Back around early March of this year, I had an idea. Y'see, blogging about baseball is not always easy -- everybody can probably name numerous blogs that they've read that have withered and died as blogger interest has waned. GROTA has outlived a lot of them, and for a blog that's now existed for four seasons of Cubs baseball we are surprisingly prolific. Part of that reason is because we have figured out a key secret: if you know what you're going to write about weeks -- or even months -- in advance, then it's a little easier to actually keep things going. And it was during Spring Training that I realized that a fun topic to write about which would keep us busy all summer long would be this one -- a history of the Cubs from our perspective, the Cub fans who write on this site. It would only serve as an introduction -- just like a university level 101 course, and it would be told in this, the 101st consecutive year without a title.
Of course, there were some problems. First, most of us weren't born until the 80's -- therefore most of the Cubs history we'd be writing about would be circumstantial. Second, we knew going into it that we'd be writing the most prolifically about the recent past, primarily because that's the past we've lived through.
But the thing is, the recent past of Cubs baseball really has been some of the most compelling. Since 2003, the scrutiny around the organization has been at an extremely high level. Before '03, Cub fans had been stuck with -- and had at one point perhaps cultivated -- the reputation of having a relaxed, support-the-team-no-matter-what attitude that resulted in high attendance even in years of mediocrity. But when that ball bounced off Bartman's outstretched hands, when Mark Prior booted his brain just as Alex Gonzalez booted that double play ball, our heartbreak modified changed our outlook to a more urgent one -- we wanted to win, even as some of us came to believe we were cursed to always fail.
And so more than ever the outlook and attitude of Cub fans these last five years have been hostile, angry, and demanding. In some ways, our emotionally perilous journey through the Baker Years into the Piniella Resurgence demands more than just the last 20-or-so Cubs 101 articles. But then again, covering those years and that frustration (and moments of elation) is what this blog has always been about, so I guess we've done okay in that department.
Still, in a lot of ways, for no fault of anybody but my own I would call this series a failure, or at least a middling success at best. There's just too much history for such a short series. But at least we didn't sing the praises of Rick Wilkins as being one of the greatest Cubs of all time, or anything else particularly worthy of scorn. I'm glad we wrote it, not only because it provided regular content at a time when content was sometimes hard to come by (how often can we write about the insanity of Milton Bradley, for instance?).
Chances are, we aren't actually finished with Cubs 101. We've met our 75 article obligation, but I think there's more to tell. There are stories -- and players -- we've glossed over. There are unforgettable moments that we forgot about. Cubs 101 just might become a regular part of this blog for so long as this blog exists, although there will be no more 3 or 4 a week posts.
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The long delayed sale appears to be finally imminent. We are fortunate that this time, the buyer is motivated out of love for the Cubs and a desire to see them do well, rather than a source of cheap programming, then later, a profitable cost center within an enterprise, as they existed under the Tribune banner. But make no mistake - the Ricketts are businessmen first, and they did not become billionaires throwing bad money after bad.
We believe that the Milton Bradley sunk cost is a primary concern, and that we will not have to deal with him anymore in our uniform. That having been said, it is unlikely that the new owners are going to eat any more contracts, namely Soriano's, Fukudome's or Zambrano's, in the interests of "addition by subtraction". Since nobody in their right minds, or even the Royals, are going to offer us anywhere close to market value for any of these three gentlemen in a trade, we must assume that the 2010 Cubs will include them.
Alfonso Soriano is in his mid-thirties, and as such can be expected to be on the decline, even IF his knees heal and his leg muscles that have been bothering him since joining us are well. We had high hopes for him going into 2009, since it was the first spring in the past three that he reported no muscular pain in his legs. It figures, though, that when he was signed to the 8-year contract at 29 years of age that towards the end he would barely be able to drag himself around. At the time, most of us were ready to take that risk. We just didn't think the day of reckoning would be quite so soon.
Aramis Ramirez is also into his thirties, and this is a big year in his life as well as ours. He can opt out of his deal at the end of the year, and while that may represent potential savings to the Ricketts, please never forget the 100 or so bodies that have passed through our doors between Ron Santo and ARam at third base. Top prospect Josh Vitters plays third base, I believe. But not only is he still a ways away, we all realize that many of our 'top prospects' the past ten years have failed, miserably. Our club has a poor track record of farm system development under Hendry's tenure. I do not believe it is in our best interest to let Ramirez walk after 2010, or to trade him unless we can make an exceptional deal, and off the top of my head, there aren't many players out there that fall in that category.
Derrek Lee will play first base, and hopefully his career renaissance is genuine and will carry over to similar production next year, when it might mean something. Geo Soto will almost most certainly improve over this year's .220 average and bad practices behind the plate. It is unlikely he will return to his 2008 production, but even something in the middle will work at this position with little depth in talent league-wide. After a miserable performance when he was asked to catch every day for a month-plus, Koyie Hill has shown, with rest, that he is decent enough as a backup, once again considering the lack of catching talent out there.
