Goatriders of the Apocalypse

Cubs 101 - Pt 32 - Jim Essian Hired?


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As the Cubs entered the decade of the 1990’s, optimism was running high.   Having won their second divisional title in six seasons--which, relative to the nearly-four decade postseason drought which preceded this period, marked a distinctive success for the franchise--the franchise felt that better days were ahead.  This was bolstered by the fact that the 1989 division winners had an incredibly young and talented nucleus.  Greg Maddux, Mark Grace, and Shawon Dunston were joined by an in-his-prime Ryne Sandberg as well as proven veteran Andre Dawson.  The reigning Rookie of the Year heading into 1990 was a Cub—Jerome Walton, and he was joined by the runner up for the award, Dwight Smith.

Alas, everything is not always as it seems.  As every single one of the above players had been acquired by General Manager Dallas Green either by draft (Maddux, Grace, Dunston, Walton, Smith, Damon Berrryhill, Joe Girardi, Les Lancaster) trade (Sandberg) or Free Agency (Dawson), the fact that Green had now been gone for over two years would prove to cripple the team as the decade wore on.  A hint of this was displayed prior to the 1989 season when Green’s successor, Jim Frey—Field Manager of the ’84 Cubs for Green—traded away two other Green-produced players, Jaime Moyer and Rafael Palmeiro, to the Texas Rangers.  While this trade netted the Cubs a very important piece for the 1989 division winner—closer Mitch Williams—it came at a pretty high cost, and would serve as merely one example of the moves made by the post-Green Cubs front office that would set back the franchise for most of the decade.

The feeling around the ballpark, however was different.  While the Cubs sputtered and stuttered, the businesses around the neighborhood that enveloped Wrigley Field thrived—in fact, one could point to the early 1990’s as the period in time when winning became secondary to attendance, as fans were as eager—if not moreso--to see the historic ballpark and enjoy the trappings of the area before and after the games as they were to watch a first-rate baseball team.  This would, ironically, be traced to winning in the first place.  In 1984, the Cubs had ended a 39-season postseason drought and, in the process, set a Wrigley Field attendance record as 2,107,655 people came through the turnstiles.  By the time they had won their second division 5 years later, the entire landscape had changed.  Whereas the neighborhood around Wrigley in the early 80’s had grown a little sketchy and benefited from the fact that the absence of lights minimized ay potential danger by having all of the games take place during the day, by 1989 the area had become a destination.  Lights had been installed in 1988 and, contrary to the fears expressed by the community organizations that protested it, contributed to the gentrification of the neighborhood.  The neighborhood even got its own unofficial moniker—“Wrigleyville”.  As the 1990’s progressed, the Cubs were mired in an annual state of mediocrity, and yet attendance at Wrigley Field never suffered.  While the 2 million + mark in attendance had never been hit prior to 1984, it was surpassed in every non-strike season in the 1990’s, in spite of the fact that the team was rarely, if ever, in contention.  The 1993 Cubs, despite not having been in serious contention the entire season, set a franchise mark—which would later be broken—with an attendance of 2,653,763.  In fact, the early 90’s was the time when marketing guru—and future president—John McDonough was as valued an executive of the Cubs as the General Manager.

On the field the disintegration of the carefully-constructed Dallas Green organization was  taking place.  The Cubs followed up their division-winning season in 1989 by going 77-85 in 1990.  Williams, their closer, went from 36 to 16 saves, and would be dealt prior to the following season for Chuck McElroy and Bob Scanlan (for those of you keeping score, Moyer and Palmeiro would lead to McElroy and Scanlan).  Walton showed up in Spring Training in 1990 looking like he had taken every opportunity to celebrate his Rookie of The Year accolades by eating everything in sight.  The positives were a bounceback season for Andre Dawson, whose worst season had been, ironically, during the Cubs’ division winner the year before, a Rookie of the Year runner-up in Mike Harkey (another example of the lasting strength of the now long-gone Green regime, as Harkey had been Green’s last first round draft choice in 1987) and Ryne Sandberg, who would become the first second baseman to lead the league in home runs since Rogers Hornsby had done so 65 years prior.

