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Fixing a Hole
by Derek Smart
It was another night of frustration for the Cubs, and that frustration really came into play during what, to me, was the game's decisive half inning - the top of the seventh. It was, yet again, an instance where the Cubs couldn't get runners home from third, which in this case meant they couldn't score after loading the bases with no one out. To say that I'm sick of this sort of incompetence would dramatically understate my mood.
Yet, one of the things that I, quite purposefully, left out of the answers I gave in last week's Baseball Analysts piece was this issue of execution. Not that I don't believe it's a problem - anyone who has read here consistently this season should know it's an issue I think very much needs addressing - just that I believe there are, indeed, bigger fish to fry, and even if there weren't, I wouldn't have any idea of how to go about dealing with it.
Some of you would say, "Fire Dusty Baker," and while I'll admit I'm not averse to the idea, I don't think getting rid of Dusty would solve this particular problem. The Cardinals aren't a fundamentally sound team because Tony LaRussa makes them so. The players on that club came that way, either because Walt Jocketty has looked for those type of folks when he's been in acquisitional mode, or because the minor league system taught them well.
In fact, I think you could see in several of the recent games the Cubs played against St. Louis that the people who have been forced into larger roles due to the club's injury issues do not have the same fundamental soundness. This begins to make the case to me that when it comes to solid, smart play, it's more who your personnel are than how they are coached at the Major League level.
Scott Rolen. Jim Edmonds. David Eckstein. Did these men all suddenly acquire the Magic Understanding Of The Right Way To Play upon donning Cardinal red? Certainly not. Just like Jerry Hairston, Corey Patterson, and Michael Barrett didn't get dumber while under the influence of Baker. In each of those cases, you got what you paid for, and like it or not, they're almost certainly going to stay the way they are.
So now that I've said that, I suppose I do have a partial solution. When Jim Hendry is retooling the team during the offseason, as he's certain to do, he needs to pay attention to which players on his radar bring that innate understanding, that instinctual ability to do the right thing at the right time.
It's impossible to quantify, and so I'm a little uncomfortable with suggesting it be a factor. But in my observations this year it's become clear to me that this club has precious little of this quality, and while I may not be able to tell you what an optimum amount is, or how far from it they are (unfortunately, ballplayers don't come with a built in "funda-meter"), I don't believe the nebulousness of it negates its impact. It just makes it difficult to measure.
Nor am I saying this "fundamentality" should be the sole criteria for inclusion on next year's squad - I have no interest in scrappiness or instinctual ballplaying for their own sakes; the Bo Harts of this world need not apply - but it should be part of the process, at least as a tie-breaker of sorts, and I suspect it's been given little to no weight of late.
I want to see a team that can get people out with their arms and their gloves, that can score runs with their bats, brains, and legs. I want to see a team that capitalizes on its opportunities more often than it squanders them. I want to see a team that, when it goes down to defeat, can look itself in the mirror and say, "We were beaten," rather than, "We beat ourselves."
I'm not asking for perfection, here. I'm just asking for a good team. A solid team. One with the potential to compete at the highest level, not just because they are loaded with talent (although, I certainly want that to be part of the equation), but because they are able to tap into that talent and get the most out of it.
But most of all, I just want to be able to hold my head high and proudly say, "I am a Cub fan," without fear of ridicule. To know that I root for a team to be feared and respected; a team that will beat the other guys unless they play the game of their lives; a team that is, without equivocation, a winner.