The pitching staff, which most days was our strength in 2009, will return mostly intact in 2010. Carlos Marmol is expected to grow up and close our games, and Guzman, Marshall, Grabow, Heilman and Caridad will assist. Aaron Heilman bears mentioning, for while he asserted at the beginning of 2009 that he considers himself a starting pitcher, because "all of his pitches" don't seem to work in a relief setting, and although he was lit up at times, publicly he kept his mouth shut, and there were no reports of bad behavior in the clubhouse. Heilman was given a largely thankless job this year, and although he isn't the best pitcher in the world, he managed to get through 2009 without too many of us wanting to hang him by his ankles over hot coals. That's as high praise as I can give him.
The starters will be largely static, as well. Ted Lilly has proven himself to be the best of Hendry's free agent signings, famously from his hospital bed. I vote Lilly to be our opening day starter next year. He has the mental toughness and focus that our supposed ace, Zambrano, seems to lack. Dempster should have a better year, now that his infant daughter is successfully battling the disorder she was born with. Randy Wells will be given the chance to show that his rookie year was no fluke. The league has adjusted to him, and like a tough chess game, it is his move to re-adjust to gain the advantage he had the first time through the league. Tom Gorzellany (aka Gorgonzola) and Jeff Samardzija (aka Shark) will battle it out for the last spot, with the loser occupying the coveted Sean Marsall Memorial SwingMan spot.
Now, that all of the certainties are accounted for in Cubs 102, we've put off the hard work long enough. What will become of the middle infield, and center and right field?
In the infield, on hand we have slick-fielding, little-hitting Andres Blanco, slick-hitting, little-fielding Ryan Theriot, middle-of-the-road Jeff Baker, useless-in-2009 Aaron Miles, almost-useless-in-2009 Mike Fontenot, and oh yeah, the Ghost of Mark DeRosa. Now, I know what I would do - but what will the Cubs Braintrust do? I wager that they will claim to know more about the shortstop position than we do, and assert that Theriot is adequate in the role, with Blanco sticking as his backup against tough righties. Lou's opinion of The Riot is higher than ours is, and that is key. I also believe Baker has impressed since his acquisition, and that he will be given the initial nod at second in the spring. Miles and Fontenot will battle for the backup role at second.
That seems boring though - what of DeRosa, who is a free agent? What about the annual pursuit of Brian Roberts, or at least a Roberts-esque figure, who can lead off and provide basepath speed, a component of the game we rank dead solid LAST in currently? Lou would love some speed, as well as an answer to the perpetual question "Who will lead off?" This is where Milton Bradley rears his ugly head. I do not believe that, based on the tasty $21 million that Ricketts will have to choke down to rid us of Bradley, that he will have the inclination to pursue a free agent leadoff man, especially if we still have to address right field.
And once again, right field will need to be addressed. It's not quite a Catch-22, but this is not a simple act of filling in a hole. If Soriano, Soto, and Ramirez return to previous productivity levels, and if Lee can continue in 2010 his current levels, then the Cubs can opt for 'defense', plug plus-fielder, mediocre hitter Fukudome in RF, and go after someone like Chone Figgins to play center. That will go a long way towards shoring up a poor 2009 defensive effort. If, however, we do not want to count on these three big guns, then we need to find an RBI man for RF. This is the stated preferred option of Sweet Lou, but not only will this be more costly, but it is a much more complicated task. There are more fine center fielders out there than slugging right fielders. We have been trying to plug a slugging right fielder in since Sosa left town, and at this point, the quest is beginning to rival the problems we had filling the hot corner before Ramirez came to town.
The initial thought I had was "Who plays RF now for Pittsburgh?", because that seems to work often. We always seem to have a Kevin Hart to dangle in front of THEM. Too bad Jason Bay was traded a while ago - he would be ideal. Bay may be a free agent, though. What will Matt Holliday want to do - will he want to stay in CrackerTown, or will he go for the money? Either way, both these guys will also cost our #1 draft pick. Brad Hawpe, Raul Ibanez and Andre Either aren't available - how about Hunter Pence? That sumbitch would mean five more wins for us, even if he sat on our bench and spit seeds all year. Of course, Pence is not a free agent, and who would we trade for him? It is easy for us to sit here and wager that somebody would give us a Pence-like figure for our spare parts - Fontenot, Jake Fox, and Gorzellany. That ain't going to happen.
What happens to fill this spot will go a long way towards determining our 2010 success. Most likely, it will be a free agent, and will it be a Type A like Bay, a Type B like Mike Cameron, or someone like Austin Kearns? Cameron and Kearns bring in their own "Ifs", which would be run up the flagpole and flown alongside all the other "Ifs" for Cubs 101. If Zambrano can focus, If Soto gets in shape, If Ramirez' shoulder and Soriano's knee hold together, If the new right fielder works out better than the last six we've tried...
Every team has "Ifs" in the winter. It just seems like the Chicago Cubs have had more than their share the past 101 winters, and if it were me, as the new owner of the franchise, I would direct my efforts towards eliminating "Ifs" and establishing a solid core of near-certainties to build on, regardless of what my ledger sheet said. Of course, that's why I'm here, and Tom Ricketts is up there.
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When this baseball season began, much like 2008, Cub fans were brimming with hope. The team had demonstrated some of the best pitching and also had, undeniably, the best hitters of the '08 campaign, and Jim Hendry had gone out and improved the team. Or so we believed. What we didn't realize at the time was that his so-called improvement was really a gutting.
