Goatriders of the Apocalypse

Cubs 101

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Cubs 101 - Pt. 54 - The Abbreviated Mark Prior Era


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If, as an organization the Chicago Cubs had a solitary example of failure, it would be Mark Prior. His entire career is a perfect metaphor for the path the Chicago Cubs have taken as an organization. It began strongly, with immense promise and hope, it experienced an astronmical rise to the height of success, and then abruptly it fell rapidly leaving fans everywhere wallowing in our own despair. And it almost never happened.

The Chicago Cubs had the second pick of the 2001 draft the year they selected Prior. That tied them for the worst record in baseball, with the Phillies. Had the Cubs not lost 3 of their final 4, then Prior would have been pitching for Philadelphia in the years to follow. But even with the Cubs securing the 2nd pick through their attrocious performance, there was still some debate as to who they should pick. After all, the Cubs had by that point been about three decades removed from having a reliable third baseman, and a young player named Mark Teixeira was available. Still, Prior had by then earned a reputation as being the best college pitcher ever, and it was a no-brainer that the Cubs would select him.

The question shortly became one of not if he'd pitch in the majors in 2002, but when. The Cubs decided to put him on the fast track and Prior only made 9 total minor league starts in his first season -- going 5-2 with an ERA of 2.29 split between West Tennnessee and Iowa -- and he made his debut against the Pirates on May 22nd. Although it was really still as if Prior was pitching against a minor league team, we were still impressed with his initial success -- he stuck out 10 in 6 innings. Unfortunately, though, the 2002 Cubs were not good. And even with Prior on the mound pitching successfully, the '02 Cubs lost 95 games and Prior only managed a 6-6 record in 19 starts. He was shut down for the year on August 31st after hurting his hamstring, which was probably a good thing since Don Baylor and Bruce Kimm were both keen on pitching his arm off. Prior would average -- average! -- 106 pitches per game as a 21-year-old rookie, including a 135-pitch-outing on August 4th.

Still, we were told that Prior had perfect mechanics and he could handle the work-load. Then in 2003 he ascended to ace-like status, winning 4 games in April alone. Still, Prior would miss the second half of July due to a collision with Marcus Giles -- a collision that would later be blamed as being responsible for pretty much everything. But at the time, Prior returned from his short break in top form and he delievered the most dominating stretch of pitching I have ever seen. From August 5th until his final game on September 27th, Prior went 10-1 with an ERA of 1.52 in 82.2 innings. He tossed 2 complete games and for the entire stretch he looked as if he was toying with his opponents. In the playoffs he would out-duel Greg Maddux and carry a lead into the 8th inning of Game 6 of the NLCS against the Marlins. But there was a problem.

Despite it all -- regardless of his 18 wins, and his second-half dominance, and the way he was holding his boot to the throat of the Marlins -- Mark Prior was a 22-year-old kid. He was immensely talented, he was undeniably talented, but he was "just a kid" nevertheless and when the foul ball distracted him, and his defense failed him, he -- and the Cubs -- fell apart. Mark Prior was never the same after that.

In 2004, we though the'd be fine. But he started the season with a sore Achilles and wouldn't pitch until June 4th. That was when the previously durable Prior went through a stretch of early departures. In '04 he pitched 5 games in which he didn't even make it through the 5th inning, and there were 5 more where he only lasted 5 innings exactly -- and he only made 21 starts in total that season. He'd finish '04 with a 6-4 record and a 4.02 ERA.

The following season, as a 24-year-old, Prior had his second-best (and his last half-decent) season with the Cubs. He'd make 27 starts, toss 166.2 innings and strike out 188 while winning 11 and losing 7. He'd miss 1 month (the bulk of June) after taking a line drive off his throwing elbow. The following year he made only 9 starts, go 1-6, and post a 7.21 ERA. And that was the end of Mark Prior's career, although he remained a Cub during the '07 season before departing for San Diego.

So, ultimately, the best pitcher in college history gave the Cubs 106 career starts, 42 wins, and 1 taste of what it might've been like had he been handled differently. By the end Cub fans turned on him in full -- in a way they didn't even turn on Kerry Wood, who experienced similar arm problems -- basically calling him out for not being able to pitch with pain.

Prior, meanwhile, had exploratory surgery (with reported structual damage, but not of a kind typical to pitchers), and he'd have more surgery once leaving the Cubs in 2008 when he suffered a shoulder tear during rehab with the Padres.

Mark Teixeira is still playing, having now hit 234 homeruns in his 7 years of play. But he wouldn't have been the answer to third base anyway -- he's only started there 11 times in his career as of this writing.

As for Mark Prior, he was released on August 1st this season (2009) by the Padres who have finally given up on him. I imagine he's done pitching. He may not be the biggest bust ever, but he has to be in the Top Five -- and it's worse in some ways because of how unbelievably good he was at the beginning. It is, however, very typically Cub that even the memories of the fun years (like 2003) are tainted by the knowledge that things would never get better, and players like Prior would never deliver on their promise.


Rob:


Kurt gave you the 'what' when it came to Prior.  The 'why', I believe, is a simple premise to grasp.


When Mark Prior, the man with the Golden Calves, was drafted by the Cubs second in the 2001 Free Agent Draft, the so-called "Greatest College Pitcher Ever", there was no way this could end badly for us.  Finally, after decades of drafting bust after bust after miserable bust, this was the no brainer to end all, the rock-solid lead pipe lock of all locks, and the most amazing stroke of luck to ever fall into our laps. 

Unlike Kerry Wood, he possessed a "perfect" delivery.  Very few moving parts, perfect balance on those enormous lower leg muscles.  Also, unlike Wood, Prior was managed carefully throughout his career.  He never pitched 180 pitches in a high school game.  At an early age, he was mentored by former big league pitcher, coach, and renowned kinseologist Dr. Tom House.  From his first professional appearence, he dominated every level he appeared in, on through his full big league season in 2003.  How could he possibly fail?

But fail, he did.  In my eyes, the degradation and ultimate failure of Mark Prior is the single most egregious example of "Cubness" this franchise has ever experienced.  Lou Brock, Rafael Palmiero, Joe Carter, Greg Maddux, Ken Hubbs, the list goes on and on, but the story of Prior beats all.

So, what happened?  How did this can't miss physical marvel go from 18-6 to out of baseball in six years?  How did the G.O.A.T. become the Towelmaster?

I know what I believe, but before I divulge, let's look at a minute at Johnnie B. "Dusty" Baker, Manager of the Chicago Cubs from 2003 though 2006.  It is the overriding popular notion that Dusty killed Mark Prior (and Kerry Wood, too).  Certainly, Baker didn't do Prior any favors.  Baker's track record as a man who wrings young pitchers out does seem to have merit.  He had Jason Schmidt and Ryan Jensen in his last year there, 2002, and both men did come up lame soon afterward.  But he also had Russ Ortiz, Shawn Estes, Kirk Reuter and Livan Hernandez, and actually rode those four harder than he ever rode Schmidt and Jensen. 

