Why we care…

Alot of conversations in my life, and in the past few years in particular, have centered on the Chicago Cubs. People call this selfish, ignorant, or just a waste of time. People who aren’t one of us wonder how anyone can invest so much hope, so much effort, and so much faith in a team that hasn’t won a World Series in 100 years. Then you start to think to yourself, how can I do this? And then you stare ’69, ’84, and ’03 in the face…and you know exactly how you can do it. You don’t spend your summers wishing, and hoping, and praying because you want bragging rights or because you want the next edition of the baseball media guide to list the Cubs as World Series champions. The reason Cubs fans watch religiously is because the Chicago Cubs are bigger than all of us. 120 years of history is bigger than us. Heartbreak felt by an entire city is bigger than us. We are connected. The Chicago Cubs are not a baseball team. The Chicago Cubs represent a community. A community of people who have seen ground balls go between Leon Durham’s legs, watched as ’03 slipped away from us, and remember Santo and the black cat.

All too often, the Cubs have been the victims of shifting momentum, curses, and just plain bad luck. Unfortunately, these are the events that get remembered more often than the happier moments. Ernie’s 500th, K-Wood’s 20 K game, the Ryne Sandberg game, and the Gary Gaetti home run in ’98 are left behind as we center ourselves on billy goats and Bartman. I implore you Cubs fans, don’t let history repeat itself yet again. Keep the faith, don’t let anyone who’s not from Chicago tell you anything about the Cubs (or baseball for that matter), and most importantly…enjoy the ride. No matter what happens, in November, whether we’re World Champs or just one of the other 29 teams who didn’t win it all…let yourself sit back and say “It was one hell of a ride”, because I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it till the day I die: The best thing about baseball is…there’s always another one tomorrow.

Ups and Downs…

I’ve always tried to be a very level headed Cubs fan. I’ve always tried to avoid letting my head get too big during win streaks and I’ve gotten pretty good at trying to stay positive. This season has been a bit of a whirlwind. The best Cubs team of my lifetime has gone as high as the best team in baseball and has now hit the skids. Whether it’s a mental problem, a coaching problem, fatigue, or just plain bad luck…the best thing about baseball is that anything can happen. Cubs fans know this and have experienced it a number times. From a playoff sweep at the hands of the D-backs last year to a 9 run comeback this year, the Cubs faithful have seen their share of baseball drama. Every team has bad stretches. It’s going to happen, you can’t stop it. The most important thing is simply how a team bounces back from it. How the Cubs will bounce back has yet to be seen…but I can tell you this faithful readers, there’s a game tomorrow night, of that you can be sure. And it’s a fresh start. A season is simply made up of 162 clean slates. And if that pep talk doesn’t put the Cubbie Swagger back in your step…it’s still a game right? It’s not supposed to go according to plan…especially in Chicago.

Gameday in the ‘Ville…

So I’ve lived in Wrigleyville for over a year now. And I think the phrase “Living the Dream” is an understatement. Alot of people who don’t live in Chicago, or live in the neighborhood, don’t really understand that people actually live there. For most people, its a day at the park and a day to let loose…So i thought I’d give everyone a glimpse into what its like to be a resident of the best neighborhood in the world.

During a typical homestand, day games are the norm. That means a 1:20 start at the ball park and a 9:00 a.m. start for the neighborhood. People start arriving about then if they’ve never been to the park before. They look around at the statues and the bricks and take a walk around. They stop off at the Cubby Bear, Sports Corner, or the brand new Harry Caray’s . You can spot a first timer, whether its his or her first Cubs game or first visit to our magnificent city. Here’s a few tips that help in spotting these rookies (and also a little bit of advice on how to not look like them).

1: Fannypacks, visors, old gym bags full of food and drinks.

2: This one’s pretty obvious, maps. Just a tip, buy a small map or at least be discreet with your map. Everything in Chicago runs in straight lines, so if you get lost, you can always turn around. Numbers get bigger as you go west and north. Keep that in mind too.

3: Arriving 4 hours before game time and not planning to drink. If you get here that early, and don’t plan on drinking…alot. You really stand out. There’s no need to be that early. Wrigley Field has been here a long time and the people that work there are really good at getting you into the ballpark close to game time. You can’t tailgate or sit on a grassy spot anywhere. So unless your goal is to play “I bet my tab will be bigger than yours” at Houndstooth, don’t get here that early.