First, Jim announced that backbone of the team and face of the franchise Kerry Wood was to not return. He punctuated this piece of news by trading for Marlins closer Kevin Gregg. Wood went on to pitch for the Cleveland Indians, where he'd save 20 and strike out 62 in 54 innings of work as of this writing. Granted, his numbers weren't spectacular, but he appeared to stay healthy all year long and, undeniably, they were better than Gregg's.
Second, Jim traded away multi-tooled Mark DeRosa to Cleveland. DeRo proceeded to hit more than 20 homeruns, to drive in 78, but to only bat .252 with an OPS of .760 thanks to an injury. Jim replaced the versatile DeRosa with Mike Fontenot at second base and Aaron Miles in the role of super-sub, who he signed to a ridiculous two-year deal. Despite his slow-down, DeRosa's numbers beat the holy hell out of Mike Fontenot's and Aaron Miles's in '09.
Third, Jim let center fielder Jim Edmonds fade into that good night, opting instead to sign Milton Bradley to a three year deal. Bradley was courted over a short list of players including Bobby Abreu, Adam Dunn, and Raul Ibanez. Bradley went on to lose his mind and most of his offensive prowess, while pretty much every other realistic option outperformed him on and off the field.
Once the season began, the Cubs responded by wearing a mediocre groove into the proverbial dirt and then they stayed there all season long. They never really took off as a team, they never really fell off, and while they bounced around as low as 4th place at points they never really scared any of us into thinking they were going to turn into a 90 loss team.
In other words, it was just one of those Meh seasons. Players never performed -- Geovany Soto followed his Rookie of the Year season by batting .217 with 11 homers, 45 RBI, and about 80 hair-pulling moments. Mike Fontenot managed 9 homeruns in 373 at bats while batting .236. Alfonso Soriano battled knee problems to bat .241 with 20 homers. Milton Bradley and Kosuke Fukudome were practically twins out there, batting .257 and .260 respectedly with 12 and 11 homeruns.
The team was also rife with injuries -- from Soto's sore shoulder to Derrek's neck spasms to A-Ram's dislocated shoulder to Alfonso's bum knee to Bradley's mind (and knee) to Dempster's broken toe and Zambrano's oblique and hammy and Lilly's knee and shoulder and Harden's whatever-it-was ... these guys got hurt. A lot. And so what began as a promising season turned into a total bust.
At the start of it, when we decided to write this project, we'd hoped to see the team shake off the shackles of the so-called Goat Curse. We were so very wrong to have expected that.
The 2009 Cubs, then, ended a lot like the 2008 Cubs, and even like the 2006 Cubs. They were disappointing, but in their own unique way. I suppose we should come to expect it, to live with it, to adapt from it. But we won't. 2010 is just around the corner, and we will hope, with everything we have, that Next Year is The Year.
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When Andy MacPhail resigned from the Cubs during the '06 season debacle, it soon became clear that the long-time whispers of a Cubs sale were formulating into reality. The Cubs parent owner -- the Chicago Tribune -- was in dire financial straights and, even though the Cubs were a perennial money-maker, they were facing the grim task of bailing out their debt and satisfying their stock holders. None of that stopped Jim Hendry from signing some very big names on the free agent market soon after the '06 season ended, though.
But when the sale of the Tribune to Sam Zell was announced in April, 2007, the Cubs had a new defacto owner who pledged immediately to sell off his billion-dollar asset as quickly as possible. Naturally, I thought that meant '07 would be a lost season -- after all, with a new owner the Cubs perhaps had frozen assets and Jim Hendry would be less likely to have the bank to expand the payroll as needed.
Although the Cubs didn't lose out on their "lost season," and although they proceeded to spend even more money after they were knocked out of the playoffs on bats like Kosuke Fukudome's, we had the same concern about '08. By this point the Cubs had been in sale limbo for about a year, with no named suitor in sight, and the trail leading to the team's eventual purchase appeared endless.
Then, as the '08 season winded down, the Tribune began accelerating the process, narrowing the field of prospective suitors down to a handful of multi-billionaires. The favorite Cub fan choice at the time was Mark Cuban, the passionate owner of the Dallas Mavericks who was known for throwing himself at opposing players and for also cutting no expense when it came to getting the best players and the best equipment. Naturally, he didn't have a chance in hell.
Maybe his bid would have been accepted; perhaps Cuban could've been a finalist, but the conspiracy theorists of the world will note that Major League Baseball did not want such an iconoclast, revolutionary owner to so much as sniff their clubhouse. Afraid that Cuban would change the nature of the game in a costly manner, some feel it was not a coincidence that he suddenly found himself accused of an alleged insider trading scandal. For that reason -- and the market collapse of the fall -- Cuban bowed out.
The eventual winner of the drawn-out sale was Tom Ricketts, the son of Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, and long-time Cub fan. Finally, we thought, we finally knew the shape of the team's future.
Except the sale to Ricketts just... never... ended. He was announced as the winner in January of 2009. He'd then spend the next eight months turning over couch cushions, and emptying out pockets, and doing whatever else possible to find the cash he'd promised the Cubs.
Yep, nothing quite as reassuring as a new owner who can't afford to seal the deal. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Not that Ricketts is a bad guy. From all appearances, he's a passionate Cubs fan who met his wife at Wrigley Field who wants to see the Cubs win just as much as you or I. The only problem was that his purchase of the team eventually became so desperate that he began contacting celebrity Cub fans in order to offer them a share of the pie if they could help pitch in and finalize the sale with him.
