2000

HOUSTON -- A few days ago, you saw Mike's cartoon giving a brief history of our little bleacher group, and mentioning that my 2000th major league game was coming up soon.

Last night was the one.

Those break down as follows:

  • 1674 Cub games at Wrigley Field
  • 112 Cub road games
  • 151 White Sox games (excluding those vs. Cubs; those are included in the Cub totals above)
  • 22 Brewer games in Milwaukee (excluding those where the Cubs were the visitors)
  • 25 regular season games in other cities not involving the Cubs
  • 16 "other", including three World Series games (one in Kansas City in 1980, and two in Milwaukee in 1982), and six All-Star games
This count dates from September 7, 1969, the earliest game from which I still have a scorecard; that's a famous game from that season in which Willie Stargell hit what we now call a "Hawkins" -- a two-out, two-strike home run to tie the game in the 9th inning, and the Cubs lost in 11.

I didn't want to say anything before the game so as not to jinx it, but the Cubs nearly always win my major milestone games. Last night was no exception: a 4-2 win over the Astros, which also kept my perfect record in Texas intact (now 5-0 at Minute Maid Park), winning the series and moving to within 5.5 games of the wild-card leading Astros -- and also the Phillies, who tied Houston with their 4-3 win over the Nationals, and I'll have a bit more to say about all of this later on.

During the hot, sticky day I didn't do too much, just hung around downtown Houston, wandered through the Houston Center, which at first glance appears to be a much fancier mall than it really is -- it's more a glorified food court with a few stores and the promise of some others, which crowds up with office workers at lunchtime but is otherwise pretty empty. Didn't buy anything and then headed off to the game.

During Cubs BP I headed over to the Crawford Boxes, the seats right above the scoreboard in LF, where people hang out waiting for baseballs. Got one! Nomar hit one that smacked off the concrete above the seats, and it landed right at my feet, where I picked it up. Then I wandered down to the Cubs dugout, where Jim Hendry was standing with his sons; after BP was over Hendry flipped a couple of dozen baseballs into the stands, aiming at kids, which I thought was a nice thing to do.

I was surprised, frankly, by the size of the crowds for the two games I attended -- 31,963 on Tuesday and 29,978 last night, over 10,000 short of capacity both nights. This for a team that's been about the hottest in the NL since the end of May, that's leading a playoff race, and that had two quality pitchers going and a popular opponent. Also, many Houstonians had apparently not been apprised of the ESPN-requested game time change; at 6:05 game time the place was less than half full, and people were still walking in at 7:15, by which time the fast-moving game was already in the fifth inning.

There were far fewer Cub fans in attendance than there were last year when I was here in June 2004; I suppose that's because of the disappointment of 2004 and the mediocre performances so far in 2005. You could tell this on the home runs hit last night, both Z's and Nomar's; these are occasions where you really stand up and cheer and there were only scattered pockets of Cub fans here and there -- I'd say only a couple of thousand all told.

Those who didn't come this year missed two terrific games, and apart from the meltdown on Monday, the Cubs have now played seven consecutive games well -- that includes the Saturday loss to the Cardinals, where they just got beat.

The Astros have some dry-erase boards behind the plate where they post the lineups, so I walked over and wrote them down before they were announced. Both on the board, and as announced, Jeromy Burnitz was sixth and Corey Patterson seventh. Thus, I was surprised when these two batted in the opposite order -- I thought at first it might be another Dusty Baker lineup snafu, but no one said anything, so the official lineup cards must have just differed from what was announced.

Z pitched nearly flawlessly -- he had one bad inning, where Craig Biggio's leadoff double and a walk helped lead to two runs, one of which was unearned when Nomar threw a double-play ball into the Astros dugout. You know, he looks flashy in the field and his lateral movement doesn't seem to have been impaired by his injury, but there are times when he seems to make really bad decisions, such as this one. An inning later, he left the game witih "back stiffness", which doesn't appear to be serious and the word is that with the off-day, he'll be all right for the oddly-timed 4:05 pm (CT) start in Denver on Friday.

Otherwise, Z was not only getting nearly everyone out (he allowed only three baserunners apart from the fourth inning, two walks and a single), he was doing it with uncharacteristic efficiency. After he walked Morgan Ensberg with one out in the 9th, he left for Ryan Dempster having thrown 116 pitches -- which for him, isn't that many, considering it was a 9th inning total, not a 7th inning total.

Some more goofy defense made it a little bit of nervous time; when Todd Walker's attempt at a game-ending DP went awry on both ends, it put runners on first and third with one out. I had thought, at first, that Walker had gotten the out at second, and so when Orlando Palmeiro bounced into a 3-6 force play, I thought the game was over.

You could forgive me for trusting the scoreboard on that; it was goofy all night, the side scoreboards visible down the LF line had it showing the fourth inning during the fifth, changing ball and strike counts to suit what the Astros were thinking the calls should be rather than what the umpires actually called (and to be fair, I thought the strike zones were pretty odd for both teams in both games), and not having the right batters posted on several occasions.

Nonetheless, Ryan Dempster bore down and kept the usually-powerful Astros from hitting the ball out of the infield, and ended the game happy for us, with a ground ball to Neifi!

Odd sights: a woman sitting behind me wearing way too much makeup, crowing about her soon-to-be-divorce, getting really drunk and pawing her boyfriend -- at least I hope it was her boyfriend, because if she had just met the guy, she was getting WAY too familiar. And at the end of the game, the aisles clog up very quickly, and for an interesting reason -- everyone's being polite! People let everyone in the row behind them out first, so if you are in the lower rows (I was in row 16) you have to wait a while before you get to the concourse.

It was worth waiting last night, for the win; the Cubs are now 5.5 games behind the Astros AND the Phillies, who, as I said above, now are tied for the lead.

Today, the Phillies will make up their rained-out game from Tuesday night in a split day/night doubleheader against Washington. The best scenario for the Cubs would be for a split, which would maintain the 5.5 game difference. If the Phillies win both, they'll take over first place in the wild-card race and be 6.5 games ahead of the Cubs; if the Nats sweep, then they would take over the top spot, and the Cubs would trail by six games. Unless, of course, Houston beats Milwaukee tonight, in which case the Astros could be first again. Or not. It's complicated.

That smidgen of hope is worming its way back, isn't it? Don't you feel it? The Cubs head on to Colorado, where they have always played well and where they face a team that's 31 games under .500.

A sweep there, and then maybe we'll have something.

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