After the Cubs combined to lose nearly 180 games in the last two seasons of Dusty Baker's ridiculous tenure in Chicago, more than a few fans wanted to see a total douching of the organization. Clearly, the coaches were crappy. Dusty was not alone in failing to "fix" Corey Patterson, nor did we feel he was alone in his inability to get the most out of his pitchers -- or keep them healthy.
At the same time, we were angry at Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry for his failure to, in any way, shape, or form, build an organization set to win for years to come. He didn't sign a manager smart enough to win, he didn't assemble a coaching staff capable of keeping players fresh on simple baseball defensive and base-running fundamentals, and he also failed to grow a farm system.
Think about it. If you're a Cubs fan, name the last Cubs drafted and developed hitter to have long-term success. The short answer is that the last successful Cub hitter was drafted and signed at around the same time the Challenger blew up. The final crop of Cub hitters with names worth mentioning include guys like Joe Carter, Raffy Palmeiro, and Mark Grace. All of those guys are old enough to be grandfathers now.
Jim Hendry, meanwhile, had been working in the organization for more than 10 years by the time the '06 season ended. He'd been in charge of scouting and minor league operations until 2001, when he'd been promoted to assistant GM and player personnel director until 2002, when he was made general manager. In other words, he's either directly been responsible for the drafted and developed players, or he's played a big part in the approval process for a very long time.
Over that span, Hendry had given the Cubs studs like Corey Patterson -- drafted on Hendry's third year on the job, and his first offensive pick to play 1,000 or more games in the majors -- David Kelton, Eric Hinske, Luis Montanez, and more recently Geovany Soto and Ryan Theriot. What's wrong, most of these names only vaguely ring a bell at best? That's because they suck!
While Theriot looks to be an average shortstop at best, and Soto may or may not be a one-year-wonder, Jim Hendry has essentially demonstrated a totally failing ability of developing a successful hitting strategy for his franchise. He's so focused on aggressive hitters and athletic prospects that he has failed to pick up on the need for disciplined players with the ability to discern the difference between a strike and a ball.
For that reason, the minor league system had fairly dry cupboards after the '06 season. (It may also have had a bit to do with Dusty's failure to use the few hitters he had who'd displayed a hint of talent, but I digress.) Therefore, in order to justify his continued employment even as his boss took the bullet of resignation, Hendry used the one option he had remaining. He spent a shit-ton of money.
First, he let go of some of his busts -- Juan Pierre in particular, who takes about 60 walks too few to be a legitimate leadoff hitter, no matter how many bases he steals. Second, he led an intense hunt to replace Baker with an actually competent manager. With plenty of options available, including the presently-appreciated Joe Girardi, he settled on a 60-something veteran manager named Lou Piniella. I'll not lie -- I was flabbergasted. Mostly because I thought Lou would be another Dusty, an old-school skipper set in his ways and ignorant to the value of walks and fundamentals. Luckily, mostly, I was wrong about that.
Then, he relieved Cub fans everywhere by re-securing Aramis Ramirez. A-Ram had signed a long extension just a few years earlier, but he'd asked for -- and received -- an opt-out clause which he chose to exercise. We were convinced that he was off for greener pastures, but Hendry managed to broker a deal to keep him in Chicago.
After that, with Cub fans rending their garments over the loss of their "legitimate leadoff hitter," he threw the coffers wide open and signed the biggest name free agent on the market -- Alfonso Soriano. He did it in a way that left many of us wailing with despair, as the 31-year-old Soriano signed an 8-year deal that would pay him $136 million dollars. While none of us were excited at the prospect of a 39-year-old, $18-million-a-year, 16-homer, .240 AVG left fielder, I have to admit that most of us were looking forward to Years One through Four or Five.
Following that move, during the Winter Meetings Hendry signed from a hospital bed free agent lefty Ted Lilly to a 4-year, $40 million deal. Then, to top it off he grabbed free agent righty Jason Marquis and injury-prone Cliff Floyd. Again, feelings were mixed about these moves. Lilly wasn't necessarily "the best lefty" out there, Marquis was a 5th pitcher making around $10 million, and Floyd once hurt himself while falling onto a mound of fluffy pillows.
Still, it was unlike anything we'd ever seen. This was not what the Cubs did, oh no. They did not go out and sign the top free agents. They didn't grab talented pitchers. Oh no, not the Cubs. But here Jim was, battling illness, signing not just one of the top free agents but in essence the top two in Ramirez and Soriano. Then he stepped it up a notch and picked up what turned into the best free agent pitcher ever signed by Chicago in Ted Lilly.
In essence, Hendry fooled us. He tricked us into forgetting about his unforgivably mediocre track record at drafting and developing prospects. He conned us into ignoring the back-end of some of the deals he made, essentially hand-cuffing the wrists of a future Cubs GM. He fooled us. But in the process he saved his ass from getting fired and gave us the short-term sweet joy of multiple years of good baseball ... in a row.
The Cubs still aren't champions, but it's hard to be mad about that.
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It's July 21st, 2006. The Washington Nationals are hosting the Cubs, with Chicago's former Franchise Mark Prior on the mound. It's the 4th inning of another brutal game -- the Nationals had rattled off 4 runs in the first 2 innings. Finally, though, Prior managed to settle down.
Prior first faces off against Felipe Lopez, who shoots a single into right field. Then, Nationals pitcher Pedro Astacio bunts Lopez over. At that point Prior walks future Cub Alfonso Soriano. It's his 3rd walk of the day, although he'd hit 2 guys previously (including the Fonz) and tossed 2 wild pitches. At that point Dusty slowly walks out of the dugout, gestures for the lefty, and Mark Prior departs.
It was Prior's 5th start of the season. The Cubs lost again, dropping to 37-58 on the season. Within 10 days from this point Greg Maddux would make his final start with the Cubs, getting a win against the Cardinals before getting dealt to the Dodgers on July 31st -- a day in which Mark Prior would give up 6 earned runs in 5 innings earning his 5th loss of the season. Sadly, although the Cubs were about 20 games out, in their second consecutive season of ugly-losing, with two whole months of mediocrity remaining, Jim Hendry chose to let Dusty Baker finish his contract with the Cubs. He didn't fire the guy.
Believe me, we didn't understand then, we don't understand now, and we will probably never understand how Baker kept his job. I'm sure there were tears involved. But from the final month of 2004 until the last, bitter days of September 2006, Dusty Baker had worn out his welcome. From burning out the arms of Wood and Prior to starting useless veterans over promising rookies, Dusty Baker made following the Cubs a painful excursion for better than two years.