Before too long, a frustrated Tribune began to look into re-opening the sale and accepting the next-highest bid. The plan, temporarily, was that they would submit both bids to a bankruptcy judge who would accept the best one. Suddenly, Ricketts was no longer a sure thing.
Then, in July, Ricketts finally found that hundred million he'd lost in the back yard's shed and he and the Tribune reached an agreement. But of course, as the season drew to an end three months later, we were still left waiting for MLB to finalize the damned sale.
So -- Tom Ricketts. Is this guy the owner we've been waiting for? Close to 30 years ago, the faceless Chicago Tribune bought the Cubs from the Wrigleys for something like $20 million. They sold the team to Ricketts for $900 million. Over that three decades they promised hope, initiated change, and utterly failed to bring Cub fans the championship they've been waiting for.
Now, we're left waiting for something else -- we are hoping to discover that Ricketts is a silent Cuban, a guy with the same ideas and passion but without the bad rap. We are hoping that he will step up and purge the organization of the executives who've had too much time to deliver so few results, that he will replace them with brilliant baseball men and women, and that he'll make wise-but-aggressive decisions when it comes toward dramatically improving the Cubs to the best of his ability.
What we're hoping he won't be is a Peter Angelos, who has taken a competitive Orioles organization and in just over a decade turned them into a basement-dwelling laughing stock. But the kind of owner that Ricketts will be remains a mystery... for now. Thankfully, amazingly, the ridiculously long wait appears to be nearing its end.
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In the grand history of the Cubs, Chicago has only gone out, pursued, and snatched perhaps half a dozen star free agent outfielders from the clutches of the free agent market. Ever. (Maybe there's a reason this team is 100+ years dry of a World Championship.) Of the handful of star outfielders signed to patrol the green fields of Wrigley -- Andre Dawson, George Bell, Moises Alou -- three of them have been signed to massive contracts in just the past three seasons. They would be Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome, and Milton Bradley. All three are making f*ck-you money, and all three have brought more negative with the positive than anybody would have hoped for. This is their story.
The first to sign with the Cubs -- a strong-armed left fielder named Alfonso Soriano -- began his career as a 40 and 40 second baseman with mediocre defensive skills. Despite his droves of talent he bounced between New York, Texas, and eventually Washington D.C. where he threatened to sit out rather than be moved from second base to left field. He also had a long-standing reputation of being unhappy with batting anywhere but leadoff, despite having 40-homerun capability. And despite playing only one season in left field, and having a reputation as being somewhat of a headcase, Jim Hendry saw fit to sign this 31-year-old to an 8-year deal worth in the neighborhood of $130 million.
My reaction at the time was a mixture of joy, shock, and dismay -- Soriano was the greatest Cubs free agent signing of my lifetime, except for the fact that he'd be raking in the bread for years after he'd stop earning it.
He was joined a year later by Japanese sensation -- and living FCC violation -- Kosuke Fukudome. Fukudome was a high-impact, high-average power hitting defensive marvel back in Japan. His potential to make an immediate impact in the States netted him a 4 year deal, paying him something better than $12 million per on average.
Then, before the start of the 2009 season, the duo became a trio when Jim Hendry signed volatile, high OPS stud Milton Bradley to a three year, $30 million deal. Bradley was injury prone and had a legendary attitude, but nobody could deny that his offensive ability could serve as a huge upgrade over the band-aids of 2008 -- Jim Edmonds and his ilk.
Naturally, all three have, to varying degrees, gone to shit.
In his first two seasons with the Cubs, Soriano put up some massive numbers while healthy -- only he spent both years missing big chunks of time due to leg injuries. He also went from being at times a defensive secret weapon to being a defensive heart-attack-waiting to happen. In the third year of his contract -- in other words, with five years to go -- Soriano managed to play in 117 games, where he batted .241 with 20 homeruns and 118 strikeouts while committing 11 errors (more than his '07 and '08 totals combined). His year finished early and he has had his first knee surgery.
In Fukudome's time with the Cubs, he's had hot-as-hell months, and then he's had cold-as-ice months too. He began 2008 batting .327 in the month of April, with a declining batting average in every subsequent month -- his production bottomed out in September when he batted .178 and looked completely lost at the plate. In 2009 it was much of the same. He'd have good months and bad months, with his good ones being a sight to see and his bad ones being absolutely atrocious. Regardless, his overall numbers between his first two seasons are both remarkably similar, and a far cry from his .305 career average in Japan and his 24 at bats per homerun in his home country have declined to once per every 47 at bats.
And as for Milton Bradley -- well, we'll have more on the poster child of disappointment sometime soon, but his single season in Chicago was mired by hostility, slumps, nagging injuries, and a bad attitude.
So here's my question: is there something so broken about the Chicago Cubs that their only solution is to acquire damaged players and hope for the best? Soriano, who hardly had the best reputation in baseball, was overpaid-for. Fukudome, who has not met the expectations we had for him, had missed half his final season in Japan before signing with Chicago and has, at times, expressed home-sickness and (dare I say it) remorse. And Bradley proved to be a total nutjob.