Now, with the Reds, Edison Volquez has gone down, and Aaron Harang has had a miserable couple of years.  But Johnny Cueto is still pitching, and Bronson Arroyo is no worse than he ever was.

With the Cubs, yes, both Wood and Prior turned up lame on his watch, and Matt Clement's fortunes took a dive after 2004.  But, as we've discussed before, Wood first came up lame in August 1998, long before Dusty set his shingle out here.  Furthermore, Carlos Zambrano had some fine years playing for Baker, and Ryan Dempster actually built himself up from square one during the last part of Baker's tenure here.  Yes, Baker infamously let Prior go over 130 pitches a few times in games that ultimately didn't matter.  The big sin there is that you and I knew those games weren't worth it, but Baker didn't.  But to hear some bloggers go on about it, you'd think Baker sat there whittlin' sticks game after game while Prior chucked balls until his arm hung limp.

He threw 135 pitches in a 2002 game, his rookie year.  He threw 131, 131 and 132 in three games in September, 2003, when we were actually in a pennant race.  He threw 131 pitches in a 2005 game.  If those five games were responsible for Mark Prior's demise, then sure, take Dusty Baker around the woodshed and whale on him.

I don't know all there is to know about the fascinating field of Pitcher Abuse Points.  I do think that, not counting all the towels he threw on the sidelines during his frequent DL stints, that Mark Prior has thrown far fewer pitches in his career than your typical 'established' MLB starting pitcher.  He always got his four days rest, he was not forced to adhere to some strange warmup ritual, and it was somewhat bad luck for him that he pitched on teams with lousy bullpens, thus his manager was loath to take him out early, instead opting to squeeze an extra inning out of him whenever possible. 

In fact, I am willing to stand here and credit Dusty Baker, rather than bash him, for the successes that Prior did have from 2002-2005, because in hindsight, Baker's whip got the most out of a guy that, if left to his own devices, would probably always opt for the easy way out.

For, plainly speaking, and I believe we have all seen the circumstantial evidence that proves this, Mark Prior is a wuss.

The season he was drafted, he and his agent, Scott (the Anti-Christ) Boras orchestrated a holdout, presumably for money.  Prior did sign the largest draftee contract at the time, but during the process, it was made clear by his camp that even if he were to have signed early, he would not have pitched Rookie or Short-season A in 2001, because "his arm was too tired from pitching in the College World Series".  Excuse me?  Dozens of pitchers who participate in the CWS are drafted annually, and very few of them opt out of making their professional debuts in the same calendar year. 

In 2003, in the middle of a torrid race, he collided on the base paths with Marcus Giles, a man probably 70% the size of Prior.  He tumbled on the ground like a damn hall monitor, missed several games, and later in his so-called career traced all of his troubles back to this incident.  He claimed he experienced shoulder instability as a result - however, he declined to undergo surgery to repair any instabilities until after the 2007 season, after his first year as the property of the Padres.

Starting in 2004, and every year afterwards, each Spring Training became another chapter in the long-running soap opera The Mark Prior watch.  See Mark go down with achilles discomfort, abdominal strains, with flu, with shoulder discomfort, with elbow discomfort.  Marvel as Mark throws simulated game after game, thrill as his days on the DL pile up.  Wonder as the team doctors and other specialists brought in specially for Prior examine him time after time, and find no structural damage.


There could only be two explanations - either Prior suffered from a physical malady that modern medicine hasn't sussed out yet, or Prior simply couldn't perform at less than 100% physical fitness.  There are clues that suggest the latter.  He would fall apart during games when the rest of his team would fail him - most spectacularly in Game 6 in 2003, but it happened several other times in the next few years.  He did not seem to possess a competitive nature, and/or real baseball instincts.  He didn't seem to grasp the ebb and flow of baseball.  He sure didn't understand the difference between "pain" and "injury".  All big league pitchers, starters especially, will tell you that they feel pain throughout most of their careers, that throwing a baseball nearly 100 mph and making it move 1 to 2 feet is an unnatural act, and is going to cause a measure of pain.  Guys like Rick Sutcliffe would take forever to pitch a game, due to the pauses he had to take to wait for pain to subside before attempting another toss.


Prior never seemed to understand this.  Nobody but him could tell you what he himself felt during his career, but Cub fans expected him to shove his feelings aside and 'gut it out' for his teammates, his salary, and most of all, for us.  But time and time again, he showed that when things weren't perfect, when he was feeling pain, when his team wasn't catching everything hit at him, and when the conditions weren't ideal, that he couldn't deal with it.


Thus, the team with the perfect climate, the biggest pitcher's park, and the least amount of stress took a flier on him.  But after 2 1/2 years of constant rehabbing and setbacks, even the Padres cut him loose.  Certainly after his $10.5 million initial signing, the man never has to work in his life.  Hopefully, for his sake, he's holed up somewhere in a hyperbaric chamber, where the worries of the world can't possibly get to him.

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Cubs 101 - Pt. 53 - Dusty we Trusty goes Busty

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If you spend enough time with any Cubs fan, sooner or later the baseball talk will move toward opinions on the worst trades, and the worst contracts, and the worst players to ever don a uniform. They're never short conversations if only because we have so many choices. From Mel Rojas and his epic sucktitude to Todd Hundley and his raging ass eating, the choices are many. But in a recent conversation about the worst contract in Cubs history, I came to a surprising conclusion -- perhaps the worst didn't go to a player. Perhaps the worst contract in Cubs histroy belongs to a manager: Dusty Baker.

Earlier we wrote about how Dusty inspired us when he came to Chicago. He asked "why not us?" and we had no answer for him. He brought with him a history of winning, of managing big name stars, of coaching in the playoffs, and he also came with shelves loaded with Manager of the Year trophies. He was to be the rare combination of the best manager available also being the most exciting, and in one short season he delievered. He coached a team that underperformed in '02 all the way to Game 7 of the NLCS, and although retrospect shows us that he may very well have been the reason things fell apart, it was hard to blame him at the time.

The problem was his idle hands. In Game Six against the Marlins, even after the Bartman incident, Dusty stayed on the bench. When Prior gave up a double, Dusty remained immobile. When a wild pitch got tossed, Dusty did nothing. When Alex Gonzalez bobbled what should have been the threat-ending double play ball, Dusty remained seated. Maybe he was just as shocked as the rest of us, but it's no excuse. He's the manager. His job is to solve problems.

The following season -- which we'll get into more later this week -- was even more promising than '03 had been. But Dusty's worst traits, his most negative characteristics, became increasingly evident as the year rolled on. See, Dusty came not from the Old School, but from the Really Old School. He believed -- and I'm not kidding -- that the center fielder bats leadoff, the second baseman bats second, the power pitcher can throw all day without ill effect, and that rookies had to somehow earn their playing time with the team despite not actually getting playing time from Baker. It quickly became an exercise of frustration and futility -- not that those were the only reasons I believe Baker's might be the worst contract the Cubs ever had.

