Cubs 101 - Pt. 37 - The '95 Chicago Cubs
At this point, dear reader, you may be wondering why we include this particular collection of Cubs? Indeed, the true esoteric Cub fan can appreciate the overall value of an otherwise obscure 1995 Cubs team.
If you weren't there, let's reset the scene. After the Tribune bought the club and brought in Dallas Green, the Cubs actually made the postseason in 1984, and did it again in 1989. But then Green was shoved aside by the bean counters in favor of Larry Himes, who never met a team he didn't want to dismantle and rebuild in his own image. Being left to his own devices, by 1994 the team was stripped of nearly all the recognizable, marketable names, and replaced by one free-agent bust after another. Maddux was allowed to leave. Dawson and Sutcliffe were unceremoniously dumped. Even the great Ryne Sandberg was disheartened to the point that he walked away from, what was then, the highest salary in the game.
The Winter of 1994 was a cold one in the Upper Midwest, both in reality and in terms of Cub Hope. The players were locked out of the game, and in our case, it might have been a good thing, since the Cubs finished last in their division. The roster included a slumping Rick Wilkins at catcher, a putrid mixture of Sammy Sosa and Tuffy Rhodes, Derrick May, and Glenallen Hill in the outfield. In the infield with Mark Grace were the following whiff-tastic fan experts: Shawon Dunston, Rey Sanchez, Steve Buchele and Jose Hernandez.
The offense was the stronger portion of the club. Here's your 1994 rotation: Steve Trachsel, Willie Banks, Anthony (AY dammit) Young, Kevin Foster and a 2-10, 6.69 Mike Morgan. Yes, this WAS the team that lost its first 14 home games, and small wonder.
Suffice it to say that Cub fans were not expecting anything whatsoever from 1995. When it was announced that management was considering using scabs to start the next season, many of us hoped that possibly one or two of the linebreakers might be persuaded to stick around and help us when the real play started.
This was, I believe, the first full season of the Ed Lynch era, the sourpussed ex-Met pitcher most famous in Chicago for a angry, surreal diatribe directed at Cub beat report Bruce Levine. ("Without you...I don't have a jo-o-o-ob?") Classic...anyway, while Lynch's tenure would be marred by his tendency to doubletalk (he was a lawyer, after all), he did manage to bring in a few journeymen in 1995 that led this hopeless club to an improbable run at a Wild Card slot!
Between Wilkins and acquisition Scott Servais, the catching position contributed 18 homers. Mark Grace had probably his best year as a Cub, 16/92/.326. So did Dunston. Sosa of course had 36 homers, 34 steals, and 119 RBI. Brian McRae, whose career was marked by either very good or very awful play, was very decent as a leadoff hitter in 1995, a .288 batting average, a .348 OBP, and excellent CF defense. Hernandez was probably used in his true role by Manager Jim Riggleman, platooned for maximum impact and minimal strikeouts. Riggleman, for his part, was probably so damn happy to be away from San Diego and their fire sale mentality. As in 1998, he did a decent managerial job, in particular his handling of a modestly talented bullpen. Randy Myers saved 38, and Riggs wrung performances from such names as Mike Perez, Turk Wendell, Mike Walker, Larry Casian and Young.
1995 was probably the high water mark for Cub starters Jim Bullinger, Foster, Frank Castillo, and free agent signee Jaime Navarro. After several years of utter free agent flameouts, it was refereshing to see Navarro succeed in his first year here, with a 14-6 record, a 3.28 ERA, and 200 innings pitched.
The club itself, sensing that it was freed from not only the MLB lockout, but the single-minded myopic Himes, played with a joy seldom seen in Wrigley since Green's departure. The Cubs led the Central through April and May, but slowly lost ground and spent the year struggling to stay above water. They crept to a season-low 4 games under .500 on September 21, with a series-opening loss to lowly Pittsburgh, at home, and yes, even as far back as 1995, Pittsburgh was "lowly".
We all figured that the club was defeated, after a year of epic struggling just to break even, and that they would probably lose out the string. But with ten games left in the season, all at home, with three more with the Pirates, the fellas decided "why not us?" They took the last three with Pittsburgh, then swept the Cardinals, and entered the last four-game series of the year in 3rd place, four games behind the second-place Astros, who they just happened to be playing. There was a good possibility that the second-place finisher in the Central would qualify for the Wild Card, and even though the Cubs were 11 games behind first-place Cincinnatti, and two games above .500, if they could just win four more games in a row and sweep the Astros, they could force a one-game playoff for the Wild Card. We still had a chance at postseason play on Sept. 28, 1995, one year after losing our first 14 at home!
The September 28th game was an all-timer, a see-saw affair that saw us blow a big lead, only to tie it and force extra innings. Walker gave up a run in the 10th, but Sosa hit a sac fly to tie it again. Walker then gave up a leadoff homer in the 11th, and was replaced by AY, Anthony Young, infamous for losing 16 games in a row for the Mets, and brought in as an reclamation project by the desperate Cubs. Young shut down the Astros, and in our half, Dunston got on base, made things happen with his speed, and eventually scored on a hit by Scott (I Was a Better Basketball Player Than Baseball Player) Bullett, who in turn scored on a hit by beefy third-string catcher Mark Parent. Cubs Win!