Perhaps the worst example -- no, not the worst, just an easy one -- was when he insisted not only on batting the previously-mentioned inept Corey Patterson leadoff (because Corey was a center fielder, and those guys batted leadoff), but he also managed to get Neifi Perez slotted into the #2 spot of the batting order (because second basemen bat second) for the bulk of the '05 season. All together, Patterson and Perez combined to make 624 plate appearances that season -- the vast majority of them in games where Derrek Lee batted third. They would bat .253 with an OBP of .264 -- .264!! If I didn't see it myself I wouldn't have thought it was possible! And for that reason Derrek Lee, who would lead the league in hits, AVG, doubles, and finish in the top five in homeruns, would barely drive in 100 on the season.
Not to mention that, over this wondrous two-year-span, we'd experience LaTroy Hawkins, Jacque Jones, and Dusty himself accuse Cub fans of being racist for first booing and then being full-on outraged by their tepid performances. It apparently never occurred to them that perhaps we were upset because they sucked, because they failed, because they ripped our hearts out with the promise they never delivered on.
On October 1st of '06, the Cubs played their last game under the Dusty regime. It was ironically a come-from-behind victory. After that point Dusty slinked out of our lives, only to be seen occasionally as he ruined the hopes and dreams of Reds fans a few years later.
It had been just short of four years earlier when Dusty had given that press conference in which he asked "why not us?" It took him a while to answer it, but ultimately it became clear. Why not us? Because douchebags like Dusty would sooner run the team into the ground in the name of a job and some contrived form of "strategy" that in fact defied all logic and sense. Why not us because of assholes living on reputations and the output of steroid-enhanced producers.
Why not us. Don't make me laugh. The only thing I miss about Dusty is the hope he killed while he was managing the Cubs.
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Following the Cubs 2003 grasp at glory, Jim Hendry made some swooping moves to make the team even better in 2004. One of the best of these moves was a deal with the always-money-conscious Marlins for a then-27-year-old first baseman who had, in Rob's words, been the least-threatening member of a dangerous Florida lineup in the 2003 NLCS.
Still, it turns out that Derrek Lee's acquisition was one of the best moves Jim Hendry ever made. He gave the Cubs a bat as potent as -- but more useful than -- Fred McGriff's, and he also brought with him Gold Glove caliber defense. In 2004, he delivered on both promises -- hitting 31 homeruns and narrowly missing his second Gold Glove crown -- but his real achievement as a Cub came in 2005.
See, the problem with Derrek was that he was legendary for his slow starts. Even in '04, he'd be a .233 hitter at the end of April and a .257 hitter by the end of May before exploding with a .385 AVG in June. But in 2005, Derrek started the year by swinging hard and he entered May with a .419 AVG. In fact, his wost month of the season was August, when he "only" batted .284 with 7 homeruns.
Lee would have eight 2 HR games, including on back-to-back days in May against the Rockies. He'd hit no fewer than 7 homeruns in a month and as many as 9, with April being his most productive in terms of RBI (he knocked in 28). Assuming the best, it was the finest non-drug-influenced season we've ever seen by a Cub.
All told, Derrek led the National League with 199 hits, 50 doubles, a .335 AVG, a .662 SLG, and a 1.080 OPS. He also hit a career high 46 homeruns and drove in 107 RBI (more on that another time). Lee would win the Silver Slugger for first basemen that year, along with the Gold Glove Award, and yet he would somehow lose the MVP award to a player who batted 5 points less, who hit 12 fewer doubles, 5 fewer homeruns, and played the same freakin' position as him. Yes, Albert Pujols, that MVP trophy in your closet should have a different name on it.
Part of the ridiculousness of Albert's victory was that, in voting for MVP, some of the writers who chose Albert over Derrek noted that Pujols was pound-for-pound the most dominating hitter in baseball while Lee merely had an aberrant year. How does that make sense? Answer: it doesn't.
Nevertheless, although being recognized as having an offensively and defensively superior year to Pujols, Lee finished third in the MVP vote -- third! -- and would never be able to duplicate his offensive success.
Still, as far as the Cubs -- and their long history -- goes, Lee will likely leave Chicago having played just a bit under 1,000 games at first base for the team. That will put him at about half the total games played in a Cubs uniform by Mark Grace, but he will also be the second-most played first baseman on the team in the past 30 years. He will also have quietly achieved some very respectable post season number for Chicago, assuming either that they fail to reach in 2010 or Lee completely fails to produce if they do. But for me, and many Cub fans, he will mostly be remembered for being the first player to have ever led the league in average, doubles, and damn-near in homeruns only to barely pass the 100 RBI mark in the same season. That's Dusty Baker's influence for you, and we'll have more on that in the coming days.
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Back in 1998, in the midst of a surprisingly feel-good season, the Chicago Cubs found themselves with the 3rd pick of the draft. Still available at the time of the Cubs pick were players like J.D. Drew -- who had refused to sign with Philly the previous year -- Carlos Pena, Brad Lidge, and C.C. Sabathia.
Patterson was an athletic center fielder whose scouting report had fans asking each other if he'd be the next Willie Mays, or perhaps only the next Ken Griffey Jr. Some people thought we were still dreaming too big, though, and pegged him instead as the next Kirby Puckett.
What he was, though, was a free-swinging, somewhat speedy, power-hitting player who lacked discipline and who, take your pick, either let all or none of his coaches get in his head.
But he started out full of promise, batting .320 in his first minor league season in 1999. He hit 35 doubles, 17 triples, 20 homeruns, and stole 33 bases, all while drawing a meager 25 walks not that we were too worried about it. In 2000, Corey's batting average dropped by nearly 60 points in Double A, but he still earned an 11-game promotion to the majors where he batted .167 and struck out 14 times.
In Triple A in 2001 he'd do even worse, batting .253 with only 29 walks, but that still somehow justified 59 games in the majors where he batted .221 with 6 walks and 33 strikeouts. By the way -- 18 of his 59 games would be spent with him hitting 4th or better in the lineup.
Finally, in 2002, Corey landed in the majors for good. Apparently he'd proven himself. Looking back, though, it seemed more that he was green-lit throughout the minor leagues despite never really doing anything to earn it. But in '02, under the tutelage of Don Baylor, Corey would start 153 games -- 100 of them batting 1st or 2nd -- where he'd bat .253 with a .284 OBP. he only drew 19 walks that year, and he struck out 142 times. It's probably when he earned the nickname "Kory" from some Cub fans out there. He probably never realized he was doing badly, though.
See, that was the problem. Corey was athletic, he had a ton of promise, but he never learned anything. Baylor tried to teach him how to hit, Baylor's other coaches tried to teach him how to hit, but he didn't learn from them. But when Dusty stepped in, in 2003, Corey looked as if he finally figured everything out.
