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Bottoms Up In a first half full of surprises, none has been more shocking than the rise of the Cubs, Phillies and Twins to the top of their divisions

July 16, 2001
July 16, 2001

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July 16, 2001

Bottoms Up In a first half full of surprises, none has been more shocking than the rise of the Cubs, Phillies and Twins to the top of their divisions

One September night in 1984, in the moments after the Chicago Cubs
clinched the National League East title in Pittsburgh with a win
over the Pirates, Cubs faithful flocked to the streets around an
empty Wrigley Field to celebrate. Among the spirited parishioners
was a 17-year-old kid from the suburb of Lockport who would grow
up to be a Cub himself. "I was one of the wackos in the street,"
says Ron Coomer, now 34 and an infielder for the team. "I know
how important it is to Cubs fans when we have a winning team. I
spent many days sitting down the leftfield line at Wrigley. Now,
when I drive to the park, I have to pinch myself to believe I'm
playing for the Cubs. As for Cubs fans, yes, we're very loyal. I
can attest to that."

This is an article from the July 16, 2001 issue

Winning seasons by the Cubs are like solar eclipses. They seem to
arrive out of nowhere, occur infrequently and inspire pagan
celebrations. In the 28 years since Leo Durocher managed his last
game for the Cubs, Chicago has won more games than it lost five
times, never in consecutive seasons. The spoiled Cubs fan is a
genus that doesn't exist in the sports kingdom.

A baseball season like this one, then, in which the Cubbies
(51-35) reached the All-Star break leading the National League
Central, qualifies as a surprising one. But wait. There's more.
The Philadelphia Phillies (50-37) and the Minnesota Twins
(55-32), two franchises that approach Chicago's futility in
recent years, also hit the nominal halfway mark in first place in
the National League East and the American League Central,
respectively. It's a harmonic convergence the likes of which, if
it is maintained until season's end, baseball has never seen.

A season with a surprise team is common. One with two surprise
teams is rare. One with three surprise teams, especially former
sad sacks such as these, and you're talking planetary alignment.
The Twins led the American League in losses last year, with 93.
The Phillies and Cubs tied for the most in the National League,
with 97.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Mariners (63-24) deserve commendation as a
surprise team of a different sort. It's not because they salted
away the American League West title way back in May--the Mariners
did come within two victories of the World Series last year--but
because they are winning games at such an astonishing rate and
because they are doing so after losing All-Star shortstop Alex
Rodriguez, who departed for a 10-year, $252 million deal with the
Texas Rangers in the off-season. The Mariners restocked by
signing second baseman Bret Boone (page 58), setup man Jeff
Nelson and Japanese rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki, all of whom were
named to the All-Star team. Seattle hasn't lost three straight
games all season. After a blistering 47-12 start, the Mariners
cruised to the break on a more pedestrian 16-12 run. That still
left them within range of the major league record of 116 wins,
set by the Cubs in 1906, before Wrigley Field or their reputation
as lovable losers had been constructed.

"It's great for baseball, absolutely," says Coomer about the
first-place standing of the Cubs, Twins and Phillies. Coomer had
played his entire six-year career as a major leaguer with
Minnesota until it cut him last December because, after driving
in 82 runs, he priced himself off the team. The Cubs are paying
him $1.1 million, and he is batting .276 with five homers and 30
RBIs. Says Coomer, "So much has been made over the past few years
about team revenues that it's good to see that if you make the
right decisions, regardless of payroll, you have a chance to
win." (In fact the Cubs, with a respectable $65 million payroll,
started the season ranked 15th among the 30 major league clubs.
The Phillies, with $42 million in salaries, were 24th, and the
Twins, with a paltry $24 million, were dead last.)

It's the kind of season only a commissioner couldn't love--a
commissioner, in this case Bud Selig, who argues that a gross
competitive imbalance exists in the sport and who is trying, in
the last year of a collective bargaining agreement, to forge a
new economic system based on that assumption. Truth is, the
baseball world today turns around more quickly than ever.

