September 4, 2013
Perry Hill, the Marlins' longtime first-base coach, may have become the first man in uniform to compliment the visiting clubhouse at Wrigley Field. He was happy to find that a small video room was added since his last visit, taking the monitors out of the tiny clubhouse space, which hasn't changed much since Bob Gibson retired.
Hill was standing beside the visiting dugout trying to picture a giant video screen and other proposed improvements when he broke into a big smile.
"They can do anything they want as long as they don't take that seat away,'' he said, using his bat to point behind the Cubs' bullpen, where Steve Bartman sat in Game 6. "People always ask me what's my favorite thing about this place. I always say it's that seat. That seat got me a World Series ring. I don't ever want to come in here and see that it's gone.''
Almost 10 years have passed since a fan beat Moises Alou to Luis Castillo's slicing fly ball, and the teams that met on arguably Chicago's most electrifying night of baseball are a combined 55 games under .500 this season. Both have binged and purged since then — the Cubs in water-torture fashion, the Marlins with the swiftness to give season ticket holders the bends. The two teams have run through a cast of managers, including Dusty Baker, Lou Piniella, Jack McKeon, Joe Girardi, Fredi Gonzalez and Ozzie Guillen, before landing on their current pair, Dale Sveum and Mike Redmond.
If the future's bright for either, you couldn't tell it by the buzz at the old ballpark on Tuesday night. Not only were good seats available, most came with extra elbow room.
Edwin Jackson, a symbol of the lost summer, teased the small crowd with a resilient showing early and a fifth-inning unraveling, when the Marlins attacked him like they knew what was coming. He experienced the usual lack of command with his fastball, which is the primary reason he ranks 81st among 84 big-league ERA qualifiers with a -1.2 WAR, but stuck with it to set up his swing-and-miss slider.
Jackson used the slider to get the last outs in each of the first three innings, including one to finish off Giancarlo Stanton after he'd thrown 11 straight fastballs to the first three hitters. That's pitching, and Jackson has done it in flashes all season. He has refused to become mentally beaten after going 0-5 with a 6.39 ERA in his first seven starts after signing his four-year, $52 million contract.
"He's handled it as professionally as you can,'' Sveum said before the game. "Hopefully he can get things going, finish up strong, but he's handled it well.''
Jackson, signed after the Tigers went to five years, $80 million to keep Anibal Sanchez from migrating to Chicago, represents the biggest investment so far from Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. It was a confusing signing at the time it was made, as the Cubs were signing a veteran starter even though they looked at least two years away from contending, and has proved successful only in regard to helping secure another high draft pick in 2014.
The Cubs are 9-18 in Jackson's starts, with losses his last six times out. He took the loss Tuesday after he was lifted for a pinch hitter in the fifth inning trailing 3-1. He has taken the ball, yes, but this will mark the fourth year in a row his workload has declined, with 182 2/3 innings the current projection. His inability to consistently work deep into games has at times exposed a weak bullpen.
But 2013 performance isn't the one that's critical to the signing. The years that matter most are 2015 and '16, which are Jackson's age 31 and 32 seasons. I can't tell you why he'll be better than he has been this year, but maybe he'll be a little more relaxed, a little less likely to overthrow. Or maybe his BABIP will magically plunge, as it did in 2009, his best season.
Maybe Wrigley Field will become a special place for the Cubs again after Javier Baez, Matt Szczur and Kris Bryant arrive. It already is one for Hill and the guys who played for the 2003 Marlins. That fact is guaranteed, just like the next three years on Jackson's contract.
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