It's either a bad sign that the organization can only sign damaged players, or that they appear to be at the top of Jim Hendry's list. Regardless, in retrospect the free agent bonanza has turned into a bit of a bust, even though the Cubs might be competitive for years to come.
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The Playoff Cubs -- it could've been the team's nickname after Chicago made consecutive post season trips for the first time in 100 years. But while one of the two occurred with no expectations, the other was one of the bitterest disappointments since the Bartman Incident half a decade before. And both exampled the problems that the Cubs will continue to deal with any time they reach the post season.
In '07, as we highlighted earlier, the Cubs were dead-to-the-neck-up when they turned around and played some of the hottest baseball in the land. As the season drew to a close, Chicago entered the playoffs with a 85 wins and were set to take on the unimpressive-but-solid Arizona Diamondbacks. It pretty much unfolded as you'd expect, with offensive struggles, managerial mishaps, and petty celebrations.
Carlos Zambrano, four years removed from his last trip to the playoffs (when he suffered some beat-downs), started Game One of the '07 playoffs for the Cubs. He pitched 6 innings of 4-hit, 1-walk, 8 strikeout baseball, and with 85 pitches on his tally Lou decided to yank him "for game four."
Carlos was supported by, well, not much of any kind of offense. The Cubs managed only 1 run, and when Carlos Marmol imploded in the 7th the D-Backs never looked back. The Cubs followed up Game One by scoring 4 runs in Game Two, with the latter 2 getting scored long after the game had already been decided (not to mention Ted Lilly got his ass handed to him). Then, in Game 3, Arizona scored 5 runs to the Cubs 1 (thanks for nothing, Rich Hill) and that was all she wrote.
Think about it. The nearly unbeatable-since-June Cubs averaged 2 runs per game, saw their best pitchers -- except Carlos -- get their asses kicked, watched their untouchable bullpen -- including Marmol -- get handled, and suddenly Lou started talking about the pressure in Chicago.
And sure, there is a lot of pressure in a Chicago Cubs playoff game. The fans are desperate for a win, they're terrified of a meltdown, and they'll go from booming with joy to silent as ghosts in a heartbeat. And the players, let's be honest, the players have got to feel it. Lou says they feel it, they say they feel it, and thus the term "playing tight" gets thrown around. And that was just in the playoff series where expectations were low.
The following year, the Cubs were the winningest team in the National League. They had the best offense in baseball and one of the best rotations, and their first round opponents were the Los Angeles Dodgers.
That year, despite Carlos being a no-hit pitching gawd, Lou decided that Ryan Dempster would pitch Game One. After all, he'd been way, way more reliable and consistent in '08. Dempster responded by dropping a turd, particularly in the 5th inning when he gave up 4, the accumulation of 7 walks and 4 hits. The Dodgers proceeded to nickle and dime the Cubs bullpen.
But no worries! In Game Two, Carlos took the mound. And his outing wasn't so bad, except for the 2nd inning when the Cubs suffered a total defensive meltdown. They saw errors from Derrek Lee and Mark DeRosa, and later in the game had errors committed by Ryan Theriot and Aramis Ramirez.
This meltdown led to 10 runs scored by the Dodgers, and in Game 3 the Cubs were ghosts, holding the Dodgers to 3 runs but scoring only 1. In other words, for the second straight year, the Cubs were swept, they averaged 2 runs a game, and they exited early.
So, that has been the legacy of Lou Piniella and Jim Hendry's Chicago Cubs. 183 wins over 2 years, but an 0-6 record in the playoffs. These days, a lot of Cub fans wonder if the team can even remotely come close to winning the World Series ... or even reaching it. Maybe the Ricketts family will bring a new, better mentality to the team.
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The prelude to the 2008 season was not marked by as much excitement as the '07 season had seen. This happened in part because so many important roster spots were already filled, and also because Jim Hendry was running out of the funny money he'd been tossing around like Matthew Lesko. Still, he managed to complete a long-time quest to sign Japanese hitting sensation Kosuke Fukudome to a long-term deal, while also picking up key contributor Reed Johnson for next-to-nothing early in Spring Training.
2008 also marked the move of Ryan Dempster into the rotation, with Kerry Wood making his previously-mentioned ascension into the closer's role. Many of us thought it would be a disaster. The Brewers were looking like a talented young team, the Cubs didn't have a definitively effective center fielder, and the last time Ryan Dempster started for the Cubs he only lasted 6 games, going 1-3 with a 5.35 ERA in 2005. It turned out that we were in for a lot of surprises, though.
First and foremost, the Cubs had a surprising Rookie of the Year in Geovany Soto. The previous season he'd played in the final month of the season, batting close to .390 and earning the role of starter in the playoffs. Then in '08 he delivered an undeniably solid bat, hitting 23 homeruns, knocking in 83 RBI, and batting .285 en route to his well-earned trophy.
But beyond Soto, the Cubs received surprise performances from a handful of players. Mark DeRosa, who'd played an essential role as a super-sub in '07, had a career year in '08 batting .285 while hitting 21 homeruns as he played multiple positions around the diamond.
After DeRosa came the performance of Ryan Dempster, who shocked everybody -- especially me -- by being nearly unbeatable at home. He won 17 games, 14 of them in Wrigley Field, and finished the year with a 2.96 ERA. He was complimented by Ted Lilly, who won 17 games of his own and would've had an ERA below 4.00 had the Reds not owned him all season long.
