OK, before I get started, the case against Ron Santo as a competent broadcaster can be found here, written by the one and only Mike D. I agree with his opinion pretty much point-by-point, as far as the added value of having Ron Santo in a broadcast booth.
Now that I've done by full disclosure...
Ron Santo was a damn fine third baseman for the Cubs for 14 years. If you go to his Baseball Reference page, you'll see the players he's comparable to are mostly Hall of Famers. Please disregard the guy who calls him the "Greatest Cub Ever", though. I will be the first to tell you that based upon players in the Hall, he certainly belongs. Certainly more than George Kell. Even more than Brooks Robinson, who won an MVP.
He's been denied over and over again, both by writers and by the Veterans. It's not a Gil Hodges/Don Mattingly thing, where the guys wouldn't even merit a mention if they played in Chicago. It's something different.
See, there were 4 legitimate superstars on those "Durocher Cub" teams that had their run from 1967-1972...Fergie Jenkins, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ron Santo. Williams should have won at least 1 MVP award, in 1972. I highly recommend you tell him that if ever you meet him. The rant you will hear will be priceless. He was also an iron man, playing in over 1000 consecutive games. Fergie won a Cy Young and struck out 3000, and Ernie won two MVPs, along with hitting 500 home runs.
Santo had none of those, and no single "Homer In The Gloamin'"-type moment. Most people remember him as the guy who clicked his heels when the Cubs won, which was not good form in those days.
Turns out he was just ahead of his time - heel clicking would be minor compared to the preening ballplayers do now.
But the Tribune decided to put him in the broadcast booth, both because he's still popular in Chicago, and because a higher public profile would probably help his case for Cooperstown.
He has used the booth at various times to plead his case, which is fine. Look, there are cases I know I would plead if I had that large an audience. Besides, the producer of the broadcast has the power to tell him to knock it off.
So what do you get with Ron, other than the Campaign for Cooperstown? You get interjections.
and, that memorable day when Brant Brown dropped the fly ball in left, NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!
Have you ever sat in your living room with a druncle (drunk uncle), watching a Cub game? Sure, we all have. Hell, I've been the druncle at various times.
Ron Santo is everyone's druncle.
He grunts, groans, forgets the score/inning, and doesn't add more than five coherent thoughts to any broadcast. After hearing a few games with Keith Moreland at the microphone, you could see how much more informative a baseball broadcast can be with someone who can actually add analysis to Pat Hughes' play-by-play.
But Santo is different. Along with being everyone's druncle, he's also the hopeless Cub fan in the booth.
Now, there are varying degrees with being a homer. Look at the color analysts in this town. Hawk Harrelson did his shtick with the Yankees for a year, and you can't help but think if the White Sox fired him tomorrow, he'd be just as happy saying "That's an Indians winner!", of Cleveland was where the paycheck lived.
He's a homer like Hawk, sure. But it's far more genuine. If the Cubs told him his services were no longer required, he'd go home, watch the Cubs on TV, and make all the same noises.
Ron Santo, much like Phil Rizzuto in New York, lives for his team. He'll die for his team too, and sometimes does several times within a nine inning period.
I bring up Rizzuto, who was like Santo in so many ways...he was an endless supply of non sequiturs and restaurant plugs, often going on long rambles that were irrelevant to the actual events on the playing field.
What the Yankees did for him, and what the Cubs don't do for Santo, was apply pressure to Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame to induct Rizzuto. They actually made a pledge to boycott the Hall of Fame Game until Rizzuto was inducted. The Cubs don't have that leverage, since there is no longer a Hall of Fame game, but it wouldn't matter, since the Cubs would never have used the leverage anyway.
Back in the days of the Veterans' Committee, they simply stacked the Committee with Rizzuto supporters until he got in. Once he was a Hall of Famer, he was able to ride off into the sunset, secure in his place among baseball immortals.
The ideal scenario would be for the Veterans to just vote him in. He belongs, and he should go in, plain and simple. Once he's elected, the Cubs can give him another Ron Santo Day, and he could become an ambassador for the team, rather than a broadcaster. It works out for everyone.
But, for now, it's Pat and Ron in the booth. It's odd, rambling, and many times incoherent.
But, just like your druncle, it's fun, and you wind up laughing at it all anyway.
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Unfortunately, I missed perhaps the best game ever pitched by anyone on May 6, 1998. It was an otherwise non-descript day, a mid-week day game against the Astros. Sure, Kerry Wood, the 20-year-old uber-prospect had made his debut with the Cubs a few weeks prior, with modest success up to this point. There was no real reason for a man with a job to go out of his way to follow the action that particular day. I did not even do my usual and customary frequent refreshing of a gamecast. All I know is, that when I got in my car to go home, and turned on the sports radio station, the announcers were speaking in the hushed tones of those who had just witnessed the Second Coming.
When I say "best game ever", this isn't just the Cub fan talking. The saberweens compile pitched games and give them a "game score", and even when compared to Roger Clemens' 20-K games, even no-hitters and perfect games, Kid K's game scores the highest of all time! I'm a little skeptical, but hey, numbers never lie, do they? Huh? Huh....ahem, well, enough from me, let's hear from someone who actually watched the game. Take it away...
Kerry Wood's rookie card was the first -- and last -- baseball card I collected as an adult. I've still got it somewhere, a picture of a tall, chubby, clean-shaven kid who had no idea about what the future held for him in just a few short months.
Wood was drafted by the Cubs in 1995, the first pick of the MacPhail era, and he was heralded as the future of the organization thanks in part to a blazing fastball and also thanks in part to the fact that he was from Texas -- home of Nolan Ryan, possessor of another legendary fastball.
Wood was a strikeout pitcher. Always had been. He also had perhaps more thunder in his arm than his body was capable of handling -- the spectre of injury always loomed over him, from the day the Cubs drafted him. After all, Wood started both games of a double header for his high school baseball team that day, and if memory serves me, he tossed more than 180 pitches.