The reason stems from the effects of his ridiculous philosophies. Corey Patterson -- in theory an immensely talented young player with huge upside -- never developed while under Baker. He was a total flop, a player even I could strike out, who never drew walks -- perhaps because Dusty believed that "walks clog the bases," and "it's called hitting, not walking" -- and at various points during his time developing at the Major League level Patterson would make claims about never being taught a certain hitting approach that completely contradicted what Dusty and his coaches said they were teaching him.  So was he uncoachable or was he a student of incompetent coaches?  Probably it was both.

But much worse than that was his handling of the team's aces Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. Wood was a pitcher with a history of arm problems who had finally apparently gotten healthy in 2002. Dusty decided the best way to handle the fragile starter was to allow him to throw as many pitches as needed every single game. Same thing with Mark Prior -- he was a young pitcher who threw more innings than ever in 2003, and rather than keep his pitch counts down Dusty just let him grip and rip. Perhaps not coincidentally, both starters missed time with various arm ailments in 2004, both would require additional surgery throughout the following seasons, and both went from having promise to becoming busts.

Subsequently, all that hope that Dusty brought in 2003 quickly disolved into disgust, and then rage against him. His response, apparently oblivious to how excited we were when he arrived, was to act baffled and to label us as a pack of racists. He allowed his team in '04 to get away from him, with players like LaTroy Hawkins throwing down the race card, and with Kent Mercker and Moises Alou challenging Steve Stone and trying to get Stone and Chip Caray banned from the team flights because of the "critical" things they were saying during games. Since Dusty didn't like Stoney either, he found that acceptable with the end-result being a late season on-air argument between Stone and Baker after a crappy game had been played, resulting in Stone's eventual dismissal.

Dusty would also continue his strategy of batting players based on their position rather than their ability -- and he started them based on their experience, rather than their potential -- resulting in a lot of "baffling" losses. Even Derrek Lee, in his finest season, struggled to drive in runs thanks to Baker's insistance of batting low-OBP players like Corey Patterson and Neifi Perez in front of him. In '05 Lee led the league with a .335 AVG, 199 hits, 50 doubles, he had 46 homers, and batting third in the Cubs lineup he only managed to drive in 107. I would've thought that impossible until it happened.

By the end of the '04 season, many of the smarter fans were over Dusty's incompetence, and by the time '05 was over the vast majority of Cub fans everywhere wanted him fired. Still, he played out his contract, exiting disgracefully after the 2006 96-loss debacle. Baker never took blame for the team's failings. It was because his players got hurt, or the negativity of the fans, or Hendry's inability to give him more stars, but it wasn't because he was a clueless dolt who had no idea about what he was doing.

And so, instead of building a young, talented Cubs team into a perennial competitor this past decade, Dusty ran them into the ground ruining some pitchers in the process and never giving some hitters the chance to prove themselves. For that reason he might be the worst signing in Cubs history.

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Cubs 101 - Pt. 52 - Forgettable October


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They came really fucking close.

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

Then It Happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cubs 101 - Pt. 51 -the 2003 Chicago Cubs

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The 2002 season marked the end of the Don Baylor era in Chicago, and also served as the year of Andy MacPhail's resignation from the General Managership position of the team -- although he'd stay on as president, and in retrospect it's difficult to say how much actually changed. 

MacPhail's replacement was long-time front officeman Jim Hendry, who'd essentially served the role of Co-GM during '02 before assuming full duties.  Hendry immediately won the respect of a lot of fans by making some blockbuster trades.  First, he actually managed to dump Todd Hundley for legitimate talent!  Crazy, I know!  But for Todd Hundley and a relative nobody, Hendry was able to acquire a starting first baseman and second baseman (Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek), two players who would play huge roles in 2003.

Hendry also signed the former manager of the defending NL champs, Dusty Baker.  That's right -- the Cubs went from the busted Don Baylor straight to a renowned winner in Johnny B. Baker, a multi-time NL manager of the year winner.  Baker had just led the Giants to the World Series but was let go anyway -- a warning sign we all blissfully ignored -- and in his first press conference as Cubs manager asked a question that has stuck with me ever since: why not us?

Seriously.  Why not us?

The acquisition of Baker, coupled with the amazing cast-off of Hundley, were the two biggest moves Hendry made that winner.  Sure, he also delivered to the Cubs Sean Estes (guh) and the catching duo of Bako and Miller, but amazingly the same core group that almost propelled the Cubs toward 100 losses in 2002 would take the Cubs almost to the World Series in 2003.  It must've been because of Dusty.

Make no mistake -- the team still had holes.  First base was a battle between Korean sensation Hee Seop Choi (hint: he'd be a bust) and the aged Karros.  Third base remained a gaping hole, for the umpteenth year since Ron Santo retired.  And Antonio Alfonseca would never get another chance to blow a Cubs game as the Cubs closer, leaving them to rely on untried journeyman pitcher Joe Borowski.  But unlike Cub teams of other years they were not defined by their weaknesses, but rather they were defined by their ability to fill those holes and compensate for under-productive players.

Still, they were a team in-or-around first place for most of the year.  The reason was simple -- Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano, and Matt Clement -- a young rotation of so much win.  These four pitchers, remembered through the glass of time for many other reasons, stayed healthy all year long and dominated.  All four pitched 200 innings or more.  All four won 13 games or more.  All four at times resembled aces.  And because of those four pitchers, it was the Cubs' season to lose.

They were never worse than 5.5 games out of first, with that day falling on July 26th.  At around that time -- actually just 3 days earlier -- Jim Hendry was making the team better.  Due in part to the continued weakness at third, coupled with the season-ending injury to would-a-been All Star Corey Patterson, Hendry dealt three more nobodies, this time to the Pirates for Kenny Lofton (who was an unheralded MVPesque player in his time with the Cubs) and Aramis Ramirez, a then-25-year-old who would bloom into the best third baseman the team has had in 30 years.  Then, adding icing to the "thank you Shittsburgh" cake, Hendry added Randall "The Big Sausage" Simon to the mix in early August, and the Cubs never looked back.

By the time August ended, Chicago was 2.5 games out of 1st, and as September rolled on the Cubs flat-out crushed the Cardinals (taking 4 of 5 games early in the month) and clinched things for good during a Pittsburgh double header on September 27th (thanks again, Pittsburgh!). 

In other words, they went from losing nearly 100 games in 2002 to winning the division in 2003.  Their stars delivered -- including Moises Alou, who drove in 30 more runs in '03 than in '02 -- and their backups played their roles.  Eric Karros played an essential part, a leadership role, even after his starter's job was lost to Randall Simon.  Kenny Lofton stepped in and served as a better leadoff man than Corey Patterson ever could have.  Aramis Ramirez provided another lumbering bat in the lineup to supplement Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou.

