One September night in 1984, in the moments after the Chicago Cubs clinched the National League East title in Pittsburgh with a win over the Pirates, Cubs faithful flocked to the streets around an empty Wrigley Field to celebrate. Among the spirited parishioners was a 17-year-old kid from the suburb of Lockport who would grow up to be a Cub himself. "I was one of the wackos in the street," says Ron Coomer, now 34 and an infielder for the team. "I know how important it is to Cubs fans when we have a winning team. I spent many days sitting down the leftfield line at Wrigley. Now, when I drive to the park, I have to pinch myself to believe I'm playing for the Cubs. As for Cubs fans, yes, we're very loyal. I can attest to that."
Winning seasons by the Cubs are like solar eclipses. They seem to arrive out of nowhere, occur infrequently and inspire pagan celebrations. In the 28 years since Leo Durocher managed his last game for the Cubs, Chicago has won more games than it lost five times, never in consecutive seasons. The spoiled Cubs fan is a genus that doesn't exist in the sports kingdom.
A baseball season like this one, then, in which the Cubbies (51-35) reached the All-Star break leading the National League Central, qualifies as a surprising one. But wait. There's more. The Philadelphia Phillies (50-37) and the Minnesota Twins (55-32), two franchises that approach Chicago's futility in recent years, also hit the nominal halfway mark in first place in the National League East and the American League Central, respectively. It's a harmonic convergence the likes of which, if it is maintained until season's end, baseball has never seen.
A season with a surprise team is common. One with two surprise teams is rare. One with three surprise teams, especially former sad sacks such as these, and you're talking planetary alignment. The Twins led the American League in losses last year, with 93. The Phillies and Cubs tied for the most in the National League, with 97.
Meanwhile, the Seattle Mariners (63-24) deserve commendation as a surprise team of a different sort. It's not because they salted away the American League West title way back in May—the Mariners did come within two victories of the World Series last year—but because they are winning games at such an astonishing rate and because they are doing so after losing All-Star shortstop Alex Rodriguez, who departed for a 10-year, $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers in the off-season. The Mariners restocked by signing second baseman Bret Boone (page 58), setup man Jeff Nelson and Japanese rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki, all of whom were named to the All-Star team. Seattle hasn't lost three straight games all season. After a blistering 47-12 start, the Mariners cruised to the break on a more pedestrian 16-12 run. That still left them within range of the major league record of 116 wins, set by the Cubs in 1906, before Wrigley Field or their reputation as lovable losers had been constructed.
"It's great for baseball, absolutely," says Coomer about the first-place standing of the Cubs, Twins and Phillies. Coomer had played his entire six-year career as a major leaguer with Minnesota until it cut him last December because, after driving in 82 runs, he priced himself off the team. The Cubs are paying him $1.1 million, and he is batting .276 with five homers and 30 RBIs. Says Coomer, "So much has been made over the past few years about team revenues that it's good to see that if you make the right decisions, regardless of payroll, you have a chance to win." (In fact the Cubs, with a respectable $65 million payroll, started the season ranked 15th among the 30 major league clubs. The Phillies, with $42 million in salaries, were 24th, and the Twins, with a paltry $24 million, were dead last.)
It's the kind of season only a commissioner couldn't love—a commissioner, in this case Bud Selig, who argues that a gross competitive imbalance exists in the sport and who is trying, in the last year of a collective bargaining agreement, to forge a new economic system based on that assumption. Truth is, the baseball world today turns around more quickly than ever.
Until 1990, only seven teams in history had won 90 games in the season after they'd lost 90 games. However, just as many teams have done so in the nine full seasons since then. Never before have three teams turned the trick in the same season, as the Cubs, Phillies and Twins threaten to do this year. Such teams, many owners argue, cannot sustain success. But the ease of player movement through free agency and trades has made the turnaround season easier to accomplish. "Yes, I think you're capable of accelerating recovery and turning it around more quickly," Phillies general manager Ed Wade says. "You can do it if you fill holes and show patience with young players."
The Twins, while quiet in the off-season (no stampede to the ticket window followed the signing of backup catcher Tom Prince, their only addition), are reaping the benefits of sticking with a core of youngsters who gained experience through losing seasons. ( Minnesota hasn't fielded a winning team since 1992.) In 2000, for instance, righthander Joe Mays had a 7-15 record with a 5.56 ERA. The Twins, though, still gave him the ball for 28 starts and threw in some remedial work at Triple A Salt Lake City. This season he's blossomed into an All-Star with an 11-5 record and a 3.02 ERA.
Even if Mays, 25, and his main rotation mates, lefty Eric Milton, 25, and righty Brad Radke, 28, have never pitched a meaningful late-season game in the majors, they give Minnesota the look of a team with staying power because they consistently pitch deep into games. That threesome has combined for 38 quality starts (at least six innings with no more than three earned runs), three more than the New York Yankees' titanic trio of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina has produced.