But beyond those three, Jim Hendry made two huge moves along the way that paid off. Noticing that his team had crappy-at-best performance from Felix Pie in center field, and becoming increasingly aware of the rapidly-fading performance of Fukudome -- who started off red hot in April and faded into dust by mid summer -- Hendry signed former Cub nemesis and aging center fielder Jim Edmonds on May 14th. At the time, the Cubs were 24-16, and in first place by 1 game. They were also conveniently playing the Padres, Jim's former team.
Edmonds, an 8-time Gold Glover and 4-time All Star, had faded rapidly from his former glory as a 40-homer stud. As mentioned, he'd been released earlier in the season by the Padres, after batting .178 in 90 at bats with them. But the Cubs thought he had a hole in his swing they could fix, and they were right. In his 4.5 months with the Cubs, Edmonds managed to play in 85 games. He batted .256 with 19 homeruns and 49 RBI, and helped contribute at times dramatically to a boomingly successful Cubs offense.
Then, on July 8th Hendry dealt four young players to the Athletics for fireballer -- and Mark Prior clone -- Rich Harden. This occurred within a week of Milwaukee swinging a huge deal for ace lefty C.C. Sabathia. While Sabathia received all the press and glory as he pitched his ass off in Milwaukee, an injury-plagued Harden managed to make 12 starts for the Cubs. He went 5-1 in Chicago, with a 1.77 ERA, striking out 89 in 71.0 innings of work.
Harden's addition filled out an already-deep rotation. The Cubs were already 3.5 games in first place when they acquired him, and while Milwaukee pressed to surpass the Cubs toward the end of July, Chicago managed to upgrade enough to not only hold them off but to also go on a torrid second-half run despite losing effectiveness from Carlos Zambrano and watching long-time staple Derrek Lee become a double-play king.
From the moment the Cubs and Brewers were tied on July 27th, Chicago would win their next 5 straight and 15 out of their next 17. By September 1st, they'd be up by 6.5 games, and on Septembers 14th and 15th something incredible would happen.
Thanks to a miserable hurricane season that resulted in some delayed games in Houston, the Cubs played the Astros on the road in Milwaukee. Houston served as the "home team" in a park filled by Cub fans, and on September 14th Carlos Zambrano threw the first no-hitter of my lifetime. To gain a better understanding of how shocking this was, you have to understand that Carlos had pitched in all of August without a win, with diminishing velocity, and had received a cortisone shot before the game. Lou Piniella had intended to limit him to 90 or 100 pitches, but instead held off and witnessed Z. toss 110, striking out 10, walking 1, and otherwise being perfect. Then, the following day, Ted Lilly and the bullpen combined to toss a 1-hitter, with Houston's 1 hit not coming until the 7th. In other words, the Cubs went 15+ innings against the Astros without allowing a single hit. It was brutal.
By the end of the year, Chicago was the winningest team in the NL with 97, barely failing to win 100. They became the first Cub team in a century to reach the playoffs in consecutive years, they'd had productive performances from nearly every player, and they did it all while making it look easy. Of course there were rocky moments, and there were times when players looked lost -- like Marmol for about a month -- but in many ways it was the first non-dramatic successful season that we've ever experienced. Starting in mid April, and except for a week and a half in early May, the Cubs owned first place all season long. That sort of success is about as rare as Haley's Comet making an appearance.
Then they got swept in the playoffs, again, but we'll have more on that next time.
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Some of the more practical Cub fans would be outraged by Kerry Wood garnering another piece of the Cubs 101 story. And yet, the modern-day Cub most-loved while doing the least deserves a final chapter.
By the time Lou Piniella arrived in Chicago, Kerry Wood's star had mostly set. In 2006, the 29-year-old Wood had managed 4 starts while dealing with rotator cuff issues, resulting in the Cubs exercising their option and buying out the final year of his contract.
But Wood and Hendry were baseball soul-mates. Kerry was one of Jim's first-scouted and first-signed prospects, and with a Chicagoan wife Wood was not inclined to leave town. The Cubs therefore offered him a deal to return in '07 as a reliever, which he accepted. The result in '07 wasn't even the death rattle of the Wood-Prior Double Ace Era (as Mark was still a Cub that year as well), but instead it was the stinky, raunchous, cadaver fart of the Double Ace Era corpse.
Dealing with his persistent arm problems, Wood didn't pitch until August 5th -- long after Piniella and the Cubs purged themselves of expectations. The result was 22 appearances of reliable relief, with Wood netting a 3.33 ERA and making an unprecedented third post season appearance for the Cubs.
The following year, Wood returned again to the Cubs in a sweetheart one-year deal, despite receiving multi-year offers from other teams, this time elevated to closer. Wood spent his swan-song mostly healthy and relatively effective, saving 34 games in 65 appearances. He posted a 3.26 ERA, striking out 84 in 66.1 innings of work, and would make his second All Star appearance as a Cub. Wood also made his 4th and final post season appearance as a Cub.
It was his 10th active season as a Cub (out of 11 chances, as he missed all of '99 due to Tommy John Surgery). He'd go from an unshaven, acne-riddled rookie who'd strike out 20 Astros in his 5th ever major league start to being a prolifically injured unmet hope, with only a few shining moments between the heartache. It would also be his last.
