Okay, who stole the Chicago Cubs? Come clean and nobody gets hurt -- like, for instance, Cubs fans, who have spent the first 2 1/2 months of the season wondering if someone slipped a mickey into their Old Styles. Since when do the Cubs lead the division in June? Since when does the ivy at Wrigley Field get second billing? And hasn't anyone in that clubhouse heard of the Curse of the Billy Goat?
Seriously, we're going to need to see some ID from these guys. Where's Brant Brown? What happened to Joe Amalfitano? Who sewed up the holes in the gloves? Who put hearts under those pinstripes?
For the first time in decades, the Cubs have a rotation that's not trying to break the record for Most Home Runs Landing on Waveland. The bullpen doesn't come in three flavors: regular, unleaded and kerosene. No finger-pointing. Just a lot of group hugs, backslaps and, well, bubblelicious feelings. "Everything here is peace and love," says group leader Sammy Sosa.
Sosa says this as Teodoro Reyes does the bachata thing on the clubhouse stereo. Across the aisle pitcher Julian Tavarez sits in front of his locker with his old man. Second baseman Eric Young walks in wearing a blue bandanna, and someone jokingly starts with the "Ray Lewis! Ray Lewis!" chant. Reliever Flash Gordon is saying, "I've always dreamed of wearing a Cubs uniform." Any more relaxed, and these guys will start roasting marshmallows and telling ghost stories.
"It's awesome to look in the paper and see us up there in first," says catcher and resident dude Todd Hundley. "That's the fun part of it."
It's amazing, that's what it is. This is a franchise with a 93-year history of belly flops. Cubs fans are used to looking at the standings from the bottom up, not the other way around. Losing made the Cubs more lovable and ancient Wrigley Field more adorable.
Now this -- the reincarnation of 1908, of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance defense, of quality pitching, of timely hitting. Cubs followers don't know whether to believe or wait for another train wreck, like the one in 1969, or '84, or '89, or '98.
Here's why the doubters might want to keep their ticket stubs. Just last week, the Cubs are hitless and trailing Evil Empire St. Louis, 3-0, in the bottom of the seventh ... and somehow win to earn a rare sweep of the Cardinals. A day earlier Kerry Wood walks six, is all over the place ... and pitches a two-hitter for the victory. The night before that, Julio Zuleta, the team's resident sorcerer, delivers a pinch-hit grand slam in another win. As if that weren't enough, earlier in the day USC pitcher Mark Prior plops into their lap with the No.2 pick in the annual amateur draft.
Name it, the Cubs have done it. Pitched back-to-back one-hitters. Won 12 in a row. Made a cult hero out of the Panamanian Zuleta, who "feeds" the Cubs' bats with fruits and veggies before the game and then assembles them just so in the dugout. They've climbed to first despite little production from hometowner Hundley or the centerfield spot ... despite not having closer Flash Gordon for the first month and losing quarter-season team MVP Bill Mueller to a fractured left kneecap ... despite watching Sosa get pitched around on a daily basis ... despite an eight-game losing streak that dropped them seven games in the standings ... despite being the Cubs.
Nobody's sure how it started or how long it will last. All anyone really knows is that the Cubs finished 30 games out of first last year, which is why you could have used manager Don Baylor's forehead as a dormroom hot plate. Heads rolled during the off-season, even the one belonging to career Cub Mark Grace, whose forced departure prompted his agent to snipe, "They're not a team -- they're a tourist attraction."
Only eight of the 30 Cubs who were on the 2000 Opening Day roster (including the DL) were retained. The roster rototilling continued all through the spring as Cubs president Andy MacPhail, armed with some extra spending money from the Tribune Company and the savings from Grace's $5.2M salary, went shopping. He did a Creatine job on the pitching, adding veteran relievers Jeff Fassero and Gordon and starter Tavarez. He made a $100M run at lefty free agent Mike Hampton. He signed starter Jason Bere and catcher Hundley, as well as third baseman Ron Coomer. He traded for third baseman Bill Mueller, first baseman Matt Stairs and relievers Manny Aybar and Mike Fyhrie. AMac also signed Sosa to a four-year, $72M contract extension.
MacPhail sometimes looks like a guy who should have a plastic pen protector stuffed into his shirt pocket, but he comes from baseball royalty and won two World Series while running the Twins. Like Baylor, he had just about had it with warm and fuzzy. "It's hard to wake up happy," says MacPhail, "when you've had the kind of years we've had since June 1999."
June 1999? Try October 1908. That's the last time the Cubs won a World Series. They haven't been in the Series since 1945, when Chicago tavern owner William Sianis and his pet goat were turned away at the Wrigley gates. Too smelly, the Greek was told. So Sianis put a curse on the team and fired off a telegram to team owner P.K. Wrigley when the Cubs lost the Series. You can find it now in a black frame behind the bar at the legendary Billy Goat Tavern. Owner Sam Sianis, William's nephew, is all too happy to recite the telegram's single line: "Who smells now?"
