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Cubs' Baker feeling heat

CHICAGO – In the ninth inning Monday night, a man with primo tickets behind Wrigley Field's home plate, no further than 10 feet from the catcher, squatted in the television camera's view and, seconds before each pitch was thrown, thrust up a sign scrawled in black marker.

FIRE
DUSTY

Such sentiment stretched far and wide, from the seats down below to the ones in the bleachers that swallowed four home runs from the Milwaukee Brewers, who flicked aside the Chicago Cubs, 6-0, like a pea in an elementary-school cafeteria. Boos rained and hisses stung and the backfire, in the midst of this 11-losses-in-13-games streak and 28-47 record, intensified such that were one to light a match at Wrigley these days, the whole place would spontaneously combust.

So the attention has turned on Dusty Baker, the Cubs' manager, and the blame, too, even with the return of Derrek Lee, the last in a long line of hopes for the North Side. Kerry Wood stayed healthy for three minutes, give or take two, before he landed back on the disabled list. Mark Prior has been a savior like FEMA. Not even Lee, at his most potent, seems capable of helping the Cubs avoid their first 100-loss season since 1966.

"You could bring back Willie Mays or the Babe right now and I don't think it would make much of a difference," center fielder Juan Pierre said. "Until we put it together collectively, get good pitching with good hitting, it's going to be the same story."

Which, thus far, has been The Gang That Couldn't Hit Straight. Or down the lines. Or at all.

The Cubs have scored the fewest runs in the majors, 23 less than the abject Kansas City Royals, who, incidentally, are only 3½ games behind Chicago for the big leagues' worst record. The Cubs have been outhomered by 40, including a 54-24 disadvantage at home, hit .239 with runners in scoring position and are even worse against left-handers at .226.

No wonder, then, Lee drew such an ovation when he stepped to the plate for the first time. He had returned Sunday as a designated hitter, back early from a broken wrist, and in the two months he missed, the Cubs went 19-40. Though Lee grounded into a double play, the cheer resonated through the game. The only louder ones came for Ron Santo, who sang during the seventh-inning stretch, and the bleacher denizen who threw back a Gabe Gross home run ball.

"I wish I had answers," Lee said.

What came of Lee's return was an answer – yes, of sorts. Not that Lee is it, but that change must come, whether in the form of Baker's ouster or going all Round-Up on the roster – or both.

"It's not now or never," Baker said. And he was serious, which makes his the words of a disillusioned man or one trying to save his job – or both.

It has turned that ugly – that frustrated, that confounded and that bitter. Baker took to defending himself Sunday, turning questions about his job status into an introspective session. He talked of his troubles with the IRS, of his brother's bout with depression, of how "I have been hearing 'Dusty is in trouble' most of my life."

The trouble now is legitimate. The best managers tackle trouble; Baker has let it tackle him. Injuries give a manager only so much leeway, and the sympathy for Baker is running below E.

Because once Michael Barrett returns from suspension Friday, he has no excuses. Aside from Wood, on whom no reasonable personnel man would count, Baker will have the team that general manager Jim Hendry assembled, the $94.4 million team that could use eight Derrek Lee clones.

"He can't play all nine positions," Pierre said of Lee. "I hope he doesn't feel like he has to be the savior. Because as good as he is, he's still only one man."

Much like Dusty Baker. Yet it's Baker who takes the brunt of the criticism when Aramis Ramirez hits into an easy double play with men on first and second and none out, and it's Baker who gets the funny looks when a routine ground ball rolled between first base and second base and Phil Nevin and Todd Walker stared at each other like they didn't understand what happened.

Well, they didn't. Baker doesn't. No one can comprehend the Cubs' troubles.

"We've been trying to figure it out," Baker said. "We've been trying to figure it out the whole time."

He'll keep thinking. All the way until Hendry, the guy making the decisions, happens to agree with the guy holding the sign.