After the '08 season ended, Jim Hendry announced that the Cubs could not afford to pay Wood the money he deserved, and would therefore not pursue him. They then acquired closer-bust Kevin Gregg, leaving Kerry to sign a 2-year, 10-million-a-year contract with the Cleveland Indians.
When I found out about it, the signing reminded me of all the unspeakable Cubbie moments of my life. From the departure of Andre Dawson while he was a homer shy of 400, to the premature retirement of Ryne Sandberg in the midst of the worst season of his career, to so many other disappointments, Wood's exit served a reminder that baseball is a business above all else and the kind of hopes we have as children -- two decades of watching our favorite player win 'em for the Cubs, for instance -- have no place in the reality of adulthood.
And so, Kerry Wood is gone. Pound-for-pound, the memories he gave us came nowhere near outweighing the hopes we had for him -- anybody want to admit to fantasizing of the day he'd eclipse Nolan Ryan as the strikeout king? -- but over his 10 years he saw more wins in a Cub uniform than anybody else who's served as long, and he contributed to more than his fair share.
I guess that's something, isn't it?
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It was June 3rd and as the cliche says, the Cubs were going nowhere fast. Lou Piniella had joined the team with promises of better play and improved fundamentals, but even his best attempts appeared to be fruitless. Two days earlier, Carlos Zambrano had been sent home by his skipper after busting his catcher Michael Barrett's lip in the clubhouse. Then on June 2nd, Lou threw an epic tantrum and was ejected.
Cub fans everywhere -- including this one -- were ready to throw in the towel. The team was at 22-31 on the season, a ripe 9 games under .500, and were nowhere near competing for the division. And being the short-sighted dope that I am, I was ready to toss Piniella under the bus. After all, he had clearly lost control of his team and himself, or so I thought. Man, was I wrong.
On that day in early June, the Cubs came out swinging and finally ended their slide. They beat Atlanta 10-1 thanks to the bats of Mark DeRosa, Derrek Lee, and Alfonso Soriano. The following day they'd beat Milwaukee 7-2, and after a loss to the Brewers they'd go on to rattle off 3 straight definitive wins, outscoring their opponents 17-4. It doesn't sound like much, but it was the beginnings of an unprecedented turn-around.
From June 3rd until the end of the season, the Cubs would lead the National League in wins, going 63-46. In the process they would overtake all the teams in the weak NL Central and slide into the playoffs.
But if you aren't already impressed by this huge, epic turn-around, then permit me to spend a moment reminding you of the terrible team Lou Piniella had inherited. He took over a 90-loss team, and thanks to a few epic signings by Jim Hendry -- Ramirez, Soriano, Mark DeRosa, Ted Lilly, even Jason Marquis -- the Cubs turned around and became a world (or at least an NL Central) beater.
It wasn't obvious at the time, especially not in the early hours of June 3rd, but Lou Piniella was a genius. He was a man with an impossible task, an inheritor of a dysfunctional clubhouse, and it turned out that his epic ejection -- in which hats were kicked -- may have been as contrived as a celebrity improv session.
But most impressive of all, Piniella did something Dusty wouldn't have done in an eternity of baseball. He trusted the kids. He took a handful of young, unproven players who'd been floating around Dusty Baker's 40 man roster for years and he actually played them. From Ryan Theriot, who hit 30 doubles and stole 28 bases in his first season as the starting shortstop to Mike Fontenot, who had several months of intense contribution followed by a tepid August/September, to Geovany Soto who set the team on fire in September and earned a roster spot in the playoffs, Lou was not afraid to play the kids. And it paid off. It all paid off.
All told, right up until the October playoff sweep against the Diamondbacks, the Cubs were a good and surprising team. And as sucktastic as their playoff loss was, we knew at the time that they'd be back for more in the near future. Lou's success with managing the Cubs was not a one year carny-trick, it wasn't done with sleight of hand or abuse of starters, it was done through making good decisions and turning to the most talented players.
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In October of 2006, a has-his-job-by-a-hair Jim Hendry began conducting interviews for the guy who'd replace Dusty Baker in the Cubs clubhouse. Short list contenders included recently-fired Manager of the Year Joe Girardi, minor league coaches Mike Quade and Pat Listach, Bruce Bochy, and even retired Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg forced his way onto the interview list by hijacking a dinner date with Hendry.
At the time, Girardi was my favorite and probably yours. Lou was seen as a vanilla choice, an over-the-hill manager who, like Dusty, was probably trapped in a past where OBP was ignored, where veterans were started always, where rookies had their confidence ground into dust, and where more losing was inevitable. From the moment his name was mentioned until the second he signed with the team -- and actually for a long time after that -- I'd hoped that Lou Piniella was last on Jim Hendry's list.
When he signed with the team, I was at a gas station. The guy behind the register saw my hat and said "Lou Piniella just signed with the Cubs!" I told him that it was a horrible move, I was not happy, but instead resigned to the fate of supporting a team with no chance of ever winning.
What I didn't know was that, while he had his flaws -- typically called senior moments -- Lou Piniella was, in fact, the real deal. Despite the reputation he'd earned in Tampa -- some of it justified -- Lou was a clever guy who wanted to do whatever it took to win at all costs with any player. He did not play favorites. (Perhaps we should have figured that out when, unlike Dusty, he dragged no players from Tampa -- or even his Seattle days -- to Chicago.)
