"What good is money if it can't inspire terror in your fellow man?"
--C. Montgomery Burns, "The Simpsons," "Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk" (1991).
As we watched the Cubs clobber the Washington Nationals on a TV at U.S. Cellular Field on Sunday afternoon, a wise man told me the three-game series between the Cubs and Phillies would be a valuable measuring stick to guess the immediate future of the Cubs, a team so close to the NL Central lead yet so very, very far from being, well, good.
Sometime around the time Raul Ibanez hit a three-run homer that put the Phillies up for good in the first inning Monday, I found myself easily distracted.
One of my favorite Simpsons episodes was on, the 1991 classic when Mr. Burns sells the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant to the Germans. But wasn't this Cubs game more important, especially to someone who is paid to write about sports?
Then again, this was hardly an average episode. The Cubs would have to make the World Series to make me turn this one off.
Given their current state of affairs after their 10-1 loss to Philadelphia, I'd say the Cubs are more likely to find Homer Simpson's mythical Land of Chocolate ("Chocolate half-price!") than an equally fantastical World Series berth.
I found the episode's message relatable to the Cubs, and not just because Alfonso Soriano plays left field the way Homer inspects safety. The sarcastic heart of the story comes at the end, when Mr. Burns realizes that wealth and time do not buy him happiness because no one, not even the scourge of Sector 7G, is scared of a powerless despot. Which kind of sounds like the Cubs: the rich, powerless despot of the NL Central.
Burns sold his power plant for $100 million. The Cubs spent $35 million more than that to build this lineup. Given the team's inability to build any kind of momentum, which figure seems more comedic?
Sure, the Cubs came into the game only two back of division leader St. Louis and 2½ back of NL wild-card leader San Francisco. They may very well win a diluted Central if they can fight off St. Louis, Milwaukee and a resurgent Houston, but Monday's game doesn't portend victory cigars and playoff rotations.
On Monday, Old Reliable Ted Lilly, gimpy knee and all, got rocked early, and the Cubs couldn't pick him up at the plate or in the field, where Soriano highlighted another teamwide shameful defensive effort by dropping an easy fly ball during the Phillies' four-run fourth that put this one away.
The Cubs, who started Micah Hoffpauir in right, are trying their hardest to put together the worst defensive outfield in the city (or perhaps in baseball), which isn't easy considering the White Sox are throwing out Carlos Quentin, Scott Podsednik and Jermaine Dye.
The Sox outfield makes up for a lack of range with functional defensive IQs and, of course, doubles, home runs, RBIs, runs, you know, the kind of meaningless statistics that allow teams to win games.
Not that it really mattered. Lilly, the Cubs' only All-Star, didn't have it against a slugging lineup in a hitter's park. He gave up nine runs, seven earned, on two homers and eight hits overall, in just four innings. At least Soriano picked up three hits, half the team's total.
It was only one game of this supposedly prophetic series, but I've seen enough. As currently constructed, this Cubs team is ineffectual, overpriced and ultimately irrelevant. There is little depth, little defense and a surprising lack of offensive firepower, the one thing you overpay for.
Fresh off their four-game domination of Washington, a team that is an amazing 16-31 at home, the Cubs have the misfortune of facing Philadelphia, now the winner of nine in a row and probably one of two front-runners for Toronto ace Roy Halladay.
The World Series champion Phillies have a payroll commensurate to that of the Cubs (about $130 million if you count the money owed to former players Adam Eaton and Geoff Jenkins), but they've made it past a so-so start to build a sizable lead in the NL East.
Free-agent pickup Ibanez (.315, 25 homers, 68 RBIs) has been a revelation for the Phillies, as opposed to the outfielder the Cubs chose to pay big bucks to, who has been more of a devastation.
Slump-weary Milton Bradley (.239/6/21) is sitting again as Lou Piniella tries to work his magic on struggling Bradley's left-handed swing. You might recall that Bradley got a respite to hash things out with new hitting coach Von Joshua, all the way back in the waning days of June.
A day before the All-Star break, a newly confident Bradley told reporters to "Mark it down. I'm gonna be hitting for the rest of the year." Two hits in 12 at-bats later, the 31-year-old veteran is doing some remedial post-grad work at the Loubonne and grousing to traveling beat writers, "We're going to work, like I've been working all year and continue to work."
In case you missed it, Bradley wants you to know he's been working all season. I believe him. Unfortunately, he's not getting any results, and he knows better than me. That is why he's making $30 million the next three years.
Sadly, Bradley isn't the only multimillionaire outfielder who needs a private hitting coach.
According to Cubs.com, Kosuke Fukudome's Japanese hitting coach Kyosuke Sasaki was flown to Philadelphia to work with the hitter. Sasaki was in uniform Monday. Fukudome hit .169 in June, prompting fears he would have another nosedive at the plate. He's hitting better in July, but a little extra coaching couldn't hurt him.
Pretty soon, the term "College of Coaches" might have to make a comeback. Not that they'll make a difference. The season's not over and the Cubs may very well make a run, but Monday didn't give Cubs fans much hope.
At the end of the aforementioned Simpsons episode, the hardworking Germans realize the power plant is in a state of utter disrepair (like Wrigley Field) and sell it back to Burns for half the original price. Maybe the Cubs aren't Mr. Burns. Maybe they're the nuclear plant, overpriced and cracked.
I found myself wondering whether prospective Cubs owner Tom Ricketts caught this episode and found any parallels. Then again, maybe he wouldn't want to. He's going to spend almost $900 million on the Cubs, and he won't be able to return this purchase. Be careful what you wish for, Tom.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.