The Sports Section | Sports | Chicago Reader

The Sports Section 

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

Let's step back, for a moment, from the batting cage and the field, back from the grandstand and the bleachers beyond, back, in fact, all the way home--the place where most of us, after all, experience what sport we allow into our lives, through television, newspapers, and the various other media that keep it ever before us, whether we like it or not. There's a view, from here, that claims to be more objective than our various views in and around the city's stadia, a vantage where we rely on experts and statistics to form our opinions and bolster our biases. So that, sometimes, we can go off to the ballpark for the first time of the year (I'd imagine many of us have yet to expose ourselves to baseball this year, preferring to wait out the cold, wet weather for the warm sun and moderate breezes of May and June) and believe we already know it all: a dangerous proposition, and one we'd best guard ourselves against.

Both our city's baseball teams came through April with .500 records, which is considerably better than we believed possible for the White Sox and just about what we expected from the Cubs. Let us remind ourselves that a month ago the Sox appeared to be considerably more vulnerable than the Cubs; even though both teams are rebuilding with young players, the Sox' youth is concentrated at positions that are more influential, strategically--starting pitching and bull-pen closer--than is the case with the Cubs. We're a month into the season, and the statistics are becoming a bit more trustworthy (as of last Monday, only two .400 batting. averages among the leagues' leaders) so we can read something of the teams' personalities in them.

The pitching that we believed would be the Sox' longtime salvation and short-time scourge has instead turned out to be the team's strong suit, start to finish. The staff has an ERA below 4.00, which puts it safely in the middle of the American League's pitching pack. This stat is being held down by Dave LaPoint, who has quickly reestablished himself as the team's ace, just as he did in the second half of last season. LaPoint is a young Tommy John, a nibbler with a slight, direct motion and something (almost) of a fastball, and his ERA is below 2.00, which--when factored in along with his team-leading 51 innings--has contributed greatly to the pitching staff's decent stats. The other starters have run hot and cold this spring, especially Jack McDowell and Melido Perez, the White Sox' future. McDowell is a thin, spindly pitcher with a high-school motion--gangly from time to time, raw but somehow effective-and last Wednesday we watched him shut down the Boston Red Sox on television in a duel against none other than Roger Clemens. We had thought McDowell and Perez would contribute to a rough start for the Sox, but quite to the contrary they have been impressive if not quite dependable--consistently inconsistent. The same is true of the bull pen's Bobby Thigpen, who is suffering through a flamethrower's usual spring doldrums. He's already suffered three losses, and his ERA is remarkably high for a reliever, but he should steady himself as the temperature rises. The surprise of the team has been the middle relief, awful in spring training but now solid with the newly acquired John Davis spelling Bill Long and vice versa. I'd forgotten how good Davis looked, on occasion, with the Kansas City Royals last year, and he has put up good numbers this spring, numbers almost exactly duplicated, thus far, by Long. (Indeed, Davis's one bad outing this year included ameliorating circumstances: he hit the Baltimore Orioles' Billy Ripken in the head with a fastball and then buckled and failed to retire a batter.) With strong middle relief, the Sox can live with some inconsistency from their young starters. The other regular starter, Rickey Horton, has had a good first month, especially if one overlooks a rough outing in his first Fenway Park start.

The Sox and Cubs have a common problem, however, and that is on-base percentage. Last Monday's stats show the Sox with ten more homers than their opponents, yet they've scored three fewer runs, and an edge in homers ought to translate into a proportional edge in the runs column. Yet no one at the top of the Sox order has managed to get on base consistently. Ozzie Guillen has never been much of a base-on-balls player, and with his rough start and the problems of rookie Lance Johnson, the Sox have simply not had anyone on base when the home run comes. Harold Baines is off to another quick start (he used to be as slow to rise as sap in the spring), but he is third on the team in RBI and nowhere near the league leaders; in fact, he has scored more runs than he has driven in, a perfect statement of the team's woes.

The same problem hurt the Cubs in the early going, although it's showing signs of abating. As of early last week, the Cubs were leading the league in batting but were eighth in on-base percentage. They were next to last in walks received, with only the lowly, young, and petulant San Diego Padres more antsy at the plate. When combined with manager Don Zimmer's reluctance to play a running game (the slow-footed Rafael Palmeiro was tied for the team lead in stolen bases earlier this week, with four--these mostly the results of failed hit-and-runs) this meant the Cubs simply weren't scoring. Only when Zimmer resorted to flip-flopping Dave Martinez and Ryne Sandberg in the top two spots in the batting order did they begin to put men on base and move them around in the first inning, with Andre Dawson showing a corresponding increase in his RBI count.

