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5 Chicago Cubs
Tom Verducci
March 27, 2000
With a proven hand at the helm, better things are in store (knock on Wood)
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March 27, 2000

5 Chicago Cubs

With a proven hand at the helm, better things are in store (knock on Wood)

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by the numbers

1999 Team Statistics (NL rank)

1999 record: 67-95 (sixth in NL Central)

Batting average

.257 (15)

Opponents' batting average

.286 (15)

Runs scored

747 (13)

ERA

5.27 (15)

Home runs

189 (6)

Fielding percentage

.977 (14)

Even if Don Baylor hadn't known what he was getting himself into (though, in fact, he says he took the Cubs' managership because Chicago was a toxic mess in 1999) he found out on the first day of full workouts in training camp. Sammy Sosa wasn't there, but fellow outfielder Henry Rodriguez was, lurking near the last row of players during morning calisthenics in a line unto himself.

"The Sammy Sosa line," Baylor said after the workout. "He won't be there tomorrow. He'll be up front." He was.

Such a mess were last year's Cubs that they deserve to show up on a list of Superfund cleanup sites. They ran their loss total to 95 games in the most heinous of ways: They quit. Eight games out of first place in the Central Division and one game under .500 on July 22, they mailed in a 52-game stretch in which they won only 11 times and failed to put together so many as two victories in a row. That surrender cost manager Jim Riggleman his job.

"Riggs was a nice guy," says one veteran Cub, which is becoming a redundant identifier. "Probably too nice of a guy. Guys took advantage of him. There were some guys who would walk in and say, 'I don't feel like playing today' It was ugly. We'll find out how Baylor handles it. His biggest job is how he handles Sammy. There was some tension in the clubhouse last year with Sammy, so we'll see."

Sosa's 129 home runs over the past two seasons are the most in baseball history this side of Mark McGwire. Sosa has also missed just four of Chicago's 487 games over the past three seasons. Last year, however, the once multidimensional Sosa played the outfield erratically and stole fewer bases (seven) than the Phillies' lumbering Rico Brogna (eight), while getting caught one more time than he arrived safely. His affection for home runs and even the volume of his clubhouse boom box raised eyebrows on a team wary of Sosa's becoming self-satisfied and self-absorbed. "I'm aware of it, and I know it's a challenge," Baylor says. "I knew it when I took the job, and I welcome the challenge. In all my years in baseball I never went to spring training before with a team that finished in last place. Things will change here."

Baylor's disinfectant job began with laying down rules of decorum: no cutoffs or gym shorts at the ballpark, no unkempt facial hair, no caps worn backward and mandatory attendance on the top step of the dugout for the national anthem. Each violation carries a $50 fine.

Left unsaid by Baylor is that getting his players to make an attitude adjustment is a more realistic goal than that of getting the Cubs into the race for the division title. Chicago has replaced six starters (including pitcher Steve Trachsel) from its Opening Day lineup of a year ago without getting much better. In fact the Cubs' profile hasn't changed much: They're still a high-strikeout, old-legged team with a shallow pitching staff.

Chicago can, however, make a significant leap if righthander Kerry Wood regains his electric stuff one year after undergoing elbow surgery. The Cubs liked what they saw from Wood in spring training, but they will bring him back slowly, with no plans to expose him to early-season cold weather.

"It's a fragile team," concedes club president Andy MacPhail. Righthander Kevin Tapani is 36 and coming off a season cut short by back pain. Fellow starter Jon Lieber staggered to a 2-8 finish while throwing a career-high 203? innings. Ismael Valdes, acquired in a winter trade with the Dodgers, is 30-35 over the past three seasons despite what scouts consider superior stuff. The bullpen is weak.

Still, even a half season from Wood and a typically underachieving year from Valdes will improve what was the worst pitching staff in the 124 years of Chicago National League baseball. Ah, but it's a tribute to the charm of Wrigley Field, not to mention that of consuming cold alcoholic beverages alfresco, that more people than ever before in franchise history, 2,813,854, paid to see those miserable Cubs. Such devotion is a big reason that Baylor, who had his pick of several off-season managerial openings, wanted to come to Chicago. "I knew about the fan support, but I really experienced it during the winter when we did our promotional caravan," Baylor says. "I had two ladies come up to me and tell me they've been Cubs fans all their lives. There was a 92-year-old lady who said she'd been a Cubs fan for 70 years. And there was a 93-year-old lady. Seventy years a Cubs fan! My dad's 72! It was amazing. It just blew me away."

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