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SportsMonday: Bottom Feeders

Remember earlier this season when various media voices declared that the Cubs were really in trouble this time, that fans had finally had enough and reduced attendance would force all sorts of changes in the way the team did business?

At the time, a few people tried to point out that the wet spring weather was the primary culprit but they were shouted down by those who were convinced Cubs fans had reached a breaking point.

Upon further review . . . it was the weather.

Actually, if unpleasant meteorological conditions were going to really hold down attendance numbers, they would have done so in the middle of the past week, when the heat index reached near-record highs.

But here were the "second worst record in the majors" Cubs drawing almost 38,000 for a Wednesday 1:20 start.

Okay, okay, hot summer weather is very different than chilly unpleasantness early on. Clearly there are plenty of fans who relish the chance to feel the heat pounding down while they take in a ballgame - provided the game is at Wrigley Field.

As for this weekend's showdown between the National League's leading bottom-feeders, the Cubs versus Astros drew 39,800 people on Friday, 40,486 on Saturday and 40,406 on Sunday.

One place where the weather did seem to do some damage was the bleachers, which featured wide swaths of empty benches all week (but possible record numbers of fans trying to cram in under the scoreboard in center). Then again, maybe the Cubs have finally gone overboard with the price of bleacher seats.

If you want to catch the fever when the Cubs come back to play the Reds August 5-7, it will only cost you $80 per ticket for a spot in the bleacher box section down the right field line. General admission bleacher seats are a much better deal at only $58. Or not. About 60 smackers for bleacher seats? And $7 beers on top of that? Maybe there is a price that even Cubs fans won't pay.

Or maybe the team won't be quite so terrible next year and the bleachers will be packed once again.

* * *

As for the team, this past week featured plenty of yammering about next year, i.e., whether the Cubs might actually re-sign first baseman Carlos Pena despite his abysmal batting average (.221) or even third baseman Aramis Ramirez despite his forever casual attitude. Pena will be a free agent at the end of the season and the Cubs will have the option to buy out the final year of Ramirez' contract, a step that most fans would very much like the team to take.

But if we learned anything from this past weekend in Chicago baseball, it was that those guys, and the sluggers on the South Side for that matter, barely matter. Don Zimmer used to say "you can't lose a shutout" and while that seems simple-minded at first glance, what he was actually saying was that if the pitching is good enough, the hitting is inconsequential.

The White Sox managed one big home run on Friday and took advantage of several errors on Sunday for a total of seven runs but the pitching was so good (allowing only two runs in 18 innings) that the team rolled to a pair of comfortable wins.

No one would describe the Cub offense as a juggernaut against the Astros, especially in the first two games. But Carlos Zambrano, Randy Wells and the bullpen held Houston to three runs total for two more victories. The first priority in free agency after this season, and the second, and the third, must be pitching.

Of course, first Jim Hendry should be fired for the Cubs' utter lack of pitching depth in their system, but after that, pitchers must be acquired.

* * *

The best part of this past weekend at the ballpark, at least for this Cubs fan, was the fact that Marlon Byrd is all the way back after going 4-for-5 on Sunday. His fourth hit was the one Hunter Pence lost in the sun in the 10th and if anyone is going to catch a break like that it should be Byrd, who ended up with a leadoff triple and eventually scored the game-winning run, his third of the day.

The Cubs center fielder suffered about as horrific a beaning as one can imagine two months ago when a fastball caught him flush in the face just below his left eye. To shake off the after-effects of multiple facial fractures and step back in against major league tailing fastballs requires stone-cold courage and Byrd has done well enough to push his batting average up to .314 and his on-base to .357.


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