For 38 years, the Chicago Cubs have been America's playthings. Lots of jokes. No pennants.
But in the first two weeks of June, the Cubs won seven straight games, then 10 of 13, to climb within a sniff and a holler of first place in the National League East.
The jokes have stopped and there is even premature talk of a pennant.
"I've heard every joke there is about the Cubs. I used to tell 'em myself when I was with the Phillies, but no one's kidding about the Cubs now," said shortstop Larry Bowa.
That's because the Cubs have one of the league's top relievers in Lee Smith, one of its best catchers in Jody Davis and one of the leading double-play combinations in Bowa and Ryne Sandberg. Moreover, they have practically doubled their home run pace of a year ago.
All this with a pitching rotation that has only one complete game, and with practically no playing time in June from their best hitter, Leon Durham. The only contribution the outfielder was able to make in the victory streak was scoring the winning run from second base against the New York Mets June 9. And, while running all-out to beat the throw home, Durham aggravated a hamstring pull and went on the 15-day disabled list.
"Just when we were going good," he said.
"This is what I have been waiting for since I've been with the organization. I wanted to be out there for 162 games, without any distractions. Now, I've got to go through spring training again."
Jay Johnstone, 37, stepped in to take Durham's place and hit his 100th major league home run to help win a game. It cost him $100 for swinging through a 3-0 "take" sign, but "it was worth it," he said. "It was too good a pitch to pass up."
The Cubs were passed by everyone early in the season. They lost their first six games and dropped to a 6-17 record before an emergency all-night meeting in a San Diego hotel May 6.
General Manager Dallas Green had made up his mind before going into the meeting not to fire second-year Manager Lee Elia, who had railed against the Cubs' long-suffering fans the previous week.
"I talked to people who are knowledgeable about baseball, including some players whose opinions I value, and they all felt it wasn't Lee's fault," Green said. "The players just weren't playing up to their capabilities."
After the lengthy evaluation session, the Cubs began to use their potential, but slowly.
Ron Cey, the slowest starter and the highest paid athlete in Chicago--$4.75 million for five years--started hitting. So did Bill Buckner, who batted .306 with 105 RBI last season.
Only Keith Moreland hit consistently before then. A catcher-left fielder a year ago, now playing right field, Moreland has led the team in RBI from the beginning of the season. Many of his hits have come with two outs.
Davis didn't begin hitting well until he went on a three-week home run binge. Starting May 20, he hit eight, with a grand slam last weekend in Wrigley Field against the St. Louis Cardinals. A crowd of almost 40,000 cheered, "Jody! Jody! Jody!"
"I don't know why they did that for me. Maybe my name is easier to chant than the others'," said the unassuming Davis, who is tied with the Dodgers' Steve Yeager for most homers by a catcher (10).
Many men were tried in the leadoff slot, but none produced until brash Mel Hall returned from a six-week layoff he took after breaking a thumb. He reached base his first at bat in six straight games, then vowed that he had time to catch Greg Brock of the Dodgers and Gary Redus of the Reds in the race for rookie of the year.
"We felt all along we had a good team," Elia said. "But due to some terribly bad weather at the start and other things like the injury to Hall, we couldn't get on track."
If complete games are a criterion, the starting pitchers haven't gotten started. "But if you are winning, complete games don't matter," Elia said.
Fergie Jenkins, who didn't win in seven weeks, finally finished one he started by shutting out the Cardinals, leaving the Cubs five games short of the major league record for futility: 74 incomplete games by the 1977 San Diego Padres, who had Rollie Fingers in their bullpen.
But the Cubs have Smith in their bullpen. Tied for the league lead in saves with nine, he has a 95-mph fast ball.
All the Cubs ask of their starters is that they get into the seventh inning so Bill Campbell, Mike Proly or Warren Brusstar can set up Smith in the ninth.
The starters are doing just that. Chuck Rainey, acquired from the Boston Red Sox, surprisingly is 7-5, and has already equaled his 1982 victory total.
Steve Trout, from the White Sox; Dick Ruthven, from the Phillies, and Craig Leffert, from the farm system, have pitched well during the streak.
Meanwhile, the fans appear to have forgiven Elia. At the last home game, many were seen wearing "Elia For Mayor" buttons.