Side note -- Sosa, by the way, was perhaps the only negative in the whole mix.  From his infected toe to his shattered helmet to his corked bat (which we will get into down the road), it was not Sammy's best year.  As his God-injected talents finally began to diminish, the underlying ego and attitude that had always been their resurfaced, but with the fresh face of Aramis Ramirez and the young arms of Prior, Wood, and Zambrano, I don't think Cub fans ever really cared.

Speaking of Prior -- of all the pitchers - and players - to propel the team, he was the best.  When the Cubs drafted him, he joined Chicago with expectations surpassing even anything Kerry Wood ever faced, and in his first full season with the team he delivered.  He won 75% of his games, going 18-6, missing time only due to a freak collision with Atlanta's Marcus Giles.  He would pitch 8 games in which he struck out 10 or more (including 16 on June 26th) and in his final 3 starts he struck out 37 in 23 innings.  I thought then -- and I feel now -- that he should have won the Cy Young that year. 

All of those factors, all of those things culminate into an 88-74 season, with the Cubs finishing 1 game ahead of the Astros for the division.  They would enter the playoffs against the 101-win Atlanta Braves, and unlike 1998 there was, without a doubt, a sense that the Cubs would have a chance to win it all...

More on that heart-breaker next time.

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Cubs 101 - Pt. 50 - Prelude to Awesome: The Craptacular 2002 Cubs

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Rob

2002 was, in every sense of the word, a "transition" year.

If nothing else, one only had to look at the incumbent manager, Don Baylor.  As you recall, Baylor's hire was Andy MacPhail's attempt to bring in a "name" to manage the Cubs.  Baylor, known throughout his career for his clutch hitting, frequent appearences in playoffs with different teams, and a positive attitude, crumbled before our eyes like a grasshopper trapped inside a jar filled with formaldehyde.  The man who started his Cubs reign by bringing in upbeat "life coaches" to lead calesthetics was reduced, at the end of his tenure, to a stooped stick figure who could barely speak during interviews, like someone was standing squarely on top of his testicles with metal cleats.  No doubt the fizzle at the end of the 2001 season took a lot out of him.  He was expecting old warrior Fred McGriff to come in and provide the offensive boost that would put us into the postseason.

Instead, Baylor was served a plate of ass to eat, and 45 beat reporters and talkshow hosts standing around with their digital recorders, wanting him to describe every miserable bite.

Naturally, Cubs fans hopes were high after a relatively successful 2001 season.  (And if it seems like I am simply following an outline in writing each of these chapters, like a broken record, I guess in a way I am.  For the majority of Cub fans, the smallest grain of success always forces open a gusher of unconditional hope, like a small grain of sand could cause the dikes in Holland to burst. 

This year's hope was brought to you by the following: a healed Kerry Wood, a massive 2001 Sammy Sosa Season, power-hitting Fred McGriff at first, a possible return to form by expensive catcher Todd Hundley, he couldn't possibly be as bad in 2002 as he was in 2001 (.189 BA)?  Free agent Moises Alou, a proven commodity, was now in left field.  Young touted prospect Corey Patterson, and please remember, he was a top Baseball America prospect at this time in his life, would man center field.  Equally highly touted prospect Bobby Hill was slated to play second. 

In the rotation, besides Wood, we returned 20-game winner Jon Lieber, Jason Bere and newly acquired Matt Clement.  In the bullpen, we were returning last year's three-headed-monster, Kyle Farnsworth, Jeff Fassero, and Tom Gordon.  Of course, in keeping in tradition of saving the best until last, 2002 was the highly anticipated debut of the so-called "best college pitcher in history", Mark Prior of USC.  He fell for us as the second pick of the 2001 draft, because the team picking first decided to go with a local boy for signability reasons.  The team was the Twins, their pick was catcher Joe Mauer, and you know the rest of that story.

Our story concerned Prior, who went most of 2001 before signing a last-minute deal that is still as of this writing a record for a draft pick from college - a four year, $10.5 million package.  Because of his holdout, Prior did not throw for us until 2002.  His first few minor league starts were spectacular - not only did he mow guys down on the hill, but he hit something like .750 with a slugging percentage close to 2.000!!  There was no way we could keep him down on the farm in 2002, so ready or not, here came Mark Prior, and most league observers felt our pitching staff was loaded. 

Kurt
Picking it up from there...

In June of 2001, thanks to the terrible 2000 season in which the Cubs lost nearly 100 games, Andy MacPhail's Hendry-driven front office made a move that would titalate Cub fans everywhere: they selected Mark Prior, the "greatest college pitcher evar" with the second pick of the amateur draft.

Actually they had a pretty interesting overall draft that year. They also selected future major leaguers Andy Sisco (known for his legendary immaturity, who'd be stolen in a Rule V by the Royals and have a single good year before fading away), Ryan Theriot, Ricky Nolasco (who'd win 15 games in 2008 for the Marlins), Brendan Harris (currently a jack-of-all-trades infielder for the Twins), Sergio Mitre (a starting pitcher for the New York Yankees presently), and Geovany Soto. They also drafted -- and failed to sign -- three other future major leaguers that year. But the story was Mark Prior.

Prior was Kerry Wood with maturity and perfect mechanics. His selection heralded great things for 2002. Supposedly at the encouragement of Sammy Sosa, the Cubs went out and signed Dominican Moises Alou, a talented left fielder and hand-pee-er, they acquired a decent young middle infielder named Mark Bellhorn, along with shortstop Alex Gonzalez, and perhaps biggest of all they acquired starting pitcher Matt Clement and closer Antonio Alfonseca for a bunch of nobodies, including future Rookie of the Year Dontrell Willis.

In other words, MacPhail created the appearance of progress. With talented young players coming to fruition, mixed with the proven arms and bats of guys like Gonzalez, Alou, Clement, and Alfonseca, it wasn't uncommon for dopes like me to proclaim the second-coming of the '98 season in 2002.

Except ... well, they sucked. A lot.

Between the continued employment of McStiff, who ate even more ass despite his 30 homeruns and 103 RBI, and injuries to guys like Bill Mueller, and under-performing seasons from guys like Jason Bere, Corey Patterson and Moises Alou, along with undeniable player mis-management by Don Baylor and his eventual replacement Bruce Kimm, the Cubs were nowhere near a playoff season. Instead, they were almost a 100 loss team ... again.

Among the most incompetent acts -- Jon Lieber, a 20-game-winner in 2001, was pitching against his former team the Pirates when it started to rain. He'd sit through the near 2-hour delay, return to the mound, and pitch his arm into oblivion.
There was also Kimm's insistence of giving Prior his first complete game, a 135 pitch effort for a team far out of contention by that point in the season.

So, things didn't turn out so swell. In his first full season, Corey Patterson only batted .253 with a .284 OBP. Mark Prior would not have a Rookie-Wood-like-year. He'd start 19 games, go 6-6, and miss the end of the season due to a sore hamstring. Young pitchers Carlos Zambrano and Juan Cruz would combine to go 7-19. Moises Alou would only hit 15 homeruns while batting a mediocre .275. And yet, all of those players would be key contributors to the 2003 campaign, which remains the most successful -- and ultimately most unfulfilling -- of my life so far.