By July of that season, Corey was batting .298 (still with only a .329 OBP), he'd hit 17 doubles, 7 triples, and 13 homeruns while stealing 16 bases. He was making a bid for an All Star appearance. Then, he hurt his knee running to first base and was lost for the season. It was no big loss, though, as the Cubs replaced him with the sparkplug Kenny Lofton.
But in 2004, Patterson returned and, despite his 24 homeruns, 32 steals, and career "high" 45 walks, lost a lot of fans. It wasn't by anything he said, rather it was through what he did -- he made the same ridiculous mistakes as always. He didn't learn from his coaches. He batted nearly .20 points lower in the second half than he did in the first, and by the time September rolled around even I knew how to strike him out.
Basically the trick was to set him up with 2 strikes, and to then throw a pitch high and outside. I can't tell you how many times I saw the catcher practically stand up on the far corner of home plate and said "aw crap" as the pitcher smoked a heater past the helpless swing of Corey Patterson's bat. In September of that season he batted .190 with 45 strikeouts and that pretty much marked the ending of his career in Chicago.
In 2005, known also as the Death Rattle, Patterson was a .215 hitter who saw himself demoted to the minors at various points in the season as they tried to save his swing. Accusations came out of too many people giving him conflicting advice -- a ridiculous notion since, even if he talked with Dusty and some of Dusty's coaches you would've thought that they may have outlined and agreed upon a single strategy to help him -- although Corey said at various points that nobody told him anything.
At one point late in that season after being recalled, an embittered Patterson stranded base-runners in Colorado and was quoted as saying "it's just a game," something his teammates took to mean that baseball didn't matter to him. While Corey would insist he was misquoted, his time in Chicago ended and he was traded in January of '06 to the Orioles. So much for becoming the next Willie Mays, or Ken Griffey Jr., or even Kirby Puckett.
Humorously enough, though, Corey's career wasn't over at that point. Although he tanked in Baltimore just as he'd tanked in Chicago, he found himself in 2008 as the starting center fielder for Dusty Baker's Reds. In 135 games that year, he'd bat .205 with 16 walks. That wouldn't stop Dusty from batting him leadoff or second in the lineup in 46 games, where he was a .178 hitter, but it would pretty much be the final year of his disastrous career. He's spent parts of 10 major league seasons as an active big leaguer, and for the most part they have all sucked. It's perhaps fitting for that to have happened to a Cubs hope. It wasn't the first time, nor would it be the last.
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As was mentioned in the Slammin' Sammy Sosa chapter, before the start of the 2003 season Sammy Sosa had just completed an unprecedented five-year assault on National League pitching, the MLB record books, and the bounds of credibility. Once again, let's recap his homer totals from 1998-2002: 66, 63, 50, 64,&49. As American human beings, we tend to take things like this for granted, and thus fully expected our very own chemistry experiment to come back in 2003 and resume launching baseballs like mortars. And yes, I haven't forgotten that we enjoyed a great deal of success that year.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the NL Central crown that year - Slammin' Sammy suddenly became Warning Track Sammy. Was it age? Was it injury? Was it an improved level of pitching quality? Was it the announcement that the player's union had agreed to a round of "anonymous" steroid testing to determine if further measures were necessary for the future?
On April 15th, the normally fast-starter had one homer. He then went on a three game streak - was he "back"? Uh, not exactly - his streak was against the notoriously miserable Cincinnatti staff. After they left town, back in the doldrums he went - 5 homers as of May 1st. He was hitting for a high average, but only 6 homers as of May 10, when he went on the disabled list for back spasms. Upon his return, no homers, so there he sat still at 6 homers on June 3rd, as the Cubs started a three-game series against the then-lousy Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
With men on 2nd and 3rd, and one out in the first inning, Sosa came to the plate, and shattered his bat while grounding weakly to second base, plating a run. Or DID he? Home plate ump Tim McClelland noticed something odd about the shattered remains, and held a piece to his nose like that Cheech-and-Chong skit where they are handling a piece of frozen dogchit.
If it looked like cork, and smelled like cork, and tasted like cork? McClelland tossed Sosa out, pursuant to rule 6.06(d). The runners returned to 2nd and 3rd, and died on the subsequent PeeHands Alou pop fly. The lost run was hardly the issue, though. For all the defenders who overlooked Sosa's bulging veins and profuse sweating, here was evidence that he WOULD cheat to gain an advantage. Oh, Sammy offered up the excuse that he had mistakenly picked up his "batting practice" bat that he used to give the fans a show. Only the feeble, meek and mild bought that particular line, but even if it were true? Why in God's name would you take batting practice with a bat that you wouldn't and couldn't use in an actual game? What kind of preparation techniques are in play here?
His subsequent suspension was in retrospect beneficial, for the second half of the year was far more productive than the first half for him. He hit a homer on the first day back en route to a team-leading 40. Perhaps his back was in need of rehabilitation, or perhaps after the miserable shame of being caught with a corked bat, Sosa redoubled his efforts to gain an advantage, legally or otherwise.
The next and last year of Sosa's tenure with us started more quickly than 2003, but in mid-May, the infamous Sosa Sneeze occurred before a game in San Diego. The big achoo reaggravated the bad back, and the rest of 2004 was spent in a swirling vortex of sitting out games, performing below his lofty standards, and contradictory statements traded between player, coaching staff, and announcers. This one humble sneeze, paired with the worst Cubs meltdown since the summer of '69, served to wipe out all the goodwill of a dozen seasons of statistical excellence.
The term "thrown under the bus" became popular that summer, and Sammy Sosa was absolutely thrown under the bus by his team and its parent company. In mid-September, articles started appearing in the Tribune questioning the need for Sosa, and the tone towards him in the Trib and on WGN TV and Radio was decidedly cool. Finally, video tapes of him leaving the park early on the last game of the season were "leaked" to the press, thus providing the final proof that Sammy Sosa is a Bad Man and Bad Teammate. Jim Hendry traded him after the year to the Orioles for Mike Fontenot and a bukkit-o-warm-spit. Few fans wept.
Certainly he was not the first player traded away at an end of a tenure in which he hit over 500 homers for a team. Hank Aaron and Willie Mays instantly come to mind, yet those two men were revered, and fans walked away from the teams that traded them. Why not Sosa?
