True to tradition, Cubs are setting up their fans for another agonizing season

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For those who have agonized over the Baltimore Orioles and their disappointing start this year, understand that this is what die-hard Chicago Cubs fans go through every day of their lives.

To be a Cubs fan is to have both an unlimited capacity for optimism and an amazingly high pain threshold. This season apparently will not be an exception.

The arrival of free-agent pitchers Dave Smith and Danny Jackson (not to mention outfielder George Bell) brought new hope that this would be the Year of the Cub, but the pitching staff already has fallen on hard times.

Jackson could be out another month with a torn groin muscle, and Smith's struggles in relief (0-2, 9.53 ERA, three blown saves) have led to speculation that his elbow is not sound. If that isn't enough for manager Don Zimmer to worry about, promising pitcher Mike Harkey underwent surgery Thursday and could be lost for the season.

Harkey, who was 12-6 as a rookie last year, had to have torn cartilage repaired in his right shoulder, the same kind of surgery that cost Rick Sutcliffe most of 1990. Sutcliffe started five games late last season and has come back from another stay on the disabled list to re-enter the rotation, but he is not the same pitcher he had been before the operation.

The Cubs still have some fine arms in their organization. Dundalk native Mike Bielecki is 4-1 with a 2.70 ERA and Greg Maddux (3-1) and Shawn Boskie (2-2) also are having success. But where there once was solid pitching depth, there is reason for deep concern.

One more false move and the Cubs could end up at the wrong end of the National League East standings.

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When California Angels general manager Mike Port was fired last week, club president Richard Brown cited "philosophical differences," but he did not reveal which philosophers he and Port disagreed on. Port apparently leaned toward Descartes ("I think, therefore I am in third place again"). Brown probably favors a more theological approach, since it will take a minor miracle for the Angels to outdistance the Oakland Athletics and Chicago White Sox this year.

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Talk about a heroic effort that went almost unnoticed. On the same day that Nolan Ryan was pitching his seventh no-hitter and Rickey Henderson was breaking the all-time stolen-base record, the Milwaukee Brewers called on right-handed starter Don August to pitch in the 15th inning of what would turn out to be a 19-inning, 10-9 victory over the White Sox.

In his first inning, August was flattened by an Ozzie Guillen line drive that hit him squarely on the side of the head. He got up and went five innings to earn the victory in the longest game ever played at Milwaukee County Stadium.

"Now I know how a boxer feels," August said. "I reached over to my ear to feel for some blood and there wasn't any, so I figured I could stay in there. I knew we didn't have anybody else."

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Just before that 19-inning marathon, the Brewers announced that Bill Spiers would be out three to five days with a badly bruised right thumb, but he entered the game as a pinch runner in the 15th inning and ended up playing the final four innings at shortstop. He never got a ground ball but was the middle man on a double play.

"That was a pretty fast three to five days, wasn't it?" he said afterward.

It must have felt like three to five days for everybody. The same teams played 3 hours, 39 minutes the night before, which gave them a total of 9:44 of playing time in a 25-hour period.

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Remember when the same two teams played 25 innings May 1984, in the longest game (by elapsed time) in major-league history? White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk played every inning of that game. Wednesday, he was one of only two healthy players who did not make an appearance. Teammate Craig Grebeck was the other.

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Cleveland Indians catcher Sandy Alomar watched on the Anaheim Stadium video board as his brother Roberto struck out to complete Ryan's seventh no-hitter, then expressed mixed feelings that Henderson broke the all-time stolen base record before the Indians were to arrive in Oakland this weekend.

"It would have been neat, Roberto making the last out against Ryan and Rickey breaking the record against me," he said. "That would have put the Alomars in the record book."

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Here's my top 10 list of reasons commissioner Fay Vincent upheld the five-day suspension levied against Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens for his playoff altercation with umpire Terry Cooney:

10. Reliability of lip reader became suspect when past employment as Bush administration tax adviser was discovered.

9. Umpires union countered with mind reader, who claimed that Clemens was, at least, thinking those things.

8. Commissioner didn't want to set dangerous precedent that would encourage future use of telepathic profanity.

7. Reversing the decision would have meant just too much paperwork.

6. Right of umpire to ruin competitive balance of playoff matchup had to be protected.

5. Ingrate Clemens didn't realize that Cooney was just trying to save him from eighth consecutive loss to Dave Stewart.

4. Review of videotapes reveals Clemens not only made physical contact with the umpire, but also stole his wallet.

3. Umpires union chief Richie Phillips threatened to hold news conference and prattle on for days if decision were reversed. Even Clemens didn't want that.

2. Reversing decision would just encourage others to question authority of umpires, which would hasten moral decline of entire country and shake the very foundation of Western civilization.

1. Vincent would not accept excuse that Clemens merely mistook Cooney for off-duty police officer.

jTC *

The Cubs opened spring training with two front-line catchers -- Damon Berryhill and Joe Girardi -- vying for the starting role. Now the club has only one front-line catcher, and it isn't either of them.

With Berryhill struggling at the plate (.130) and behind it and Girardi on the disabled list, reserve Hector Villanueva recently emerged as the starter and got instant results with the bat. In one stretch of five at-bats last week, he had three home runs, a double and a single against the Houston Astros.

Villanueva has 10 home runs and 25 RBI in 135 major-league at-bats, dating to the beginning of last year. The other two catchers had two home runs and 38 RBI in 472 at-bats last year.

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The Kansas City Royals offense has floundered since George Brett and Kevin Seitzer went down with injuries, and it has been particularly apparent with right-hander Bret Saberhagen on the mound.

Saberhagen has given up four earned runs over 21 innings in his past three starts, but he is 0-2 with a no-decision in those %J games, and the club has scored one run in those 21 innings.

"You can't just feel sorry for the pitcher," Saberhagen said. "You have to feel sorry for the whole team. A whole lot of guys are putting pressure on themselves."

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I goofed dept.: Dwight Evans does not rank second on the all-time outfield assist list, as was reported in this space a week ago. Evans' 153 assists rank second on the active list, behind Dave Winfield. Mistakes happen, but how often can you turn last week's error into this week's trivia question? Who does hold the career record for outfield assists? No fair checking the record book. I obviously didn't.

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Blue Jays catcher Pat Borders managed to get a hit before he got out of April, delivering a pinch single Tuesday night to break a string of 24 hitless at-bats.

"I try to talk with him as much as I can," manager Cito Gaston said, "because when I was a player and struggled, it was like you smelled bad. Nobody wanted to talk to you."

Trivia answer: The all-time outfield assist leader is Hall of Famer Tris Speaker, who threw out 450 runners during his 22-year career (1907-28).

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