The Chicago Cubs' annual slide to oblivion, otherwise known in
the Windy City as the unofficial start of summer, seemingly
began last Thursday. After leading 7-1 in the sixth inning, they
lost to the Philadelphia Phillies 8-7 on a day when the Chicago
first baseman allowed the winning run to score on a double
error, the rightfielder slipped on his way home with the
would-be tying run and the usual spate of angry postgame callers
to a local radio station included the losing pitcher. No one had
invented a way of coughing it up so suddenly since Heimlich.
Moreover, the Cubs carried a four-game losing streak and six
defeats in seven games into a series in which the best team in
the National League, the Atlanta Braves, would start three
pitchers with a combined record of 21-4. "Excruciating," said
Chicago manager Jim Riggleman. He meant the defeat, not the
prospect of 110 more games.
This is an article from the June 8, 1998 issue
The first day of the rest of the season, however, dawned
implausibly brilliant. Judging by the 38,010 people who jammed
Wrigley Field last Friday afternoon and the hundreds who watched
from atop surrounding apartment buildings--about 13,000 more
than had witnessed Thursday's debacle--it was a good day to call
in sick. Many fans wore T-shirts that read WE'VE GOT WOOD, or
waved K cards, or hung the cards on lines along the rooftops
like Chinese lanterns. Oblivion never looked like this.
"You're as good as your next day's pitcher," Riggleman said,
which explains how Wrigley Field could be so juiced about a team
struggling to keep its head above .500. Righthander Kerry Wood
had the ball. Yesterday was ancient history. The Cubs were going
"There's a special buzz around the ballpark when he pitches,"
says Chicago general manager Ed Lynch. "It's like a carnival, a
happening. The players sense it. Everyone knows it when they
come to the park--Kerry's pitching today."
Wrigley has become the Wood Shed, where a 6'5", 225-pound
20-year-old who's still growing is taking a buzz saw to the
culture of losing in Cubsville. In just nine starts Wood has
made the summer meaningful in Chicago and placed himself in the
city's alphabet of athletic icons. What Singletary did for the
D, Jordan for the J and Rodman for the T, Wood has done for the K.
In seven innings Wood punched out 13 Braves, blowing the last of
his 126 pitches past a guy who eats fastballs for lunch,
lefthanded Ryan Klesko, with two men on and lefthander Bob
Patterson throwing superfluously in the Chicago bullpen. "I'd
gotten myself into that situation," Wood said, "and I wanted to
get out if it."
Wood makes anything possible. Trailing Braves lefthander Tom
Glavine 2-1 in the eighth, the Cubs rallied for a 5-3 victory,
with the winning runs scoring in the 11th on Brant Brown's first
major league home run off a southpaw, rookie John Rocker. The
next day Chicago beat Kevin Millwood (7-1 entering the game)
9-8, when Matt Mieske hit his first home run with a man on base
since August 31, 1996. Mieske was playing rightfield only
because Sammy Sosa had hurt his left thumb on Thursday when he
slipped and fell between third and home. On Sunday the Cubs
completed the sweep with a 4-2 win.
That victory gave the Braves their first four-game losing streak
this year. It also left Chicago with a 31-24 record a bit more
than one third of the way through the season--their best such
start this decade (chart, page 67). "What are you getting at, 90
wins?" said shortstop Jeff Blauser about Chicago's pace. "We
can't think that way. For a team like the Yankees or Braves,
they can look that far ahead. We have to have smaller goals."
For an organization that's coming off a last-place finish with a
league-worst 94 losses, that hasn't finished within a dozen
games of first place in the 1990s, that has won 90 games only
three times in the previous 52 years, consider this one small
but noteworthy achievement: June matters. Never mind the Astros,
who had a two-game lead over Chicago in the National League
Central. For a change, the relevance of the Cubs' season has
survived the end of the Bulls'.
"I know among the fans there's this sense of waiting for things
to go bad, based on 90 years of history," Lynch says, referring
to the longest championship drought in U.S. major sports. "We
know they come to have a good time at a beautiful ballpark, to
be treated well by very professional ushers and to enjoy the
experience. But we want to add the expectation that the Cubs are
going to win."
Lynch enhanced such expectations among his fans and his players
over the winter when he added middle infielders Blauser and
second baseman Mickey Morandini. Acquired in a trade with the
Phillies for outfielder Doug Glanville, Morandini was hitting
.333 at week's end, 65 points above his lifetime average. While
Blauser has struggled (.236) after signing as a free agent, he
did rake his former Braves teammates for three hits last
Saturday--he also ended that game by turning a line drive into a
double play with runners at first and second--and has become a
leader in the Chicago clubhouse. "These wins were bigger for us
than the losses were bad for them," Blauser said after
Saturday's game. "It's a grain of salt for them. If they win,
it's just another win for them. There's no such thing as just
another win for us."