He put in two fairly decent years with Baltimore. He was not asked back. He signed a minor-league deal with Texas, hit 20 more homers in 2007. He was not offered anything for 2008. Recently we all braced for the media crapstorm that seemed certain after the so-called "anonymous" PED test of 2003 were leaked, and Sosa was named as one of the positive testers. After all, we heard about Roger Clemens and Miggy Tejada and A-Fraud and the rest for months on end. But, the media simply reported it, and fans everywhere shrugged and said "Doh!" like a universe of Homer Simpsons.
How could a man with his track record of putting up stats be treated with such disrespect in the end? How could one of the two great heroes who "Saved Baseball" in 1998 suffer from such little fan loyalty? How could a man with indisputable Hall Of Fame numbers simply fade away?
I believe it is very simple. Americans are very individualistic, except in certain occassions. Baseball fans want to believe that their heroes are "team players", who push aside the individual desires that we all share, in the name of unity and victory for all. Many of our favorites are no less selfish than Sosa was, but they play the press better and talk a better game. Case in point, one of Sosa's contemporaries, a longtime corner infielder? Sosa, for his part, kept it real. He made little pretense about playing 'to win'. He would say it, from time to time, but you could tell he was simply repeating a rote phrase someone taught him early on. In his actions on the field, during warm-ups, even in the clubhouse, Sosa was only in it for himself, which was ok as long as he was hitting 60 dingers a year. Once he started to decline, like a once-prized stud bull who could no longer answer the bell, fans simply forgot all about him.
Sosa never really engendered the kind of player worship that the true greats enjoyed, and it was all his fault, not ours.
For me, it was Sammy's on-the-field actions that led to his destruction, not his off-the-field me-first antics. It's hard not to forget how, during the 2004 season, Sosa's hitting style disintegrated into huge, helpless whiffs. Where before he sat patiently and waited for his pitch to hit, as he was confident that he'd always smash the ball, his swing became more and more wild.
The worst of the worst, after his helmet shattering, cork-finding, shame-bringing antics of '04, came in the last two months of the season. As the Cubs pushed for a playoff spot, with Sosa playing the role of the team's biggest hitter, the offense surely suffered from the vortex of suck that he gave them at the plate. Sosa batted .218 in August, with 33 strikeouts in 28 games, and in September/October he elevated to a craptacular .237 with 24 strikeouts in 25 games. It seemed that during every close game, Sosa would become a strikeout machine with runners on. He never changed his approach, he never softened his swing, and consequently he wasn't even remotely an asset to the team as they struggled and eventually fell out of playoff contention.
And so his relationship ended with the Cubs. Jim Hendry traded him to Baltimore for spare change. Impressively, Sosa almost certainly felt befuddled by the betrayal. He'd had permission to not play that final game. He'd given the fans his heart, soul, and body for more than a decade. But he was also an unmitigated, undeniable douchebag. Thus, more than any other Cub in recent history, Sosa's departure was an unpleasant one. I for one was glad he was gone, even if his replacements have all since been disappointing.
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A lot has already been written here about Cubs broadcasters Steve Stone and Chip Caray. One was a baseball genius who clearly felt that he was slumming it with the Cubs and the other was an opportunistic dope living off his family legacy. Between years of predicting pitches and plays, Steve Stone spent a lot of time campaigning to either own a baseball team, or serve as a general manager for the Cubs, or even to manage a team like the Cubs. Maybe he was too pompous, or maybe his association with the Cubs rubbed him wrongly, but he never got his wish and, after leaving for a couple of years due to health troubles, Stone returned to the booth in 2003 to the joy of Cub fans everywhere. But while he was gone, he'd been replaced by Joe Carter who brought to the game the commentating skill of a piece of cud.
At the same time, Chip Caray continued on as Harry's replacement. Unfortunately for us (and him), he kind of sucked and his flaws in the booth never faded with experience. Cub fans hated Carter and resented Caray, perhaps because he did nothing to salvage any broadcast he was in, and certainly because of his ridiculous catch phrases (belted!) and his inability to allow even a solitary silent moment during a game. Instead he just blathered.
Cub fans were willing to tolerate Chip, though, with Steve along side him. Besides, when Stoney announced his return he acknowledged that some fans weren't enamored by the younger Caray and he pledged to change our minds. He was wrong about that, though. It also became increasingly clear that he was jealous of Dusty Baker, who had the job he perhaps thought was rightfully his.
Still, the '03 season was painless in terms of the broadcasts. Steve was still Steve, which made up for Chip being Chip, and in any event we would have tolerated even Joe Carter's brutal return for a season like what the Cubs delivered. But 2004 was a different story -- the Cubs geared up in the off season, they improved beyond our wildest expectations, and there were sincere hopes that they would easily get to the World Series. The only problem was that 2003 changed a lot of things for Cub fans. Our expectations were bigger, our feelings were hurt, and we took out our frustrations on the team faster than ever before. Maybe that's why the team seemed to quickly develop an "Us vs. The World" mentality.
This mentality was exampled a number of ways, which we'll get into more later. From Dusty getting stand-offish with the press and umpires to LaTroy Hawkins playing the race card, the clubhouse did not appear to be a very friendly place. But the biggest target of players' ire seemed to be turned not to the racist fans, or insipid media, but instead to Chip and Steve who apparently had the audacity of calling them out on their ire and worse, their poor play.
Due to his distaste of them -- in particular Chip -- Moises Alou tried to get them kicked off the team flights. Kent Mercker called up to the booth from the clubhouse when listening to Stone's call-it-as-I-see-it commentary style. There were threats, and challenges of fights, and it all came to a head after a tough loss late in the season in which, during a post-game interview, Steve Stone rightfully called out Dusty Baker for his managerial bunglings, resulting in a Steve Stone quote that remains to this day one of Byron's favorites: "At the end of the day, boys, you don't tell me how rough the water is, you bring in the ship." Dusty was pissed, Steve was pissed, and the higher-ups got pissed.
Consequently, as happens sometimes in life, the bad guys won. Steve and Chip resigned/got fired/whatever you want to call it. Kent Mercker left for Atlanta. Moises Alou left for New York. Jim Hendry had attempted a great douche, failing to recognize that the true inner rot -- Dusty Baker -- remained. And so, with great fanfare, and some regret, and a lot of anger, the Cubs voice of my generation left for good, looking a lot less shiny than he was after his previous departure. Steve had shown himself in his second go-round to be an angry man, bitter at the team, and excessively defensive of Chip Caray. Steve seemed to take it personally when the fans and team turned on Chip, and toward the bitter end he expressed his affection for Caray on national television, saying "I love you, Chip" in front of the world, creeping out many of us and explaining a lot about his actions. Stone had always gotten attached to his broadcast partners, particularly the ones near his age. He'd taken it equally as hard when Thom Brennaman left after the '95 season, which perhaps shows us a lot about how isolated he must have felt when dealing with Harry Caray.