This is all basic statistical stuff, however. The most noticeable thing about the Cubs and Sox in their play on television, so far this year, has been how quickly they've established their new field personalities. Both are clearly young, developing teams, and the amazing thing has been that the Cubs have established themselves as almost certainly respectable also-rans and nothing more, as far as this year's standings go, while the White Sox have established some legitimate chances as a contender; their fortunes have switched sides. The Sox, too, are a developing team--the young pitchers Perez and McDowell best typify their new personality--but with their improved offense and dependable middle relief anything can happen. The most notable thing about the new Cubs, meanwhile, is the similarity in style shared by their new stars. There is a classical elegance we've noticed for years in Ryne Sandberg, and that elegance is now echoed in players such as Martinez, with his speedy, erect running style and excellent glove work, Palmeiro, with his picturebook, chin-against-clavicle batting stroke, and Greg Maddux, in his no-nonsense, kick-and-deliver pitching motion. This being noted, let's also comment on how well the veteran Vance Law fits this scheme of quiet classicism, and also the addition of Mark Grace at first base. These are all players who are reserved rather than emotional, consistent rather than turbulent, and they set up a fine background against which players like Dawson and Shawon Dunston appear to be the spice of the team. The change of Grace for Leon Durham is symptomatic: we've always loved the Bull, mainly because he is an emotional player who displays his ups and downs quite plainly, but he simply doesn't fit with the new Cubs. Compare the 1984 first-place team with today's group (Bob Dernier-Martinez, Gary Matthews-Palmeiro, Ron Cey-Law) and a pattern clearly establishes itself, a pattern of older, more idiosyncratic, and perhaps more colorful players being replaced by younger, more classical, and (the amazing thing) more professional, more mature athletes. What's more, in losing all these entrenched characters, the Cubs have become not less but more interesting. The White Sox and Cubs are two teams of budding ball players with similar styles, and one of the pleasures of their seasons in progress should be watching the Cubs develop some power and pitching to go with their consistency, while the Sox develop the defense to go with their pitching and (present) ballpark.

To continue about young teams developing their personalities, last Sunday the Chicago Bulls won their first play-off series in seven years. Through various other sports and diversions, we haven't given the Bulls their due this year, but they've received their space elsewhere, so we don't feel too bad about ignoring them. Throughout the winter, however, whenever we found the Bulls on television they were playing a fascinating, scrappy brand of basketball; nothing seemed to come easily for them, but they kept on winning. I remember, especially, a late-season game against the New York Knicks (who were using a full-court press; what was this, a post-NCAA college game?). The Bulls have rounded themselves into quite a team, with Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen developing just as John Paxson and Dave Corzine found their niches (both becoming reliable at hitting the open jump shot when Michael gets double- and triple-teamed).

Last Sunday, we were returning from our brother's college commencement and couldn't watch the Bulls game on television. We turned the radio to WMAQ, however, and were soon more into the game than the Bulls were (12 points down). They scrambled back, however, with Jim Durham doing his usual great commentary, and Red Kerr spiking the byplay with some awed oohs and ahhs and hoo hoo hoos as color man. Durham is an excellent basketball announcer; he concentrates on the defense and coverages, and he always seems to have one eye on the shot clock, which is so overimportant in the pro game. He is also excitable; he reflects the tone and pace of the game with his speech patterns (with, of course, a distinct Bulls bias). On one drive, Michael left his man "eating Air Jordan vapor trails." When the Bulls finally scratched back to close the Cleveland Cavaliers' lead to one, Durham said, "Now it begins. Now game five begins." The Cavs regained their composure for a time, but when the Bulls finally caught them in the third quarter Durham said, "The Bulls have climbed the mountain," and Kerr punctuated the thought with an extended "awwwrright."

It was magic the way they captured the feel of the game, the Bulls' determined effort in climbing back into the contest, and--once they took the lead--the way the team (and the announcers) confidently, carefully ushered the win home. At one nervous moment, Kerr let out a plainly audible sigh, and it was as if we all suddenly felt a little bit better, a little more comfortable in the car. From far away, from way back, we were there. And not only were we not in the city, we weren't even surrounded by the comforts of home.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Ted Cox

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories