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"Nineteen-sixty-nine--I've heard enough about it," said Don Zimmer. "And I've been asked enough about it, and my players have been asked enough about it, but in 1969 I was managing in Key West, Florida, in the Florida State League, and what happened to the '69 Cubs--the fans remember it, and the '69 players remember it, but these players wasn't on that club, and it didn't have no reflection on this ball club." The Cubs' manager stood at a lectern, answering reporters' questions during a pre-play-off workout a week ago last Tuesday at Wrigley Field. The interview session was held upstairs in the grandstand at the Stadium Club, and all the while, lurking on the wall behind Zimmer's left shoulder--quite humorous at the time, quite ominous now--was a framed poster of the 1969 Chicago Cubs.

What makes the Cubs' ensuing performance in the National League Championship Series so painful--what always makes it painful--is that they really should have won. Looking at the two teams preparing for play that bright, brisk, cloudless afternoon, one had the feeling that the Cubs were not only the better team--certainly the more balanced team--but also the better prepared team. Almost to a man, they gave off a feeling of quiet confidence; they seemed to take nothing for granted, not even their own proficiency as the East Division champions and as the winningest team in the league. With no dominant team running roughshod this year, this quality of subdued confidence, of professionalism first and foremost, might have been all the Cubs needed to finish first--in a penmanship contest, the one team to dot the is will win every time--and it made them even more endearing to the common fan than the Cubs usually are. At the workout, hushed, almost whispered interviews were common. Rick Wrona at the batting cage and Ryne Sandberg in the dugout both held forth with softly uttered statements, while reporters scurried and scuffled about trying to find a way to get their tape recorders close enough to pick up a few remarks. The statement of the day, however, was issued by Mark Grace, who was asked when it was that the Cubs knew they were the team to beat--if it was after the early September Saturday win over the Saint Louis Cardinals following the crushing defeat the day before, or perhaps after the sweep of the Expos, which followed immediately after. "No, it came much later than that," he said. "I think we finally realized that when they flashed that score, 4-1 Pittsburgh over Saint Louis, in Montreal on the night we won it." That was the confident humility that typified the Cubs from the moment they first realized they had a chance--Andre Dawson insisted they did when he went down with an injury early in the season--right on up into the series with the Giants.

As Zimmer put it, "I'm not too sure that they know yet they were in a race. They played that way all year."

There was one ominous note, though, going into game one. It came when Greg Maddux took the lectern at the official interview session. He said, to open the interview, "I think we're going to have fun," and he concluded his interview by saying, "I think it's going to be a lot of fun." If this falling back on a pet phrase didn't betray his underlying worries, his eyes--wide and white--did. When asked if he would approach the play-off games any differently than a regular-season game, he said, "I don't, I don't, I don't think it's any different."

The Giants, by turn, were subdued and not confident. Their pitching staff was beat up, and their manager, Roger Craig, encouraged speculation about the health of catcher Terry Kennedy's throwing arm. Don Robinson threw a simulated game that very day at the workout, testing a banged-up right knee that wore a large and noticeable brace under his uniform. His pitching was also noticeably subpar. (One of the great shames of the series was that the Cubs did not sufficiently pounce on Robinson's replacement in the rotation, Mike LaCoss, in game three, nor on Robinson himself when he entered the same game in relief.) Perhaps I should have suspected something when I found the team that had just been there, playing for the NL championship only two years ago, less confident than the fresh-faced team of wonder boys. But my head said Cubs in five and my heart--being closer to the Cubs and naturally more aligned with the erratic thinking patterns of Don Zimmer--said Cubs in six.

Maddux, of course, was one of the Cubs' prime goats, but he was by no means the only one. Every great flop of the Cubs except those dictated by hubris (a crime the team has rarely been guilty of) has been marked by the embarrassment of one of the team's best and most popular players. Think of Ron Santo's pop-ups and double-play grounders in a year in which he nevertheless drove in 123 runs; the failure of both Rick Sutcliffe and Lee Smith to hold leads against the San Diego Padres; Ryne Sandberg's failure to glove a hard San Diego grounder of the sort he usually gets, and of course Leon Durham's flubbed fielding play in the same series. This year what made the series most painful of all was the ineptitude of Andre Dawson, the man who so wanted to be a Cub that he took a pay cut. Well now he's a full-fledged member of this historic franchise: he choked, utterly, at the plate and in the field (fans of the White Sox were quick to point this out), leaving three runners on third base-- one with only one out--and six runners stranded in game five alone; he also failed, like Sandberg, to make a great play in the field, dropping the ball and then missing the cutoff man on Will Clark's game-five triple, which allowed the Giants to tie the score 1-1 in the seventh inning as Mike Bielecki pitched the best postseason game thrown by a Chicago pitcher since Britt Burns's sullied masterpiece for the White Sox in 1983.

