Ten points if you can come up with the movie reference in that title.
OK, it is VERY early in the season, five games. But.
IF the Cubs pull off a miracle playoff appearance in 2006, we will all look back and say it began with the ball hit off Michael Barrett's bat in the eighth inning on Sunday night.
The Cubs, on the strength of Barrett's grand slam, beat the Cardinals 8-4, sweeping them for the first time in five years, and rocking Wrigley Field to the point where it felt almost like a playoff day, cold breeze and all, after Barrett's HR, and after Ryan Dempster dispatched a very, very dispirited St. Louis team easily in the ninth inning.
Forgive me for being too excited, but despite the cold, it was a warm, warm night, suffused with good feelings, and you can almost hear the creaking in the NL Central, as the Cardinals, 100-game winners for the last two years, appear lost, unable to win even when they get key hits from key players and not being able to find the right bullpen combination, and the Cubs are the ones getting the hits when they need them, and even when they went behind early and again mid-game, it didn't seem to matter. There was that quiet confidence that I know I felt during the 1984 season, and again during 2003, where you felt that even going down 2-0 in the first inning, the players were saying to themselves, "Doesn't matter. We'll come back."
Before gate-opening the lines were a block long down both Waveland and Sheffield. This is extremely unusual for night games, and particularly this early in the season (incidentally, last night, April 9, is the earliest-ever night game date at Wrigley Field). I can only imagine what they'll look like in June and July. But with 50% more seats, thirty minutes after opening time the new bleachers still seem quite empty.
Jeff and I spent some time talking about our new LF corner. We like it, but we also may check out other areas, just to say we did. The Cubs are still working on some things; the aisle behind us, which is pretty narrow, got quite crowded, and security kept coming by -- nicely -- to keep it clear. I think the Cubs are realizing that they're a bit understaffed. Still, I've seen no fights -- the only one last night was behind the 3B dugout -- and no more than the "usual" number of ejections. In addition to seating, I've been spending a lot of the pregame time just walking around, trying to familiarize myself with something that seems both familiar -- the ramps, for example, and the area around the upstairs concession stand look pretty much as they did before -- and very different; the elevator and the wide concourse and patio remind you that it is all new.
One thing I like about the new location is that we can now pick up balls in the early innings, rather than have to look directly into the setting sun; we're also looking into fewer lights than in RF, because the 3B-side lights are at our side. This made it easier to pick up pitches, and Sean Marshall seemed "on".
This despite the long HR by Scott Rolen, giving St. Louis a first-inning 2-0 lead. Marshall got behind Rolen and it cost him. The HR was the first to leave the new bleachers; it went out to the street about 20 feet to our left, just inside the foul pole.
To Marshall's credit, he settled right down and breezed through to the fifth inning, when he gave up back-to-back hits to lead off the inning and then gave way to Michael Wuertz, after he hit David Eckstein. Actually, we thought that was a far better result than pitching to Eckstein, because Eckstein's a pest, and it set up a force at any base, with strikeout artist Juan Encarnacion coming up.
Wuertz struck out Encarnacion, and then Albert Pujols singled JUST under Ronny Cedeno's glove for two runs.
Which brings me to a point. Why is Pujols booed so much at Wrigley Field? It's not as if he's Barry Bonds or anything. Pujols is a great player and by all accounts, a first-class guy. Not that I'm going to cheer him, of course, but booing him? That's weird.
Even after the Cardinals took the lead, I told Mike, "Four runs won't win this game," and the Cardinal bullpen again showed why it may be a weak spot for them this year. They don't have Ray King to come in to face Todd Walker -- instead, it's Ricardo Rincon. Rincon walked Walker, and then, the Cardinals don't have Julian Tavarez to hit somebod -- er, to come in as a setup guy. Tony LaRussa must have been desperate, to go directly to his closer, Jason Isringhausen, with nobody out in the 8th.
Izzy had nothing; his first eight pitches were out of the strike zone, resulting in two walks. After Barrett ran the count to 2-2, he hit his blast over the new bleachers onto Waveland.
See, ballhawks? You have nothing to worry about. That's two homers to the street on a day when the wind was blowing in.
More good stuff: the bullpen kept the game close; Jerome Williams, appearing for the first time wearing #57, threw two credible innings, Scott Williamson looked unhittable, and Ryan Dempster dispatched the Cardinals easily in the 9th after the Cubs added an additional run, taking Dempster out of the save situation.
Even more good stuff: Jacque Jones busting out of an 0-for-13 with his first HR of the year, a 3-run job... but even better than that, he hit it to the opposite field, something Dusty Baker said he's been working on. He tipped his hat a bit shyly to the RF bleachers after running out there for the next inning.
And so... this is not a defining moment in the 2006 season. Yet. But it is a beginning, and a statement, and a welcome one indeed.
Shirt seen: worn by a guy wearing a St. Louis cap, it read on the back: "Cubs Baseball: An Alternative To Winning Since 1908."
So sad we all had to laugh.
And we can laugh well this morning.