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What extraordinary good fortune! Not to gloat, but after being lucky enough to have seen the Bulls win their second consecutive championship, I was also there on that glorious evening, a week ago Tuesday, when the Cubs made it back to the .500 mark.

While concentrating on the Bulls, I managed to miss the worst part of the Cubs' season. After getting out of the gate all right, with a scrappy team based on pitching and defense, the Cubs went south for about six weeks. The pitching remained solid--with the once-every-five-days exception of Danny Jackson--but the defense went to pot, and the offense was never there to begin with. The Cubs plummeted to the bottom of the National League East, with their awful season compounded by injuries to Shawon Dunston and Sammy Sosa.

The Cubs' campaign should have been over, for all intents and purposes, by mid-May, but somehow they scrambled back in June, compiling an 18-10 record during the month. By the morning of July 1 they had evened out at 38-38 and were in second place, five games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The reasons for their resurgence are simple and obvious, because the Cubs are a simple team. With a strategy based on pitching and defense but set in Wrigley Field, they're a .500 team at best, because the league's home-run hitters will start to reassert themselves in the second half, as the weather warms. (So far, during a cold spring, the hitters have been quiet. Almost halfway through the season a mere 18 homers, by Fred McGriff, led the league.) Yet once manager Jim Lefebvre realized that defense would win more games for this team than offense would, he replaced Hector Villanueva with Joe Girardi behind the plate, stuck Jose Vizcaino and Doug Dascenzo into the lineup, and counted on the team to win the close games, which they took to doing. The game a week ago Tuesday against the New York Mets, when they climbed back to .500, was a delightful example of the 1992 Cubs at their best.

Lefebvre opened the batting order with Vizcaino and Dascenzo, almost as if to get them out of the way. After Vizcaino led off the game with a walk, they went a combined 0 for 8, with one strikeout and one double play (it erased Vizcaino after that leadoff walk). After that, the Cubs' lineup was really pretty potent, considering they were spotting the Mets three outs out of nine.

In spite of the absence of runners on base, the Cubs' three, four, and five hitters--Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, and Mark Grace--are all having good seasons, with Grace even having what should be considered a terrific season. (As of last Monday, he was among the top hitters in the league, at .324.) And the Cubs have recently added a pair of young, lefty-swinging prospects, Derrick May and Rick Wilkins, to the lineup.

Both have been up before and never quite stuck. Wilkins has a good bat, but he's a slovenly catcher. May looks like a natural hitter, with a fluid, flat swing, but he too suffers from defensive lapses, and the Cubs have never quite seemed confident in his ability. Last year, when he appeared ready to step into left field, the Cubs acquired George Bell, which moved May back into the minors, where he suffered a broken wrist--a wasted season. This spring, the Cubs had no sooner traded Bell than they sent May back to the minors again, in spite of a decent spring training. When Sosa went down, however, May returned, and after struggling early he began to hit, and managed three singles--none of them pretty--on this evening against the Mets. Wilkins added a double and a single.

Yet just when May seemed to be getting comfortable at the major-league level, the Cubs went out and picked up Kal Daniels, a petulant and injury-prone outfielder, from the league scrap heap. May is again on the bubble. That's no way to build for the future, and if the Cubs think they have a shot this season they're in for some surprises in the second half.

Still, they do have a sharp pitching staff, which has developed under the tutelage of Billy Connors. They've gotten great production from the bull pen and decent innings from the starters, but the man who has held the team together is Greg Maddux. Even when the Cubs were staggering through May, he went to the mound every fifth day and tried to pull out a 2-1 or 1-0 victory, and he did so often enough to keep the Cubs' spirits up. On this evening against the Mets, he was as impressive as I've ever seen him.

He allowed two hits, two walks, and a run in the first, but after that just four base runners (one on a fourth-inning error by Vizcaino) and no runs. He mixed a darting, diving fastball with a wicked curve. When he struck out Chico Walker to end the game, it was his tenth whiff of the night. The first was called; all others had been swinging.

The Cubs evened the score in the third on a homer by Dawson down the left-field line. After that, all was tensely quiet until the eighth, when Dawson led off with a walk. Grace singled, May dumped a bunt single down the first-base line, and pinch hitter Luis Salazar followed with a sacrifice fly. Another single, by Dunston's replacement, Rey Sanchez, added an insurance run for a 3-1 victory. We left happy and satisfied, waving good-bye to all the season-ticket neighbors we'd renewed acquaintances with and vowing to meet again soon.

