Friday, July 27, 2007

Middle of the Road

The middle of the season has come and gone. The All-Star Game, for those who still care about such things, is history. And the Dog Days of Summer are just about here.

By this point in the year, most Chicago sports fans are already looking ahead to Bears training camp and the preseason, and such is the case this year. Cub fans, however, have sufficient reason to delay their interest in last year's Super Bowl runners-up, if only for a few weeks.

Because the Cubs are playing good baseball. No, really.

It took a while for new manager Lou Piniella to find the right on-field combination; it seemed for some time that he tried a different lineup every day. It also took a while for his staff ace, Carlos Zambrano, to find his groove and pitch the way everyone knows he can, and for Alfonso Soriano, the team's high-priced free agent acquisition, to re-establish his home run stroke.

Once both players found their respective grooves, they complemented the efforts of younger players like Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot, and of seasoned veterans like Ted Lilly (another free agent pickup) and Aramis Ramirez (finally delivering clutch hits in games that actually matter, instead of tearing the cover off the ball only after the team was well out of contention). Even injuries to players like closer Ryan Dempster haven't slowed them much.

The turning point in the Cubs' season, strangely enough, was also their most embarrassing: An in-dugout slugout between catcher Michael Barrett and Zambrano, who took exception to Barrett's poor performance in the previous inning (when he'd allowed a passed ball and made a throwing error) and pointed to his own head as if to say, "What are you thinking?" or "Get your head in the game, man!" Barrett responded, Zambrano punched him, they were seaparated by teammates, and the fight continued in the clubhouse, where Zambrano beat Barrett badly enough to send the catcher to the hospital for stitches. Barrett's play had been erratic all season, and this incident was the final straw--he was traded to San Diego shortly afterward. That's another significant change in this Cub team from previous managerial regimes: No running interference. No coddling. No "player's manager" nonsense. Just perform up to expectations, or don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. The Cubs are lucky enough to play in the weakest division in the Major Leagues, and with the Brewers suffering the loss of their ace, Ben Sheets, and the other teams in the division well out of it, the Cubs could make a run. The race will, at least, be interesting.

The same cannot be said for the White Sox, whose World Championship in 2005 is rapidly fading into the fog of yesteryear, replaced by the bitter reality of the present: This team sucks. Hard.

Just as the current success of the Cubs cannot be attributed to one player or aspect of their game, so the current failure of the Sox cannot be attributed to one player or aspect of their game. It's been a combination of things: injuries to key players (Scott Podsednik, Darren Erstad, Joe Crede), subpar years from others (Jermaine Dye, Jose Conteras), a general lack of run production and, worst of all, a bullpen that appear to believe that the most effective way to fight a fire is to pour kerosene on it, blowing lead after lead after lead.

Manager Ozzie Guillen hasn't helped matters any with his abrasive, outspoken, If There's-A-Bus-Passing-By-You'll-Find-One-Of-My-Players-Under-It style, which was tolerated and even embraced when this team was winning, but now it just grates. Meanwhile, over at the Sun-Times, Jay Mariotti, whom Guillen called " a fag" last year (thereby achieving the near impossible feat of making Mariotti seem, by comparison, at least, to be less of an asshole), is doing a happy dance and calling for Guillen's ouster at least once a week.

It's exceedingly unlikely that general manager Kenny Williams or owner Jerry Reinsdorf will fire Guillen, at least not in the immediate future. This team's nucleus still has potential, with All-Stars like Paul Konerko, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and Bobby Jenks to build around. Williams may deal other players, though, like Dye, whose bat could still be of value to a team in the pennant race, or Contreras, who has been ineffective the last couple of months and may need a change of scenery to revive his career (or, at least, someplace else to end it--it won't be in Chicago).

In a town where baseball season has usually fallen before the first autumn leaves have hit the ground, it's nice to see a couple of races still going on: the Cubs competing to win their division or, at least, the wildcard playoff spot; and the White Sox competing to stay out of last place--a race we're all too familiar with in Chicago.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Rainbow Bridge

One advantage I've found in having cats is that there's really no reason to set an alarm clock. They know when they're supposed to be fed, and they won't let you forget it either. Olivia parks beside my bed and, spying the slightest movement, begins to yowl like she hasn't been fed in weeks, months even. And Ms. Christopher? She usually hangs out on one side of my head or the other and begins to bark the moment my eyelids flicker open.

There's no use trying to ignore them or argue the point; I have to get up and go to work anyway, right? (Except for Saturday or Sunday, of course, but it's easier to pop open a tin of Friskies, throw it in the matching bowls and head back to bed.)

One morning, not long ago, I was getting ready for work, stumbling through my hallway to get some clothing, when I spotted something on the hardwood floor. I didn't have my glasses on, so I assumed it was just a lump of Ms. Christopher's fur (she leaves them everywhere, being a n enormous puffball of a cat).

Until I touched it. It was wet. And and close up, I could see that it had a tail.

It was a mouse. And it was dead.

After washing my right hand half a dozen times, I covered the mouse with tissue, got a plastic bag and picked it up. Only Olivia showed any interest in this operation, so I assume she was the one who caught and killed the little rodent.

