|Can't anyone here play this game?|
By Phil Rogers
Special to Page 2
CHICAGO -- This isn't a cry for pity. Consider it more of a plea for empathy.
Put yourselves, for a few moments, in the shoes and insulated wool socks of a Chicago sportswriter. The dilemma, as I've come to understand it, is this: What do you want to be?
A constant grump who writes that the sky is falling and is reasonably accurate? Or an optimist who tries to persuade readers to remain open-minded to the possibility that something nice might actually happen?
We're not talking real, real nice, like the championships that were won unexpectedly by the New England Patriots and the Anaheim Angels. We're talking a pleasant little buzz, like the White Sox winning a playoff series or the Cubs experiencing the joys of back-to-back winning seasons.
The first hasn't happened since the 1917 World Series; the second since Joe Pepitone was a pinch-hitting option for Leo Durocher.
The safest bet would be to follow the advice passed down through the generations -- if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. But then Chicago newspapers would contain more pictures than National Geographic.
Personally, I err toward believing that just because Chicago's two major league baseball teams have lost 14 consecutive playoff series, they aren't doomed to lose a 15th straight. That, of course, is the same wishful thinking that led me to predict the wild-card Cubs would upset Atlanta in 1998 and that the White Sox would beat wild-card Seattle after winning a league-high 95 games in 2000.
Both teams were swept. Naturally.
To be a Chicago sportswriter who sees a glass as half full is to willfully perpetrate fraud on readers.
Few years have brought deeper disappointment to the sports fans of our city than 2002. It's hard to remember now but anything seemed possible back in February.
The Cubs and White Sox were going to spring training coming off winning seasons in 2001. The Bears were heading toward the free-agent signing period and the draft after a surprising 13-3 season that had ordained Brian Urlacher as the second coming of Dick Butkus and Dick Jauron as a reasonable facsimile of old Stoneface, Tom Landry.
Following a 2001 trade for Fred McGriff, the Cubs signed Moises Alou as a free agent. The 3-4-5 combination of Sammy Sosa, McGriff and Alou was a hot topic. The White Sox had seemingly improved by trading a trio of indistinguished young pitchers for workhorse Todd Ritchie.
It wasn't enough that I brayed about how the Cubs were certain to have back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since the Ernie Banks-Billy Williams-Ran Santo era teams did it six years in a row from 1967-1972. I also forecast a successful season for the White Sox, which would give Chicago's baseball teams back-to-back winning years at the same time, a feat that -- believe it or not -- has not happened since 1936-37.
Maybe the pressure was too great.
The Cubs self-destructed early, with the McGriff-Sosa-Alou combination striking little fear in April and May. Jon Lieber, a 20-game winner in 2001, blew out his elbow. Todd Hundley fried his brain and flipped off fans in his hometown. Don Baylor was fired and eventually so was Bruce Kimm, who had replaced him.
Even Sosa caught the bug this time. He seemed a lock for 500 homers after smashing 10 in a 10-game stretch in August. But he limped to the finish, hitting only six after Aug. 17. The year ended with him at 499. So much for the special section.
On the South Side, the White Sox got off to a 15-7 start and then went flat. An 8-18 stretch that extended into late June dropped them behind Minnesota. There were few complaints from fans when the front office held another of its semi-annual purges before the trading deadline.
As for the Bears, the team that won with defense and good bounces in 2001 led the NFL in only category -- injuries. They started 2-0 but then unraveled, losing 12 of their final 14 en route to a final record of 4-12
Because Jauron received a contract extension in January, few could even work up the energy to call for his head. Offensive coordinator John Shoop served as a whipping boy as fans looked forward to top-five draft pick that might finally bring a first-division quarterback.
Only in Chicago could a baseball team have a better young quarterback than the NFL franchise. Mel Kiper figures White Sox outfielder Joe Borchard could have gone in the first round of the 2002 draft had he stayed at Stanford for his last two seasons.
Because Jauron wanted to hang onto the unfortunate Jim Miller, he looks to the future without a kid quarterback. Even No. 3 man Henry Burris is 27. It's a shame Borchard couldn't have offered his services instead of spending his winter with the Mayaguez Indians in Puerto Rico.
Even though it's coming up on five seasons since Michael Jordan nailed the jumper against Utah that should have been his walk-away piece, our Bulls remain in an eternal stage of rebuilding. They've lost more than three games for every one they've won since MJ took his ball and went home. No wonder it seemed like Christmas came early when they went 6-2 in one recent stretch.
Then there are the Blackhawks. They've gone to the Stanley Cup finals once since 1973 and last won one in 1961. Chicago fans cheered their return to the playoffs for the first time in five years, even if they were immediately bounced out.
Hey, in a year in which Paula Radcliffe could have been Chicago's Sportsperson of the Year, a first-round loss in the NHL playoffs qualifies as our moment in the sun.
Paula Radcliffe? She's the Brit who set a women's world record in the Chicago Marathon. Unless you were wrapped in your own foil blanket, that feat probably didn't send shivers up your spine.
But new years bring new hope. That's true even here, where sporting dreams so often come to die.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a web site at www.chicagosports.com.