The Cubs are in town, so ticket prices are higher and crowds will be slightly denser. This current Cubs team brings with it a theoretically impressive, if seldom intact, starting rotation, and two of the best corner infielders in the majors. As for the bullpen, the outfield, the manager, the middle infield, and the fans, well, not so much. Mark Prior and Byung-Hyun Kim (Friday) and especially Greg Maddux and Jeff Francis (Sunday) have the potential to be real barnburners. Saturday brings us Glendon Rusch and Aaron Cook. Again, not so much.
A brutal eight-game losing streak earlier this month pretty much scuttled Chicago's playoff chances, and the failure of the franchise's first $100 million team combined with the surprising success of the White Sox has Cubs fans much crankier than usual. Besides first baseman Derrek Lee (who I invariably accidentally refer to as "Carlos" whenever he comes up in conversation), the two Cubs having the best year are Matt Clement, now ace of the defending champs, and Ryne Sandberg, now a Hall of Famer. That's what being a Cub fan is all about -- a peculiar sort of nostalgia for old times that were really not that great. Even I'm not immune. I can't hear the names Jody Davis or Damon Berryhill without getting a little misty.
While this most closely-observed of also-rans has a lot of minor flaws Chicago columnists will gladly point out to you (bizarre lineup changes, frequent mental lapses on defense, chronically poor situational hitting) the reasons the Cubs won't win the World Series this year are simple: they're too hurt, and they don't get on base enough. Nomar Garciaparra arguably hurt the team less when he was out injured. Neifi Perez started hot, which really hurt the Cubs -- Dusty Baker has seen his way to giving Perez, rivaled only by Cristian Guzman as the worst offensive player of the modern era, the fourth-most at-bats on the team. Corey Patterson, once the team's great young hitting hope, played so badly he was returned to the minors for a spell.
Patterson's development hasn't been helped along any by a manager in Baker who seems deeply skeptical of young players and young hitters in particular. While Baker's preference for "his" guys (Matt Murton has been miles better than either Jeromy Burnitz or Todd Hollandsworth, but good luck with the playing time, kid) is one of those quirks fans in the Bay Area learned to live with, his boneheaded game managing is another matter entirely. It took "Bake" a ridiculously long time to figure out that neither Patterson nor Perez was a leadoff hitter. Derrek Lee, who's having a historically great season, ranks 75th in the majors in at-bats with runners on, tied with Kansas City's Angel Berroa among others. That is bad!
So on offense you have Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Todd Walker when Baker isn't benching him for defense, and (very quietly) catcher Michael Barrett. Burnitz has been useful for the occasional homer but overall the Cubs' outfield has been terrible. Combine that with a bullpen that ranks 21st in the majors in ERA, injuries to pretty much the entire starting staff (besides, oddly, Maddux), and a 9-19 mark against the fierce NL East, and you've got the recipe for another .500 season. With the Red Sox winning it all last year and the White Sox heading to the postseason this year, that shouldn't sit well with Cubs fans. With Maddux pondering retirement, Kerry Wood's career as a starter (and possibly as a Cub) realistically over, and Garciaparra unlikely to return after a snakebitten year and a half in Chicago, a window that seemed wide open in '03 seems to be slamming shut scary-fast.
That said, they'll probably still whip up on the sad-sack Rockies, who don't tend to fare well against starting pitchers of Maddux and Prior's ilk. As for the Cook-Rusch game, flip a coin. I will probably be watching soccer.