The Cubs were thoroughly overwhelmed. They hit one home run in their first 191 at bats of the season, did not muster a sacrifice or a stolen base and got only three hits and no RBIs from cleanup hitter Sammy Sosa. They also committed 11 errors. "We do all that we can to keep things loose here," manager Jim Riggleman said, "but for some reason we've played tight."
Chicago, a big-city team that operates with a small-market attitude, was just as tight in the off-season. While the Marlins were shelling out $95 million in an effort to catch the Braves, the Cubs' most significant acquisitions were righthander Kevin Tapani, signed to a three-year, $11 million deal, and closer Mel Rojas, who got a three-year, $13.8 million package. Both of them endured miserable first weeks. Tapani had to undergo surgery to clean some scar tissue from a ligament on the back of his right index finger, and he is expected to miss the first half of the season. Rojas allowed four runs in his first two innings as a Cub)—or as many as he gave up in the entire second half of last season with the Montreal Expos.
Chicago made no major additions to its regular lineup, leaving half of the every-day jobs to players either well short of their prime (rookies Orie and Brant Brown, the team's 11th different Opening Day leftfielder in 11 years) or well past it (37-year-old Sandberg and 34-year-old shortstop Shawon Dunston). Orie did scratch out the team's only Opening Day hit—an infield bouncer—in seven innings against Brown, but the next night he had to face Leiter and Nen, whose heater the Cubs clocked at 101 mph, and afterward Orie had trouble sleeping.
"I stayed up through two Sports-Centers," he said. "I caught the 2:30 a.m. edition. I had to fight against having negative thoughts. I'd be lying if I said there wasn't doubt creeping into my mind about being in the big leagues. That's the toughest part of playing, the mental side."
Orie reassured himself in his first at bat last Thursday against the Marlins' Fernandez, smoking a double that missed clearing the leftfield wall by inches. But Chicago got only four other hits off Fernandez, who pitched into the seventh inning of an 8-2 win. In Atlanta last Friday, Riggleman compassionately pinch-hit for Orie against Wohlers in the ninth inning and kept him on the bench against Smoltz the next day. Said Lynch, "What you have to like about Orie is that every day he gives us exceptional defense at third base. He's got a great temperament too. His personality reminds me of Sandberg's. Those guys don't seem to change, whether they're going good or bad."
Sandberg and Dunston, though game as ever, gave off an antiqued look last week, particularly when contrasted with the Marlins' dynamic duo of 21-year-olds, shortstop Edgar Renteria and second baseman Luis Castillo. Sandberg, who made six errors all of last season, committed three in the first six games. On Friday, seemingly five outs from a 4-3 win over Atlanta, Dunston didn't bend far enough to field what might have been a double play grounder. It scooted under his glove for an error that led to a 5-4 defeat.
But the night may be best remembered not for the Braves' comeback but as the beginning of the Theme Park Era of baseball. While the field and seating bowl of Turner Field are pleasant, though uninspiring, the park's most distinctive feature is hidden from view behind the centerfield scoreboard: a carnivallike plaza containing all those interactive games.
It's not as if the Braves aren't an attraction themselves. Before Friday's game they received their 1996 National League championship rings, which are inscribed FIVE STRAIGHT LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES. FOUR OUT OF FIVE WORLD SERIES. The Cubs, meanwhile, stood on the third base line like kids with their noses pressed against the window of a toy store at Christmastime. The only active player on the Cubs who has appeared in a World Series game is Terry Mulholland, whose Opening Day loss marked his first regular-season game in a Chicago uniform.
"I guess jealousy is a word that comes to mind," said Grace, the one Cub who looked good in the early going, with five hits in his first 10 at bats before he, too, ran into trouble, landing on the 15-day disabled list after straining his right hamstring while running out a triple on Thursday. The Cubs have been in such a prolonged down cycle that Grace is the only player in baseball who has been with one team through the '90s and never finished within 10 games of first place. At week's end Sandberg had gone 2,035 games without a World Series appearance (the longest such run in baseball), Grace had gone 1,300 and Dunston 1,228. They are as luckless and loyal as their franchise forefathers: Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ron Santo, who combined to play 6,867 games with Chicago, none of them in the Series. The club has not reached the Fall Classic since 1945 and not won it since 1908.
Said Dunston, who re-signed with Chicago after one year with the San Francisco Giants, "I'm a Cub. That's why I came back. When they showed interest in me, I knew instantly where I wanted to be. If I never get to a World Series, I won't let it bother me. When I'm finished, all I want is to be able to say I played my hardest. I did my best. It's more important for me to be the best father I can be than to say I played in the World Series. You've got to put it in perspective."