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Cubs 101 - Pt. 49 - McStiff Eats Ass

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It is possible that someone out here today isn't familiar with the notion of "McStiff Eats Ass".  It was coined initially by our good friend Fork Lift, and I look forward to his contribution later on in this chapter.  Simply put, it refers to the listless attitude and meager contribution that one Fred McGriff provided for us, loyal die-hard Cub fans, starting with his initial acquisition by GM Andy MacPhail prior to the end of the 2001 season.  First, though, we must present the surprising success of the 2001 Cubs as background for the ass eating that in all likelihood was our eventual demise that year.

The 1999 and 2000 seasons were best known for the miserable pitching that more than cancelled out a fairly strong (and most likely steroid-fueled) offensive display by Sammy Sosa and his supporting cast.  The media, which loves nothing more than recycling themes, basically presented the entire Cubs roster as the supporting cast for the defending NL homer champ Sosa, a lot like they loved to refer to Michael Jordan's teammates as his 'supporting cast' in the previous decade.  The Cubs could and would score runs in 2001, but after the staff ERA's of well over 5 the previous two years, which led to our flirting with the 100-loss mark, Cub fan hopes were typical.  The more optimistic called for a pennant, as they did every year.  The more pessimistic just wanted to win more than 70.

2001 proved to be the first full year for Kerry Wood since his 1999 elbow surgery.  Jon Lieber and Kevin Tapani also came back, along with young, wacky Julian Tavarez and newly acquired Jason Bere, who was a promising prospect with the Red Sox until injuries slowed him.  This was our unspectacular rotation, which unfortunately was far and away the STRENGTH of our pitching staff.  The Cubs bullpen the past two years was beyond abysmal, actually I grasp for words to describe its utter lack of quality. 

Baseball, as does life, occassionally provides us with surprises, and when the Chicago Cubs of the National Baseball League rolled out an unstoppable 7th-8th-9th inning relief tandem the first two-thirds of 2001, nobody could have been more surprised than I.  Surprising because it was built with spare parts that nobody wanted; the lame, infirtm, has-beens and never-wasses.  Our crack 7th inning guy was Kyle #44, Cap'n Tightpants, Kyle "Rottweiler" Farnsworth, a man who before this time never even hinted at an ability to throw balls in strike zones.  Our 8th inning anchor was Jeff Fassero, a former starting pitcher of modest ability who truly personnified the label "journeyman".  Our closer was Tom Gordon, of whom Stephen King wrote about, because he was formerly the star closer for the Red Sox, before arm problems laid him low. 

But even more improbable than Gordon, Fassero, and Cap'n Tightpants was our long reliever, one Todd Van Poppel, a name and a man synonymous with "first round bust" and "wasted potential".  Before landing here that year in a last-ditch gesture of non-roster futility, he managed to piss away chances in most of the cities in the AL.  In 2001, with us, he posted a 4-1 record with a 2.52 ERA in 59 games pitched.  This sounds like a decent season, true.  But for a man who we invited to Spring Training the year before as one of about three dozen "non-rosters" in a desperate act to find ANYONE who could stand on a pitcher's mound without shatting himself, this was ROI above and beyond anyone's dreams.

Bolstered by what was to be Sammy Sosa's greatest season (64/160/.328 and it is just insane to actually type that), the 2001 Cubs pitching staff started hot, got us in first place in mid-April, hit a lull in mid-May against NL powerhouses Houston and Arizona (this was the year Bob Brenly took them all the way), and got back on track until mid-August.  Lieber won 20 games that year, including a 78-pitch complete game effort against Cincinnatti that was every bit as impressive as any 20K game Wood ever pitched.  Wood himself bounced back well with a 12-6 record in 28 starts.  Bere and Tavarez broke even for the year, gobbling up a lot of innings.  Only Tapani, at the end of his career,  suffered some bad luck and lost more than he won in 2001.

It is a real boon for starting pitchers when they can rely on their bullpen.  The pressure is off of them to complete games - they knew in 2001 that if they can carry the game into the seventh inning, that Farnsworth, Fassero, and Gordon more than likely would take it home.  And so it was that the team that had lost more than 90 games in consecutive years was in a wild dogfight for the NL Central lead in mid-2001, and pitching was carrying the day.  For outside of Sosa's mammoth output, the Cub lineup was miserable.  For example, the CF platoon was Gary Matthews (junior) and Michael Tucker, two names that put the "meh" in "mehdiocre".  Who was Ron Santo's heir apparent at third base for 2001?  The pride of Lockport himself, Ron Coomer. Crappy Sox fan.  Mark Grace was gone now; our next best offensive threat was Matt Stairs.  (shaking head miserably)  But I have saved the very best for last...

Ladies, gentlemen?  Your starting catcher for the 2001 Cubs...

(duck under a table now, for your own safety)

...the sweaty drug abuser himself, the man, the myth, the slacker that rode on Daddy's coattails his whole stinkin' useless life...T-O-D-D Hundley!! 

When we discuss Eating Ass in terms of Big League Baseball, specifically the New Millenium Cubs, the conversation starts here.  A certain product of the Steroid age, he was several years removed from his outlier 41-homer season with the Mets when he was signed to a gigantic salary by Andy MacPhail the previous offseason.  All Turd did with us is start slow, then slump from there.  Excuses were made, uniform numbers were changed, allowances were granted, and Hundley still gave us only 31 RBI and a .187 batting average for the 6 million American dollars he earned that year.  It was not a HARD .187, either.  He was immobile behind the plate, he let 4 out of 5 basestealers reach base.  Simply one of the worst performances ever turned in by a major league player.

Despite all that, it was thought that merely adding one more big stick in the lineup could take pressure off of Sosa, and so it was with great pleasure that MacPhail announced on July 16th that the Cubs had agreed, in principle, with the last-place dead-end Tampa Bay Devil Rays to trade for perpetual All-Star first sacker Fred (Crime Dog) McGriff, who would hit over 30 homers that year, and would almost certainly welcome a move from a last-place basement dweller to an exciting club in the thick of a pennant chase?

Except McStiff, as he was immediately christened on the blogs and the talk shows, invoked his No-Trade clause.  No, the erstwhile spokesman for the Tom Emanski video series on Baseball and Life and connesuer of fine foam caps decided he wanted to stay close to his family and his mamma.  Now, immediately, what came to mind to me was that, obviously, McStiff had lost whatever competitive edge he may have possessed at one time.  He was more than happy drawing a paycheck and bopping worthless homers in a sterile lifeless dome.  He didn't WANT to come win a title for the Best Fans in Sports, fine, then.  Screw Him!!  There was still two weeks left before the trading deadline...go find another bat to help Sosa!