Until 1990, only seven teams in history had won 90 games in the
season after they'd lost 90 games. However, just as many teams
have done so in the nine full seasons since then. Never before
have three teams turned the trick in the same season, as the
Cubs, Phillies and Twins threaten to do this year. Such teams,
many owners argue, cannot sustain success. But the ease of player
movement through free agency and trades has made the turnaround
season easier to accomplish. "Yes, I think you're capable of
accelerating recovery and turning it around more quickly,"
Phillies general manager Ed Wade says. "You can do it if you fill
holes and show patience with young players."

The Twins, while quiet in the off-season (no stampede to the
ticket window followed the signing of backup catcher Tom Prince,
their only addition), are reaping the benefits of sticking with a
core of youngsters who gained experience through losing seasons.
(Minnesota hasn't fielded a winning team since 1992.) In 2000,
for instance, righthander Joe Mays had a 7-15 record with a 5.56
ERA. The Twins, though, still gave him the ball for 28 starts and
threw in some remedial work at Triple A Salt Lake City. This
season he's blossomed into an All-Star with an 11-5 record and a
3.02 ERA.

Even if Mays, 25, and his main rotation mates, lefty Eric Milton,
25, and righty Brad Radke, 28, have never pitched a meaningful
late-season game in the majors, they give Minnesota the look of a
team with staying power because they consistently pitch deep into
games. That threesome has combined for 38 quality starts (at
least six innings with no more than three earned runs), three
more than the New York Yankees' titanic trio of Roger Clemens,
Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina has produced.

The Phillies and the Cubs have gotten reliable starting pitching
too, but improved largely because they fixed bullpens that were
awful last season. After replacing easygoing manager Terry
Francona with intense Larry Bowa, Wade took heat for seeming to
overpay in signing three vagabond relievers, righthanders Ricky
Bottalico (one year, $1.5 million) and Jose Mesa (two years, $6.8
million) and lefthander Rheal Cormier (three years, $8.75
million), but the moves have helped Philadelphia to a 16-9 record
in one-run games, tied for the best mark in the National League.
The Phillies lost a major-league-high 35 games by a single run
last year--their seventh consecutive losing season--while winning
25.

"Coming out of last season we felt we had a better ball club than
what we showed," Wade says. "Then we addressed the bullpen as a
priority. You have to be a little surprised by what we've done,
but I don't think we've overachieved. We don't have a bunch of
guys having career years."

Like Philadelphia, the Cubs added two well-worn relievers, lefty
Jeff Fassero and righty Tom Gordon. The pair has 26 saves and a
2.66 ERA between them, while righties Kyle Farnsworth, 25, and
Courtney Duncan, 26, have emerged as valuable strikeout pitchers
in setup roles. "What frightened me last year was getting to the
eighth inning," says second-year Cubs manager Don Baylor. "We
couldn't hold a lead. It got to where I'd be thinking, What the
hell is going to happen today? We'd boot a ball, and then
somebody would hit a three-run homer. You could almost book it.
This year my starters give me seven innings, sometimes more, and
we have the people in place to call in."

Fassero, 38, is pitching for his fourth team in three years.
Primarily a starter throughout his 11-year career, he has found a
niche in the bullpen. "Lou Piniella told me in spring training
he's a 35-pitch guy now, and that's it," Baylor says, referring
to Fassero's former manager with the Mariners. Fassero had such
an uneven spring training that Baylor pulled out Weaver on
Strategy, a book by Earl Weaver, Baylor's manager with the
Baltimore Orioles, to make sense of it. "Earl wrote that in
spring training with veterans, you have to ask, Are they done or
do you give them the benefit of the doubt?" Baylor says. "That's
where I was with Jeff. I thought he should get the benefit of the
doubt."

