To a muscular chorus of boos that seemed fueled as much by bile as by beer, the man who spoiled Chicago's civic holiday trudged off the Wrigley Field mound last Friday. Of course, for two decades almost every Cubs game has been a nine-inning block party, but Opening Day at Wrigley still quickens the pulse and lightens the wallet in a significant, albeit ceremonial, way. That explained the visceral disappointment of 39,892 cynics when, with two outs and two strikes, closer LaTroy Hawkins failed to finish off Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Lyle Overbay, who roped a double down the leftfield line that sent Junior Spivey home with the tying run. The final score--Brewers 6, Cubs 3, in 12 innings--was a mere coda to the torrent of ninth-inning jeers. Welcome to the city of broad shoulders and slim patience.
Of course, aware that their favorite team hasn't won a World Series since five years after the Wright brothers' first flight and having seen every other hard-luck case line up for a trophy in the past 12 months--Phil Mickelson wins a major, Roy Williams gets an NCAA title and the baseball team in Boston sorts out its own accursed past--you can hardly blame Cubs fans for asking, When is it our turn?
Mercifully, Chicago evinces little of the obsessiveness that afflicts Red Sox Nation, but when centerfielder Corey Patterson and first baseman Derrek Lee were booed during slow starts last season, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry noticed that the Friendly Confines were transmogrifying into the Edgy Confines. Things got worse. While the Cubs were failing to put away National League laggards like the Mets and the Reds in September, sour grapes made it onto the menu at a stadium that had generally served comfort food for the baseball soul.
Second baseman Todd Walker, who along with shortstop Nomar Garciaparra played for the Red Sox before joining the Cubs and appreciates the culture and lore of both teams, now can hardly tell the difference between the two. "Here for the longest time people just enjoyed the baseball, a beautiful day at Wrigley and all that," Walker said after Friday's loss. "That's changed. You're going to get booed here now if you don't do well. It's become identical to the Boston mentality."
Now in their 97th straight rebuilding campaign, the Cubs have raised the bar--and that has nothing to do with the Cubby Bear or Sluggers or any of the other watering holes that make Wrigley the epicenter of baseball's biggest beer garden. They have become a full-fledged, big-budget, whatever-it-takes team (though with an iffy bullpen and a shortage of outfield power, the $87 million payroll is not big enough for some tastes). Their near-pennant experience in 2003 and a wild-card run that screeched to a Roadrunner-like halt last season have stripped them of the conceit of lovable losers for at least a generation. This year's middling start--through Monday they were 3-4--has done nothing to soothe the new crankiness. The Cubs have roving catching instructor and former Red Sox manager Grady Little in the organization (talk about karma) and Chicken Little in the stands. The sky is indeed falling.
Hawkins embodies the simmering mix of hope and angst. The righthander came to Chicago as a bulletproof setup man last season, but the hitters he seems to close out handily in the eighth inning tend to haunt him in the ninth. He coughed up a pair of one-strike-from-victory save situations down the stretch in 2004, and last Friday, after Overbay did him in and leftfielder Todd Hollandsworth juggled the ball in the general vicinity of where Steve Bartman was sitting that infamous night during the 2003 National League Championship Series, well, it seemed like a case of déj√† voodoo. Hawkins, who blew nine saves last season, will keep the job at least until righty Joe Borowski returns from a fractured ulna, probably sometime next month.
A steadfast closer is hardly a luxury on a team with playoff ambitions, of course, but the Cubs' staff has been built front to back. "The way we're set up," Hendry says, "[Kerry] Wood and [Mark] Prior are going to have to make their starts and perform successfully. We need them to have seasons like 2003 [when they combined for 62 starts], which didn't happen last year. When you think that we had just 14 wins from the two of them, it's amazing we were in it as long as we were."
The two righties, when healthy, stand with the Braves' Tim Hudson and John Smoltz and the Astros' Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt as the best pair of power pitchers in the league. The problem is, lately their ERAs have been less compelling than their MRIs. Last season Prior missed two months with elbow tendinitis and Wood two months with tendinitis in his right triceps. Their truncated springs this year--Prior had elbow inflammation, Wood a stiff back and shoulder bursitis--were alarming for a team that simply can't afford another Blue Cross Special. Prior gave up five runs in the first inning of a minor league rehab start last Thursday, but he was scheduled to start on Tuesday against San Diego. Wood was pushed back to the fourth game, the home opener, in which he struck out seven (and walked five) in 5 2/3 innings and emerged, for the moment at least, with a clean bill of health.
A healthy Wood is not the only welcome change in Wrigley these days. This is not Sammy Sosa's team, nor his town, anymore. During last Saturday's 4-0 win over the Brewers, which featured 7 1/3 innings of one-hit mastery by righty Carlos Zambrano, a banner in the rightfield bleachers callously asked, SAMMY WHO? It seemed as if Sosa had not been traded to Baltimore so much as expunged. His old locker belonged to 33-year-old utilityman Jose Macias, owner of 25 career home runs. For the first time in 13 Cubs home openers rightfield was manned by another player: Jeromy Burnitz, a droll 35-year-old who did not sprint Sammy-like to the position but rather took a heavy-legged trot, charming the bleacher denizens with a doff of his cap.
Sosa hit 66 homers in the glorious summer of 1998, but he slipped to 35, with a mere 80 RBIs, last year. The general disillusionment that began with cork spraying out of his bat on June 3, 2003, was compounded by his waning production and his griping about his slide in the batting order; it was cemented when he bolted early from the Cubs' final game last Oct. 3. There wasn't even a memorial shard left from his clubhouse boom box, destroyed by unidentified hands that day in a not-so-subtle gesture that put an emphatic end to his salsa music.
There will always be noise around the Cubs, though, and not just celebrity renditions of Take Me Out to the Ball Game during the seventh-inning stretch. But if LaTroy Hawkins pitches the ninth like Sadie Hawkins, this season will be the start of a brand-new bray.