Goatriders of the Apocalypse

Cubs 101 - Pt. 52 - Forgettable October

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It's funny looking back on October, 2003, because I can remember what my hopes were, what my expectations were, and what my response to that mess was.

The Cubs had entered the month of September trailing 2.5 games behind the Astros, with Jim Hendry having gone out and acquired the best third baseman of my lifetime, the first true leadoff hitter I'd ever seen, and a bad-pitch killer nicknamed "The Big Sausage." The Cubs were loose, they were good, and they were confident. They'd gotten a Cy Young-esque season from Mark Prior in his first full year with the team, Kerry Wood had the most wins, the lowest ERA, and the most strikeouts of his career, and unlike 1998 there wasn't an overwhelming sense that perhaps they were in over their heads against the Braves in the NLDS. This was despite the fact that Atlanta had finished with 13 more regular-season wins and came to October against a team with a history of losing and with a ton of recent post season experience.

So, in short, my hopes were that the Cubs would win. But my expectations were low -- the way I saw it, I could never have guessed the wild success of the '03 team. I voiced at the time that I would be immensely satisfied -- if not overjoyed -- just to see them win the NLDS. If they won the NLDS but got swept out of the NLCS, I'd be okay with it.

In the first game, they gave us reason to believe that victory was absolutely possible. Kerry Wood elevated himself to the status of Big Game Pitcher, going 7.1 innings, striking out 11, and holding the Braves to 2 runs while knocking a 2-run double in the 6th. The Cubs would lose the second game, though, when a young and immature Carlos Zambrano would go kinda crazy on the mound, but it was hardly a blow-out -- the Braves won 5 to 3. Then in Game Three the Cubs would triumph on a complete game 2-hitter by Prior, who out-dueled Greg Maddux -- until then a legendary Cub Killer. All 3 Cub runs would be scored by recently acquired ex-Pirates Randall Simon and Aramis Ramirez. The Braves would win Game Four, as Matt Clement and Mark Guthrie couldn't stifle their offense, but the never-quit Cubs scored 2 runs late and kept it close.

And then, in Game Five -- the first deciding game of my lifetime as a Cub fan -- the Cubs jumped to a 2 run lead by the end of the 2nd inning, tacked on 2 more with an Aramis Ramirez homerun in the 6th, and thanks to an 8-inning, 7-strikeout effort by Kerry Wood it would never even be close. The Cubs advanced in the post season for the first time since the modern day playoff format went into place.

Meanwhile, Dusty's old team the Giants were playing the upstart Florida Marlins. San Francisco was another 100-win team. The Marlins were the Wild Card team, who sprang to success after axing the incompetent Jeff Torborg for the elder Jack McKeon. With only one regular over the age of 30, and with a pitching staff that had the average age of 25, nobody -- certainly not the Marlins -- expected Florida to do anything. At the time I recall debating with myself which team I'd rather face. I'll honestly admit, the dope that I am, that I preferred Florida because Barry Bonds was a scary presence in the Giants dugout and playing Florida meant home field advantage. The Marlins advanced in 4 games, and I got my wish.

Earlier I wrote that, at the start of the 2003 playoffs, I'd said I would be happy with an NLDS win. And after the Cubs won, with their solid pitching and clutch hitting, I began to change my outlook a bit. I still would have been okay with the Cubs getting beaten, but I believed whole-heartedly that they were more than capable of advancing. And they did little in the first four games to make me feel as if I was wrong.

The Cubs lost Game One -- started by the previously-mentioned insane Carlos Zambrano -- by a score of 9-8, but not until after Sammy Sosa hit a theatrical 9th inning, game-tying homerun that would be both his first post season dinger ever and also an immensely unforgettable blast. Trust me on that -- he killed it. The Cubs would lose in the 11th thanks again to Mark Guthrie, who was not born for playoff baseball. They would respond in Game Two by scoring 12 runs -- including 11 before Florida answered with their first of 3 runs that game. It would be a total team effort - every Cub starter but Moises Alou joined in on the fun. In retrospect it was perhaps a mistake on Dusty's part that the winning pitcher Mark Prior would stay in for 7 innings and 116 pitches, but he seemed invincible at that point. I doubt there were many complaints. Game Three was more of the same -- another Cubs victory, this time in 11 innings, with Kerry Wood pitching well into the 7th. The game would memorably be won thanks to a triple by journeyman backup outfielder Doug Glanville, another late-season pickup, who drove home Kenny Lofton.

By this point, the following appeared true: Kerry Wood and Mark Prior could not lose. Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement could not win. But if you did the math you would recognize that in a 7 game series, Wood and Prior would pitch 4 times in total ... if either Zambrano or Clement could win their games, then the Cubs would definitively be unbeatable. Maybe the team thought that too, which is perhaps why they were motivated into scoring 4 runs in the 1st inning of Game Four, giving Matt Clement a win as they trounced Florida 8 to 3. Kenny Lofton drew 2 walks, Aramis Ramirez hit 2 homeruns, it wasn't even close. The Cubs were now up 3 games to 1, with Zambrano, Prior, and Wood ready to go. All they needed was to win one game. They had three chances to do it.

They came really fucking close.