Lynch's other key winter additions were Henry Rodriguez, the
Cubs' 12th Opening Day leftfielder in 12 years, and righthander
Rod Beck, the closer for the San Francisco Giants' National
League West winners last year. Beck, known to frequent North
Side taverns after games, seems a perfect fit for Chicago. He's
a shot-and-a-beer guy, even if the shot sometimes is as stiff as
the one Atlanta's Curtis Pride belted into the bleachers last
Friday to tie the game in the ninth inning. It was Beck's second
blown save in as many days, after he started 14 for 15. After
the Cubs squandered Thursday's lead--first baseman Mark Grace
kicked and threw away a grounder while Beck failed to cover
first--Beck was driving home when he heard a radio commentator
blame his corpulence for the meltdown. He was so angry he
telephoned the studio.
"This is Rod Beck," he said.
"Yeah, right," came the response. "Prove it. Where did you play
your first pro season?"
"Medford," Beck replied. He was patched onto the air to voice
"I don't mind abuse if I deserve it," he said later, "but I was
No addition to the Cubs has created more of an impact than Wood,
who in his past six starts, through Sunday, was 4-0 with a 1.50
ERA and 69 strikeouts in 42 innings. Chicago had won all six of
those games. He had been even more phenomenal at the Wood Shed
over that span: 3-0, 0.96, 49 strikeouts in 109 at bats against
him. Not bad for someone who was pitching for Grand Prairie High
in Grand Prairie, Texas, just three years ago.
"I followed Dwight Gooden in the rotation in 1984 with the
Mets," says Lynch, recalling--does this ring familiar?--when
another phenom's arrival erased a defeatist tradition. "I wanted
to prove I was a winner, too. When that team lost, we didn't
hang our heads. We were angry. And that's the way Kerry is."
On May 23 in Atlanta, the Braves nicked Wood for three runs in
six innings in a game the Chicago bullpen won 10-6. Chipper
Jones and Andres Galarraga hit back-to-back home runs for the
Braves, on a fastball and a hanging slider, respectively. Says
Wood, "I don't want to say I was intimidated facing them the
first time, but I was a little timid. I threw about 45 percent
Last Friday, upon facing Atlanta for the second time in seven
days, Wood adjusted, especially against Galarraga. "He's got
slider bat speed," says one Cub. "We always say don't throw him
a slider for a strike. He's not going to catch up to that good
Wood threw almost nothing but fastballs at Galarraga, who before
a first-pitch pop-out in the seventh struck out three times. He
saw 13 pitches in those at bats without ever touching the ball;
he looked at four balls and three strikes, and swung and missed
six times. After the game a humbled Galarraga said to his
manager, Bobby Cox, "I blind today, Skip." Of course, Wood also
showed the best hitting team in the league a hellacious
curveball so wicked it's tough to follow, let alone hit.
"Greg Bonin told me it's hard to stay with that pitch," said
Cubs catcher Scott Servais, referring to last Friday's home
plate ump. "Umpires haven't seen anything like it. You know the
way the Braves pitchers can expand the strike zone on the
outside corner? Kerry is one of the only guys who can expand it
vertically. He stretches it up and down because of the drop on
Says Blauser, "Put it this way. You almost never hear major
leaguers concede anything. Someone will say about Kerry, 'Man,
that curveball's unhittable.' You just don't hear hitters talk
"He's for real," Cox says, "and so are the Cubs. They're capable
of winning the division, and Wood's the kind of pitcher who
could take over in a postseason series."
Wood has so stabilized the Cubs that they are neither looking
for starting pitching nor keeping watch over their manager, two
traditions that have been around Chicago longer than deep-dish
pizza. Steve Trachsel (6-1 through Sunday) and Kevin Tapani
(7-3) have prospered behind Wood in the rotation. As long as
Riggleman resists the temptation to overwork Wood, who threw a
professional high of only 151 2/3 innings last year and until
his 20-strikeout performance on May 6 had never completed a
professional game, he will become the first Cubs manager to last
four full seasons since Leo Durocher (1966-71).
Chicago may strike out too much (7.2 per game, third in the
league) and could use another reliever and another bat,
especially at third base, where Kevin Orie flopped and was sent
to the minors. But, Lynch says, "I believe we're good enough to
win the division with the club we have now. We've got to prove
it. If we prove we belong in the race and there's a player out
there in July--and the cost isn't too high in terms of giving up
talent--I believe money will not be an issue."
Meanwhile, fans light up the Wrigley switchboard wanting to know
when Wood is scheduled to start at home. Grace, the last link to
the Cubs' 1989 division title, is energized by hearing for the
first time Wrigley fans roaring in anticipation at two-strike
counts. "It's awesome," he says. "You get excited behind him."
Summer crackles with relevance in Chicago. Is there a better
definition of a stopper than that?
SLOW STARTS, BAD FINISHES
Uuntil this year the Cubs' best record in the 1990s through one
third of a season was two games better than .500, which helps
explain why they've finished over .500 only twice in the decade.
Year START GB PLACE Finish GB PLACE
1998 30-24 3 2nd ?-? ? ?
1997 22-32 5 4th 68-94 16 5th
1996 23-31 3 T3rd 76-86 12 4th
1995 25-23* 6 2nd 73-71 12 3rd
1994 14-24* 10.5 5th 49-64 16.5 5th
1993 26-28 12.5 5th 84-78 13 4th
1992 23-31 7.5 6th 78-84 18 4th
1991 28-26 7 4th 77-83 20 4th
1990 22-32 12.5 6th 77-85 18 T4th