Julio Zuleta lay awake into the wee hours of May 19, mind racing, heart pounding, angry and frustrated. The previous afternoon, Zuleta's team, the Chicago Cubs, had lost its eighth straight game and gotten just one hit in a 4-0 loss to Randy Johnson and the Arizona Diamondbacks. Even though Zuleta is only a rookie reserve first baseman, the futility was eating at him. He tossed and turned. He got up and paced in the dark. Suddenly, he stopped and asked himself, What would Pedro Cerrano do?
Ever since spring training 2000, when Cubs catcher Joe Girardi took one look at the 6'6", 245-pound Panamanian's bald head and bulging muscles, Zulet a has been nicknamed Cerrano after the hulking, voodoo-practicing first baseman from the 1989 film Major League. In the flick Cerrano prays for hits by offering cigars and whiskey to Jobu, a small, Buddha-like statue.
The next afternoon Zuleta gathered two oranges, an apple, a banana, sunflower seeds and a tube of the analgesic Flexall. He placed the items on a white towel in a sunny spot in the Cubs' dugout. Then he took a bat from each member of that evening's starting lineup and stacked them atop the mishmash. "I can't explain it all," says Zuleta, "but I thought that maybe the bats were hungry, so I gave them some fruit. I put them in the sun so we could get hot."
During that afternoon's game, against Arizona, Zuleta returned each piece of lumber to its respective owner before that player stepped to the plate. As the leadoff hitter, second baseman Miguel Cairo, approached, Zuleta rubbed Cairo's bat with a bone used to harden the wood, then squeezed the bat in his hands and passed it to Cairo. Zuleta did the same thing for the number 2 hitter, shortstop Ricky Gutierrez. And for number 3, rightfielder Sammy Sosa, and so on and so on. "I don't practice voodoo," says Zuleta. "I am Catholic, and I believe 100 percent in God. But the way we were losing, something had to be done."
That day the Cubs beat the Diamondbacks 6-2. Chicago won its next game too. And the next. And the next. And the next. And the next. And the next. And the next. And the next. And the next. And the next. And the next. In 1965 the Pittsburgh Pirates became the first team to win 12 consecutive games immediately after losing eight in a row. With last Saturday's 10-4 defeat of the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park, the Cubs became the second. The streak was Chicago's longest since it won 15 straight in '35, and it lifted the Cubs from 21-20 and fourth place in the National League Central to 33-20 and first place. During the 12-game run, the Cubs batted a robust .287. Sosa went 18 for 41 with 14 RBIs; first baseman Matt Stairs scored eight runs and contributed eight RBIs; and Cairo performed admirably (6 for 11 and five runs scored) while replacing regular second baseman Eric Young for three games. Do you believe in miracles? No. Do you believe in produce? Yes.
Zuleta was still performing his rituals on Sunday, when the Cubs finally lost, 4-2 to the Brewers. The oranges, apples and bananas had traveled with the club from Chicago to Cincinnati to Milwaukee, religiously placed in a freezer after each game. The same towel—unwashed—had served as a mat. "Look, I don't know what the heck Julio's doing," said third baseman Ron Coomer on Sunday, "but as long as he's not killing any chickens in his hotel room, I'm not going to complain. Winning is winning."
For this 126th edition of the Cubs—who, despite having had their winning streak snapped, were 2� games ahead of the second-place St. Louis Cardinals through Sunday—their early-season success has been invigorating. This is a team that last season tied with the Philadelphia Phillies for most losses in the league (97), had a staff ERA of 5.25 (14th in the league) and hit .256 (13th). This spring the Cubs were widely picked to finish last in their division.
In the off-season, after free-agent lefthander Mike Hampton spurned Chicago's $100 million-plus offer and signed with the Colorado Rockies, the Cubs were left to pick up the pitching scraps: 30-year-old righthander Jason Bere, a starter who hadn't won 10 games in a season since 1994; 38-year-old lefthander Jeff Fassero, a starter turned reliever who had an iffy left shoulder; and 28-year-old righthander Julian Tavarez, who had started in only 24 of his 364 major league appearances but whom the Cubs counted on to plug a hole in the rotation. Most startling was the two-year, $4 million contract given to Tom (Flash) Gordon, the former Boston Red Sox closer who had missed the past 1� seasons with a torn ligament in his right elbow. "I'm sure people looked at our moves and weren't impressed," says Jim Hendry, Chicago's assistant general manager, "but we believed these were the pieces we needed to rebuild."
It turns out that the least-publicized acquisition of all may have had the biggest impact. Shortly after he was named Chicago's manager in November 1999, Don Baylor asked the front office to hire Mack Newton, a well-known Arizona-based fitness consultant and motivational speaker, to serve as a spring training guru. The team brass refused. This spring Newton was allowed to come aboard. He ran training camp in Mesa, Ariz., as if he were a hybrid of Richard Simmons, Dr. Wayne Dyer and Vince Lombardi. Each day began with a grueling 75-minute stretching-and-exercise routine put to funky music and nonstop banter. All the while Newton was guaranteeing that come October, Chicago would be in its first World Series since 1945. On the final day of spring training Sosa led the Cubs in a standing ovation for the departing Newton.