MacPhail would NOT be deterred, however.  And, at the last moment before the deadline, McStiff reluctantly waived his No-Trade rights, and dragged his tired, sorry ass up here to go through the motions, for us.  Yes, he did hit 12 homers for us, but most of those were in the last two weeks of the season, by which time the magic had run out, the bullpen had imploded on itself, Fassero wore out, Kyle #44 walked guys in bunches, and the team sank into third place, where it would finish the season, despite Lieber's 20 and despite Sosa's 160 ribbies.

It seemed to me that the players on that 2001 team knew they were missing something, and they were looking for a spark to put them over the hump.  What they got instead was a reluctant participant, who did not infuse the team with new energy, and ended up writing himself a sour final chapter in what was most likely a clean, productive career as a power source.  He didn't want to be here, and to all of us, that meant McStiff eats ass! 

And so, another year with career years from at least two prominent Cubs was wasted.  To me, I remember that year as a prime example of the risk you take when you don't exploit every possible opportunity you have to be great. 

Forklift: I have been a Cub fan since 1967. In that time there has never been anyone - ANYONE - who has disgraced a Cubs' uniform more (in my eyes) than McStiff.

First, he showed his lack of fortitude in not wanting to leave a crap team for a contender. Then once he finally acquiesced, and graced us with his presence, he became a statue at first base, dropping everything but sweat.

The following year, he once again put the "dog" in "Crime Dog". The defining moment of his brief, but not brief enough, Cub tenure was after Don Baylor got fired. Bruce Kimm came in as interim manager, and he said the Cubs "owed" McStiff the opportunity to hit 30 home runs, so that way he could have 30 home run seasons with 5 different teams.

Think about that for a second. He hit 30 home runs with 5 different teams. Which means a lefty bat with power that moved around with alarming regularity. Must be a real character guy. With the exception of Tampa signing him in hopes of his hitting his 500th home run in a Rays uniform (and maybe getting some gate in the process), no team that ever had him took him back, in spite of his many travels.

So it's "owed" to a human yeast infection who winds up spending less than 2 seasons with the Cubs, thus denying September call-up Hee Seop Choi an opportunity to see some additional major league pitching. All for some idiotic record that shouldn't even be noted inthe first place.

McStiff eats ass.

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Cubs 101 - Pt. 48 - Booger Pickin' Don Baylor


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In 2000, after five years of the status quo and disappointing seasons, Andy MacPhail finally got serious about winning and signed himself an award-winning manager ... Don Baylor.

Baylor was best known for managing the expansion Colorado Rockies to the first-ever NL Wild Card in 1995. He was also the first black manager in Cubs history, edging out Billy Williams for the honor. The only problem with his time with the Cubs was that he was, in fact, a total tool. When he joined the team, he entered a volatile clubhouse that had been split into two for some time. On one half, we had Mark Grace, whose main interests were balling fat chicks during bad slumps and winning baseball games for the Chicago Cubs. On the other side was Sammy Sosa, known by then for his epic, massive, incredible, unbelievable homerun production, mixed in with the blaring on his boombox of his salsa/Eminem mix.

One guy wanted to win, the other guy wanted to get diamond statues built in his honor. Don wisely saw the solution to this problem by naming a team captain -- somebody who could take over and help keep the team focused. Except he didn't name a team captain, he named four - Sosa, Grace, Kevin Tapani, and closer Rick Aguilera, the last of whom surely earned it with his half season on the Cubs the year before.

While Baylor can't be entirely blamed for the mediocre 2000 season -- the Cubs lost 97 that year, which led to their high draft slot the following year -- his managerial strategies certainly didn't help. Baylor loved to bunt. The Cubs led the league in bunts in 2000 with 89, they improved upon that number in '01 with 117, and they probably would have led the league again in 2002 had Baylor finished out the year.

But what I remember the most about Baylor's tenure was when he took a page out of P.K. Wrigley's book and insisted on bringing in Mack Newton, a fitness trainer/motivational speaker, into the clubhouse to help a shattered team reconnect. He did a great job at it too -- the team united in their hatred for him, as he was not reluctant to take credit for their strong start during the '01 campaign. You know that when easy-going players like Kerry Wood -- who saw his fair share of shit while playing as a Cub -- thinks you're a douchebag, then guess what? You're a douchebag, Mack Newton.

Baylor, who would be caught picking-and-flicking on TV on several occassions, was a disaster. He abused his pitchers, he squandered his offense by making pointless outs, he alienated his players -- failing to "connect," as he would later say in the press conference surrounding his firing -- and after his '03 replacement would start playing the racism card, he'd join in and voice the same opinion. Cub fans must have hated him because he was black, Baylor would say, not because he sucked at his job and squandered what could have been a playoff opportunity in 2001.

As far as the Cubs go, though, worse than his inability to take advantage of the talent given to him -- and admittedly, there were some gaping holes in the roster during his tenure, so it wasn't all his fault -- the signing of Baylor marked a period in the MacPhail tenure in which Chicago would go out and acquire the flashiest, biggest name-manager on the market rather than the coach best suited to turn the team around. It would start with Baylor, who'd last almost three years, and it would continue on with Dusty Baker in 2003, who'd be with the team for about two years too long, coaching until his contract ended in 2006. They were big names, with modest examples of historical success, but they were not right for the Cubs or even really good at their jobs. But MacPhail and his overlords in Tribune Tower never cared about quality of work ... they wanted names to sell tickets, and that's what they got.

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Cubs 101 - Pt. 47 - Looking Back on the Riggleman and Lynch Era

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I'm unsure if their tenure in Chicago was justified, but Jim Riggleman and Ed Lynch joined the club together before the start of the 1995 season.  During their five-year tenure, the Cubs would reach the playoffs once, finish over .500 twice, and lose 86-or-more games three times.  Not exactly ringing endorsements for future employers.

Ed Lynch was a former-player-turned-executive who was best known in Chicago for the time, as a Met, when he beaned Cub Keith Moreland and got plowed by the large third baseman like a track of fertile soil.  As an executive his work was less-than-impeccable and he had more than his fair share of detractors by the time I began to familiarize myself with him in '97. 

Considering how poorly the team played, minus their one playoff year in '98 when they had the ungodly stuff of Kerry Wood and the epic power of Sammy Sosa, it's hard to argue against Lynch having deserved it.  Perhaps he was handcuffed by a MacPhail-mandated budget, or maybe he was just a dope -- as best exampled by the headline acquisition of Expos closer Mel Rojas, who I wouldn't have entrusted to save anything, be it a game or a village of hell-bound Peruvian infidels.  But nothing to fear, Lynch was able to make up for his tremendous mistake by dealing Rojas, Brian McRae -- whose departure left Mark Grace weeping, as they were best friends -- and Turk Wendell to the Mets for "key contributors" Mark Clark, Lance "One-Leg" Johnson, and Manny "Sammy's Pal" Alexander. 

Still, Lynch's short-sighted moves were certainly important to the '98 playoff drive.  He was certainly the executive who approved of the acquisitions of closer Rod Beck (51 saves in '98), who acquired slugging left fielder Henry Rodriguez for the baseball equivilent of magic beans*, and who landed Mickey Morandini from the Phillies for Doug Glanville.

