At Wrigley, Misery Springs Eternal

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.

Everywhere you look on the North Side, there's turmoil. This is a team that paid $52 million to a pitcher (Ryan Dempster) who broke a toe jumping the dugout railing to celebrate a win; he missed a month as a result. Has zany Zambrano outlasted his welcome? He just came back from the DL after back spasms that he said came from being "lazy." For $91 million, you can't do your sit-ups?

Will Piniella be back in 2010 to finish the last season on his deal and end his career? Probably. Will GM Jim Hendry, who obeyed orders to gussy up the team, be the sacrificial billy goat? He was told to win a Series, bag a $1 billion price for the team then stick the next owner with the long-term contracts. It worked pretty well, except the Series part. If Hendry's gone, who among the usual suspects (including the Nats' Stan Kasten) might replace him?

Every century or so, perhaps the whole romantic idea of the Cubs needs a rethink. As a kid, I carried an Ernie Banks baseball card and fell for the black-cat 1969 team. I was there in '84, when the grounder went past Leon Durham's glove in the NLCS. The night the lights went on in Wrigley for the first time, I watched it rain -- and grinned when they said, "Game canceled."

Minutes after Steve Bartman botched the foul ball in '03, I was on the phone from the Fenway Park press box making a plane flight to O'Hare at dawn to see the final act of the Cubs' latest disaster. And, last October, when the Cubs were down two games to the Dodgers, I bit the apple again; what a perfect time, I wrote, for a Cub postseason comeback, akin to the Red Sox in '04. The perfect springboard to grab a title.

Maybe we've been wrong, both the true Cubs fans and the rest of us casual sorts. Once, Mike Epstein, who hit 30 homers for the old Nats, said he had few memories of D.C., but remembered his two seasons with the A's vividly, especially the '72 championship season.

"Hunters say that the only interesting guns are accurate," Epstein said. "Maybe the only interesting teams are champions."

If true, then more people have wasted more time obsessing over the Cubs than any team in American sports. Generation after generation, the Cubs offer the same redundant cautionary tales. Don't give huge contracts to fat pitchers who won't do sit-ups or leadoff men who never walk. Don't hire a manager, famous for his fire, after he's mellowed. Don't do this; don't do that. But the Cubs keep doing it, yet sell out every game anyway.

In Wrigley Field these days, the bile is so deep in the aisles that the cleanup crews need HAZMAT suits. At what point do Cubs fans, and the rest of us, say, "This just isn't interesting anymore."

We're probably not there yet. But you can see it from here. Another century, and we're done with 'em.

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