YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


In This Church of the Everlasting Cubs, It's Time to Start Praying

March 14, 2001|Chris Erskine

MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs are back. Let us pray.

Lord, give us the strength to endure another Chicago Cubs season. Let us be strong, when fans around us are weak. Give us starting pitching, clutch hitting, a bullpen we can rely on.

Lord, let Kerry Wood throw thunderbolts past opposing batters. Let us not merely beat the Mets, let us humble them, preferably in Shea Stadium, in front of their own rude and unkempt congregation. Forgive us, Lord, but this is how we see them.

Lord, let us not fade in July and August, as we are prone to do. Lord, let us rise up, stronger than ever before.

For that, Lord, we will give you our love and everlasting gratitude. And two seats to game seven of the World Series.




"What's Dad doing?"

"I'm praying," I say.

"For money?"

"For everything," I say.

We are here in Mesa, in the Church of Broken Dreams, watching the Chicago Cubs on the first full day of spring training.

Sammy Sosa, a savior to some, has yet to arrive in camp. But everyone else is here. Wood. Eric Young. And 53 other guys you've probably never heard of.

"Who's that?" the little girl asks.

"That's Chad Meyers," I tell her.

"Can I get his autograph?" she asks.

"I'm pretty sure," I say.

As a ball club, you know you have problems when your coaches are more famous than your players. We have Don Baylor here. Sandy Alomar. Ryne Sandberg is back as a spring training coach.

Thus, I am praying. My wife and youngest daughter are standing along the fence, grasping the chain link, hoping for autographs. I pray. Each spring, I pray.

Lord, keep an eye on first and third. At catcher, we need arm strength. At center field, bless us with a young Willie Mays.

Normally, I am not this openly religious. They say only impending death will make a man like me more spiritual. Or the demise of his favorite boyhood team.

"Daddy, who's that?"

"Ross Gload."



"Can I get his autograph?"


There are only about a dozen fans here in the opening moments of another season of hope and gloom.

The fans chat as the players stretch out in the grass beneath a flawless Arizona sky. Fifty-five players, lined up like a marching band, twisting the off-season from fragile Cubbie joints.

As they stretch, a coach wanders among them with a headset on, yelling instructions.

"Come on, E.Y.," the coach tells Eric Young. "With a butt big as yours, you ought to be able to lift that leg all day."

This is No. 70 talking. Mack Newton, seven-time martial arts champ and new motivational coach. That's right, the Chicago Cubs have a motivational coach.

"Up!" he yells at a pitcher doing leg lifts. "Higher! Up!"

He's like a drill sergeant, this guy. He's hollering at these millionaires to lift their legs, to stretch December from their shoulders, to wring January from their necks. It's nice to see millionaires yelled at. A couple look like they're about to cry.

"Who's that?" all the fans along the fence want to know, as this skinny drill sergeant orders the players around.

"I don't know," one says, then turns to the person to his side. "Who is that guy?"

Turns out, Mack Newton has done this before. With the Oakland A's for nine years. With the Dallas Cowboys for three.

Now, in the challenge of a lifetime, Newton has become the new motivational coach for the most beleaguered franchise in sports history. Do you believe in miracles? Let us pray.

"There is no other team that has 93 years of losing," Newton explains later. "When the Cubs win it all, it will change history forever."

Much as we enjoy ridiculing mindless motivational types, you have to like this guy. Newton is sincere. He's smart. He's articulate. He looks sharp in a baseball uniform, even though he's never played a major league game in his life.

"Be impeccable with your words," he tells the players in a post-warmup lecture. "Speak with integrity."

The Cubs are not beneath having tried such desperate tactics before.

In the early '60s, team owner Philip K. Wrigley tried a trick of another sort. Wrigley decided managers weren't necessary and started the College of Coaches, which included a former Air Force general as a fitness director.

The scam lasted about five years, until players, coaches and everyone else tired of it. Then Wrigley went out and hired Leo Durocher as manager, beginning a whole new era of futility and heartbreak.

On this Arizona morning, the players appear to listen closely to their new motivational coach, then saunter away to prepare for actual drills, which apparently the Cubs also do, though somewhat reluctantly.

"Tomorrow," their new motivational coach yells to them as they go. "Same time, same place."

"Fat chance, jerk!" yells a player from the back pew, though he doesn't say "jerk"; he uses something a bit more colorful.

Cub fans, let us pray.


Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is

Los Angeles Times Articles