In his first full minor league season, Wood made 22 starts, posting a 10-2 record, a 2.91 ERA, and striking out 136 batters in 114.1 innings of work. The strikeout totals would never dip, even as his success became less astronomical, and in fact he would strike out a higher number of batters per 9 innings in his first trip to Iowa in 1997 than he'd struck out in his entire career up to that point.
Wood's first extended Spring Training took place in 1998, when the 20-year-old would cause one manager to famously remark that the Cubs would win the World Series in 1998. Granted, the reason he'd said that was because Wood started the year in Iowa and he was as incredulous as the rest of us about the Cubs having 5 starting pitchers who were better.
Still, he'd only pitch in one game that year in Triple A - a 5 inning, 11k affair -- after which point he'd be promoted to the majors. His first game was against the Expos, and like a lot of Cub fans I watched the game intently. How would the kid do? Predictably, he got roughed up a little. He surrendered 4 earned runs in just 4.2 innings of work, strking out 7, walking 3. I can still remember watching his nasty slurve ball, the combination slider-curve that would destroy his elbow, bounce several feet in front of the plate. He hit F.P. Santangelo with one of those bouncing slurves. We knew then that he had tremendous stuff, but he'd obviously not harnessed it. What we didn't know was just how quickly he'd figure it all out.
On May 6th, I'd gotten out of school at around 3:20, walked home, turned on the television, and found myself watching the early innings of a masterpiece. What people may not remember about that game is that it was nearly rained out -- it lightly drizzled even as they played, and the following day's game would be postponed, allowing WGN to replay it. It being the Kerry Wood 20 strikeout game. Yes, much as the '84 Cubs had the Ryne Sandberg Game, and the '89 Cubs had the comeback-against-Houston game, the '98 team was perhaps best defined by the day in which a 20-year-old rookie stepped up and came within one bobbled infield hit* of tossing a 20-strikeout no-hitter.
(*damn you Kevin Orie! It should've been ruled an error!)
After that, Kerry Wood became a household name. He turned down guest appearances on the Tonight Show (which wouldn't be done by David Wells, who'd toss a no-hitter in '98), he was still shy, pudgy, and his clean-shaven face was still littered with acne. And yet, with that one defining game, Kerry Wood became the ace of the Cubs team and propelled them toward the playoffs.
We all know how that turned out.
By the time August rolled around, the slurve had taken it's toll on Wood's arm. The future Rookie of the Year, our own Dwight Gooden minus the coke addiction, missed the month of September and returned just in time for the third and final game of the NLDS. I was at that game -- Cub fans were jubilent, they were thrilled, and nobody thought that the team might've been sacrificing the future health of their young ace for the momentary glory of a lost cause -- because that's what it was. The playoffs were done for the Cubs long before Game Three; they may have been doomed to lose since before the series began. And Wood, who we'd later learn pitched his 5 innings that night on fastballs alone, would blow out his UCL the following Spring and spend a year recovering from Chip Caray's infamous Tommy John Disease.
Wood returned in the 2000 season, and although he never elevated himself into the ace status we thrust upon him, he remains a compelling story in Cubs lore. He was the star that never rose, perhaps the best pitcher to never win even 15 games in a season, and his career has been littered with injuries and health problems.
Maybe in a way, that makes him perfect for the Cubs, a team of near-misses and heartbreaks -- just like Kerry Wood's career.
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When we last left young Mr. Sosa, it was 1997 and he was feeling disrespected. Here he was, a two-time member of the 30-30 Club, and without doubt one of the most productive hitters in the majors, but he wasn't feeling like he was getting the money, the respect, and the LOVE he deserved from his management, as well as the national media. Oh what could he possibly do?
For one, he could drag his contract negotiations out into the public, forcing the Cubs to sign him to a 4 year, $40 million contract extension for 1998. Sammy was good for at least 40 and a hundred - even in the off-season of 1997-98, very few men could give you that. Many wondered though about the wisdom of giving so much money to a man who had, up to that point, never played a post-season game, never led a team to a title of any sort. In retrospect, though, it appears Andy MacPhail knew what he was doing, this time. The man who reported (late, as was his custom) to Spring Training, 1998, was just like Sammy Sosa, only bigger, stronger, thicker, and more determined.
Nobody ever accused Sosa of laziness, and it certainly appeared he spent his off-season not only remaining in shape to play ball, but in fact he was stronger than ever. Recall he was a rail-thin youth when he first appeared in the big leagues, not unlike Alfonso Soriano today, he was a tightly-wound coil of fast-twitch muscles. If he had not hit the weightroom and doubled up on his "Flintstones vitamins", and continued to get his 100 RBI from his 35 homers for the next five-six years, he would have had a substantial major league career. Probably near 400 homers, by the time most athletes begin their normal decline after age 32 or 33 (which, doing the math, would be around 2001, the end of his 1998 contract).
But let's try to understand Sosa's thought process - in 1996, Andres Gallaraga led the NL with 47 homers, hitting in the outer-space air of Colorado. Mark McGwire led the AL with 52. In 1997, Colorado's Larry Walker hit 49 to lead the NL, while Junior Griffey hit 56 to lead the AL. Perhaps another type of individual would have been satisfied with his 35, 40 homers a year. But Sosa was a man who wasn't satisfied; he wanted to be the best! Disappointed he did not achieve acclaim for his power/speed combo, he went all-in to the power side, and did not look back until he had compiled five years of utterly unheard of damage to the home run record books.
In fact - McGwire, who was a few years older, retired soon after his second NL title in 1999. Barry Bonds, who of course holds the current single-season (as well as career) home run titles, was far more consistent for a far longer time, but only had the one outlier year when he hit his 73. Sosa only led his league twice - in 2000, when McGwire tailed off, and in 2002, when Bonds tailed off. But that is misleading - Sosa hit 66 in 1998, and did not win; he came back with 63 in 1999, and did not win; and in what was probably his greatest year ever, he hit 65 in 2001, but of course it was not more than Bonds' 73.