Anyway, soon after their departure the Cubs turned to a new broadcast team -- a duo now in their fifth year with the Cubs: Bob Brenley and Len Kasper. Perhaps they've had rocky moments, but they have been competent, complimentary of each other, and as time has gone on and the Cubs have gone from bad to good to disappointing, they've expressed their frustrations as honestly as the duo they replaced used to. Maybe it has something to do with how, like Stone before him, Brenley dreams of managing the Cubs, or perhaps honesty is honesty and it's hard to sugar-coat crap 162 games a year. Either way, it seems as if they haven't learned from the past lessons of Chip and Steve. Perhaps this time things will be different. The team seems far less sensitive than they were back in 2004. But it would be truly frustrating to see history repeat itself.
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For a franchise convinced that Joe McCarthy couldn't manage; traded Billy Herman for spare parts; sent away Lou Brock for dead arms; swapped Bill Madlock for someone with half his talent and twice his salary probably because of his deep dark tan; gave up on Raffy Palmiero because he a) didn't have enough power or b) wasn't very selective on which teammate's wives to sleep with; and most recently, bid against themselves en route to signing Alfonso Soriano to a contract equal to the GDP of half of Asia, there is one filthy, lousy, miserable, low, stinking travesty of a mistake the Chicago Cubs have made in their long, pathetic history of General Managing.
Your favorite team let the best pitcher of the last half of the 20th century walk away over less than $5 million, which in today's dollars, equates to Carlos Zambrano's annual Red Bull allowance.
I was 28 years old when it happened, but even now I do believe the day Greg Maddux signed the first of his contracts with the Atlanta Braves was the day that my boyish enthusiasm about baseball in general and the Cubs in particular was crushed to death. It was like finding out your parents had another family on the other side of town that they loved more than you.
Now, Jim Hendry will deny that he was trying to do psychic surgery to the gaping metaphysical wound that remained when he spent most of the winter of 2003-04 pursuing the then 38-year-old Mad Dog, who was non-tendered by the Braves after three Cy Youngs and umpteen straight divisional titles. In fact, I myself wondered if Hendry shouldn't have been spending more time going after a true leadoff hitter, rather than simply settling with the healing Corey Patterson, who was (rather inexplicably) preferred over Kenny Lofton, a late-2003 acquisition who was not retained for 2004.
That vacancy, the leadoff man, is still with us to this day. But Jim's attempt to bring the Mad Dog in to finish a five-man rotation already boasting Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement, came to fruition right before Spring Training 2004. I have to admit, I loved it! Even guys like me who are not superstitious, and who have seen generations of moves such as this one in the past (Robin Roberts, Dizzy Dean, Fergie Jenkins part deux, Ken Holtzman part deux, Rick Reuschel part deux, Jon Lieber, Hoyt Wilhelm, help me out, Has Been Cubs Pitchers is a bar game that just keeps on giving) were estatic to welcome Greg Maddux Back Home.
And, fittingly, Maddux responded by elevating himself to staff ace. Cub fans were expecting him to be the 4th or perhaps even the 5th starter -- an aging veteran without a fastball, dependable for 200 innings and an ERA around 4.00, but surely And, fittingly, Maddux responded by elevating himself to staff ace. Cub fans were expecting him to be the 4th or perhaps even the 5th starter -- an aging veteran without a fastball, dependable for 200 innings and an ERA around 4.00, but surely he would not deliver the best performance of any starter on the team. What we didn't know at the time was that Dusty had burned out multiple arms on his quest to World Series glory in 2003 and Maddux would be one of only two healthy pitchers on the team in 2004.
Maddux led the team that season in wins and innings pitched, being one of only two pitchers to even make it to 200 innings that season. He would also spectacularly walk only 33 -- or, on average, 1 player per game. Thanks to his unspectacular reliability, the Cubs were in competition for the wild card until the final week of the season. He also accomplished something no Cub fan could've dreamed possible once he'd left for Atlanta -- he won his 300th game in 2004 as a Cub.
I got to watch him pitch that year in Montreal. He looked old and he was small compared to many players out there, but his pitches still buzzed when he threw them and, of the 5 games I saw in person in 2004, his was the only one where the Cubs won.
In a lot of ways, it felt right that he was back with the Cubs. We don't admit it aloud very often, but I think it's a pretty common baseball fan fantasy that your favorite childhood star, long since departed, return to your favorite team at the end of his career to deliver a few more seasons of glory. It almost never happens, and with Maddux it almost did. The problem was two-fold. Maddux was used to pitching for winning teams -- he made nearly a dozen trips to the playoffs before returning to Chicago, and the inept managing of the team resulted in him playing again for a losing organization. Second, Dusty Baker didn't seem to love him. After Greg's poor showing in 2005 -- he went 13-15 with a 4.24 ERA for a really bad team -- Dusty implied that Greg might just retire. He seemed to not love the veteran ace, maybe because Maddux had seen good managers and had a better understanding of how to play the game than his so-called skipper.
And so, half-way through the 2006 season the Greg Maddux Retires a Cub dream came to an abrupt end. The Cubs traded the four-time Cy Young and future Hall of Famer to the Dodgers for an offensively mediocre shortstop named Cezar Isturis. Greg would go on to pitch until 2008, bouncing back and forth between the Padres and Dodgers, eventually elevating his career win total to 355. Maybe he should have retired a Cub -- maybe he should have never left to begin with. But his return, while bittersweet, was still extremely fulfilling for this Cubs fan. It felt right when a lot of things about the Cubs started feeling wrong, and I'm glad that, as a grown man, I got to see a boyhood hero don a Cubs uniform for a few more times.
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When Ron Santo left the Cubs in 1973, probably nobody realized that the Cubs would try to fill his heel-clicking shoes for the next 30 years to varying degrees of failure. He would leave the Cubs as a 9-time All Star, a 5-time Gold Glove winner, and as a perennial sad participant of Hall of Fame votes. And nobody the Cubs found after Santo could touch him, not as a third baseman, not as a team leader. That isn't to say that there weren't flashes of brilliance -- Bill Madlock would fill his shoes adequately for three seasons before getting traded to Texas because P.K. Wrigley did not believe such an "uppity" player should earn as much as Madlock wanted.
