grace declared, "In
my 11 years in the game I've never seen anybody pitch with
better stuff than that. He beat us with one pitch--one pitch
that never moved the same way twice."
Said Orie, 24, who had played all but 14 of his minor league
games below the Triple A level, "I can't say I've faced anybody
like that before. Some of the guys were telling me after the
game, 'Don't worry. Not everybody up here throws like that. It
gets better.' Well, I can't say it's gotten a lot easier."
That's because Orie's debut, as well as the start to yet another
season of Chicago Hopeless, wasn't so much an initiation as a
hazing. The 4-2 Brownout the Cubs suffered on Opening Day was
only the first of 11 consecutive games against pitching-rich
East Division powers Florida and Atlanta. In each of those
games, Chicago was scheduled to face a starting pitcher who had
won at least 15 games last year (Brown, Al Leiter and Alex
Fernandez of the Marlins; Denny Neagle, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux
and Tom Glavine of the Atlanta Braves), with two of the hardest
throwing closers in the majors (Florida's Robb Nen and Atlanta's
Mark Wohlers) ready to finish if needed. The gantlet began with
three games in Miami and then three in Atlanta last weekend,
courtesy of schedule makers who, for the first time, emphasized
warm weather sites and domes for the opening week. It was the
toughest Southern trip since Riddick Bowe checked out Parris
Island. Welcome to Hell Week.
"We knew when we looked at the schedule this would be tough,"
said Chicago general manager Ed Lynch, whose club was scheduled
to open at home against the Marlins on Tuesday and Thursday of
this week before hosting the Braves in a weekend series. "We're
playing the most improved team in the league and the best team
in the league. I know one thing: We'll find out in a hurry how
our young players deal with adversity."
Three losses into what became an 0-6 start at week's end, Cubs
president Andy MacPhail cracked, "I vote that we go back to
playing the Dodgers in the snow, wearing ski masks like last
The Cubs were aware of the difficulty of their early-season task
even before their best pitcher underwent surgery, their most
consistent hitter severely strained a hamstring and their creaky
middle infielders played defense as if their joints, not their
gloves, needed oiling. To make matters worse, the Cubs pitchers
struggled so mightily that they retired the side in order only
twice in their first 48 innings.
With those six straight losses, the Cubs matched their worst
start in 14 years--no small feat for a franchise that has had
only five winning seasons (none consecutively) in the past
quarter century. Predictably, Chicago, the National League's
worst hitting team last year, batted only .178 against the
pitching juggernaut it confronted to open the season. The trip
ended fittingly on Sunday with two losses at newly opened Turner
Field in Atlanta. The first was an 11-5 defeat in the completion
of a game suspended because of rain the previous night. Then
Maddux, who threw eight innings, and Wohlers toyed with the Cubs
as if they were just another one of the new park's many
interactive games: Chicago's 30 at bats yielded three hits and
no walks, and only seven balls left the infield.
"The best part about opening up like this," Grace said about
facing the Murderers' Row of pitchers twice to start the season,
"is that we don't have to see these suckers again for a long
time. Get 'em out of the way."
Second baseman Ryne Sandberg compared it with opening a round of
golf with "a real hard par-5." Orie agreed, expanding on the
notion: "And you can't hit your driver, so you have to go with
an iron off the tee, and you have to play that same hole over
and over again--with no mulligans."
The Cubs were thoroughly overwhelmed. They hit one home run in
their first 191 at bats of the season, did not muster a
sacrifice or a stolen base and got only three hits and no RBIs
from cleanup hitter Sammy Sosa. They also committed 11 errors.
"We do all that we can to keep things loose here," manager Jim
Riggleman said, "but for some reason we've played tight."
Chicago, a big-city team that operates with a small-market
attitude, was just as tight in the off-season. While the Marlins
were shelling out $95 million in an effort to catch the Braves,
the Cubs' most significant acquisitions were righthander Kevin
Tapani, signed to a three-year, $11 million deal, and closer Mel
Rojas, who got a three-year, $13.8 million package. Both of them
endured miserable first weeks. Tapani had to undergo surgery to
clean some scar tissue from a ligament on the back of his right
index finger, and he is expected to miss the first half of the
season. Rojas allowed four runs in his first two innings as a
Cub--or as many as he gave up in the entire second half of last
season with the Montreal Expos.
Chicago made no major additions to its regular lineup, leaving
half of the every-day jobs to players either well short of their
prime (rookies Orie and Brant Brown, the team's 11th different
Opening Day leftfielder in 11 years) or well past it
(37-year-old Sandberg and 34-year-old shortstop Shawon Dunston).
