Three days after his first at bat in the major leagues, Chicago Cubs third baseman Kevin Orie could recall the historic occasion with all the clarity of an automobile-accident survivor. "What did I do?" he wondered aloud. "Hmmm. I think, uh, I think it was a pop-up. A pop-up to first base maybe."
Having been blindsided by the ferocious fastball of Florida Marlins pitcher Kevin Brown, Orie's recall was understandably fuzzy. It was his misfortune to play his first game on a day Brown was so sharp that Orie's teammate Mark Grace declared, "In my 11 years in the game I've never seen anybody pitch with better stuff than that. He beat us with one pitch—one pitch that never moved the same way twice."
Said Orie, 24, who had played all but 14 of his minor league games below the Triple A level, "I can't say I've faced anybody like that before. Some of the guys were telling me after the game, 'Don't worry. Not everybody up here throws like that. It gets better.' Well, I can't say it's gotten a lot easier."
That's because Orie's debut, as well as the start to yet another season of Chicago Hopeless, wasn't so much an initiation as a hazing. The 4-2 Brownout the Cubs suffered on Opening Day was only the first of 11 consecutive games against pitching-rich East Division powers Florida and Atlanta. In each of those games, Chicago was scheduled to face a starting pitcher who had won at least 15 games last year (Brown, Al Leiter and Alex Fernandez of the Marlins; Denny Neagle, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine of the Atlanta Braves), with two of the hardest throwing closers in the majors (Florida's Robb Nen and Atlanta's Mark Wohlers) ready to finish if needed. The gantlet began with three games in Miami and then three in Atlanta last weekend, courtesy of schedule makers who, for the first time, emphasized warm weather sites and domes for the opening week. It was the toughest Southern trip since Riddick Bowe checked out Parris Island. Welcome to Hell Week.
"We knew when we looked at the schedule this would be tough," said Chicago general manager Ed Lynch, whose club was scheduled to open at home against the Marlins on Tuesday and Thursday of this week before hosting the Braves in a weekend series. "We're playing the most improved team in the league and the best team in the league. I know one thing: We'll find out in a hurry how our young players deal with adversity."
Three losses into what became an 0-6 start at week's end, Cubs president Andy MacPhail cracked, "I vote that we go back to playing the Dodgers in the snow, wearing ski masks like last year."
The Cubs were aware of the difficulty of their early-season task even before their best pitcher underwent surgery, their most consistent hitter severely strained a hamstring and their creaky middle infielders played defense as if their joints, not their gloves, needed oiling. To make matters worse, the Cubs pitchers struggled so mightily that they retired the side in order only twice in their first 48 innings.
With those six straight losses, the Cubs matched their worst start in 14 years—no small feat for a franchise that has had only five winning seasons (none consecutively) in the past quarter century. Predictably, Chicago, the National League's worst hitting team last year, batted only .178 against the pitching juggernaut it confronted to open the season. The trip ended fittingly on Sunday with two losses at newly opened Turner Field in Atlanta. The first was an 11-5 defeat in the completion of a game suspended because of rain the previous night. Then Maddux, who threw eight innings, and Wohlers toyed with the Cubs as if they were just another one of the new park's many interactive games: Chicago's 30 at bats yielded three hits and no walks, and only seven balls left the infield.
"The best part about opening up like this," Grace said about facing the Murderers' Row of pitchers twice to start the season, "is that we don't have to see these suckers again for a long time. Get 'em out of the way."
Second baseman Ryne Sandberg compared it with opening a round of golf with "a real hard par-5." Orie agreed, expanding on the notion: "And you can't hit your driver, so you have to go with an iron off the tee, and you have to play that same hole over and over again—with no mulligans."