That's how it felt walking into the hallowed, ivied walls last night -- funereal.
The ballpark was very slow filling up -- an hour before game time there couldn't have been 10,000 in the house, compared to the day before, when the place was nearly full at that point, most of whom came early just to get the Ryne Sandberg Hall of Fame replica cap. And even at "capacity", there were large clumps of empty seats, and the announced attendance of 37,625 was the smallest in months. There are some who say that there is some statement to be made here, that somehow staying away will "force change", but the reality of baseball life is that things don't work that way.
Those of us who were there early simply enjoyed the glorious late-summer weather, watched some high, wispy clouds that were blowing off the northern edge of Hurricane Katrina (and that produced a gorgeous pink & orange sunset -- no disrespect meant to those who have suffered from this storm, only pointing out how huge a storm it is, that we could see clouds off its edge more than 1000 miles from the center), and settled in to watch the Cubs play a team that came in with a record even worse than theirs -- in fact, since their 12-5 start, the Dodgers are in Colorado territory (47-66 from that point through Sunday).
And Jerome Williams continued his terrific pitching from his last start -- well, for one inning, anyway.
In the second inning, Williams couldn't get anybody out; while the key hit off him was a two-run Antonio Perez double, the worst of it was the walk he issued to D. J. Houlton with the bases loaded.
To give you an idea of just how bad that was, in 22 at-bats before last night, Houlton had struck out 14 times and had a batting average of .136. He had walked once. Cub pitchers doubled that total last night alone -- Todd Wellemeyer also issued a free pass to Houlton.
What is it with Cub pitchers that they simply cannot throw strikes to opposing hurlers? This isn't the first time this has happened.
The six-run second, which was capped by one of the worst throws ever, a Nomar Garciaparra attempt at a force play at second that nearly wound up in our laps in the right-field bleachers, was far more than enough for a 9-6 Dodger win over the Cubs, though the Cubs at least made it an interesting night with four solo homers.
The first of those blasts, by Jeromy Burnitz (who had two), started out as if it were coming right for us, but wound up flying way over our heads onto Sheffield Avenue. Trust me when I say that the 394-foot distance that was announced for this homer was at least fifty feet short of reality -- the ball bounced on the far side of Sheffield, to our right, one of the longest homers I've seen hit to our side of the ballpark.
Jeff arrived sporting a cotton ball taped to his inner elbow, having spent the day at the doctor's office. He said he felt better but was pretty quiet all night (although he was happy that his cellphone survived the washing machine nightmare), as was Dave, who spent the evening mostly looking at the ground, then left early after we had discussed some more player moves that could be made either now or in the off-season... and one of those moves was, in fact, made during the game, the trade of Todd Hollandsworth to the Braves, which, (yeah, I know it's easy to say now, after the fact) was one of the teams I thought might be interested in a veteran like Holly.
I thought something might be up with him when he was pulled from the game after the seventh, for no obvious reason.
The two minor league pitchers the Cubs got in return likely aren't much (particularly Angelo Burrows -- he's 25, a pitcher converted from the outfield and still toiling in A ball at that age isn't a real good indicator of making it in the majors), but again, as in the Matt Lawton deal, getting something in return for someone who's not going to be part of the 2006 Cubs was worthwhile.
Frankly, I was kind of hoping that the Cubs could deal Corey Patterson somewhere, but after last night, with several major league scouts likely watching, who'd want him? Patterson waved at a pitch about ten feet over his head in his first at-bat as a pinch-hitter, and then looked at strike three in the ninth.
The Cubs made the game interesting for a while, with Todd Walker and Nomar adding solo homers to Burnitz' pair, closing to within 8-5 before Scott Williamson decided to join the party by giving up a bases-empty homer to LA's Jayson Werth in the ninth. The Cubs added two non-homer runs of their own late in the game, one coming on Scott McClain's first major league RBI. Sure, it came on a play that might have resulted in a double play if Jose Valentin had been able to make what normally is a routine throw, but I'm sure McClain, who had to toil in the minors and Japan for seven years in between major league stints, will take it.
This season now over -- there, I said it -- the Cubs will begin making moves in preparation for 2006. Kerry Wood will have arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder tomorrow, performed by Reds team doctor Timothy Kremchek, one of the most noted authorities in this area; the roster spots opened by this and the Hollandsworth deal will result in the recalls of Jermaine Van Buren and Matt Murton, effective today.
The scheduled surgery, announced yesterday, made it even more puzzling to see Wood in the game -- what if he'd gotten injured even more seriously? We figured it was because someone had decided that everyone on the pitching staff whose last name begins with "W" had to get in the game last night (and did: Williams, Wellemeyer, Wuertz, Wood and Williamson, in that order). Meanwhile, this article on the Cubs website says that Aramis Ramirez is "progressing" in his rehab, but also implies that he might not play the rest of the year.
Good. Aramis may have personal goals yet (100 RBI), but why risk injuring him further now? The article also implies what all of us have noted this year -- that Aramis really isn't in very good shape in general, and needs a rigorous off-season workout program to get in better playing condition.
We were also joined last night by Joe Baker, who posts here under the name "PhillyCub", and who told us how, despite the fact that the Phillies are currently leading the wild-card race, the Philadelphia papers are "All Eagles and all T. O. all the time". At least they have a good football team to write about.
Late in the game Mike asked me how many multi-homer games Derrek Lee, who had one on Sunday, had this year. The answer is eight, and that seemed a lot to me when I heard that number, and Mike confirmed that. The record for such things is eleven, held by... Sammy Sosa. Lee, who was 0-for-5 after his big day Sunday, still has a shot at this, as well as a batting title, and perhaps other individual honors.
That's what we have left for us this year, as the Cubs enter September for the first time in three years playing games that aren't meaningful for them for any postseason consideration. In fact, they can't really even play spoiler. Beginning Friday, when there will be 29 games remaining, only seven of those will be against a team with any realistic postseason hopes -- the seven games with the Astros.