Orie did scratch out the team's only Opening Day hit--an infield
bouncer--in seven innings against Brown, but the next night he
had to face Leiter and Nen, whose heater the Cubs clocked at 101
mph, and afterward Orie had trouble sleeping.
"I stayed up through two SportsCenters," he said. "I caught the
2:30 a.m. edition. I had to fight against having negative
thoughts. I'd be lying if I said there wasn't doubt creeping
into my mind about being in the big leagues. That's the toughest
part of playing, the mental side."
Orie reassured himself in his first at bat last Thursday against
the Marlins' Fernandez, smoking a double that missed clearing
the leftfield wall by inches. But Chicago got only four other
hits off Fernandez, who pitched into the seventh inning of an
8-2 win. In Atlanta last Friday, Riggleman compassionately
pinch-hit for Orie against Wohlers in the ninth inning and kept
him on the bench against Smoltz the next day. Said Lynch, "What
you have to like about Orie is that every day he gives us
exceptional defense at third base. He's got a great temperament
too. His personality reminds me of Sandberg's. Those guys don't
seem to change, whether they're going good or bad."
Sandberg and Dunston, though game as ever, gave off an antiqued
look last week, particularly when contrasted with the Marlins'
dynamic duo of 21-year-olds, shortstop Edgar Renteria and second
baseman Luis Castillo. Sandberg, who made six errors all of last
season, committed three in the first six games. On Friday,
seemingly five outs from a 4-3 win over Atlanta, Dunston didn't
bend far enough to field what might have been a double play
grounder. It scooted under his glove for an error that led to a
But the night may be best remembered not for the Braves'
comeback but as the beginning of the Theme Park Era of baseball.
While the field and seating bowl of Turner Field are pleasant,
though uninspiring, the park's most distinctive feature is
hidden from view behind the centerfield scoreboard: a
carnivallike plaza containing all those interactive games.
It's not as if the Braves aren't an attraction themselves.
Before Friday's game they received their 1996 National League
championship rings, which are inscribed FIVE STRAIGHT LEAGUE
CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES. FOUR OUT OF FIVE WORLD SERIES. The Cubs,
meanwhile, stood on the third base line like kids with their
noses pressed against the window of a toy store at
Christmastime. The only active player on the Cubs who has
appeared in a World Series game is Terry Mulholland, whose
Opening Day loss marked his first regular-season game in a
"I guess jealousy is a word that comes to mind," said Grace, the
one Cub who looked good in the early going, with five hits in
his first 10 at bats before he, too, ran into trouble, landing
on the 15-day disabled list after straining his right hamstring
while running out a triple on Thursday. The Cubs have been in
such a prolonged down cycle that Grace is the only player in
baseball who has been with one team through the '90s and never
finished within 10 games of first place. At week's end Sandberg
had gone 2,035 games without a World Series appearance (the
longest such run in baseball), Grace had gone 1,300 and Dunston
1,228. They are as luckless and loyal as their franchise
forefathers: Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ron Santo, who
combined to play 6,867 games with Chicago, none of them in the
Series. The club has not reached the Fall Classic since 1945 and
not won it since 1908.
Said Dunston, who re-signed with Chicago after one year with the
San Francisco Giants, "I'm a Cub. That's why I came back. When
they showed interest in me, I knew instantly where I wanted to
be. If I never get to a World Series, I won't let it bother me.
When I'm finished, all I want is to be able to say I played my
hardest. I did my best. It's more important for me to be the
best father I can be than to say I played in the World Series.
You've got to put it in perspective."
Dunston and the Cubs, like their faithful fans, have learned how
to handle defeat. On Friday, as Chicago struggled to find its
way around the Turner Field clubhouse, Orie yelled out, "Where
are the bats?" Said Dunston, fresh off a 1-for-11 showing in
Miami, "Don't ask me. I ain't seen mine for three days." And
when the Cubs issued a release regarding Grace's trip to the DL,
Dunston read it aloud in the clubhouse with some judicious
editing: "With Neagle, Smoltz and Maddux pitching and the
Marlins and Braves coming up again next week, Mark Grace will
sit on his .500 average. The Colorado Rockies? Mark Grace will
return to the lineup then."
By the time the Cubs face that less daunting Rockies staff,
beginning on April 15, they might be dangerously close to
burying themselves the way Boston did last year with a 3-15
start. "We can't give up," said Sosa on Sunday. "It's only six
games, and we'll get better. We're not going to face pitching
like this all season, and we're not going to make mistakes like
this all season. It has to get better."
So far the impression left by the Cubs has been no different
from the first plate appearance by Orie, which resulted not in a
pop-up but in a strikeout. It's been completely forgettable.