A Wednesday Night at Wrigley
When I learned I would be arriving in Chicago on business earlier than originally planned Wednesday night, I decided to call the Cubs box office to pick up the best available single I could buy for that evening's game against the Washington Nationals. While my support for the Boston Red Sox will never waver, my wife comes from a long line of Cubs fans and I must admit that their devotion to the North Siders has rubbed off over the years. I like the Cubs. I like Wrigley Field. I like baseball. I managed a seat in the fifth row of section 115 (pictured terribly on the right).
When I arrived at the park about 30 minutes or so before the first pitch, a few things struck me. First, there was a nonstop procession of promotions; honorary batboys and batgirls and I swear to you there were four separate "first pitches". Interestingly it was Phillips Exeter grad Sam Fuld who somehow pulled promotion duty that evening. I couldn't tell if it was simply Sam's turn or if they just tell the 5'7" kid who went to Exeter and Stanford to go and make nice with the community. Whatever it was, Fuld was doing just about everything but preparing to play an actual baseball game leading up to the first pitch. Of course, he also wasn't in the lineup that night.
The other thing I noticed was a peculiar, unspoken game of one-upmanship in which Cubs fans try and evidence their love of the team by donning a $22 tee-shirt with some of the club's lesser known players' names on the back; the less heralded, the better. Ryan Theriot? I saw at least 25. Koyie Hill? You bet. Ryan Dempster? Everywhere. Tom Gorzelanny? Now on sale. I did not see one Milton Bradley tee shirt.
The clear fan favorite of the Chicago Cubs is Derrek Lee. The Cubs started to become what they are now - a veritable power brand in MLB - beginning in the 1998 season if you ask me. You could point to any number of players that will live on in peoples' memories as most representing this era of Cubs success (four playoff appearances in 11 seasons), but as time goes on and with steroid allegations tarnishing images as they seem to do, it just may be Lee that stands taller than the rest. Sure there's Sosa and Prior and Wood and Aramis and Zambrano, but Lee's steadiness, professionalism and off-the-charts awesome 2005 season position him a bit differently.
Maybe you're a Frank Chance kind of guy/gal but Lee has a fine argument as the best first baseman ever to wear a Cubs uniform. Looking back, it's a credit to my father-in-law's respect for his daughter's independence that he let me have her hand in marriage; in the Spring of 2004 I did after all argue to him that Hee Seop Choi would be better than Lee after they were traded for one another. I was adamant, too.
My scorecard pencil eraser saw work immediately. I had Nyjer Morgan leading off and playing center field, right where he was the previous night, right where he had been for the 48 other games he had played for the Washington Nationals in 2009. Willie Harris would take his position that night, however, as Morgan would miss the game with reported flu-like symptoms and then later be placed on the DL for the remainder of the year with a fractured hand. You can imagine my disappointment.
I love Fangraphs and think it's data is indispensable. But I am not one of these fans that takes their value lists at face. I am a skeptic, though would defer to it ahead of my own instinct most of the time if I had to make a call on a certain player. So back to Morgan. According to Fangraphs, he ranks 14th in total value this season amongst all Major League position players; better than Mark Teixeira, better than Troy Tulowitzki. I find this surprising but I do not necessarily doubt it. That's why I was so eager to see Morgan, a player whose value is so tied to his defense. What kind of jump does he get? I wanted to see how quickly and easily he could track down a surefire gap shot. But it wasn't to be.
The game itself was clean for seven innings or so. The Cubs managed two runs against Livan Hernandez and then another off of Jason Bergmann. Bradley had all three RBI for the Cubs through seven innings, two of which came after a long home run he pulled to right field off of Hernandez. As he made his way back to the Cubs dugout after crossing the plate, he opened and closed his hand repeatedly, the way one might if they were mocking someone for talking too much. He clearly has no use for the Chicago media or even the fans. As David Cameron notes, Bradley has not provided great value for the Cubs but he also has not been nearly as disastrous as, say, Alfonso Soriano.
Hernandez struck out the first two batters he faced and looked for all of Wrigley Field like he might have something special in him that night. Of course you would never know it from the radar gun. The velocity on at least ten of his pitches that I saw did not eclipse 66 miles per hour. But when his night was done he had given up just seven baserunners and two runs in six innings. He struck out six. For his part, Rich Harden was both dazzling and infuriating, struggling with command but blowing hitters away with his pure stuff. He pitched every bit as well as Hernandez, a back-handed compliment of sorts for a pitcher of Harden's ability ("hey, I went pitch for pitch with Livan Hernandez tonight, guys!").
Just as I was eager to witness Morgan's defensive prowess, I couldn't help but notice Adam Dunn's fielding ineptitude. It's something to behold. To lead off the eighth inning, Kosuke Fukudome hit a sharp ground ball no more than four feet to Dunn's right between the second baseman and where Dunn was playing, first base. He never moved. Later in the inning Dunn misplayed a Jeff Baker grounder that was charitably ruled a hit. The Cubs broke the game open, Dunn did not commit an error but he definitely cost his team two outs that at least 25 other Major League first baseman would have had no trouble at all handling. It was exhibit A for the inadequacy of traditional defensive statistics (errors, fielding percentage).
The Cubs would score six in the eighth, the Nats two in the ninth and the game would end up a 9-4 win for the Cubbies. Wrigley's energy was a bit zapped by the previous night's drubbing to the lowly Nationals and the overall disappointment that has characterized the 2009 season for Chicago. The lack of energy only served to make my personal experience all the more pure and somehow, timeless; it was August Major League Baseball between two teams without a chance this year featuring no shortage of intriguing players. I was at a beautiful, historic park in a world-class city. I had an Old Style, a hot dog, met some nice people, kept score. There were empty seats.
I love taking in a game with a friend as much as the next guy but there was something about this meaningless game in August, alone, away from my hometown that made me feel closer to the game than I had been in a long time. I'm recharged. The dog days are behind us.
Now bring on the stretch run.