Granted, H-Rod would be a two-hit wonder, leaving Chicago in the middle of his third season with the team while those magic beans grew into Miguel Batista, a versatile starting pitcher who won 16 games in 2007 for the Mariners.  Granted, Mickey Morandini would have one good year with the Cubs while Doug Glanville would be a servicable center fielder for the Phillies for four-or-so seasons, although he never grew into star-status.  And, granted, Lynch probably was the one who approved of Kerry Wood's start in the '98 NLDS, the final one he'd make until after he returned from Tommy John Surgery in 2000, the season after Lynch got his ass canned.  In other words, Lynch chose to burn brightly for less time, and it's no surprise that he hasn't held an executive's role with any club since his "demotion."

Then again, Lynch did draft such future stars as Kerry Wood and Jon Garland, not to mention reliable major leaguers Kyle Lohse, Scott Downs, Michael Wuertz, Erik Hinske, along with their fair share of total busts like Corey Patterson.  If only any of those success stories, after Kerry Wood, spent any amount of time with the Cubs rather than serving as trade fodder for one-year-(at best!)wonders...

Jim Riggleman, meanwhile, remains the longest tenured manager of my lifetime.  We'd have to go back to Leo Durocher to find a Cubs skipper who served as much time with the organization.  It's too bad so much time was spent on such a mediocre manager -- Riggs was, upon reflection, perhaps better than those who'd follow him but he suffered from the same crippling mentality as Baker -- he'd bat the center fielder first (whether it be Brant Brown and his .340ish OBP in 1998 or Jose Hernandez and his .311 OBP) and the second baseman second.  His rosters seemed built more on tradition than on sense, and it's unlikely that he really helped the team win games in the way we like to think Lou Piniella might.

Regardless, both Lynch and Riggleman are long gone from the Cubs, but it remains absurd to consider their few accomplishments in the face of how long they kept their jobs.  An entire half decade belonged to them -- five years we'll never get back. 

Pity who their replacements were.  Even worse, pity the fact that their boss, Andy MacPhail, got to keep his job for more than another half decade after they left. 

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Cubs 101 - Pt. 46 - The Bitter Departure of Mark Grace

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A possible side effect of playing for an organization with a history of losing that is longer than the average lifespan of a marathon runner is that its players will often depart on less-than-pleasant circumstances.  For example -- Rick Sutcliffe and Andre Dawson, one the greatest Cub pitcher and the other the team's finest outfielder of the 80's both get cast aside like Larry Himes's garbage.  Greg Maddux, the greatest righty pitcher of his era, gets brushed off and sent away at the peak of his skills.  Ryne Sandberg, the greatest second baseman perhaps in the history of the game gets driven into early retirement.  And then, Mark Grace, the team's finest first baseman in a century doesn't even receive a courtesy call to be told that his services would no longer be needed.

Grace would leave the Cubs after the 2000 season, a year after making headlines for collecting more hits and doubles than any other player in the '90's.  He would leave Chicago with a captain's "C" on his jersey -- made a little less special by the fact that a similar one was worn by legendary selfish douchebag Sammy Sosa -- after having agreed to a series of one-year, five million dollar contracts. 

For loyalist Cub fans, and certainly for Grace himself, it felt like a raw deal.  The Cubs didn't exactly improve at first base the following season as they went out and acquired jabrones like Matt "T-Bone" Stairs and Ron Coomer to share first base responsibilities. 

Meanwhile, Grace would sign with the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he would bat .298, hitting 15 homers and driving in 78 RBI for a World Series winner.  Still, Grace was known for his obsession with following the Cubs, keeping tabs on his former teammates and marking their progress throughout the '01 season.

The year following, Gracie's cigarette habit and lack of physical exercise would catch up with him, and he'd descend into part-time status, batting .252 for the D-backs in '02 and .200 for them in '03.  Still, he would retire with a career .308 AVG as a Cub, and he'd play in more games at first base than any other Cub player in the 20th century.

None of which makes him a great player.  And that perhaps is the fitting thing -- Grace was certainly good, he was reliable, he was loveable, and the leadership role he filled as a Cub has been seemingly vacant since his departure, but he occupied a slugger's position for 13 seasons, while batting in a slugger's spot in the lineup for most of that time, and he never hit more than 17 homeruns while never driving in more than 98 RBI.  Maybe it makes sense, then, that the player most identified with the Cubs of the '90's was never really better than above average, which is also a description that could fit any Cubs team of that era - never really better than above average.

Still, it would have been nice for him to end his career a Cub.  Certainly, it couldn't have hurt -- he probably would have brought more to the table in '01 than anybody else the Cubs grabbed, even Fred McGriff and his meaningless production, and his fall-off in '02 and '03 wouldn't have stopped the Cubs from finishing 5th the first year or 1st the second.  But "nice" doesn't win championships.  As much as we remember Grace fondly for being the anti-Sosa, the unselfish player who'd choke up on two strikes and try to keep the inning alive, for his slump-busting tactics with all the Chicago fatties out there, it would be appreciated probably by all of us if the next memorable Cubs first baseman is known best for not only the clutch hits and good attitude, but also for his prodigeous production and epic homeruns. 

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Cubs 101 - Pt. 45 - The Abrupt Return to Mediocrity - nay, BAD!

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For fans of most other franchises, a second place finish doesn't portend to much.  But we're Cub fans, and even if there wasn't the Wild Card device, we'd be giddy with excitement.  Compound that with only the third post-season appearance in nearly 55 years, and the truth is that we had very high hopes for the upcoming 1999 season.

Sammy Sosa had just completed a 66 homer, 158 RBI season.  Even if his production went down, say, 20% - we're still talking 50 bombs and 130 RBI!  We'd take that!  Other returning members of the potent offense include Oh! Henry Rodriguez in left, the OneDog, Lance Johnson, in center and batting leadoff, Mark Grace of course at first, the double play combo of Mickey Morandini and Jeff Blauser, and the Rejuvenation miracle of 1998, 40-year-old Gary Gaetti, at third.  Gaetti, the former Cardinal, was key down the stretch the previous year with clutch home runs and throwing himself around with wild abandon in the hot corner.  How's THAT for a pile of sports-related cliches in one sentence?  Hee-yah!

Pitching also appeared to be a strength going into 1999.  Steve Trachsel, the play-in game hero was back, along with 19-game winner Kevin Tapani.  In what was the first of several major fleecings, Brant (OHHHNOOOO!) Brown was sent to Pittsburgh for workhorse Jon Lieber.  The Shooter was back, and swing-guy Terry Mulholland.  The key to the whole shootin' match, of course, was the health of newly christened Staff Ace and Next Big Thing Kerry Lee Wood, who as you recall pitched admirably in Game 3 of the NLDS, after having missed the entire month of September with a sore elbow.  In that playoff game, Wood pumped fastball after fastball against the Braves, leaving his devastating curve on the shelf in fear of the pain it caused him.  It would have been enough, except that his counterpart, an ex-Cub named Maddux, was better that day.