The time I figured out that Lou was going to be solid happened at the '07 Cubs Convention. It was my second in three years. I slept on fellow Goat Rider Jason's floor, and when we traveled to the Hilton we were ready to voice our hatred of Lou (Loutred?) to the world. We showed up early in the Q&A to ask the hard questions -- would he favor players with good plate discipline? Would he force his veterans to rely on fundamentals in the field and on the bases? Would he give his young hitters a chance? And we quickly learned that he was either playing the game smartly or he had all the right answers.
By the end of the Q&A, my future wife had begun to tease me because I was sipping the koolaid. She thought I was too easily won over by this grumpy old man who knew all the right things to say.
But three years later, as we reach the tail end of Lou's tenure with the Cubs, I'd have to say that my gut instinct to trust him -- if it can even be called a "gut instinct" since it took about three months to appear -- was right. Lou, as it turns out, was the man. And he'd deliver to Cub fans something we hadn't seen in a century.
Rob: I first remember Uncle Lou as a hotheaded, decent hitting outfielder with the Royals, then the Yankees during the Reggie Jackson years. Soon after that, he got into managing, and won his first and only World Championship by leading the 1990 Cincinnati Reds to a four-game sweep over Tony LaRussa's Oakland A's, which was a major upset. Nobody gave the Reds a chance at all to win a game, let alone the series, and yet they not only won, but swept.
At that point in his managing career, Lou led by sheer brute force. He simply took no guff, and made it absolutely unacceptable to fail. He famously attacked large human being Rob Dibble in the clubhouse after Dibble failed to take Lou's advice. Of course, Dibble now loves Lou unconditionally. In the most distilled, raw level of manhood, the early Lou demanded respect by sheer brutality, and got it.
The next memory I have of Lou was over a decade later, when his 2000 Seattle Mariners scored another major upset in the ALDS against a heavily favored White Sox team. How was this possible? Was Lou beating up Junior Griffer and A-Rod? On the contrary, the M's swept the series because Piniella utterly outfoxed and outmanaged Gene Lamont, admittedly not the hardest accomplishment. At some point in time, Lou adjusted, when he could no longer bully his highly-paid players, he then relied on his baseball smarts. He cemented his reputation as a stellar regular-season manager by tying the MLB record with 116 wins the very next year, AFTER having lost Junior, A-Rod, and the Big Unit to free agency.
Then, a few years later, he took a job managing the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Well, OK, who was I to begrudge a man to come back to his hometown, and pull down some easy coin for a couple of years? The Devil Rays had become a semi-retirement home for many aging sluggers from that area, and so it wasn't a big deal. We all figured he was easing into a post-baseball life, and that he was just going through the motions. That's not quite what happened, he chafed with the has-beens and never-wills he was given, and sometimes, the old, combative Lou would surface. But there wasn't much he could do, and when management (wisely) decided to go young for the future, Lou decided he was too old to rebuild one more time, and walked away.
And I am sure he'd be perfectly happy right now, golfing, fishing, eating lots of grouper and playing with the grandkids, if Crane Kenney didn't come calling with an assload of money, and promises to spend much, much more, in the fall of 2006. For it was for Lou's benefit that Jim Hendry went berserk that winter, signing Soriano, Marquis, Lilly, DeRosa, etc. These were the terms - give me a turn-key product, and I will keep everyone's egos in line.
It took him three months in 2007 to figure out who he could count on (ex. Ramirez, Lilly) and who he couldn't (Mike Barrett). I can honestly say that, from the point that Lou restored order after the Zambrano-Barrett fiasco, to immediately after the loss in the 2008 NLDS, that I agreed with every single solitary decision Lou made. For once in my life, here was a man who made the best of what we had, who did what was necessary in every given situation to win, and who played the guys who deserved it, and sat the ones who sucked. Lou is and always has been a great regular season tactical manager. He never airs dirty laundry in the public, he keeps an even keel, and instills the confidence in his players that this isn't his first rodeo, that they are good enough to win, that there is plenty of time. Basically, in a battle of wits with the typical batch of overpaid, underintelligent players, he always wins.
The second straight NLDS sweep in 2008 might have taken something out of Sweet Lou. His explanation for the loss was a lack of left-handed hitting. Well, sure, the 2008 Cubs were predominately righty, true. But that issue never came up during the season, when the team led the NL in runs and OBP. Lou's analysis was swallowed whole by Hendry, and steps were taken to 'remedy' the problem, and these steps (bringing in Bradley and Miles, getting rid of DeRosa and Henry Blanco) backfired on the Cubs in 2009. Nothing Lou tried seemed to work, and rather than rant and rave, as the old Lou would do, the learned, more serene Piniella just kept his feelings to himself.
The strain of keeping his true feelings inside has visibly taken its toll, making him look bemused, giving one and all the impression that he is overwhelmed and has given up. I don't think he is overwhelmed, at all. I believe he KNOWS what he is up against, and he ain't up for it anymore. He misjudged his team, and forced Hendry to change the fabric of his team, which unfortunately set us back a couple of years. That might be enough, though, to cause him to give up.
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