Cubs' Miserable Tale Is No Longer Endearing

Former National Alfonso Soriano drops a flyball in a July game at Wrigley as Ryan Theriot scampers to get out of the way of the whole mess.
Former National Alfonso Soriano drops a flyball in a July game at Wrigley as Ryan Theriot scampers to get out of the way of the whole mess. (By David Banks -- Associated Press)
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By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, August 27, 2009

Maybe the Cubs aren't quite dead, and Wrigley Field isn't officially a crime scene yet. But when the Cubs look over their shoulders, they don't see shadows, just their own outlines in chalk.

As Josh Willingham's home run off Carlos Zambrano soared over the bleachers onto Waveland Avenue on Tuesday, followed soon by a grand slam by Elijah Dukes, then another three-run blast by Willingham, the idea began to form itself: Maybe the Cubs really can go another hundred years without a world title. Start the countdown for Century II.

On Sunday, as the Cubs finished a lousy road trip in Los Angeles, Manager Lou Piniella said: "We have to get hot. We need to have a really, really good homestand. It's got to turn. It's got to get better. Just relax and don't give in to it."

Relax? The Cubs? Don't give in? The Cubs have been giving in since 1908. After losing to the Nats, 15-6, Tuesday night the Cubs fell to 62-61, nine games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central and 8 1/2 games behind the Rockies in the wild-card race.

"That was more like a Bears score," said outfielder Milton Bradley who, in Cub tradition, made quips after going 4 for 4 in a game his team lost by nine.

Said Piniella: "We've had a rough August [8-14]. What can I say?"

What can anybody say about the Cubs? For the last few years, the Tribune Co. has been, as they say in the industry, "readying the team for sale." That means create as much buzz as possible by making expensive trades and free agent signings, then hope you find a rich guy who wants a big league team to keep him busy. Last Friday, a judge said the Ricketts family, which made its money in TD Ameritrade, could buy the Cubs for $845 million. So, in a sense, the Cubs' strategy worked. They found a bigger fool.

What a collection of assets Tom Ricketts and his dad will have on their hands. Pretty ballpark -- real old, needs a new grandstand. Then there are the players: Start with Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome and Milton Bradley, three toxic outfielders with 40 homers and 131 RBI. Those would be great numbers for one player. Unfortunately, those are for the whole outfield combined. If this were a house inspection, the Cubs would have termites, mold and lead paint; you could cancel the contract.

Soriano is the prize. The Cubs spent $136 million for him after the Nats wouldn't offer him even $75 million, though he hit 46 homers and stole 41 bases in 2006. What did the Nats know? That Soriano isn't a leadoff hitter or a left fielder. Now, Soriano can't steal bases anymore, hits .240 and might need knee surgery. Good thing he has just five more years at $17 million apiece.

In baseball, bad decisions often cascade. Because Soriano contaminated left field, the Cubs couldn't afford another liability in the outfield. So they didn't pursue Adam Dunn, who has hit 22 homers in Wrigley Field in his career, almost one every other game. Instead, they signed Bradley, another guy coming off a career year, who now has 32 RBI, a mere 57 less than Dunn.

While the Cubs added players who were glamorous or exotic, such as Fukudome, they traded away ones who were valuable but boring. They dealt versatile Mark DeRosa, who's helping (curses) St. Louis. Who needs dependable Jason Marquis, who had just gone 11-9 and 12-9 for the Cubs? They traded him to Colorado, where he's leading the staff (14-8) toward the playoffs.

Who needs every example? The Cubs, with the best regular season record in the NL in '08, got desperate in the offseason after a first-round playoff choke. So they radically changed a team that probably only needed tweaking. Now, the Cubs have a $135 million payroll (behind only two New York teams with new parks) and a record so bad that they'll be an afterthought by Labor Day.

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