Just before Opening Day, Baylor found himself in need of a closer
after Gordon (signed for two years and $4 million as a free agent
after not pitching in 2000 because of a torn elbow ligament)
strained a muscle in his right arm. Then one day Baylor's wife,
Becky, said to him, "You know, I saw Cathy Fassero, Jeff's wife.
She said Jeff's always wanted to close." Baylor and pitching
coach Oscar Acosta had considered Fassero for the role--they liked
his splitter and saw velocity returning to his fastball when he
was used in short appearances--and the message from Fassero's wife
clinched it. Fassero responded with a club-record nine saves in
April.

Cubs general manager Andy MacPhail also made two successful
low-profile additions to a rotation in which every pitcher now
has a winning record. Free-agent righthanders Julian Tavarez
(6-5) and Jason Bere (6-4) have added depth to the trio of
righties already in place: first-time All-Star Jon Lieber (11-4),
Kevin Tapani (8-6) and Kerry Wood (8-5). Those five have been so
durable that they've started all but one of the Cubs' 86 games.
They have also been so good that they've compensated for an
offense that averages 4.7 runs and has been outscored by every
National League team except the New York Mets, Pittsburgh, the
Cincinnati Reds and the Montreal Expos.

Last July, MacPhail, the former Twins G.M., added the general
manager's duties to his position as Cubs president after Ed Lynch
resigned. MacPhail has remade the team while waiting for a
long-dormant farm system to contribute. Forty-four players who
were in the Cubs' 2000 spring camp or who played for them last
season are no longer in the organization. MacPhail's patchwork
has held just fine. Still, he has been trying for weeks to trade
for another hitter, even with third baseman Bill Mueller,
outfielder Rondell White and catcher Todd Hundley due back from
injuries in the next month or so. Likewise, Wade is hunting for
an experienced pitcher for his bullpen or rotation, and Minnesota
general manager Terry Ryan would like an experienced hitter for
the second half.

To see the Cubs, Phillies and Twins in a second-half shopping
mode, rather than preparing to dump players, is a surprise in
itself. The three franchises have had winning records in the same
year only four times--and not since Adolfo Phillips, Don Lock and
Ted Uhlaender, respectively, patrolled centerfield for those
clubs back in 1967. "It's much more fun than last year," said
Cubs rightfielder Sammy Sosa after a 13-4 drubbing of the Mets
last Thursday. "Winning changes everything."

Sosa's ever-present boom box blared merengue music in the tiny
visitors clubhouse at Shea Stadium last week. Through 192 Cubs
losses over the past two seasons, the box had an effect like
Captain Queeg's marbles, and some teammates chafed at Sosa's
apparent insouciance. Even Baylor said he could not help but
notice how Sosa and first baseman Mark Grace, whom the Cubs
allowed to leave for Arizona as a free agent after 13 years in
Chicago, "kept to different ends of the locker room."

"It hasn't been bad this year," Tapani says of Sosa's penchant
for playing clubhouse deejay. "He's actually mixed in some other
stuff, like maybe a little Michael Jackson. Once in a while,
after a tough game, somebody might nudge [the box] to make the CD
skip. But nobody really minds. Some of the stuff I'm even
beginning to like. Winning's great, isn't it?"

The happy music raged on as the Cubs slipped on their sport coats
for a trip to Detroit, where they would take two of three games
from the Tigers before the break. The clubhouse had the feel of a
party. A surprise party.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER You can't go home again As the Cardinals' Jim Edmonds found out the hard way, runs have come grudgingly against Joe Girardi and the Cubs.COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN GREEN Sound all around Acquisitions such as Tavarez (opposite) have transformed the Cubs' staff, while hitmaker Sosa has produced big noise on the field and off it.COLOR PHOTO: NUCCIO DINUZZO/CHICAGO TRIBUNE/AP [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Worth the wait Scrappy second baseman Marlon Anderson of the Phillies (below) and .316-hitting Doug Mientkiewicz of the Twins, both 27, have rewarded their clubs' patience.COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Hard to handle For infielder Desi Relaford and the stumbling Mets, wins (and sometimes grounders) have been elusive.
"If you make the right decisions, regardless of payroll, you
have a chance to win."
The ease of player movement has made a turnaround season easier
to accomplish.