CHICAGO (AP) - The Cubs skulked back into town with their tails between their legs and plenty to answer for.
Then Monday dawned hot and hazy and by mid-afternoon, the sun was shining, the cold beer was flowing, the wind was blowing out and a fleet of baseballs hitched a ride on the jetstream over the walls at Wrigley Field. By the time the accounting was done, the Cubs had half of the eight home runs and an 11-7 win over the equally hapless Padres.
Throw in a pre-game flight by the eagle Challenger and a seventh-inning rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” by actor Brian Dennehy _ in town starring in the play, “The Iceman Cometh” _ and it was entertaining enough to send fans out the door wondering where the party was relocating and exactly what they were so upset about in the first place.
Cubs manager Dale Sveum wasn’t about to remind them.
“Let’s not kid yourself. You lose 12 in a row, you finally win. It’s a big relief,” he said afterward
Just don’t count on celebrating for long. Even in bad years, the Cubs usually don’t swoon until June. This year they couldn’t even make it to Memorial Day. At this rate, they could be mathematically eliminated by the Fourth of July.
The last six of the Cubs’ dozen straight losses came during a seven-day road trip at NL Central rivals Houston and Pittsburgh, two of the only half-dozen or so teams Chicago actually has a chance against. It was like being told to bring back dinner and spending all night at the bar instead, then returning empty-handed and praying fans hadn’t changed the locks on the gates at Wrigley Field.
“Patience is something a lot of fans don’t have,” Sveum had said Sunday in Pittsburgh.
Yet he marveled the way Cubs fans had stuck by his team thus far.
“We all understand — I’m a huge football fan and I don’t understand the Oakland Raiders losing every game. That’s the way it is.”
In Chicago, maybe.
Even so, Theo Epstein wasn’t inclined to press his luck. His title with the Cubs is president of baseball operations, but Chicagoans think of Epstein as the boy genius-general manager who ended the Red Sox’ decades-long World Series drought and was brought to town to repeat the trick here. Never mind that he preached patience upon his arrival last October and despite his best efforts, still has only two everyday ballplayers _ Starlin Castro and David DeJesus _ who could start for most clubs, a barely adequate rotation and a mess in the bullpen.
Even Epstein made it sound like he didn’t sign on for this.
“I think we’re clearly better than this … on both fronts, short- and long-term, there’s work to do,” he said at a hastily arranged news conference.
Unfortunately, though beyond “start scrapping and keep grinding for pride,” Epstein was short on specifics on how to improve things over the short term.
“Long term,” he added, not much more optimistic, “it underscores the magnitude of the job here and sort of how far we need to go to get where we want to be.”
At a century and still counting, Cub fans are either the dopiest of most patient bunch in sports. And over the course of all that losing, they’ve learned to savor the distractions that are often more interesting than anything the team has been able to cobble together on the field. That’s why they happily blame black cats, real goats and imaginary scapegoats like Steve Bartman for the ballclub’s unending run of futility.
Winning is great, but in these parts entertaining is still good enough.
Last week’s brouhaha was over whether Joe Ricketts, the conservative patriarch of TD Ameritrade and the family that owns the Cubs, was really planning to finance a nasty political attack campaign against President Barack Obama _ and whether that would make it harder for the Cubs to gain concessions to modify Wrigley Field from the city’s staunchly Democratic mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and the city council.
The week before that, it was the nostalgia kicked up by the retirement of one-time pitching phenom Kerry Wood and an essay in The Wall Street Journal calling for the destruction of Wrigley Field, suggesting the aging shrine was actually the reason for all that losing:
“Destroy it. Annihilate it. Collapse it with the sort of charges that put the Sands Hotel out of its misery in Vegas. Implosion or explosion, get rid of it. That pile of quaintness has to go. … When a house is haunted, you don’t put in a new scoreboard, add ivy, get better food or bigger beers_you move!”
Sounding more like a fan than the Cubs left-fielder, Alfonso Soriano considered the option for the briefest of moments.
“Leave this place? No, never,” he said after going 3 for 4 with a homer and three RBIs. “You saw how much it was jumping when we got it going. Let’s see what can happen now. We just had some tough moments before.”
Which is, give or take a few years, is how the Cubs still refer to the last century.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.
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