As you may remember, or can imagine, the Sports News of the Day all winter concerned the health of Wood's abused right elbow.  A setback, then improvement.  Hope, then fear, than hope again.  Finally, early on in camp, Kerry took the dreaded Flight of the Damned to Birmingham, Alabama to meet with Dr. James Andrews, Reconstructionist to the Stars.  The news was grim - the ulnar collateral ligament was toast - and that was all she wrote for Mr. Woody for 1999.

Now, the history of Major League Baseball - and in fact, all major league sports - is written in its injuries.  Players go down all the time, and teams carry on.  Very few men are even truly irreplaceable.  From hindsight, the reason why the 1999 Cubs were mediocre - nay, bad - was solely a reflection of its talent.  At that time, though, it seemed to casual observers that the talent was acceptable, but this team seemed to suffer from an impenetrable malaise due to the absence of their young star.

Keep in mind, since the era of the 1969 team, the Cubs were marked as a franchise with lots of power hitters, but always substandard pitching.  Oh, we had our Rick Reuschels and Bruce Sutters and Rick Sutcliffes and Greg Madduxes.  Of course, the reason why these four guys were so popular in Chicago was that they stuck out so prominently from the cesspool of untalented hurlers they were forced to team up with.  When Kerry Wood came up, it seemed too good to be true.  That fastball, coupled with that 12-6 curve, who was OURS for at least the next six years, until his first big free-agent payday...and we couldn't POSSIBLY be so stupid that we'd watch him walk away like Maddux had in 1993?  We'd pay him whatever he wanted, because he was leading us to the playoffs EVERY year now...

...but there had to be a Catch?  There ALWAYS is a Catch when it comes to us, and every major talent we come up with.  The catch turned out to be the violent nature of Wood's delivery, which strained his elbow, until sometime in August 1998 it just snapped.  We KNEW it was too good to be true, there was no way one of OURS was going to be able to throw that 100 mph heat and that 2-foot buckler forever.  It was a bitter pill for the fanbase to swallow, and even though the "Tommy John" surgery had progressed to the point that we could someday hope for his return as a productive pitcher, we knew, at least, the days of the curve were gone, as well as the 100 mph heat, probably.

So we were bummin', and it didn't help matters any that the 1999 Cubs never really got started, and after a brief time in May in second, sunk down to the bottom of the division and stayed there all year.  I know, at least myself, I projected my hopelessness about Wood onto the Cubs, and assumed they were playing with the same kind of misery I was feeling.  Which, in retrospect, sounds stupid, but how else can you explain the pitching we saw in 1999?

The offense, outside of Blauser who ended up being an utterly complete bust with us, did its job.  Sosa destroyed the NL a second straight year, Grace had nearly 100 RBI, and Glenallen Hill launched 20 rocket shots in part-time play (albeit with a little medicinal help, as it turned out.)  All that aside, and believe me, I have seen some truly horrific Cubs teams over the years...the pitching in 1999 was the WORST I have ever witnessed.  It was almost like Dean Wormer's final meeting with the Deltas in "Animal House".

  • Jon Lieber - 10-11, a 4.03 ERA.  Congratulations!  You're the top of your class!
  • Steve Trachsel - 8-18, 5.56
  • Kevin Tapani - 6-12, 4.83
  • 26 year old bottom-feeder Andrew Lorraine was brought up, won his first start, a 3-hit shutout, pitched well his second game, lost a complete game in his third start, then took 8 more starts the rest of the year with a combined ERA over 10
  • The Shooter fell apart.  Terry Adams took over the closer role for awhile, until Andy MacPhail had the bright idea of trading Kyle Lohse (yeah, HIM) for Rick Aguilera.  You know him simply as gAguilera.
  • The whole bullpen that year is like a Major League Suck-i-teria - besides gAguilera, Dan Serafini, Micah Bowie, Matt Karchner, Bobby Ayala, need I go on?  Ok, I shall...Steve Rain, Ray (Burger) King, Doug Creek, Rodney Myers...and the Immortal Felix Heredia, who I cannot recall ever holding a single, solitary lead while a member of the Cubs.  One save in 15 opps in 1999.  How did he get one save?

I saved the best until last, as is custom.  1999 was the Major League debut of one Kyle Lynn Farnsworth, aka Cap'n Tightpants, aka Dr. Feelgood, tormentor of electric fans, the scourge of trailer courts from Wichita to Terre Haute, owner of vicious Rottweilers and the star of The Dugout on AOL's Fanhouse.  Employee #44 was given 21 starts, with 6 other relief appearances, in his rookie year.  7 of his first 8 starts resulted in Cubs wins!  His last three starts resulted in Cubs wins!

So get a piece of paper, or go ahead and do this one in your head: 27 appearances, first 7 of 8 were wins, last three were wins.  So there's a gap of 16 or so games that were all losses, every, single, one.

I have raged on this site for years about the need for Situational Hitting.  In 1999, the Chicago Cubs had absolutely no ability to perform Situational Pitching.  Whenever we needed a strikeout, we'd walk someone.  Whenever we needed a double-play grounder, we'd give up a long fly.  The 1999 Cubs had the singular inability that I have never seen, before or since, to throw the ball where it needed to be thrown.  They finished the year with 95 losses, a 5.27 ERA, dead last in runs, earned runs, hits, strikeouts and home runs.  They gave up the third most walks - how in God's name could two other teams have given up more walks that year?  I am looking at the numbers as we speak, and I still can't believe it.

Gary Gaetti threw an inning that year - and he was NOT the worst pitcher on the team, statistically.  That honor belonged to probably Bowie, who was given 11 starts that year, and finished with a 9.96 ERA.  I believe that is STILL a ML record for highest seasonal ERA for pitchers, 10 or more starts.

In conclusion, the way I have always remembered 1999 in my mind is a season where the 25 members of the team played under a rain cloud all year because Kerry Wood was hurt.  However, and perk up, statboys, because I'm about to throw you a carrot - sometimes numbers tell the truth.  MacPhail and Ed Lynch managed to construct one of the worst pitching staffs of all time, based on the names involved.  At least three of the names are synonymous with Pitching Fail, which is plain to see, ten years removed.  In fact, I count six games in which we gave up at least ten runs that we WON that year!  In the months of July and August, we gave up double-digit runs 21 times!

June 29, we gave up 17.  July 1st, 19.  July 2nd, big improvement, 14.  July 3rd, 21, oops!  Worst. Pitching.  Ever.  At the time, I was married to a Sox fan, and she and her evil troll proto-ethnic family tried to convert me to the Dark Side, and I was tempted, tormented, and tortured.  By the next year, though, I didn't have that problem anymore.  Oh, the Cubs still sucked plenty.  The Sox fan left me, though, so she could devote all her energies cooking evil spells in her cauldron, or whatever it is evil South Side trolls do.  New millennium, new life, new hope. 

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