So, in the five years between 1998-2002, get out your calculators: 66, 63, 50, 64, 49. That's 292 four-ply jacks in 5 years - and no, nobody else has ever done that. Probably, nobody ever WILL. And certainly, Sosa became a legend here in Chicago, in the right field bleachers. Chip Caray got to say "belted!" hundreds of times in his behalf. The man ended his career with the astronomical total of 609 homers, and over 1,660 RBIs, the vast majority of those were in the service of the Cubby Bear. But the irony of it all is, he STILL never got the love from the baseball world at large that he always strove for, and in my case, although statistically Sammy Peralta Sosa did more for the Chicago Cubs than any other man who has ever lived: I disliked, distrusted, and dismissed him from day one.
On this date in history, especially after the news came out in early 2009 that Sosa was one of the 104 players who failed so-called "anonymous" PED testing in 2003, it is an easy position to take, to say that you mistrusted Sosa. I hated him from the start - I hated that a GM I despised, Larry Himes, shoved the great Sosa down our throats, especially when he hadn't, as of our acquisition of him, accomplished a damn thing. I hated when he attempted stolen bases at inappropriate times; I hated when he swung from his ass when a mere base hit would put us ahead.
It was clear to me in 1998 that something was amiss. Although steroids never really crossed my mind; the man was SWOLLEN, he sweated uncontrollably, and this is a man from the Dominican Republic, who ought to be used to warm weather. I don't begrudge him some dampness in St. Looie in July, but Philly in May? I saw him hit home runs in person several times in that five years. Sitting here, writing this, I am shaking my head. Other great hitters could put some distance on the ball. When he connected, the force, it was inhuman. When he hit one, unless he didn't get enough height on it, there was no way that the ball COULDN'T go out! I saw him hit a ball that struck the very top of the electronic screen in Miller Field that did serious, irrepairable damage. A 5 ounce piece of rawhide, string, and cork was propelled with such force that it bent metal over 500 feet away. No WAY that was natural.
Maybe it is enough for you, the reader, to simply accept your good fortune as a Cub fan that this Freak of Nature was pushing the laws of physics on your behalf. I'm sorry, maybe I think about things too much, read into things that I shouldn't, but Sosa's brutal power just seemed to be yet another item in his ill-begotten legacy; he was going to be the greatest slugger ever, At All Costs!
God knows I want to win a World Series as bad as the rest of you, and there are some serious costs I would pay for such a treasure. But not All Costs, and Sosa was definitely an All Costs guy.
So the man went out in the year 1998 and smashed 66 home runs, drove in an ungodly 158 RBI, battled McGwire neck-and-swollen neck for the title until the next to last day, when Big Mac swatted 4 in 2 games to leap past Sammy, 70-66. As you recall, we squeaked into the playoffs by the slimmest margin possible, even with all of those ribbies. Sosa went out the next year, slapped up 63/141/.288, and finished NINTH in the MVP race...why? Part of the reason is because the Cubs sucked - losing nearly 100 games! Most of the blame goes to the pitching staff, but Sosa always chipped in with his poor baserunning, misguided throws, and lack of situational hitting. I don't know if he felt he was exempt from fundamentals, or if he simply never bothered to learn them. But the fact remains - for all the homers and RBI in his career, teamwise he had precious little to show for it. I mentioned his 2001 season - 160 RBI, a .737 Slugging Percentage, 146 Runs Scored, even 116 walks. Possibly the greatest Cub season ever - more than Andre Dawson's 1987, Ernie Banks' 1958&1959, right up there with Hack Wilson's 1930!!
What do you notice about those five years? Yep, no titles. Not one stinkin' division.
I have heard, albeit not lately, people compare Sosa to two great names from the past, Mr. Banks and Mr. Billy Williams. Sosa played in the playoffs in 1998 and 2003, and neither Banks or Williams played in any. Therefore, Sosa is the better man!! Well, my fine Krausened friends, up until 1968, only ONE NL team made postseason play; now 4 teams make it. (Article MMCMXLVII, "The Dumbing Down of America"). And while I might be able to argue that the distraction of the Great Homer Chase of 1998 may have worked against us, that we made the playoffs in SPITE of it...well, I have tried, and failed, so grudgingly I shall give him his due.
But in 2003, Mr. Sosa was a desperate man, who besides taking PEDs, was walking to the plate with a corked bat. His production "slipped" from 64 dongs in 2001 to 49 in 2002, and he was struggling much of 2003 with his power stroke. After getting caught cork-handed in early June, he came back from a week's suspension resembling his old self, staying hot throughout July. But down the stretch that year, I remember great pitching from the starting staff; a true leadoff man who caused havoc on the basepaths, and the emergence of Aramis Ramirez as the keys to our success, not Sammy Sosa.
Of course, when his tenure ran out with us at the end of 2004, the relationship between him, the Cubs, and their parent Tribune Corporation had eroded to the point that any dignity he might have had left after 13 years was stripped away skillfully in the newspapers, radio, TV and the internet. Baseball, maybe more than any other competitive enterprise, feeds off of its own statistics. The statistics say that the three most productive offensive players in Cubs history are Cap Anson, Ernie Banks, and Sammy Sosa. Anson was the embodiment of the team for the first 50 years of its existence, and Banks was and has been Mr. Cub since 1953. Sosa was shooed out of town, with only a leaked video tape marking his departure.
Obviously, I'm not the only Cubs fan in the world who never bought his act.
In a way, it was kind of sad that when the time came, and his name finally bubbled to the surface as a PED cheat, that there wasn't a major national firestorm, like there was for Bonds, Roger Clemens, A-Rod, even Raffy Palmiero. Nobody was shocked; nobody fell to their knees crying, wondering why, oh why, Sammy? Just like most of the rest of his career, save 1998, the world shrugged its shoulders.
On the other hand...