Heading into the 1991 season, hoping to recapture the magic of 1989, Frey went out and made a splash in the free agent market and signed pitchers Danny Jackson, Dave Smith and outfielder George Bell.  Of the three only Bell would pay dividends.  Jackson would make only 14 starts and go 1-5 and Smith was a disaster from the outset, blowing three consecutive saves in a late-April stretch that went a long way toward sabotaging the season.  Manager Don Zimmer was fired before June, but things did not improve under Zimmer’s successor, Jim Essian.  By this point the Tribune Company had begun to notice that the fans seemed to come out to Wrigley Field regardless of the performance of the team, and decided to make Frey pay for his failed investments in personnel by firing him after the season.

Kurt

The early 90's were a tumultuous time for the Cubs as the team was a mix of have and have-not players. The 1990 Cubs, for example, saw Greg Maddux fully assume the role of ace-hood -- even though he managed only a 15-15 season -- while the Cubs turned to 14 other pitchers to start games. Included in that list of 14 is closer Mitch Williams -- whose career as a Cubs starter includes a 9.95 ERA over the span of 2 starts -- and relievers Les Lancaster and even Paul Assenmacher. (As a starter Assenmacher -- who posted a 2.38 ERA in relief that year -- lasted 1 inning and surrendered 4 earned runs.)

The problem stemmed from the failure of Mike Bielecki to repeat on his 18-win 1989 season (he went 8-11 with an ERA of 4.93) coupled with a serious injury to Rick Sutcliffe (who'd only pitch 5 games and win 0 in 1990) mixed with a dash of the failure of Mitch Williams to reliably save games along with the team's inability to improve at all upon the offense that got them to the playoffs in 1989. In other words, shit hit the fan and the Cubs got covered in it. Still, they managed to win 77 games which, under the circumstances, is actually fairly impressive.

1991 was more of the same -- except this time Jim Frey went out and "improved" the team. He signed free agents George Bell to play left field and protect Andre Dawson in the lineup, not to mention former 23-game-winner Danny Jackson to provide a reliable arm in the rotation along with long-time Astros closer Dave Smith to shore up the bullpen.

The only problem was that most of those guys sucked. Jackson, the "big name pitcher" of the bunch had won a combined 12 games the previous two seasons while losing 17. He'd continue the trend with the Cubs in 1991, going 1-5 with an ERA of 6.75 while earning 2.65 million -- a fairly hefty salary back then (gawd I feel old). Dave Smith, meanwhile, would accomplish the improbable task of being even less reliable than Williams had been, saving 17 games with an ERA of 6.00 while earning 1.9 million for the Cubs. And George Bell managed 25 homeruns and 86 RBI in his single season with the Cubs, although his biggest impact would occur in the off season.

Consequently, the '91 Cubs would only turn to nine starting pitchers en route to their second consecutive 77 win season. Then, on May 19th following a 2-1 victory over the Phillies Don Zimmer was fired and the Cubs would turn to Jim Essian to guide them the rest of the season.

Essian, a former player, had been a coach in the Cubs system before receiving the call to manage at the major league level. For reasons beyond explanation he preferred his players to refer to him as "Skip." The Cubs would start Essian's reign as manager with a five-game winning streak. By June 14th they were 31-29, 6.5 games out of first, and at a moment in which they could have been poised to narrow the gap and compete as we'd hoped they would, they instead embarked on a 9-game losing streak that they'd never really overcome.

Essian, meanwhile, was given a two year contract to manage the team -- a contract the Cubs would not honor. They let him go at the end of the disappointing season, along with reassigning Jim Frey to a position in which his decisions did not result in the disposal of half a dozen future Hall of Fame-caliber players. Essian would then join a long list of former Cub managers on the bread line as he would never manage at the major league level again. (The Never Manage Again Streak began with Gene Michael, who'd be fired only to never work again in 1987, and includes Frank Luccheski, Don Zimmer, Joe Altobelli, Essian, Jim Lefebvre, Tom Trebblehorn, and would end with Jim Riggleman who went almost a full decade without managing before the Mariners turned to him half way through the 2008 season.)

In other words, two years after their second divisional title in half a decade, the Cubs went out and signed a bunch of bust free agents, fired their manager, re-assigned their GM, and then -- with the hiring of former White Sox GM Larry Himes -- their troubles began.

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