After that it became a revolving door -- from the light-hitting Steve Ontiveros to the defensive equivilent of a box that was Ron Cey to the ridiculously bad Vance Law, it just got worse and worse out there. The Cubs turned to mediocre players like Steve Buchele and Luis Salazar, they resorted to rookies who'd never pan out like Kevin Orie and Gary Scott, they acquired booming strikeout kings like Todd Zeile and Shane Andrews, and they even used aged falling stars like Gary Gaetti. In fact, from 1994 until 2002 the Cubs had a different player serve as their primary third baseman each season. It was ridiculous, and Ron Santo's shadow seemed real and strong. Then, in 2003, Jim Hendry made a mid-season trade for Aramis Ramirez.
He was 25 years old when he came to the Cubs, and some people already thought he might've been washed out. After hitting 34 homeruns and batting .300 as a 23-year-old for the Pirates in 2001, his production in 2002 was pretty attrocious -- .234 AVG, 18 homers -- and, while he was putting up decent offensive numbers in '03 he was considered defensively mediocre. Still, the Cubs managed to acquire him for next-to-nothing and he immediately filled the shoes that Santo had left vacant so many years earlier -- he was offensively spectacular, leading the Cubs to their first post season series win in nearly 100 years in his first season.
His defense wasn't actually so bad either -- he had mechanical issues, and especially in '03 every grounder hit his way was an adventure, but Ramirez improved to the point where he was quite possibly a defensive attribute by his second season. And more importantly he kept on hitting. In his first 3 seasons with the Cubs, despite missing some time to injury in 2005, Ramirez hit 31-or-more homeruns. He has been an All Star twice for the Cubs so far, 2009 will be only his second season out of 7 in which he failed to drive in 100 runs or more, and he has already logged more games at third base with the Cubs than any player since Santo.
Which isn't to say that Ramirez doesn't have his detractors. After all, he's not the leader that Santo was, and in his personal life he participates in the dastardly sport of cock fighting. He's also been accused on numerous occassions of not hustling, as he has often failed to run out ground balls. Then again, he has suffered numerous nagging injuries over the years, many involving his legs, and while Ramirez isn't the homerun king that Sammy Sosa was he is perhaps the best clutch hitter the Cubs have.
In other words, like pretty much every modern-day athlete, Ramirez is hardly perfect. He's a slugging third baseman who might not be the best fielder. He's a clutch hitter who has a history of not running out ground balls. He's hit some epic homeruns but he's totally evaporated in the last two playoffs he's played in. He seems to be liked by his players but he's not a vocal leader and he participates in some questionable activities (cock fighting) in his private time back home where it's legal.
But one thing is certain -- he probably won't retire with as many games played at third base for the Cubs as Ron Santo, but he has taken a decades-long hole and filled it beyond our wildest expectations. He's also one of several indications of how, in the past decade, the Cubs have progressed from being satisfied with mediocrity to being driven to win. The fact that Cubs GM Jim Hendry sought, acquired, and has twice re-signed him is indication of that, and we are grateful of this glorious, homerun-hitting, cock-fighting third baseman.
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Carlos Zambrano started off as just one of an entire battalion of young signees from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere in Latin America, acquired during Jim Hendry's stint as the Director of Player Development. Then he was one of an entire squadron of young interchangeable arms brought up to shore the miserable Cubs pitching staffs of the early part of the decade. Z was first brought to our attention by then-pitching coach Oscar Acosta. Acosta, of course, in the end has been judged to be batshit crazy, due to the fights he would pick with his players and fellow coaches. I guess Oscar, in his own special way was stamping Z with his seal of approval, because I suppose if he didn't see something in Z, he wouldn't have cared. However, he showed his love for Z by accusing him of being fat, immature, and lazy.
Carlos, for his part, and not for the last time in his career, told his coach to stick his opinion up his ass.
So okay, Zambrano was on the map, what was up with this kid? The next thing we all noticed about him was that he battled. In his first couple of years, he had to battle very hard, particularly from the high number of walks he gave up. Z has always had "stuff", a great sinker to go along with his strong, heavy fastball. But he has always been someone who has pitched much more with his heart, than with his head. That means, many times, he has had to work hard, not smart, during his career. Working hard means lots of pitches, thrown under duress, and you know us Cub fans and our recent history with pitchers. During a time when Mark Prior and Kerry Wood was always hurt, and with Dusty (Pitcher Abuse) Baker at the helm, many of us held our breath, waiting for Z to fall apart, too. Yet, his right arm remained attached to his socket.
So, after his gutty late-season performances in 2003, and his spectacular 2004 where he posted a 2.75 ERA while winning 16 games, coupled with the fragility of Wood and Prior, nearly everyone in Cub World, from the fans to management, annoited big Z as the Staff Ace.
On this website, I have defined the concept of true Staff Ace several times, but the 25 words or less summarization is thus: the Staff Ace must excel in all aspects of the pitching craft: physical, mental, emotional, by posting superlative results, by leading his teammates, and by showing durability. In many aspects, Zambrano has what it takes. He does have superior stuff. He has learned much of the craft of pitching - when he focuses himself, he is practically untouchable, as was evidenced last September in Milwaukee, against the Astros (and we all know the history of that sentence, more later). Furthermore, he has endeared many in Cub World with his heart - he cares about winning, that much is clear. He wears his heart on his sleeve. He even enhances his status by doubling as the best hitting pitcher in the game today, and one of the better right-handed hitters you will ever see, anywhere.
The fact that he is, as a pitcher, a practicing switch-hitter (I hope Jason isn't listening!) speaks to the utterly flaky nature of his personality, and unfortunately, it is the flakiness that has, so far in his career, led to his not reaching his full potential or his fully earning his monstrous $90+ million contract he signed prior to the 2007 season. For all of his physical talents and mental toughness, Zambrano frequently breaks nearly all the unwritten rules of how to play baseball and be a good teammate.
It certainly isn't HIS fault that Hendry handed him that contract. To the best of my knowledge, nobody put guns to Jim's head or left severed horse heads in Hendry's bed. But we as sports fans have certain expectations for those fortunate souls who become the highest paid members of our teams. Like remaining in top physical condition 365 days a year. Like cheerfully adhering to all training regimens put forth by the medical staff, and by willingly complying to all requested adjustments suggested by management, coaches, and staff. Like not calling out his teammates for their failings, real and imagined. Like not purposely antagonizing umpires. Like not making inflammatory statements in the media. Like not beating up your catcher for calling a bad game (although, it turns out Mike Barrett was dumber than a bucket of mud, so in the long list of 'Z Occurrences', this is way down the list.)
But Zambrano is El Toro, he is The Lawnmower, he is Big Z, and he pretty much does and says whatever pops into his mind at the time. Now, for all of his faults, he remains a favorite player of mine, even though much of what he does runs counter to the ultimate goal of a Cubs World Series. How can you NOT love a great big boy, who rails against injustices, who looks like he can put away a very hearty meal, and several cervezas in one sitting? Z's appeal is that he is like many of us, with visible, mildly destructive faults. Most of us can relate, and in fact deep in our hearts admit that we would react the Very Same Way to things that he does.