The next day was another extra inning affair, won by the Cubs with a bases-loaded seeing-eye single by Luis (pre-steroids) Gonzalez. It was THIS game, attended by the recently remarried, happy, and antsy Ryne Sandberg, that convinced him to come back to the Cubs in 1996, which is why this club is appreciated by the most esoteric of Cubs fans.
Alas, the fairytale ended the next day in another high-scoring affair. The Astros put a run over in the seventh to take the lead, 9-8. We still had three innings left, though! Certainly Riggleman could wave his magic wand one more time? However, a steady stream of pinch hitters could not overcome the final deficit, and in the end, we were eliminated on September 30th, which was far, far more than any of the most optimistic Cubs fans could have hoped for.
The more logical fan could see this team was held together by duct tape, spit and chewing gum, but with the return of Ryno in 1996, hope once again returned to the North Side.
In many ways, I consider the 1995 Chicago Cubs to be the first team of my adult life -- although I was still only fifteen years old that season.
Understand that there was very little to speak warmly about from the previous seasons. My hero Rick Sutcliffe left after a disappointing 1991 season. My all time favorite player Andre Dawson left after 1992, as did reigning Cy Young winner Greg Maddux. Ryne Sandberg quit the Cubs in disgust in the middle of the 1994 season. The last Cub playoff appearance seemed to have occurred forever ago.
Then, Andy MacPhail and his World Champion pedigree came to Chicago at the end of the '94 season. One of his first significant moves was trading for Brian McRae, a center fielder for the Royals and he followed that up by signing Jaime Navarro on April 9th. When the strike-delayed season began on the 26th, the Cubs were ready to make up for lost seasons.
The '95 Cubs were in first until June 4th. Their success came from the bats of Scott Servais and Luis Gonzalez -- acquired for the failed Rick Wilkins, not to mention the previously mentioned McRae.
For a number of years, there had been a lot of talk about the Santo curse. Between Ron Santo and Aramis Ramirez, the Cubs went through more than 100 third basemen in about 30 years trying to find a replacement. What gets less coverage is the shadow of Rick Monday -- he'd been the Cubs center fielder for five years in the 1970's. In his final season he hit 32 homeruns for the Cubs before leaving for Los Angeles (following in the footsteps of the only other memorable Cubs center fielder Andy Pafko, who was traded to the Dodgers partway through the 1951 season in the middle of his second consecutive 30-homerun season). Since Rick Monday, the Cubs have gone through more center fielders than Derek Jeter has gone through girlfriends. And while McRae would be just as short-term a solution as many others, he did shore up a weak spot for a few years.
In '95, on top of his previously mentioned .288 AVG with 12 homers, McRae hit 38 doubles, 7 triples, and had 27 steals. He was the spark, and the reason why the Cubs offense managed to create the illusion of being good for most of the season.
The other reason the Cubs surged into competition for most of the '95 season was their pitching staff. None were older than 29-year-old Jim Bullinger, and all but Steve Traschel had good seasons. Navarro would have his good year, and 26-year-old Frank Castillo would win 11 with an ERA of 3.21 while coming within an out of throwing a no-hitter (not even a reckless diving catch from Sammy Sosa could preserve the spectacle).
1995 was also the first year of realignment, and the first season with the Wild Card. And while the Cubs would fall to 15 games out of first by September 22nd, they were still within striking distance of the Rockies. While Colorado went 3-6 over the next nine days, the Cubs would rattle off 8 straight wins. They entered the final series of the season against one of the two teams they were competing with, and after beating Houston in the first two games with some high drama (winning the first game 12-11, and the second game 4-3), the Cubs needed to finish off the Astros and pull for a Giants sweep of Coloardo to make the playoffs.
Upon reflection, as a grown man, I realize just how unlikely it was. But for a fifteen year old hungry for Baseball That Matters, it was a taste of something I hadn't had since before my voice had changed.
In the end, it didn't work out. The Cubs lost the September 30th game 9-8, and the October 1st game 8-7. In both cases Houston scored late -- and last -- to get the win. The Rockies meanwhile won both of their remaining games and became the NL's first Wild Card team.
After it was all over, an emtional Harry Caray bid a tearful goodbye from the booth. "This isn't me, I'm not like this" he said. For whatever reason, perhaps feeling his age or the crush of disappointment, Harry was sobbing in the booth. Maybe the old legend knewn that he didn't have many more goodbyes to make. Whatever it was, it struck a chord with me that has never left. The 1995 season remains one of the most meaningful in my life, even though the Cubs accomplished nothing but a winning season.
Then again, they did manage one other accomplishment during that last series of the season. As Rob mentioned, watching from a luxury box in Wrigley Field was a retired and refreshed Ryne Sandberg. Apparently I wasn't alone in feeling the pull of that amazing, heartbreaking last series, because he would come out of retirement the following season. It's too bad that '96 was otherwise a total disappointment.
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