4: Paying kids like me $30 so that you can park in our spaces. I mean, I love you all…you’ve paid our bills and provided us with beer and pizza money, but I mean really? $30? Drive around a bit…all the spot sellers compete with each other so you can probably haggle us down if you really try. But come playoff time, don’t act all surprised when we say $75. You paid $800 for the ticket, what’s another $75 for a bunch of college kids who just bought $500 worth of books they aren’t going to use.

5: And finally, my personal favorite, walking like your out on a sunday stroll. We have places to go and so do you. So walk faster, walk with a purpose. And please please…listen to the traffic management people…don’t argue with them…just let them do their job.

All these observations aside, I live in the greatest neighborhood in the world. Even though my neighborhood gets flooded everyday with 60,000 people, I love it. I love hearing the roar of the crowd before I see what happens on TV. And I still get chills every time I hear “Go Cubs Go” out my window.

Rich Harden

You’ve gotta hand it to Rich Harden, he has
made an excellent adjustment to the N.L. It is really a
thrill to watch him pitch. His consistency is really a
difference maker. The Cubs have had strong starting pitching
for a while now, but i dont think consistent was the word to
describe it. Big Z is always pretty consistent numbers wise,
but he has such an unpredictable attitude and demeanor on the
mound that it never feels very consistent. Demp also has put
up very consistent numbers, but he does it one of two
ways…either he misses bats the whole game or he battles
back from leadoff hits and walks and does it all with runners
on. Rich Harden really brings a sense of professionalism to
the team. I don’t know much about what he’s like off the
field…you hear alot about Carlos, and Demp, and Lilly
keeping everyone loose on their off days. I really haven’t
heard what Rich’s clubhouse demeanor is. In any case, his
attitude on the mound is perfect. We have an emotionally
driven pitching staff. Carlos wears his heart on his sleeve,
Lilly likes to throw the glove, and Dempster is not shy about
showing his frustration either. That’s why I like Harden’s
attitude. He’s steady. Kosuke brought alot of patience to the
lineup and it’s rubbed off on the rest of the hitters, I
think the same is going to be true about Harden and the
pitching staff. Needless to say, I think he was a brilliant
pick up and provides the perfect balance for the Cubs
staff.

Battleground Baseball…

Sorry for the long delay. I wanted to update on the big series with the cards, but I was up at the Dave Matthews Band concert in East Troy for the weekend. It is a well known fact that both Cubs and Sox fans are very big Dave fans. I couldn’t count on one hand the number of times I got “Go Cubs” or “Big Win Today” while I was up there, and my friend who was sporting Sox colors got the same treatment from her fellow fans. On Sunday night I must have seen 5 or 6 cubs or sox jersey with something along the lines of “DMB” “#41” or “Matthews” on the back. The whole experience just reminded me that Chicago is a baseball town. And aside from the 6 days a year we play each other, the North and South siders pretty peacefully co-exist on a day to day basis. People who aren’t from Chicago or don’t really watch much baseball always ask me “How much do you hate the White Sox?” and every time I tell them I don’t hate the Sox, I hate the Cardinals (and now the Brewers). But even so, bad mouthing a team all season doesn’t add any more wins to the Cubs win total at the end of the year.

I’ve always been an advocate for good baseball. I make plenty of jokes from time to time about other teams and other players in particular, but in all honesty I really only care what the Cubs are doing. A Cubs win is the only thing I want to see, I don’t want to see anyone actually get hurt or any team go on a terrible slide. I want the Brewers to play the best ball they possibly can and I want to beat them that way. That’s baseball and thats the way it should be played.

Sorry, I just needed to rant about sportsmanship a little bit. Brewers fans are new at this whole winning thing so they tend to get on your nerves a bit.