The problem is, though, that none of us occupy the same shoes he wears. He has monumental responsbilities to his management, his teammates, and to us, due to the role he has chosen, for himself, by taking on his astronomical contract. Perhaps it isn't fair. It may be that our society as a whole has their priorities out of whack, that a physically gifted man can command this kind of money when our teachers, firefighters, policemen, blah blah. But baseball teams, like nearly all earthly entities, have a finite pool of resources to draw from. And it is true that more people pay to see Carlos Zambrano pitch than, say, an Aaron Heilman. But the money that Z makes prevents us from, say, signing three average major-league ballplayers that might help us plug holes in the roster otherwise. So Zambrano does bear an outsized portion of the responsbility for the success of this ballclub.
And how does he respond? By having his forearms cramp up because of excessive computer usage at night. By having his whole body cramp up because of excessive consumption of energy drinks. By berating his teammates who do not cut off base hits into the gaps. By going on the DL doing very non-pitcheresque things, like swinging for homers in batting practice. By alienating certain segments of the MLB umpiring pool for all eternity by symbolically "throwing them out" of ball games. By publicly flirting with Ozzie Guillen and the White Sox, and, most recently, by demanding trades because things aren't going well with the Cubs, which has attracted the media scrutiny that goes along with playing for the franchise that has gone the longest without a title in all of professional sports.
I am fully aware of his many accomplishements: the first Cubs no-hitter since 1972, on that surreal night in Milwaukee; his three All-Star nods; his 103 wins and his 3.50 career ERA. In today's Offensive era, he has NEVER had an ERA above 4. But he has led the league in walks twice, and when he is determined to pitch his "own" game (as opposed to the game plan agreed to by the rest of the team), he racks up tons of pitches, thus necessitating his early removal and subsequent bullpen use. At some point in his career, he needs to put the needs of the Cubs BEFORE his own needs. That is simply the nature of team sports. It might make the game less fun, I suppose.
Carlos Zambrano. Man's man, guy's guy. Mas macho. A human bulldozer. Entertaining as all get out. But NOT a Staff Ace, and unless he can Grow Up in a hurry, will ultimately contribute more to the continuation of the Drought than its elimination.
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He was also, for me, the first Cubs player I would actually lose sleep over. After his amazing rookie season -- and no matter how you cut it, the way he pitched as a 21-year-old was astonishing, if not abbreviated -- Wood would miss the entire '99 campaign while recovering from reconstructive surgery on his elbow. His return in 2000 was highly anticipated, and it would also serve as the worst year of his career. He'd make 23 starts, pitching 137 innings, striking out 132, walking 87, and posting an ERA of 4.80. Not that our hopes weren't high after his debut on May 2nd when he dominated Houston and hit a homerun. (One friend would later describe Wood's performance that game as being "like watching the Natural.") Still, I knew that a lot of pitchers struggled their first year back from Tommy John surgery. I knew that Wood's road would not be an easy one. And yet watching him pitch -- and often get his ass handed to him -- was an anxiety-causing event. After all, he'd been the first real Hope of the Franchise of my life. The following three years would be more like the Wood of old, but still not like the Wood we'd hoped for. He'd pitch well in '01 through '03, giving two 200 inning seasons, winning between 12 and 14 games each of those three years, and leading the league in strikeouts in 2003. Realistically speaking, it probably wasn't Wood's fault that he only went 12-11 on the 2002 team. The Cubs sucked that year. If Wood had pitched for a better team, with his 3.66 ERA, it's conceivable that he wouldn't have struggled to win nearly as much. And in '03, while supporting the next Hope, Wood's reliable pitching and 14 wins were beyond anything we could ever have complained about. The only problem was that Wood was still a young pitcher, he was a guy with questionable mechanics at best, and maybe we should have been a little more worried about the ridiculous pitch counts he ran in order to achieve his 200+ innings of work. We'd often spend time hoping that he would someday grow into a smart pitcher (rather than simply a power one), and we hoped that the addition of Greg Maddux to the rotation in 2004 would help him on his way. But it was too late by then. Wood's arm -- in particular his shoulder -- began to disintegrate. In 2004, as a fifth of the "greatest rotation in modern history," Wood would only pitch in 22 games, throwing 140.1 innings of work, and he'd go 8-9, missing two months due to a strained tricep. He'd miss even more time in 2005, as he'd go from being incapable of starting to being relegated to the bullpen until the Cubs finally gave up on the season and shut him down. Wood would have surgery in August of that year, after going 3-4 with a 4.23 ERA. He'd then sign a sweetheart deal to remain with the Cubs in 2006 and would repay their faith in him by making only 4 starts and going 1-2. In other words, by 2007 the first great Hope of the Franchise would be diminished and relegated on down to mop-up duty in the bullpen. But his arm problems continued and he wouldn't make his debut for the Cubs that year until August, when he stepped in and gave the Cubs two months of reliable relief pitching. And still, this man who was once seen as a future Hall of Famer, loyal to Chicago as the Cubs were loyal to him, returned for a final season in 2008 where he served as a closer and pitch reliably-but-not spectacularly in the 9th, saving 34 games for the 97-win team. I guess Wood's greatness just wasn't meant to be, nor was his opportunity to spend his entire career as a Cub. At the end of the 2008 season, Jim Hendry announced that the Cubs would not have the money to pay Kerry what he deserved, and he'd instead give Wood a chance to earn the most money possible by signing with an interested team as a free agent. He did just that, signing a $10 million deal to pitch for the Indians, and 10 years after his debut as a fresh-faced, acne-riddled rookie, Wood was gone. For a long time Cub fans had extremely thick skin when it came to their team because a history of losing will have that effect. If you've lived 40 years and your team has never even made the playoffs in that time frame, it's probably tough for fans of other teams to get under your skin about losing -- you've probably heard it all before. Kerry Wood was partly responsible for changing that mentality. We no longer thought the Cubs were born to lose. He gave us hope that the team could not just win, but win definitively, and that perhaps the playoffs shouldn't be hoped for but expected. Then his arm fell apart, he proved to be fragile, and our mentality changed again. It's very unlikely that a Cub player, no matter how well-touted, will be as anticipated as Kerry Wood was; it's unlikely that any player will be followed and supported as was he and Mark Prior. I think we now know that the Cubs can win -- and they will, if not this year then some time soon -- but we will be cautious any time we hear about that 19-year-old kid with the blazing fastball burning up the minor leagues. All that said, I have a friend in Chicago who remains baffled by the Cub-fan love that remains even now for Kerry Wood. He just can't understand why Wood is so admired for having done so little. What he fails to see is that beyond the wins -- or lack of them -- and the strikeouts -- whether they came in bunches of 20 or far less -- was that Wood is a rare modern-day player as loyal to the fans as the fans have been to him. He almost literally pitched his arm off for the team, accepting sweet-heart contracts to remain there even after his body began to fail him, and most of all there was probably no person out there more upset by his 2003 Game Seven evaporation than he was. "I choked," he would say after the game -- this coming from a guy who would hit a 3-run shot that game. He was a rare man who owed up to his mistakes, who took on more blame than he deserved, and who loved the city of Chicago and the fans. That's why we'll remember him and think of him fondly ... even if there isn't a whole hell of a lot there to remember at all. Sponsored by Coast to Coast Tickets, where you'll find the cheapest Cubs tickets anywhere!