Game Five was Carlos's best outing yet -- he went 5 innings (and it took him 112 pitches to get there) but he held the Marlins to 2 runs in that span. Unfortunately, though, Josh Beckett 2-hit the Cubs, striking out 11, solidifying his own reputation as a Big Game Pitcher. Still, I wasn't worried. I for one hadn't expected Zambrano to win. And with Big Game Mark Prior and Kerry Wood coming up, pitching both games at Wrigley Field, it seemed in the bag.

Then It Happened.

Like probably a million other people out there, watching the game from home, I was counting down the outs. Mark Prior was cruising along, shutting out the Marlins. The Cubs were in the 8th inning, only five outs away from clinching. Then, Juan Pierre hit a slicing foul ball into the left field stands. It probably shouldn't have been so big a deal, except Moises Alou thought he had a bead on the ball, he jumped up to catch it, and a poor jabrone named Steve Bartman reached out and deflected it out of his glove. Alou freaked out. Prior looked as if he'd just seen a baby get mauled by a wolf. Dusty stayed in the dugout, not thinking to calm the young ace, and he immediately surrendered a double to Juan. Then, against Luis Castillo, he threw a wild pitch -- advancing Pierre to third -- and walked the batter. Dusty stayed in the dugout. Then Pudge Rodriguez hit an RBI single. Dusty stayed in the dugout. Then Prior induced what should have been an inning-ending double play from Miguel Cabrera to Alex Gonzalez, who promptly bobbled the ball. Everybody was safe. Dusty stayed in the dugout.

By the time the inning was over, the Marlins had scored 8 and the Cubs were ghosts. Steve Bartman became an icon of failure. Cub fans nearly lynched him at the ballpark, pelting him with things as he was escorted out by security. The Sun-Times released his name to the public the next day, making him the most embarrassed, heart-broken guy in the city. A hotel in Florida offered him a year's free stay. A nearby restaurant offered him a year's free food. He declined both, along with a slew of interview requests, instead apologizing in a press statement and disappearing from the spotlight.

The next night, Kerry Wood would take the mound. He'd give up 7 earned runs in 5.2 innings, although he'd hit a 3-run homer at one point. Before Dusty left Wood in for too long the Cubs were up 5 to 3, but the Marlins would score 6 runs in the middle innings and clinch with a 9-6 victory.

I was devastated. We all were. The curse talk returned and in middle America there were two or three million people walking around with broken, bleeding hearts. In fact, in a lot of ways the 2003 playoffs completely ruined the season for me. For a long time afterwards I'd remember next-to-nothing about it, this despite having followed the team that year as closely as I ever do

Permit me a brief word.  I was sent by my employer to teach a class in another location, and I left home after game 4 feeling so good that I brought nothing but Cubs polo shirts to wear while teaching the course.  The three days I presented the course were the days before Games 5, 6,&7.  Each day, I wore a different color shirt with the same logo, marking me as a Cub fan.  Fortunately, I was posted in Buffalo, NY, the one place (Wide Right!  Hull was in the Crease!) in the entire nation where the locals would have sympathy for my plight.  People there were quite gracious and supportive of me as my hopes disintegrated.

Back to Kurt
Even now, six years later, it's hard to describe what a blow it was to me, and to Cub fans everywhere. I will say, though, that I was so moved by the whole ordeal that I started my first Cubs blog. And unlike some people out there, even to this day, I immediately absolved Bartman who I saw as being a typical, luckless Cub fan. Any one of us could've done the same thing he did.

Besides, the Cubs were good, young, and only bound to improve. 2003 was a gut-shot, it was a devastating blow, but we still trusted in Dusty -- even though we should have turned on him without hesitation for his bunglings in Game Six -- and we believed, wrongly, that next year was Our Year. We didn't know that '03 would be as close as we'd get ... which, somehow, makes what happened even worse.

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Well Told, Kurt

I remember that post-season very well. I certainly didn't share your feelings at the time (I won't get into what my feelings actually were -- that's another story), but your recounting of that October was very moving. You probably think I'm busting your balls now, or am about to, but any baseball fan has had his/her heart broken, and that had to be one hell of a heart-breaking. With respect, and in all seriousness, I sometimes don't know how you Cubbies fans keep going.

Thanks Kurt...I'm depressed

Thanks Kurt...I'm depressed all over again from that season. I think it could be 20yrs down the road and I'll still have a heavy heart from 2003. I remember where I was for every game, I remember my reactions to all the games. I also remember turning to my brother at the bar, as everyone was counting....nay...SHOUTING out the remaining outs..."5....err...nevermind. I'm not going to do this out countdown stuff. Bad juju".

Funny you should mention

Funny you should mention that, Rob. I remember that you were in Buffalo, or halfway between where I lived at the time and my current home of Toronto. I remember you posted a question on your blog (the legendary Uncouth Sloth blog for all your ignorant kiddies out there) about where you should go to watch the games. I'd actually wanted to meet up with you but we weren't yet on friendly terms, as I was still just the jabrone kid who read your blog and once shooed you off of the AOL boards like an idiot.

Actually my wife still feels v. guilty about '03 ... we were watching the games from our homes, 200-or-so miles apart, and as the out countdown began I expressed nervousness and anxiety while she very calmly assured (and re-assured) me that they WERE going to win, and they WERE going to get to the Series. I think she still blames herself a bit that it never happened, or at least she's afraid that I blame her.

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