Imagining that you, the reader, are a neutral party with no strong feelings one way or the other to Sammy Sosa, I will note to you that Rob's opinion on the subject is incredibly unpopular. There are a plentiful number of otherwise-intelligent Cub fans who will grow red with rage at the criticisms dished by Rob toward Sosa. Me, I don't hate Sammy, but I recognize him for what he was... an imperfect, heroic villain who wanted to be recognized and loved, even if his means were short-sighted and his goals were to win the small battles rather than the larger games.
But this isn't philosophy time. This is Sammy Sosa, MVP of the 1998 Chicago Cubs, chaser of Maris, putter-upper of the Nintendo Numbers, and all-around hero. His was the first jersey I ever owned (the second belonging to Ernie Banks).
Something Rob noted in his criticism is that Sammy, despite his Ruthian numbers, never won -- or even saw -- a World Series. I could be wrong, but I think that, for Rob, that's worse than Sosa getting caught with a needle. But I don't believe that Sosa's RBI were empty calories, I don't think his numbers counted for less, I merely believe that like Ernie before him Sosa was surrounded mostly by duds. Blame the Tribune for his inability to win, not him. He didn't tackle and injure any of his teammates before they evaporated in October of '98, and he wouldn't be the first -- nor last -- of Cubs to fumble in the clutch of October games.
But what he did do, and do well, was hit the holy hell out of the ball. Especially in '98, and again in '99 and '01, Sosa was a crusher. He hit 20 homeruns in June alone in 1998 -- ironically (or perhaps fittingly, ask Rob) the Cubs went 12-15 that June, despite the fact that they started the month off with 7 straight wins.
He also grated on his teammates. With his selfish play, and his boombox -- and did we mention his selfish play? -- Sosa never won the clubhouse Mr. Popular contest. But make no mistake. The Cubs would never have had the chance to lose 3 straight games to the Braves in October had Sammy Sosa not bludgened the opposition that year.
The question is, in the shadow of the positive test he gave in 2003 -- and clearly, we now have a timeline as to why he stopped producing, and started using cork, as he probably quit juicing after the test -- is 1998 cheapened somehow? Should we no longer have happy memories of past glories? I say no. Sammy wasn't clutch like David Ortiz once was, and he wasn't lovable like Ernie Banks has always been, and he wasn't a warm clubhouse presence like Rick Sutcliffe was. He didn't have to be, though.
But for those like Rob who remember the failures more than the triumphs -- because, really, what triumph can be greater than failing to win a World Series? -- cut them some slack. Sosa wasn't perfect, and his imperfections were perhaps worse than we wanted to acknowledge. Our heroes aren't so great that they don't have flaws, and our villains aren't so terrible that they have never committed a charitable act. Sosa's shoulders should be broad enough to carry both titles, hero and villian, comfortably.
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For those of you who are following along with our Cubs 101 Series, retired Goat Rider and present Hire Jim Essianer Mike Donohue -- aka Huey -- has kindly contributed some more stories to a couple of the articles that were published a few weeks ago.
We may publish his contributions as a complete article at some point in the near future,as it is lengthy and deserving. For now, though, to read his additions to the the articles about the Early 90's Chicago Cubs just follow these links:
In the great wide and varied history of the Major Leagues, the 1998 Chicago Cubs were probably one of the least qualified teams ever to have the privilege of post-season play. They did not win their division, but they had a decent lead on the Wild-Card berth, only to gag it away in the last week. It took a walk-off homer by Neifi Perez (of all people), who was stealin' from the Rockies at the time, to beat the Giants, dropping them into a one-game playoff with us for the right to face the seven-time East champion Braves in the NLDS.
But, let's all keep in mind: we are Cubs fans...and as such, we cherish and honor any and all Cubs teams that actually played meaningful games in October, and the Jim Riggleman-managed collection of phenoms, swolled-up superduperstars and castoffs from that year qualify.
Certainly the story of 1998 revolves around two key characters - the explosive debut of Kerry (Kid K) Wood, and the never-before-imagined video-game-type numbers put up by Sammy Sosa. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine a Chicago Cub ever striking out 20 men in a single game, nor did I ever imagine a Cub ever hitting 66 homers in a single season? Hell, growing up, I never imagined a Cubs team actually playing in the playoffs...when you combine ALL those things into a single memorable season, it certainly bears mentioning.
We will discuss the two fine Americans, Wood and Sosa, at length. However, when it comes to 1998, let's begin at the beginning.
You will recall the 1997 team managed to win 68 games, and finished dead last in the Central. Adding to the gloom was the sudden death of the legendary Harry Caray. The man was of indeterminate age, and partied like a whole band of rock stars. He'd had incidents in recent years, but his passing was unexpected and threw all of us, even those who didn't idolize him, into a tizzy. For all the fans who started following the team in the early 80's, it truly was the end of an era. For the rest of us, we were just worried who they were going to get to replace him. The Tribune tapped his grandson, Chip. Yay?
The major free agent splash from the year before, sMel Rojas, blew nearly as many saves as he converted, and he, along with malcontent Brian McRae and wackjob Turk Wendell were traded to the Mets for Lance Johnson, aka "The One-Dog", as he was known during his tenure with the Stockyard Sox. We also received Mark Clark, who sounded like an eponym for a second-rate superhero, but I do not recall seeing him flying over Wrigley field ever.
Ryne Sandberg retired that winter, and Shawon Dunston was traded, so our new double-play combo became former Phillie Mickey Morandini, and former Brave Jeff Blauser. Third base was first manned by prospect-turned-bust Kevin Orie, then longtime hanger-on Jose Hernandez, a man who only swung the bat one speed - hard. Teamed up with Mark Grace at first, the 1998 Cubs infield could've been (and was) the Hotel Lobby Bar Dream Team, but was not exactly overwhelming in the field. One-Dog was our leadoff man, and (Oh!) Henry Rodriguez became our latest outfield refugee from Montreal, a pipeline established by Andre Dawson and to later include Ron (DL) White and Moises (PeeHands) Alou.