The loss of Dunston scrapped what little hope the Cubs had this season. His south-side counterpart, Ozzie Guillen, also went down with a season-ending injury early this season, jeopardizing the White Sox' pennant hopes. The Sox replaced Guillen with Craig Grebeck, a small but talented utility player who is actually a better hitter than Guillen but doesn't have his defensive range. They even came up with a nifty nickname for him: the Little Hurt, after the Big Hurt, Frank Thomas. Yet something was missing from the White Sox through the first half. For a team expected to win its division, the American League West, the players seemed to lack confidence, that certain elan that distinguishes champions from also-rans. Last Monday found the Sox ahead of the league, at 41-38, but in fourth place, six and a half games out of first. To be sure, there's plenty of time, and the Sox no doubt have the potential to put together the long winning streak that would send them coasting to a division title. But that's the thing: they may lack a spark to get them going consistently.

I've been out to Bill Veeck Stadium a couple of times since the Bulls finished up and both times the Sox won, but neither time very impressively. The first was a 7-0 Jack McDowell complete game against the Cleveland Indians. Nothing very surprising there; even with a 2-1 loss last Saturday, McDowell carried an 11-4 record into this week. (The way his pitching rest is working out, he's a fair bet to start the all-star game next week.) The Sox won comfortably in part because leadoff man Tim Raines went three for five and scored twice. That sort of night has been rare for him this season. The switch-hitter entered the week hitting .250, just .218 right-handed. Raines's dull performance and the aborted attempt to move Thomas into the cleanup spot have been two main reasons the Sox' offense has sputtered.

Last Sunday, the Sox sent Greg Hibbard out against the Boston Red Sox. Hibbard is one of the four Chicago starters behind McDowell. Make that three and a half: Alex Fernandez was recently exiled to the minors and replaced by Wilson Alvarez, the promising but inconsistent young pitcher who threw a no-hitter against the Baltimore Orioles last year. Hibbard, too, has been inconsistent this year, but he is nicknamed "the Bulldog" (one of many pitchers so cursed) and he showed why on this afternoon.

Hibbard is a lefty with a simple little motion in which he kicks with a point to the toe, then strides down the mound to the left, throwing across his body. This should add snap to his breaking pitches but Sunday the snap was lacking. He struggled through the first five innings, allowing three hits, five walks, and two runs, but then Bell hit a grand slam in the bottom of the fifth and Hibbard closed down on the win in a style befitting his nickname.

Bell's at-bat was one of those little joys that make baseball the most consistently entrancing of all the sports. A Joey Cora double had put runners at second and third with one out, but then Grebeck bounced to third, with both runners holding. Thomas was up next, and Boston pitcher Mike Gardiner walked him on five pitches. That brought up Bell with two out and the bases loaded. Gardiner nipped the corner with a slider, then missed with a fastball. Neither is his best pitch; his best pitch is the curve. Prepared for it, Bell got it, and he rode it out of the park to left field.

After that, the most exciting sequence of the day was Scott Radinsky's relief stint. Roberto Hernandez had replaced Hibbard to open the eighth, and he got two outs but surrendered two hits. Radinsky came on to face a left-handed batter with the tying run at second.

There's something primitive and natural about the way Radinsky reads the catcher's sign. He stands there with his wide shoulders shrugged slightly toward the plate and his gloved hand and his bare hand, which grips the ball, both down at his sides, as if the glove were a dollar bill he is laying on a counter and the ball were about to be heaved at a stack of milk bottles on a carnival midway. Then he strides down the mound and slings the ball over his shoulder.

He struck out the lefty to end the eighth. Left in in the ninth, he struck out the leadoff hitter, broke the next hitter's bat on a ground out, and got the last man on a comebacker to the mound. Game over.

The Sox strike me as a team with a confidence that borders on lethargy. They could win 10 or 15 in a row and seal up their division by mid-September, or they could spend the rest of the summer simply waiting for that 10- or 15-game winning streak to start. They still need someone to emerge as a consistent number-two starter behind McDowell, and they need an all-star-caliber second half out of Raines. As for the Cubs, I think I saw their high-water mark for the season.


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