"Curse?" says Hall of Famer Billy Williams, the Cubs' first base coach. "Hell, no, I don't believe in a curse. I believe in good ballplayers performing when the pressure's on. Forget a billy goat. Forget a damn animal. If we believe that, we're going to believe in fairy tales. But it's mind-boggling that we've waited this long. It's been so long, people don't think it's going to happen."
Then again, the Cubs haven't had a rotation quite as deep as this one: Jon Lieber, Kevin Tapani, Wood, Tavarez and Bere. They haven't had a bullpen this good at protecting the starters' work, with no blown leads of three or more runs (through June 9). And they haven't had a staff that gave up fewer than a homer a game and, 2? months into the season, was on pace to break the major league record for most strikeouts.
Wood, 24, is the centerpiece. More than two seasons removed from reconstructive surgery on his right elbow, the former Rookie of the Year is as close to his prescalpel nastiness as he's ever been. He still throws enough gas to heat a Wrigleyville brownstone all winter. His curve still has an overbite, and he's added a changeup, which doesn't seem fair. The only concession to his elbow is the slider he used in 1998 to strike out 20 Houston Astros. "Back then it was a big sweeping slurve, and it's why I have this," he says, raising his right arm so you can see the surgical scar.
"The hitters will tell you," says Rick Kranitz, assistant pitching coordinator. "That game against the Brewers, he was as good as the 20-strikeout game." Adds Hundley: "What he can make a baseball do is just scary sometimes. Against the Brewers, it was sick."
It doesn't stop there. Lieber, who has a one-hitter of his own, might be the most underrated player on the Cubs. You could win a bar bet with this one: Who led the NL in innings pitched last year? Lieber.
Meanwhile, Tapani is on his way to a 1998-type season, when he won 19 games and the Cubs earned a wild-card spot. Tavarez, who began the year with only 24 career starts, and Bere give the Cubs something they haven't had in years: guys in the No.4 and No.5 rotation slots who can actually win. And the bullpen continues to defy logic with the venerable tag team of closers Gordon and Fassero, along with former starter Felix Heredia, rookie Courtney Duncan, a rejuvenated Todd Van Poppel, frequent flier Aybar (five teams since 1999) and chick-magnet Kyle Farnsworth, a former 47th-round pick who leads NL relievers in K's and throws triple-digit fastballs the players call "bat messers" or "lane changers." Throw in a defense that through June 9 was second in the NL in lowest number of errors, and you can see why beer sales are up at Wrigley watering holes like Murphy's Bleachers and Cubby Bear Lounge.
"Here's how it used to be against the Cubs," says second baseman Young, who used to play for the Dodgers and Rockies. "Get on them early and you pretty much have them. Pitch around Sosa, figure Grace is going to get his hits, but don't be too concerned about anything else. That's the same mentality teams had about us last year. I don't think too many teams respected us."
How could they? The Cubs didn't even respect themselves, which is why Baylor convinced trainer and motivational consultant Mack Newton to pound positive thoughts into their psyches for 43 consecutive days and to conduct follow-up sessions during the regular season.
Skeptical front office types watched as Newton started to get through. Newton pulled the introvert Farnsworth from the back row to the front row for the daily drills and pep talks. Wood began taking the info home with him. Sosa sat spellbound as Newton launched into this little number one March day: "When we win the World Series this year, this team will be immortalized. You will be remembered forever. All the kids will know your names and stats. You have the chance to break tradition that borders on a century of losing. When you look at that legacy, it's going to take more than killing a goat to reverse this."
Newton may have screwed up the goat thing, but the Cubs got his point. Leftfielder Rondell White says, "We're going to win it." And Sosa guarantees a Cubs appearance in October. In fact, Sosa generally has been a model leader since Opening Day.
"He got his money, that helps," says a NL scout. "But Sammy's a special guy. He's different from the average spoiled-rotten superstar. When he sees and hears things that people say he can't do, he's out to prove people wrong. He's throwing better, running better than he's done in the last three years."
Sosa's also more patient, taking his walks like Mark McGwire has done in the past, picking his moments to swing for Sheffield or Waveland avenues. During the recent sweep against St. Louis, legendary Cards announcer Jack Buck sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," but not before donning a Cardinals hat midway through the tune. The Wrigley crowd booed. A few minutes later Sosa homered. "Sorry, Sammy," said Buck, "I didn't mean to tick you off."
Timing is everything, and the Cubs seem to have it this season. They have that vintage 1908 defense and pitching, the kind that could come in handy during a five-game or seven-game postseason series. They have togetherness, hitting the bars or restaurants in 10-man packs. They also have un-Cublike confidence. Says Stairs: "Now our attitude is that we don't think we should be losing any games."
Of course, there is a bit of unfinished business. Sam Sianis took his own goat, also called Billy, to the Cubs' Opening Day and was turned away by Wrigley ticket takers who evidently found him as smelly as his famous ancestor. The Cubs lost.
"They look good so far," says Sianis in his Greek accent, "but they need a little bit of help. They need the goat. I'm always ready."
Just to be on the safe side, the Cubs might want to make a call.
This article appears in the June 25 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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