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The bleachers are an odd place we used to call home. No other seat in the ballpark is at once so far from the central action of baseball and so close to the individual players. Here comes the Montreal Expos' Hubie Brooks--right below us--to make the catch on the warning track against the usual hard-hit-but-at-'em Ryne Sandberg April blast. (We hear the ball almost snare itself, snapping the glove shut with its force.) There goes Herm Winningham, chasing a Jody Davis double in the gap as it bounds toward us and the wall below.

The bleachers are where fans sit, we say, stressing the word's source as a contraction for fanatic. All other seats face out toward the field; the bleachers face in. So that while grandstand seats stress the fan's role as passive observer, as the person being entertained, the bleachers--at least in theory--give us the same vantage as a participant, as a player in the game. Like the person stuck in right field in a sandlot pickup game, we are at once part of the play and far from its immediate concerns. When a ball is finally hit to us, it is a cause for either celebration or alarm: celebration for the offense, alarm for the defense. Since, in the bleachers, we can cheer for the offense (the Cubs) even as we assume a defensive posture--looking in from the outfield--our alarms and our celebrations are sometimes one and the same.

Last Thursday, I picked up my press pass, stopped briefly on the field, and then snuck out a grandstand gate and around the back of the ballpark to the bleachers. I must admit, I didn't look much like a journalist and I didn't feel like one. I was unshaven, wearing a dirtied windbreaker and a wide-brimmed drover's hat, and I got some odd looks on the field. Yet I had decided, from the early part of that day, to go back, for an afternoon, and be a fan--which was, after all, the original point of view of this column as it began five years ago.

It was a cold day, with low clouds that darkened and brightened as if imitating the countenance of a bully picking out a playground victim. In fact, as the lineups were announced it began to either sleet or hail--the stuff was too large for sleet, too slight and inconsequential to be called hail. It reminded me, especially, of an afternoon five years ago with the Atlanta Braves in town, when I chose to sit in the bleachers to do an article on Steve Trout, the inconsistent pitcher for the Cubs. It was one of the first of my "Sports Section"s, and the simple fact of my doing a column on a pitcher from a vantage point in the bleachers shows not only the innocence of the column as it was then but also that my eyes were better. On the other hand, Steve Trout, while no longer a member of the Cubs, is still in baseball and is still inconsistent, so it really hasn'tr been that long after all.

Yet last Thursday I went back, specifically, to celebrate and to see how things have changed. Five years ago, the Cubs were not the nation's darlings, as they are now. They were our darlings, to be sure, but "we," at that point, were a much smaller and more exclusive club. We were Lee Elia's 15 percent of the population with nothing better to do--although Elia had not yet labeled us as such--and so we came to the park on rainy days when any sane person would be inside reading a book or at least watching the game at home. Those days, of course, are long gone, lost in the rising tide of fans that came to Wrigley in 1984, a tide that has not yet ebbed. Yet the bleachers have always been the home of the true fan--the hard-core fanatic in April and September, the sun-tanned students in the summer months, with batting averages memorized along with lines from Hobbes--and last Thursday was the perfect day to go out and be among their number. No matter how popular the Cubs become, no matter what happens with the onset of night baseball, no matter what they decide about beer vendors or upper-deck bleachers, rainy days in April will always be reserved for the few--for the fanatics, for the nuts--and we still count ourselves among their number.

We met two hardy but tolerant south-side baseball fans at Murphy's, and we crossed the street and entered the park in time to watch the Expos take batting practice. This sort of day is typified, right away, by the sound of cleats crunching softly in the grass as pitchers run sprints right below us in the outfield. There were the usual requests for balls (the wind blew in during b.p., and few were hit out), and at one point Tim Burke, the Expos' ace reliever, ambled over and started a conversation with a few fans, asking them why they had brought blankets to the park on such a warm day.

We filled up the time between b.p. and the game with the usual tales, only with a fresh one told by one of our companions, the stately, plump Mulligan, who said he was out in the bleachers last summer for a game against the Mets, when he claims he saw the following take place. One fan kept pleading with Darryl Strawberry, the Mets' thumper, to throw him a ball. "Please Darryl, c'mon Darryl," he cried. At last, Strawberry--a sometimes bitter young player, hardened by the New York media--gave in and tossed the ball up. The fan caught it, palmed it, and hurled it right back with full intent to strike Strawberry.

Howls all around on that one.