We brought in professional gunslinger and human high-wire act Rod (Shooter) Beck to close out games for us that year. Shooter was an intimidating force for years with the Giants, but by 1998 he was getting it done with smoke, mirrors, and maybe some cheating too. Starters included the now-healthy Kevin Tapani, the always personable Steve Trachsel, Clark and Jeremy (or Geremi) Gonzalez, who never did quite learn to come in out of the rain.
Ahem. Coming off of a last-place campaign, the Kool-Aid drinkers expected a pennant, as usual, and the cynics expected another boring year, as usual. All anyone could talk about, besides the loss of Harry, was Wood, who just killed fools all Spring Training, yet did not come north with the Club, which prompted another manager to pick the Cubs to win the World Series. His reasoning was, if the Cubs have five better starters than Kerry Wood, they should win well over 100 games!
Well, of course they didn't, and it was only a matter of time before he got his shot. Unlike the previous year, when they ran into the early buzzsaw of the Braves and Marlins, the 1998 season started out with cupcakes like the Expos, Mets, and the gutted-out Marlins. Wood made his first start on April 12, and at that point, the Cubs were 8-3, but as mentioned, they hadn't really played anyone yet. Wood lost, but fared well enough, and it was obvious that he was ready to take his turn in the rotation.
The Cubs did not take off immediately upon Wood's arrival. In fact, once they got away from Montreal and Florida, they sunk to 4th place, around the .500 mark. It was a lot of inconsistent play - some bad pitching performances coupled with a lot of one-run efforts from the offense. Still, the club was only 4 games out of the lead on May 6th, a day on which I believe Kerry Wood did something good, if I recall. After Wood's gutting of the Astros, which was on a dreary day, there seemed to be a figurative "lifting of the clouds". Many (including the dolt in the booth) thought that the Spirit of Harry was helping us along, much like the characters in the remake of "Angels in the Outfield". The Cubs did take off from that day forward, climbing to second place in a week's time as the rest of the division stumbled, then pouring it on some more during a wildly successful late May road trip.
The first part of June was quite successful. Some guy named Sosa went absolutely ape feces that month, hitting a record 20 homers that month. The team won 10 in a row, including a sweep of the Sox in Wrigley, starting with a walk-off bomb in the 12th by Brant (OHHHHH NOOOO!) Brown in Game 1 to win 6-5. However, our interleague success did not last, as we were swept by the rest of the AL Central to finish off June.
July was a good month, as the Shooter had 14 saves in the first 26 days of the month. The last two Cub saves of July were by Terrys, Adams and Mulholland. The last day of July saw us maul the Rockies, with Wood picking up his 11th win against only five losses. However, it was soon after this point that the flamethrowing, airbending phenom shut it down due to intense elbow pain, which was triggered by Tommy John Disease, torn tendons that eventually limited what everybody thought could be a Hall Of Fame career.
August saw the early season "clouds" roll back in, as truly horrific pitching came back to Wrigley Field. Tapani was holding up his end of the deal, enroute to 19 wins. But the tattered condition of the bullpen led to a horrific move by GM Ed Lynch, as he acquired Matt Karchner from the Sux for a prospect named Jon Garland. Garland, of course, helped the trailer trash win it all several years later. Karchner didn't do diddly for us. Imagine a 2003 staff of Garland, Zambrano, Wood, Prior, Clement? This wasn't Carter-for-Sutcliffe, and we sunk well back in the NL Central. We were in a fight for the Wild Card.
The Wild Card battle, of course, was quite secondary to the daily circus that was the Great Home Run Race of 1998. There had been a few challenges over the years to the 61 homers by Roger Maris, and the experts always said that "when someone gets 50 before September, we will know there is a chance at the record falling." Sosa hit his 50th on August 23rd, and added a 51st to boot, in a blowout loss to Houston. Of course, Mark McGwire was doing the same thing in the Lou, and for a sport that had left lingering hard feelings after the 1994 owner lockout, this was excitement that (nearly the) whole country could get behind.
I guess in a way this might have been a good thing for a star-crossed franchise. If there was no sideshow, then all the pressure would have been pointed on the club itself, that a team most notably known for choking would not possibly hang tough for an entire season. The Cubs were known for "June Swoons", and if they got through June ok, then there was always a "July Swoon". In rare cases like 1969, a "September Swoon" might do us in. Of course, we did manage to succeed twice, but many credited the cool leadership of Sandberg, and Ryno was now gone. The team did well the first part of September, but few noticed while Sosa and Big Mac took aim at the record.
On September 8th, against Trachsel, McGwire broke Maris' 37-year-old record, and Sosa ran in from right field to hug it out during the break in the action. Throughout the rest of the country, grown men wept. In Chicago, or at least at my house, grown men wretched as Cubs and Cardinals hugged each other. The following weekend, we entertained the Brewers during a hot, windy stretch of weather.
It could very well have been the most entertaining series of baseball the Chicago Cubs have ever played. Pitching was optional.
We lost the first game 13-11, but at least we came back from a huge deficit to make it close, and Sosa hit his 59th. The next day we hit 6 homers, including Sosa's 60th, to win 15-12. The last day, Sosa caught up to Big Mac with his 61st and 62nd, but it took a walk-off dong by Grace to win in the 10th, 11-10. Ever since that series, a new sense of loathing between the fandom of the two close rivals caught hold. To this day, regardless of record, Cubs-Brewers serieses are always knockdown dragouts.
Sosa and McGwire seesawed back and forth for the homer lead, each new homer setting yet another single season record. In the middle of all that, we had to hook up with the Brew Crew one more time, and on the 23rd, holding precariously to the Wild Card "lead", Rod Beck entered the bottom of the ninth with a 7-5 lead. He loaded the bases, yes, but with two outs he induced a Geoff Jenkins fly out to left field, and Brant Brown camped under it and let's let Ronnie Santo take it from here...
....OHHHHHH! NOOOOOO! NOOOOOO!!!!
"He dropped the ball", you can barely hear Pat Hughes say in the background. Running with the pitch, everyone scored. Ball game, Cubs fall out of the Wild Card lead.