This is new for me. I've never had a mouse in the house before--at least while living on my own. (We used to get them occasionally at Mom's house, which was pretty suicidal, given how many cats she has.)

Could have been worse. Cats love to show off their trophies. And love to bring them to you. I could have found it in a shoe. Or on my bed. So...the hallway's not so bad, really.

It turned out that this wasn't Olivia's first kill. Before I brought her to La Casa del Terror, she lived with my mother and brother for about three months. She stayed upstairs with my brother, since it seemed that she didn't get along at all with other cats and most of Mom's cats were (and are) elderly. She was allowed downstairs for short periods, though, and in one of these, she chased down and killed what must have been a mouse with an especially powerful death wish while the other cats either sat and watched or paid the rodent (and Olivia) no attention at all.

"You worthless sacks of fur!" my brother yelled at the other cats. Maybe that was unfair. Maybe they'd lost their hunting instincts after so many years of life as housecats. Whatever the case, Olivia did what they either wouldn't or couldn't then, and even without front claws (Mom had her declawed before handing her off to me), she was still able and willing to do it now.

One of those "worthless sacks of fur" was Monkey, a black-and-white tomcat whom Mom had brought in ages ago. He was the kind of cat only an owner could love. He had clumps of fur all over his body. He was snaggle-toothed. His head was enormous and his body thin, so he looked like a walking, fur-bound bobblehead. And he smelled awful. He looked like he'd been hit by a truck, and maybe he had.

The other cats couldn't stand Monkey and regularly took turns beating his ass. Mom loved him, though, and he was utterly devoted to her. Rare was the night when he wasn't curled up next to her--for protection, sure, but also for the attention she lavished on him and the affection he returned to her.

Nobody, including the vet, knew exactly how old he was. He was an older cat when Mom took him in, and she had him for about 15 years until one recent Friday night when, after having spent much of the night with Mom, he cried at her bedroom door to be let out, probably so he could get some water or use the litter pan, and didn't come back the rest of the night.

Saturday morning, a couple of the cats went up to my brother's bedroom window and began meowing. That's something they just didn't do--something was wrong downstairs. He got up and followed them downstairs. Monkey was lying perfectly motionless. My brother woke Mom up to tell her he was dead. When he returned to Monkey, though, his body had shifted position; he wasn't dead, but had the look an animal does right before its time has come, with an unsteady head and sightless stare. He passed on later that morning.

While Monkey was being laid to rest, another cat belonging to someone close to me was seriously ill as well.

Jessie had two cats named Ernie--unusual, you might think, weird even, until you know that she owned one Ernie, a large tabby, before acquiring the second, a gray-and-white tomcat, from her sister, who had to give her Ernie up because she was moving into a studio apartment and didn't have the room to keep him. So she brought him north to Chicago from Ft. Lauderdale, and here he happily lived with Jessie, her husband and Ernie the First (also known as Ernest) for several years.

Ernie always hissed at me at least once whenever I visited Jessie, probably because he could smell the Girlish Girls on my clothing, my shoes, my backpack. But he never bit me or took a swing, and he always let me pet him at least once per visit and even take his picture.

A few weeks ago, Ernie became seriously ill--his eyes looked funny (and not in a "ha ha" kind of way), he stopped eating and going to the litter pan, and he constantly cried, as if in pain. Jessie didn't know what was up; she thought he was having a relapse from the illness he suffered during the tainted pet food scare a few months back.

Then Ernie, without explanation, went blind.

Jessie took Ernie to a specialist in the suburbs to determine the source of the blindness and pain and, when she visited the day before he was scheduled to have an MRI, she brought out his favorite toys, CDs with soothing sounds and even, Ernest, who was not happy to be stuffed in the cat carrier, but was perfectly happy to spend time with his old partner in crime.

The attention seemed to soothe Ernie who, for the first time in weeks, closed his eyes and took a nap. According the vets, this should have been impossible--his eyes were paralyzed open. But sometimes, if only for a few blessed minutes, the impossible is possible again.

Unfortunately, the MRI yielded the worst possible results: Ernie had cancer of the nose (who knew there was such a thing?). It had spread to his brain. It was inoperable. There was nothing Jessie could do but ensure that her friend would not be in pain any longer. She gave the specialist the needed authorization; Ernie never woke up.

When I called Jessie that night, I didn't know what to say. The situation reminded me so much of when I had to have Lottie put to sleep--both the same age (10), both with inoperable cancer (Lottie's was in her abdomen), both owners receiving that horrible call. Even after four years, I can't talk about Lottie without breaking down. By the time I got off the phone with Jessie, I was crying, both for her loss and my own. I continued for a good while after.

When Lottie died, both my regular vet and the 24-hour facility I took her to sent me sympathy cards. In the one from my vet was a photocopy, several generations old but still legible, of the story of the Rainbow Bridge. It pretty well matches what Jessie posted on her MySpace page:

Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge. When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable. All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by.

The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind. They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster. You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart. Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together.

I hope that Lottie was there to greet Ernie and Monkey at the Rainbow Bridge and that she keeps them company until their "very special" persons--or hers--are there, ready to escort them to the other side.