"Big fat guy. Can't miss him."
"Yes, and who's going to pay for all this?"
"The Cubs'll pay for it. We owe them this one."
No team in baseball is as beholden to its fans as the Cubs. Conversely, no fans in baseball are as patient—and forgiving—with their team. This marks the sixth time in the last 10 years that Chicago has been in first place in June, and it has nary a divisional championship to show for it. The pennant has not flown over Wrigley Field since 1945. (It also flew there in 1918, lending substance to the theory that it will require the end of World War III for the National League flag to gallantly stream at Wrigley once more.)
And while Cub fans are much too savvy—given their team's past performances—to be struck by pennant fever at such an outrageously early date, they have learned it is best to get their shouting in early, and a wave of reckless excitement is sweeping over the city with the nation's shortest memory. Attendance at Cub games has passed half a million earlier than ever, and the crowd of 45,777 on April 14 was a Wrigley Field record for a home opener. "There's not a skeptical Cub fan alive," says Lou Boudreau, one of the club's broadcasters. "Sure they've been disappointed before, but who hasn't?"
If ever there was a team capable of disappointing Chicagoans again, it would seem to be the 1978 Cubs. As a club, they are hitting less than .250. Their opponents have out-homered them, have a better earned run average and have stolen more bases. And Chicago has been shut out six times. Yet, somehow, by the end of last week the Cubs had put together a 34-25 record, good enough to lead the East Division by 2� games.
"They're battlers," says Ken Holtzman, who is back with Chicago after three championship years in Oakland and two years in mothballs in New York. "And they're deep. We never had a team this deep," he says, using "we" to refer to the 1969-71 Cub teams of which Holtzman was a member and which always found a way to die.
Indeed, this season's offense seems to come from a different quarter every night. Larry Biittner has put together a 12-game hitting streak and he and Bill Buckner are the only Cubs hitting better than .300; Greg Gross is among the league leaders in triples; Ivan DeJesus is one of the most prolific run scorers; and Dave Kingman is high on the list of home-run hitters.
"Everyone's involved here," Holtzman says. "They reach down for the 25th man, and he might be the one to win a game for you. The old Cubs always used to lose the heartbreakers in the damnedest ways. This team can win the heart-breakers. They remind me of the old Oakland A's in that way."
Chicago Manager Herman Franks is fed up with reminders of Cub collapses of the past. "Hey, why should I give a damn about what Santo and Williams and Banks did 10 years ago?" he says. "I wasn't here then. My players weren't here then. That's history."