Game 162 was against the Astros, who ran away with the division with 102 wins. With a win, we could clinch at least a tie with the Giants for the best 2nd place record in the league. Going into the bottom of 8, we held a 3-1 lead, but Mulholland let in the tying runs score (but hey, it's a Quality start!) Inexplicably, in a year where he pitched in 81 games, Rod Beck came in the ninth, and pitched until the 11th, when he lost the game by giving up a triple to Carl (Jurassic) Everett, and a sac fly to Richard Hidalgo. Three innings for your closer, really? This ain't 1978...
However, we remained alive, thanks to Dusty Baker and Robb Nen, who gave up a homer to SuperNeifi on the second pitch of the bottom of the ninth, and we're talking Bonus Baseball, ladies and gentlemen!! Game 163's location was determined by coin flip, and I guess Harry was up there monkeying with the wind on this one too, for it came up our way.
Once again, the Home Run Chase reared its ugly head. Since stats count in games like this one, there was as much speculation about whether Sosa could pad on his 66 homer season count as there was about the prospect of going on to the NLDS. McGwire had finished up the previous day with his 70, and nobody but a damn fool thought Sosa had a chance to tie him. Anyway, what did it matter? The important thing is to win, right?
Steve Trachsel must have thought so. He redeemed himself for giving up #62 to Big Mac (although not for all the doucheworthy postgame comments he made over the years), by holding the Giants to one hit in 6 1/3rds. Tapani and Mulholland, both starters, pulled relief duty and allowed the game to get close. It is curious that Riggleman chose to press starters into duty - indicative of the lack of confidence he had in his pen, outside of the Shooter.
Speaking of Shooter, there he was at the end, his lifeless right arm drooping off his shoulder like raw meat, taking over for Mulholland with bases loaded. He induced a fielder's choice that made the score 5-3. With runners on the corners and two outs, Joe Carter came to the plate for the final time in his career, the very same Carter who was traded for Rick Sutcliffe in 1984, the very transaction that led to the Cubs' first postseason berth in 39 years. As in many things in life, according to Coach Ditka, the Circle of Life was about to close, again.
Carter ran the count to 2-2, but on the fifth pitch, the bat speed on which he made his name throughout his career finally failed him, and he weakly popped the ball about 10 feet in the air near the visitor's foul circle. All of a sudden, we finally DID see a Superhero fly through the air, but it wasn't BatMan or SuperMan...more like Lucky Strike Man!! It was noted smoker Mark Grace, in his eleventh year playing first base for the Cubs, going balls out to snag the weak pop before it hit the ground! Carter was out, the Cubs were NL Wild Card Champs, and were going to the playoffs, where anything can happen...
It is true, Wild Card teams can win it all, but we got Smoltzed in the first game, and Glavined in the second. Tapani actually carried a shutout into the ninth in Game 2, but we only managed a single run, and when Tap gave up one, and Mulholland came in the 10th, the chances that there would be an 11th inning were slim. They became none when Chipper Jones lined in a game-winning single.
Kerry Wood came back for his first game since August 31st, and pitched well in Game 3. But the psychological lift Riggleman was counting on didn't materialize against, who else, Greg Maddux. The Mad Dog put an end to our season, because that was one of the things he did best, beat the Cubs like dogs after they let him go.
Funny thing is, since we got into the postseason by the very skin of our teeth, and because of all the memorable occurrences that took place in the 1998 season, the NLDS did seem completely anticlimactic, at least to me. I felt we were heavily favored to beat the Padres in 1984, and I also felt we were at least equal to the Giants in 1989. I didn't think we had a chance against the Braves, and that is pretty much what played out. Who would have thought, therefore, that we had seen our last of Kerry Wood for over a year, or that the next time we made the playoffs, it would be against these same Braves, and the outcome would be a tad different?
It's hard to add onto the story of the '98 Cubs; Rob said enough for all of us. But in a lot of ways, it was my 1984... I was a new high school graduate, starting college, and '98 was the last summer where I had the time to just hang out and watch baseball. I can count on both hands the number of games I missed. If they weren't on WGN, I listened on WGN Radio. I followed online. It was as close to a religious experience as I ever got with baseball.
It was also the first year I got to see games in person. I'd graduated from high school on June 28th, hopped into a rented convertable, and drove to Chicago. My first game at Wrigley was on the 1st of July, the Cubs faced the Diamondbacks, Kerry Wood was on the mound, and between his 8 inning, 13-strikeout game, two wall-hitting doubles by Sammy Sosa, and an across-the-wire save by Rod Beck, it was everything I could've hoped for.
My second trip to Wrigley was that October, in Game Three of the NLDS. This time neither Sosa nor Wood could work their magic and my first -- and so far, only -- in-person Cubs playoff experience was undeniably disappointing. Still, it wasn't so shocking.
Unlike '84, and '89, I think it's safe to say that there weren't many expectations going into the '98 playoffs. The Cubs had more fallen over the finish line than even limped to get there, and whether it was the intense pressure of winning in October or the total exhaustion of getting there, the Cubs didn't stand a chance.
In many ways, '98 remains perhaps my most favorite season. It was unexpected, it was thrilling, and without the October expectations it didn't really end in disappointment. The same couldn't be said about 2003, or any other playoff season that has come and gone.
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In February of 1998 I was an 18-year-old kid getting ready to graduate high school and escape into the mysteries of adulthood. I was also, despite living in a small town in Western NY, fully immersed in the Chicago Cubs.
The previous season I'd been introduced to the thrilling, exciting world of the internet, and like the geek I am I dove right in. I quickly found myself participating in baseball chatrooms and message boards, arguing about the Cubs, alienating the older fans who had seen it all and knew better than me. And with the start of Spring Training, I was beyond anxious for the season to begin.
Earlier in the winter, the Cubs had announced a fairly big, outside-the-lines move. They were going to bring in a new third person to the announcing booth to join the team of Caray and Stone. By that point I'd already been listening to Harry and Steve for more than a decade and the games wouldn't have been the same without them. I wasn't too upset, though, to learn that the person joining the team was a third generation Caray - Chip, Harry's grandson, who would hopefully carry on the legacy after the old man retired.