Front Office Kudos…

In the recent past, and this year in particular, Jim Hendry has been on top of his game. I don’t know what that man looks at to decide the caliber of a ballplayer, but it works. Reed Johnson, Jim Edmonds, and Rich Harden are just the names from this year. These are contributing role players essential to any team that wants to make a run at a title. When I read on the ESPN crawler that the Cubs had aquired Reed Johnson, the very first word out of my mouth was “Who?”. But Hendry knew exactly what he was doing. Reed fills the gaps. He can hit, run, and field with the best of them. And as he showed yesterday, he does not shy away from pressure situations. Another perfect example of the Hendry touch is Jimmy Edmonds. He had been written off as washed up. Stuck in San Diego, where baseball players go to die, Jim seemed content to bat his .202 and finish out his season. Then Hendry picks him up and he is a re-born player. How could Hendry tell he had anything left in the tank? How did he know that 12 HR’s later the long hated Jim Edmonds would be the kind of ballplayer Cubs fans could rely on? This is the sort of stuff that amazes me. Not to mention he’s nailed down a myriad of All-Star caliber players including Alfonso, DLee, Kosuke, and Aramis. He can make the big deal, grab the headline, and then that same day go out and get a back up centerfielder that will have a game winning catch and 2 HR game in the same week. 

The best thing about it is, when people mention Hendry’s talent for finding talent, he’s quick to thank his advanced scouts and the other people that help him.   

Best Wins of the Season…

The past two nights at Miller Park have not disappointed. The hype for this series has been tremendous. Monday night was probably the most important win of the season for the Northsiders. So many things went right for the Cubbies. It was great to see plays like the one Reed Johnson made. His all out slide to break up the double play and extend that big inning was a perfect display of just how badly the Cubs want to win this season. There were a number of other things the Cubs did that made me very proud. The patience they were displaying in the beginning of the season has returned. This patience made C.C. throw more pitches, it made him leave the game earlier, and it made the Brewer’s bullpen throw strikes. All this combined with the resurgance of Fonsi as well as the middle of the line up made it the most thrilling Cubs game to watch since ’03 (no wonder it was one of the highest rated games in Cubs history).

Tuesday night certainly did not fall short of the expectations either. The Cubs came out and played like division leaders. They scored runs and pitched well. Ramirez’s game was simply unbelievable, whats more amazing than his 3 doubles was his 2 runs scored. What this tells me is that the middle of the order is not the end of the offensive production. Ramirez got knocked in when he was on base. This is what I like most about this year’s Cubs. Like in year’s past, you’re never really sure where the production is going to come from, but this year, the line up is seeming to heat up in chunks. As the top of the order may cool down for a few games, the bottom 3 may end up all having multi hit games. It’s just great to see that kind of trend in a ballclub.

I’m looking forward to the next two games but I’m certainly aware of the power the Brewer’s have. My advice for Demp and Rich…just keep the ball down. Hopefully 2 more wins are on their way.  

 

Re-energizing win…

What a perfect time for a win like that. It’s great to see the Cubbies overcome a deficit and they did in just the right way too. Fonsi and DLee had the power to keep them in the game and then Little Babe Ruth (Mikey Fonts) put the icing on the cake. It was also really great to see Jeff Samardzija pitch so well. I’m a big fan of his and I followed him up through the minors. He’s a great athlete, a good pitcher, and it’s just fun to watch him out there. He’s seems nervous but he gets the job done. It’s great to see a young pitcher play with some emotion. And again… I have to hand out some credit to Jimmy Edmonds. He is already the Gary Gaetti of ’08. If he can stay healthy, he’s going to be that unexpected boost we need late in the season.

Now lets go get the Brewers, let’s show the rest of the league that Ryan Braun doesn’t hit a home run everytime he’s up and let’s get C.C. out of the game and exploit their bullpen. This is undoubtedly the biggest series of the year. With the Cardinals faltering and the Brewers streaking, this is a great time for the Cubbies to take a stand and separate themselves from the rest of the division. I respect the Brewers as a ballclub, they have a lot of tremendous young talent including Braun, Hart, Bill Hall, Sheets and C.C., but I still feel like the Cubs are the better ball club this year, and I’d like this series to be the place we prove it. I’m not expecting a sweep or to outscore them by a tremendous amount, we just need to go out and win these games. If we have to do it with pitching, we’ll do it with pitching. If we have to slug our way out, we can do that too. And if we have just have to be the best team on the field that given day, I bet the Cubs can make that happen. This is a growing rivalry, and this year may be the one that solidifies it as an annual dogfight for the Central.