I recalled a time when one fan kept aggravating any player who came near, asking them to sign his glove. At last, Fergie Jenkins stopped his sprints, the guy tossed down his glove and a pen, and Jenkins signed and tossed them back up. Then the guy turned his attention to Mel Hall. He harangued Hall for the longest time--"C'mon Mel, Fergie signed it"--until Hall finally came over, called for the glove and the pen, and signed. When the glove was returned, however, the fan saw that Hall had signed directly over Jenkins's signature.

An odd but important thing happened as the game neared; the wind turned around and began to blow out. The temperature grew no warmer, but the wind did affect how well the ball carried, and in the first inning Andre Dawson hit a homer to the deep part of the park in center field. In the second, the Expos' Tim Raines responded in kind with a shot to left field. When the fan who caught the ball failed to throw it back on the field--the bleacher fan's usual show of disdain--first right field rained a cheer of "Left field sucks" down upon their less-committed brothers, and then left-field fans rained a cheer of "Asshole, asshole" down upon the one dissident fan among their number.

If this sort of thing continues to raise a smile--and if it doesn't, don't be ashamed--there are other aspects of bleacher life that are growing tiresome. We were sitting in right field, and the more rowdy fans among us kept up, every few innings, with attacks on the Expos' Hubie Brooks, including that timeless number that begins "Fee, fi, fo, fum." This is doing no one any good, and no one, really, any harm, but for the first time I felt uncomfortable about being among people who sing this sort of thing.

The Cubs' pitcher for the day was Greg Maddux, going for his third victory of the young season. (At this writing, no other pitcher on the Cubs' staff yet has even a pair of wins.) Maddux looked brilliant in his first two appearances, on the road, then struggled in his first Wrigley Field appearance, pitching well but with one bad inning. This sort of pitching pattern ought to be familiar to anyone who watched the Cubs and Maddux last year. He'd show signs of great ability, but then the wheels would suddenly fall off in one inning, or he'd start slowly, giving up a few runs in the first inning or two, and then be out of the game before it began. This was the pattern of last Thursday--only different. He struggled in the first and gave up the Raines homer in the second, but along the way he tapped a reserve he had only hinted at possessing a year ago. He gave up only a run--leaving the bases loaded--in the first, then toughened in the third, giving up two hits but no runs. Then he settled down and did not allow two hits in the same inning until the ninth, and even then he got out of the jam with a double play and went on to earn the win with a complete game.

What is it about a pitcher like Maddux--or like Trout--that makes him so unpredictable one year and so dependable another? (Already, he seems near to replacing Rick Sutcliffe as the team's ace.) I think most fans--and most bleacher fans--have ideas, and some good ones, but they can't ever really know. Likewise, what separates a good manager from a bad one? The manager, we've said before, most resembles the fan in his role. He faces out on the action, from the dugout, just as the common fan faces out from the grandstand. What's more, few fans know how to throw a curve--and fewer still can make a ball curve at all, if given a chance--but most fans know when to pinch-hit and all fans have an opinion on when to remove the pitcher, so--unlike the players--a manager is nearly helpless against fan criticism. He simply thought different, that's all.

Don Zimmer has proved to be a known quantity early on in his tenure with the Cubs. He gets a set lineup and he sticks with it--rain or shine, grass or turf, wind blowing in or out. Zimmer goes against current baseball fashions, which dictate the platoon system and more running. He prefers to let the players win and lose games, to let them play. How long will he go with Rich Gossage in the bull pen? Will his faith pay dividends, as Gossage gets going in the summer, or will the Cubs sink beneath a number of blown leads? It is a minimalist school of managing, intended to give the players faith in themselves. It's worked for Zimmer in the past, and it worked for him this day, as Vance Law homered to win the game, but will it work consistently with the Cubs?

These are questions fans ask--especially from their vantage point in the bleachers--but if we admit our own prejudices and opinions, we rarely come up with any hard-and-fast answers. Or, to paraphrase Bill James on Boston Red Sox manager John McNamara, as a fan I think the Cubs have to run more and be more flexible with their relief pitching; I believe it's insane to throw out the same lineup whether the wind blows in or out. Yet, as a student of the game, I watch what Zimmer does and try to understand it.

Should Dawson bat third or fourth? Will Calvin Schiraldi succeed as a starter, or will he fail as a starter, or (still more options) will he be sent to the bull pen to replace Gossage? How will playing Rafael Palmeiro and Dave Martinez every day--against lefties and righties--affect their development as players not merely this year but in years hence? There are no answers to these questions in the bleachers, only speculation. And so, for the time being, we'll say good-bye to the bleachers--to the fans in their vitality and their ignorance--and go in search of answers.

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