At no time this season has anyone taken the Chicago Cubs seriously as National League pennant contenders, even though the club went 21-10 prior to the July 6 All-Star break. The problem is a combination of not enough balance, not enough good players, and a pitching staff that has given Manager Lee Elia only four complete games so far. But Chicago does have one of the top relievers in baseball in 25-year-old Lee Smith, a towering right-hander who usually keeps his bullets in the strike zone. The number of teams that have tried to pry Smith loose from the Cubs in trades is now said to be in double figures.
Earlier this year, after Elia foolishly blasted Chicago fans in the press for their lack of baseball knowledge and patience, Lee had to have his foot removed from his mouth by General Manager Dallas Green, who literally saved his job. However, Elia might not be safe next year, even though he is basically a solid baseball man. In fact, Lee's chances of returning may hinge on how interested Rene Lachemann, fired recently by the Seattle Mariners, is in helping to rebuild the Cubs.
Part of Chicago's offensive problems may stem from too many streak hitters (Ron Cey, Keith Moreland, Jody Davis, etc.), whose flash-or-crash ways often make things tough on managers. Yet only two other National League teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants, have hit more homers this season than the Cubs.
Cey, the former Dodger who started poorly at the plate this spring in his first year with Chicago, deserves a lot of credit for the way he has battled back despite injuries that probably would have sidelined most players. Moreland, who doesn't usually hit for average, has done this so far while also staying close to the club leaders in runs batted in. And Davis, who tied a club record with two grand slam home runs in June, is already one of the best young catchers in baseball.
To fans worried that Green may eventually prompt legislation that will allow the Cubs to install lights in Wrigley Field, their concern is probably not misplaced. Whenever tradition has to battle economics in a courtroom, the latter invariably becomes a formidable foe. Inexperience hurt National stars
Veteran manager Chuck Tanner of the Pittsburgh Pirates thinks he has the answer to why the American League was able to end its 11-game losing streak to the National in last week's All-Star Game. ''Pitching is always the key in baseball, and this year's National League team, once it got past starter Mario Soto, wasn't exactly what you'd call experienced on the mound,'' Tanner said. ''I don't mean that the kids who followed Soto aren't good pitchers (he was referring particularly to Atlee Hammaker, who gave up seven runs), but this was their first appearance in an All-Star Game. I think they were all a little nervous, and I think it caught up with them, especially Hammaker, who wasn't getting his pitches where he wanted them.''
Fred Lynn of the California Angels, the game's Most Valuable Player, pretty much took things into his own hands for the American League in the third inning when he hit a grand slam home run, the first ever in All-Star competition. Hammaker had given up only two other home runs this season - to Johnny Bench and Dale Murphy. Ironically, in spring training Hammaker had struck out Lynn three times. Routine throws not always easy
Second baseman Steve Sax of the Los Angeles Dodgers, National League Rookie of the Year in 1982, has already made 24 errors this season, 20 of them coming on routine throws to first base. ''It's a mental thing that ballplayers have to deal with sometimes, but mostly it afflicts catchers,'' said Manager Dick Williams of the San Diego Padres. ''What happens is that a catcher will suddenly discover that he can no longer throw accurately. If the situation gets too bad, he'll begin freezing with the ball still in his hand. Years ago I saw catcher Clint Courtney try to throw the ball back to his pitcher and finally have to walk out to the mound and hand it to him. The best way for a player to handle this problem is to try to put it out of his head and just throw the ball.'' Tidbits from around the majors
* From outfielder Lou Pinella of the New York Yankees on the tight pennant race in the American League East: ''Although everybody talks about Baltimore like the Orioles are going to win, I don't think the Birds have that kind of pitching anymore. In my opinion, first place will either go to the Yankees, Tigers, or Blue Jays.''
* Boston's Carl Yastrzemski can still level a bat on a baseball. Yaz recently tied Ty Cobb for seventh place in lifetime extra base hits with 1,139 and passed Frank Robinson for 11th in RBIs with 1,815. There are still rumblings that Carl is part of a group that will try to buy into the Red Sox after the season.
* Last Sunday the Milwaukee Brewers and the Chicago White Sox played the longest nine-inning game (timewise) in the history of the American League. The game took 4 hours, 11 minutes to complete. The winning hit in Milwaukee's 12-9 victory was delivered by designated hitter Ted Simmons, who had five RBIs.
* Dick Wagner, the man accused of turning Cincinnati's Big Red Machine into a little red wagon by letting players like Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Ken Griffey, and George Foster escape to other teams, has been fired as the club's general manager. In 1982 the Reds lost 101 games, the worst in their history, and are currently in last place in the National League West.
* Infielder Juan Bonilla of the San Diego Padres, who went through a drug rehabilitation program last summer, says that the solution to baseball's chemical dependency problem is mandatory classes on drug abuse for all major league players. Fines, no matter how large, Bonilla claims, won't keep a player away from drugs, but education might. The Dodgers recently fined pitcher Steve Howe $54,000 after his second bout with cocaine.