 

2nd Half…

The honeymoon is over. Late July and August is the time when teams can either soldify a lead or slump themselves into 3rd place. Players are tired, pitching staffs are spread thin, and managers are starting to pull hair out. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. This is when you get heroics that won’t get remembered…this is time to go to work. Its time to win every series and win road games. I just love 2nd half games because they are so gritty… they aren’t very often slugfests. They are small ball, good pitching, and timely hitting. On that note…here are some things I’d like to see the Cubbies do or try to do: ( I know my last name’s not Piniella or Hendry, but I can still pretend)

I would like to see something done to quiet the stadium sale talks. As a Chicagoan, I really see how much it gets covered. I know athletes say they don’t listen to stuff like that and don’t worry about ownership…they just go out and play. But I have to believe that it has some effect on what goes on during the games. Even if it doesn’t, it affects the fans. I know I wish it would just be swept under the rug till November or dealt with immediately.

I would like to see Lou get tossed more often. The on-field performances he’s given this year have not been his best…I think when he does it right, it gets everyone fired up. Maybe he’s older, maybe he’s wiser, maybe he just hasn’t had anything to argue about..whatever the case may be… I want Lou Piniella to get his money’s worth three or four times in this second half.

I want Mark DeRosa in the infield more. I know with Fonsi coming back, he won’t have to play left anymore, but I would like to see the newly recalled Hoffpauir get those off day starts for Kosuke and Fonsi. He’s another left hand bat and it moves Theriot or Fontenot up in the lineup as well as putting DeRo in his best position.

I want the patience back. The Cubbies drew so many walks and saw so many pitches early on in the season, but it seems to have dropped off. I would like to see alot more pitches per at bat. It’s just a good way to play ball.

And finally, I wanna see them play like it’s all there for the taking. That’s how all the great teams of this era play. The Red Sox, Yankees, and even the Cardinals, go out there and just take wins from other teams. I like rallies, it’s a great way to win a game. I’m not talking about coming back from 7 runs every game, but I like it when they come back from 3 down in the 8th. It makes the players and fans wanna show up to the ballpark again the next day.

Let’s just hope this 2nd half is as good as the first. Go Cubs!

Home Run Derby and ASG…

It’s hard to not talk about Josh Hamilton after last night. I know that everyone’s going to be jumping on his bandwagon now, but for once I think thats a good thing. I always kind of like when ballplayers say they don’t play the game to be all-stars or anything like that, but in Hamilton’s case, I think he earned his much deserved validation. I mean, I can barely get myself to work in the morning and this guy is overcoming drug addiction and trying to hit balls out of Yankee Stadium. It’s hard not to like him… especially after seeing him interact with his teammates and the kids at the Derby. The Home Run Derby is one of those rare instances where you get to see some of your favorite players act like kids. It’s pretty much my favorite part of the the whole all-star break. Just seeing Hamilton fist-bump a little 8 year old and talk to him for a bit after he gave him a gatorade impresses me. Players get really caught up in their profession and image now a days (and not that I blame them, its probably hard not to), but it’s really great to see a guy like Hamilton who is just a big, strong, ballplayer who actually has fun.

During the ESPN coverage (both with Morgan and Berman, as well as with the Baseball Tonight crew) you heard alot about the “New Era” as Gammons titled it. These guys like Uggla, Morneau, Hamilton, Utley and Longoria are the faces of it. These are approachable, solid, no flash kind of ballplayers. Maybe it’s because I came into my own as a baseball fan during the Arms Races between McGwire and Sosa, and reluctantly watched as Bonds took the record, but I can really see the contrast. Sluggers today look like guys that are just in shape because they play baseball. Their legs are proportional to their arms and they all seem to sport quick, level swings with a snap to them (like Utley and Sizemore). I hate to sound corny and I hate to just jump on the wagon with Gammons, but I really think last night ushered in a new era of player. Flashy, jewlery wearing, sterioid using, agent reliant ballplayers are fading. In comes the guys who still play like their in college or the minors…they play small ball but can rip with the best of them, they make the plays they’re supposed to but also throw in a few gems every now and then, and most importantly they seemingly play team baseball. They laugh and joke with teammates, they have handshakes and pre-game rituals.

Now I know this all may sound really upbeat and overly-hopeful, and I do accept the reality that these guys may all turn into Barry Bonds type players, but for now, it’s a good time to be a baseball fan. 

 

 

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