Unfortunately, though, Chip was thrust into that position sooner than he should've been. While out to dinner on Valentine's Day with his wife Dutchie, Harry stumbled, fell, and hit his head on the corner of another table. He'd be rushed to the hospital and remain unconscious for four days before passing away.
More than a decade later, it's hard to describe the impact that Harry -- and the loss of him -- had on Cub fans. In many ways, he was perhaps as much an institution as the ballpark itself. The outcry surrounding his death was perhaps as great as would be the outcry were Wrigley Field to fall down tomorrow. In many ways, as an 18-year-old trying to figure out the course of my life, I was as inspired by Harry as I was by anything else when I chose communications as my field in college. I'd be shocked to learn I was the only one.
The immediate sadness of Harry's death stemmed at first from the void he left, then from the disappointment that he missed out on such an exciting season, then from the gloom of having to listen to the guy who replaced him. Chip may have had the Caray blood rushing through his veins but he was neither as likable as -- nor did he have the passion of -- his grandfather. He was a sad replacement.
Chip would try too hard to come up with his own catch phrases. Much as Harry had "it might be ... it could be! ... it is!!" Chip tried to turn "belted!" into his thing. If only half his "belted" calls weren't wasted on shallow pop flies without a chance of clearing the fence. Chip never had a "holy cow!" but he did come up with lazer beam throws from the catcher to second base. Chip never sounded like a fan, but he did sound like every other new-era broadcaster to come into the business at that time. He was Joe Buck, and a dozen other guys weened on the Fox Sports teet, but he was not Harry Caray.
Still, at least the Cubs had Steve Stone, and his wry cynicsm, his dry wit, his genius play-predictions, to keep us glued to the television during the games. For whatever reason, though, Steve developed a healthy man-crush on Chip. Perhaps the younger Caray was a friend to Steve in a way that the aloof, older Harry never was, I don't know. But Steve came to care greatly for the younger Caray, and he carried Chip those first few years he was in the booth until he was forced out due to a rash of illnesses from 2000 to 2002.
It was during that long, horrible three year span that we truly came to realize just how bad Chip was. There was nobody to pick up the slack without Steve in the booth. Chip was partnered with Joe Carter, the former player/Toronto World Series hero, and for the first time in our lives we were forced to watch Cub games with the mute button on. Caray contributed nothing, and yet somehow Carter found a way to contribute even less. Cub fans would have gladly chosen deafness over that mess. Also at that point the Cubs had stopped broadcasting almost all their games on WGN, slowly cutting the number from more than 150 games to less than 100. We were frustrated by the loss when it began in the late 90's, but I don't recall feeling so sad about the loss during the Chip and Joe era.
Thankfully Steve would return for a couple of years in 2003, but at that point it was evident... they weren't the same Cubs without Harry. For those of you who may be too young to know, or to understand, perhaps the best way to describe the difference is this:
It would be a great, if not impossible feat for me to try and watch many Cub games during seasons of mediocrity. Even with today's broadcast team, who are far better than even Steve Stone (with Chip Caray) was, I wouldn't want to watch a Cubs team I knew to be likely to lose. But I didn't have that problem with Harry in the booth. I'd watch them all day, every day. That was what Harry Caray brought to the games he called -- his passion, his enthusiasm, his demeanor, his character ... these are all irreplacable things that turned him into a ratings winner even in the long years of the mid 90's. His job has since been filled by capable men, but he will never be replaced.
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After the thrilling, unexpected run at the playoffs in 1995 and the return of Ryno in 1996, hopes were high for success that year. But the big free-agent signing, Jaime Navarro, backslid somewhat, as well as several of the performers that had, for them, career years in 1995. Hindsight being what it is, it is pretty sad that it took career years from Dunston, Grace, Navarro as well as a 30-30 year from Sosa just to win two more games than they lost. Time has also shown that the Andy MacPhail/Ed Lynch era was notable for their lip service to winning, and creating an on-field product that was competitive enough to sell tickets, yet not potent enough to actually WIN anything, thus opening them up to the risks of having to actually reward a winning team.
Nevertheless, placing ourselves in the offseason between 1996 and 1997, it was easy to believe that the spark of 1995 could return and lead to success the following year.
Moves included letting Navarro sign a free agent contract with the Sox, thus removing a clubhouse prima donna. In "return", the Cubs signed former Sox hurler Kevin Tapani. Young pitchers Steve Trachsel, Frank Castillo, Kevin Foster and Jeremy Gonzalez (aka Geremi) were given starting roles. Sosa was returning from a season-ending knee injury. The offense, which had 8 double-digit home run hitters (not counting Grace, who had 9), was expected to have punch.
The biggest off-season hole, that of closer, was addressed by the free-agent signing of Montreal's 36-save All-Star, Melaquadies "Mel" Rojas. (cue anguished screaming)
What could POSSIBLY go wrong?
The Cubs started the 1997 season with home-and-away series against Atlanta and Florida. The Braves, of course, only boasted the finest pitching staff this side of the 1970 Orioles - Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine in their ultimate prime. The fifth-year Marlins had what was called the best "young" staff in the league, with Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Alex Fernandez and Livan Hernandez. The Fish, of course, won the whole magilla that year.
As for us, we lost all ten games in the home-and-away, only coming close twice against the Braves. We were overmatched in every game. Maddux was particularly ruthless in his start against us, dispatching us 4-0 on 91 pitches in an hour-forty-seven. We had three hits and four errors that day. We then lost two to the Rockies and two more in Shea before Kevin Foster broke through for our first win of the year. That's oh-and-fourteen to start out, and while it is true that pennants are not won in April, they sure as hell can be LOST, and by April 20th, the patient was declared dead, already 10 1/2 games out of first.
