Cubs’ pitcher Sean Marshall had thrown two perfect innings in an early-March spring-training game in Mesa before coming to bat in the bottom of the second inning with runners on first and second and one out. He tried to bunt the runners along but instead put the ball in play in front of home plate, allowing the catcher to start an easy double play. On his way back to the dugout, Marshall was roundly booed.
Okay, it was a bad bunt, but a barrage of boos? In a spring-training game? After the young lefty had set down six batters in order? Clearly, this is going to be an unusual Cubs’ season.
If you’ve been a Cubs’ fan for any length of time you’ve known two things. One is that your favorites are hopelessly and eternally doomed. The other is that to survive with such knowledge you have to take pleasure in small things, like the occasional victory or brilliant individual performance. Having a realistic outlook is what Cubs’ fandom is all about. Life, too, mostly.
But here we are in the year 2009 C.E.—101 years past the last Cub “world” championship—and the paradigm seems to have changed, as the eggheads would put it. The 2007 Cubs won their division and made the playoffs. Last season’s team did that and led the National League in victories (with 97) to boot. Despite our boys’ post-season swoons both years, that’s heady stuff. A period of rising expectations is at hand, and it won’t be pretty.
I’m not saying that Cub fans will become like those in, say, New York or Philly, ready to boo the Easter bunny if one of his eggs is cracked, but it could get close to that. No matter how well the team does this term it will be judged a failure if it doesn’t make it to at least the seventh game of the World Series. Every Cub strikeout with runners in scoring position will be seen as unforgivable, every error a betrayal, every two-game losing streak a disaster. Cub players had better line their caps with aluminum foil because if the going gets tough the Wrigley Field vibes will make their fillings ache.
The contrast with past attitudes will be marked. Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ron Santo never have had to buy themselves a drink in Chicago even though the best they ever did in their long Cub careers was finish second, and never a close second at that. Heck, Jose Cardenal was a fan favorite just because of how cute his cap looked perched atop his afro (what kept it on, bobby pins?). This season will be bottom-line driven, with less wiggle room than in a worm hole.
Making things better (or worse) is the fact that the Cubs again seemed primed to do well. There are four proven veterans in their starting-pitching rotation when most other teams have two or fewer, and their eight-man lineup appears similarly well fortified. The Milwaukee Brewers, their main divisional rival the past two seasons, have lost without replacement their two top starting pitchers, and the St. Louis Cardinals, the division’s longtime masters, also are in decline. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds remain mired in Small-Market Hell, leaving only the Houston Astros to contend. If the Cubs can’t beat out the Astros they’ll deserve whatever obloquy they get.
But the Cubs being the Cubs, there are reasons to worry. One of their Big Four starters—Carlos “Big Baby” Zambrano—needs steam vents in his hat, and another—Rich Harden—comes stamped “Fragile” and “Remove After Five Innings.” Lou Piniella is the only man in the world who thinks Alfonso Soriano should bat leadoff, and the bullpen has been stocked largely with so-so vets acquired in the hope that one or two of them have something left.
The Cubs’ biggest off-season move was the signing of Milton Bradley—for a handsome $30 million over three years-- to fill the right-field hole that’s existed since Sammy Sosa’s 2004 departure. Bradley’s left-handed bat fills a widely perceived Cub need, and it’s hoped his “edgy” personality will make the Cubs less cuddly, but his injury history makes his availability suspect and a better word to describe his personality might be “nutsy.” In the latter regard it’s noteworthy that the main objects of his considerable wrath over a checkered career haven’t been opposing players but umpires, his own managers and—yes—fans who didn’t suitably appreciate his efforts.
The mix of the combustible Bradley and the newly critical Cub faithful could be explosive. One can easily imagine Milton having a bad day, being booed by the right-field bleacherites, and scaling the ivy to attack them.
Stay tuned. It’ll be interesting.