Dawson and Maddux will draw much of the attention and much of the blame for the Cubs' loss in the future. Forgotten will be the strange and unpredictable ways of Don Zimmer. Zimmer seemed so impressed with the team's attitude toward the series--just another set of games--that he adopted it himself. Of course it was not just another set of games, it was the height of the season, a fight for superiority between the two best teams in the league, and the Cubs were ill prepared for battle. The blame here goes right up to general manager Jim Frey, because whoever scouted the Giants either did not do his job or failed to make his conclusions strongly enough for Zimmer. Even a mere fan knows that the scouting report on the Giants begins with the line, "Try not to let Will Clark or Kevin Mitchell beat you." Why then did Zimmer intentionally walk Brett Butler in game one, setting up a situation in which Clark--who already had a double and a homer on the night--would almost certainly come to the plate after the speedy Robby Thompson? The second line of the scouting report reads, "Don't throw Matt Williams any fastballs for strikes," because it's well known that Williams can't hit a curveball with the business end of a shovel. Why then did Maddux throw a fastball to Williams on the first pitch after walking Mitchell to load the bases in game four, and why did Steve Wilson stick consistently to fastballs, finally getting burned on the 12th pitch when Williams hit the game-winning homer, later in the same game?

The play-offs are not just another series. The aggressive base running that paid the Cubs a bounty of breaks during the regular season only burned them against the Giants, a sound team fundamentally. It's a common problem, repeated every year or so, as to how an aggressive team should suddenly rein itself in during the postseason, but advice should have been given to the Cubs--again, by a knowledgeable scout. In almost every facet of the game, everywhere one looked, the Cubs sowed the seeds of their own defeat. They should have won--I still believe that--but in the end they got what they had coming.

In any case, the point is moot. The Oakland Athletics will win the World Series in four or five games. They have the best manager and the best slugger of the decade, as well as the best leadoff man in baseball history. Throughout their play-off series with the Toronto Blue Jays, they played a sharp, fundamentally sound brand of baseball. Compare the treatment the Athletics' pitchers gave Fred McGriff and George Bell to the treatment Clark, Mitchell, and Williams received from the Cubs' staff. And National League fans take note: both the Cubs and Giants failed to break up double plays that cut off innings, while Rickey Henderson won game one in the AL series with a hard-nosed slide. This may be the team of the decade; for peak value, only the 1984 Detroit Tigers come close.

We were in Europe the last three weeks of the baseball season, feeling like a character out of Henry James--the sudden recipient of riches too great to quantify. Hemingway once said that James's novels were typified by two characters talking about the action while the real scene took place somewhere else, outside the range of the reader, and that too was typical of our trip as it related to the Cubs. The character who arrives to discuss the action without adding anything to it was played on our trip by USA Today and the International Herald-Tribune, and day by day we would hunt them up for news of the Cubs. We had left on a Friday, the day after seeing the play Bleacher Bums, the very day Mitch Williams--as forecast in the drama--gave up a game-winning homer to the Saint Louis Cardinals (to Pedro Guerrero, however, not Tom Brunansky), cutting the Cubs' first-place lead to half a game. Of course we wrote them off, but the following week, when we heard from a group of Chicagoans that they had gone on to win both the remaining games of that series (Saturday's game, in which Luis Salazar played the decisive role in a comeback, was probably the game of the pennant race for the Cubs), and had followed that up with a win over the Montreal Expos, and then later on that week we saw in USA Today that they had swept the Expos and had pushed the lead back to five full games, well, we started planning our return--tentatively, wishfully, but expectantly just the same.

This distant version of the pennant race is told not to add to the drama of the Cubs' finishing in first place (read that phrase again and ask, "What could?"), but because, boring as it is, in drama and excitement it nevertheless rivals many versions of the pennant race we heard on our return. There was an essential divergence in the tale tellers, we noticed: those who were absent from Chicago in 1984 were much more excited--and, it seemed, much less reliable--than those who saw the 1984 team finish first. In fact, more than once, veteran campaigners who observed the 1984 fiasco firsthand described the 1989 race as "anticlimactic." Indeed, once the Cubs had padded their lead back to five games, no team got back within three games the rest of the season. This was the impression we received in Europe, where each day we checked the standings first thing, only to find the lead the same as it had been the day before.

The most compelling and entertaining statement about the Cubs' divisional triumph was issued, for us, by Wrigley Field itself. We walked past it late last week, and there were groups posing for photos in front of the large neon sign at Clark and Addison, as well as a cigar-smoking father walking four children. He held the hand of one, a toddler, but when the group came within sight of the large Cubs logo painted on the wall near the door of the administrative offices, the three older children all ran to the wall and hugged it, rubbing their hands all over the logo, saying, "Cubs, Cubs," and the father released the toddler, who joined the older kids literally embracing Wrigley Field in celebration. This scene left no doubt about where the Cubs had finished; we could have been just in from Turkestan, with no news of baseball whatsoever, and known what it meant. We leave with a picture of Wrigley Field, dressed up again in its bunting and pomp. Where five years ago she looked like a dowager, returning to society with more grace than anyone thought possible, this time she seemed an aged actress--with her tiaralike lights and whalebone sky boxes--outfitted again for a great role on opening night. In the end, isn't it always what we fall back on--Wrigley Field?

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