There probably isn't a pitcher who's done less to be loved as much as Kerry Wood. He was the face of the organization for almost a decade, although he never won more than 14 games in a season. He was compared favorably to legendary strikeout king Nolan Ryan, although he never even came close to displaying the kind of durability necessary to achieve Hall of Fame numbers. He was labeled an ace despite the many days where he just didn't have the ability to find the plate, and yet despite all of his flaws he was somebody that we all probably thought would retire playing for the same team he started out with.
He was also, for me, the first Cubs player I would actually lose sleep over. After his amazing rookie season -- and no matter how you cut it, the way he pitched as a 21-year-old was astonishing, if not abbreviated -- Wood would miss the entire '99 campaign while recovering from reconstructive surgery on his elbow. His return in 2000 was highly anticipated, and it would also serve as the worst year of his career. He'd make 23 starts, pitching 137 innings, striking out 132, walking 87, and posting an ERA of 4.80. Not that our hopes weren't high after his debut on May 2nd when he dominated Houston and hit a homerun. (One friend would later describe Wood's performance that game as being "like watching the Natural.")
Still, I knew that a lot of pitchers struggled their first year back from Tommy John surgery. I knew that Wood's road would not be an easy one. And yet watching him pitch -- and often get his ass handed to him -- was an anxiety-causing event. After all, he'd been the first real Hope of the Franchise of my life.
The following three years would be more like the Wood of old, but still not like the Wood we'd hoped for. He'd pitch well in '01 through '03, giving two 200 inning seasons, winning between 12 and 14 games each of those three years, and leading the league in strikeouts in 2003. Realistically speaking, it probably wasn't Wood's fault that he only went 12-11 on the 2002 team. The Cubs sucked that year. If Wood had pitched for a better team, with his 3.66 ERA, it's conceivable that he wouldn't have struggled to win nearly as much. And in '03, while supporting the next Hope, Wood's reliable pitching and 14 wins were beyond anything we could ever have complained about.
The only problem was that Wood was still a young pitcher, he was a guy with questionable mechanics at best, and maybe we should have been a little more worried about the ridiculous pitch counts he ran in order to achieve his 200+ innings of work. We'd often spend time hoping that he would someday grow into a smart pitcher (rather than simply a power one), and we hoped that the addition of Greg Maddux to the rotation in 2004 would help him on his way. But it was too late by then. Wood's arm -- in particular his shoulder -- began to disintegrate.
In 2004, as a fifth of the "greatest rotation in modern history," Wood would only pitch in 22 games, throwing 140.1 innings of work, and he'd go 8-9, missing two months due to a strained tricep. He'd miss even more time in 2005, as he'd go from being incapable of starting to being relegated to the bullpen until the Cubs finally gave up on the season and shut him down. Wood would have surgery in August of that year, after going 3-4 with a 4.23 ERA. He'd then sign a sweetheart deal to remain with the Cubs in 2006 and would repay their faith in him by making only 4 starts and going 1-2.
In other words, by 2007 the first great Hope of the Franchise would be diminished and relegated on down to mop-up duty in the bullpen. But his arm problems continued and he wouldn't make his debut for the Cubs that year until August, when he stepped in and gave the Cubs two months of reliable relief pitching. And still, this man who was once seen as a future Hall of Famer, loyal to Chicago as the Cubs were loyal to him, returned for a final season in 2008 where he served as a closer and pitch reliably-but-not spectacularly in the 9th, saving 34 games for the 97-win team.
I guess Wood's greatness just wasn't meant to be, nor was his opportunity to spend his entire career as a Cub. At the end of the 2008 season, Jim Hendry announced that the Cubs would not have the money to pay Kerry what he deserved, and he'd instead give Wood a chance to earn the most money possible by signing with an interested team as a free agent. He did just that, signing a $10 million deal to pitch for the Indians, and 10 years after his debut as a fresh-faced, acne-riddled rookie, Wood was gone.
For a long time Cub fans had extremely thick skin when it came to their team because a history of losing will have that effect. If you've lived 40 years and your team has never even made the playoffs in that time frame, it's probably tough for fans of other teams to get under your skin about losing -- you've probably heard it all before. Kerry Wood was partly responsible for changing that mentality. We no longer thought the Cubs were born to lose. He gave us hope that the team could not just win, but win definitively, and that perhaps the playoffs shouldn't be hoped for but expected.
Then his arm fell apart, he proved to be fragile, and our mentality changed again. It's very unlikely that a Cub player, no matter how well-touted, will be as anticipated as Kerry Wood was; it's unlikely that any player will be followed and supported as was he and Mark Prior. I think we now know that the Cubs can win -- and they will, if not this year then some time soon -- but we will be cautious any time we hear about that 19-year-old kid with the blazing fastball burning up the minor leagues.
All that said, I have a friend in Chicago who remains baffled by the Cub-fan love that remains even now for Kerry Wood. He just can't understand why Wood is so admired for having done so little. What he fails to see is that beyond the wins -- or lack of them -- and the strikeouts -- whether they came in bunches of 20 or far less -- was that Wood is a rare modern-day player as loyal to the fans as the fans have been to him. He almost literally pitched his arm off for the team, accepting sweet-heart contracts to remain there even after his body began to fail him, and most of all there was probably no person out there more upset by his 2003 Game Seven evaporation than he was. "I choked," he would say after the game -- this coming from a guy who would hit a 3-run shot that game. He was a rare man who owed up to his mistakes, who took on more blame than he deserved, and who loved the city of Chicago and the fans. That's why we'll remember him and think of him fondly ... even if there isn't a whole hell of a lot there to remember at all.
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