Our big expensive free-agent closer, sMel Rojas? By the time he entered a game in a "save situation", it was April 24th. At that point, Rojas owned a 7.20 ERA, which WAS down from the 27 ERA he started the season with. Of course, sMel blew his first save, giving up three hits, two runs in an inning and a third. If yer really sharp, you will note that his ERA went DOWN that day, to 7.11.
Since the season essentially ended in Mid-April, many Cubs decided they no longer had to "play nice", which led to an ugly, dysfunctional clubhouse. Brian McRae took a page out of his (more talented) daddy's playbook and threw manager Jim Riggleman under the bus for his lineup decisions. Shawon Dunston had hurt his back a few years before (allegedly by picking his child up out of a car seat) and was having serious problems moving around at short, as well as staying in the lineup. His bat was one of the few potent ones, though, and Riggleman asked him to go play center for McRae. Perhaps it was teammate loyalty, but Dunston would have no part of the outfield for most of the season, before finally submitting, playing out there for 7 games, and then getting dealt to Pittsburgh. Of course, the next year, he went to San Francisco, and had a successful run in THEIR outfield.
Trachsel turned out to be one of the first "modern" pitchers, in that he would give up 5 runs and lose a game, only to come out in the papers as saying that he "made good pitches, and only make a few mistakes." He was probably the slowest workers in the game, and as a result teammates actually performed more poorly behind him (he did have more than his share of unearned runs). Wendell always fashioned himself as a "poor man's" Bird Fidrych, brushing his teeth between innings, along with his many other ideosyncracies, which would have been cute if he was the least bit successful on the mound. And, of course, this was all topped off with Sammy Sosa Boombox of Death, with he himself seething because he wasn't as well paid or famous as he thought he should be. His contract negotiations became a major distraction that year, yet he was rewarded with a four-year deal which was one of the top two in the game.
By the time the sMel Rojas Era was over in Chicago on August 7th, he had saved 13 games, blown 8 other saves, and only once (on July 14th) did his ERA dip below 4. The crosstown Sox made headlines that year for what was called their "White Flag" trade at the July 31st deadline. They dealt the heart of their staff to the Giants for six prospects, all while they were only down 3 1/2 in their division. We, on the other hand, made our big deadline move, claiming someone named Dave Stevens off the waiver wire. We were in last place, 17 games out, and we'd be sellers, if we had anything worth selling.
Our big move came on the 7th of August, and keep in mind that all participants in this trade had to clear waivers, so it was junk-for-junk, and indeed it was: Rojas, McRae and Turk Wendell to the Mets for Lance "One Dog" Johnson and Mark Clark. And you wonder why some longtime fans of the Cubs are cynical. Our one big move of the year came after the trade deadline, when teams exchange one headache for another.
And, just to spread an extra layer of misery on an already putrid sandwich, it was obviously the end of the road for legend Sandberg. Although 1997 was Ryno's worst full year, statistically, as well as on a team record basis, he actually seemed to have better timing at the plate than his first year back. In 1996, he crushed pitchers' mistakes, but was overmatched often. By this point, however, when he caught up to a mistake pitch, he hit it for doubles.
At the end of this gawd-awful season, the only reason to watch was to follow the great man in the final leg of his run, to see if he was going out with enough dignity that Hall of Fame voters would not hold his comeback against him. A few of those suckholes did in fact cite the last two years of his career as a strike against him. Of course, time has shown that Hall of Fame voters will grab ahold of any reason to avoid voting for particular players.
When he did officially retire again, and the smoke had cleared on this abortion of a season, only three Cubs had double-digit homers, and one had just retired. Tapani pitched well when healthy, which was a rare thing in 1997. Castillo was given away, Foster suffered another of the unfortunate injuries that plagued his career (and his life, as it turned out). Crowd favorite Dunston was essentially let go, and the spark of hope for 1995 was squashed, and uncertainity and gloom yet again hovered over this franchise.
Yet on the farms, seeds were planted that would bear fruit. A young Venezuelan named Carlos Zambrano was signed in 1997. A young fireballer from Texas by the name of Kerry Lee Wood had been drafted in the first round a few years earlier and was already pitching in Triple A Iowa as a scant 19-year-old. A change in direction was slowly taking shape, and a traditionally pitching-poor franchise was about to become the strikeout capital of baseball.
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Ryne Sandberg will always retain a very special place in the history of the Cubs franchise. He was the token "throw-in" that became a Hall-of-Famer. He always approached the game with single-minded intensity, from his days as a raw rookie up until his reign as the highest-paid player in the game. But foremostly, he is largely credited as the man responsible to the Cubs' return to post-season play, based on the 1984 "Ryno Game" and his MVP performance that year.
He is my all-time favorite player, so of course I have read everything about him I can possibly find, including his two biographies, "Ryno", an early-career effort, and "Second to Home", written during the raw days after his 1994 retirement and subsequent collapse of his first marriage. I have briefly run into him out in public a couple of times, but I have not taken the initative to introduce myself or try to engage him in a conversation. One reason is because I am still awestruck by him. But the other, I guess, is because he isn't what you'd call "approachable". I believe that he basically wants to live his life and play his game, and he doesn't factor his fame and what he means to the rest of us into his persona. I guess that's my nice way of saying that the Ryno is a little bit, uh, "simple".
And that's ok, as long as he's out there gobbling up grounders and smacking homers for us. Try to understand his career from his perspective: he started out as the young guy on a rising juggernaut, surrounded by winners such as Sarge Matthews, Rick Sutcliffe and Ron Cey. He is held up as the Cornerstone of the franchise (illustrated by a Nike poster of that era, the most prized possession in my basement shrine). Then he continues to cruise along in a relatively successful mode, with Andre Dawson, Greg Maddux, and the 1989 Division winning team. Suddenly, Larry Himes takes over the team, installs Sammy Sosa as the Cornerstone, purges the clubhouse of every incumbent, save himself and Mark Grace, and the franchise is run into the ground.
Then in 1993, immediately after signing the $7 million annual contract that made him the highest paid player, Ryno's hand is broken in Spring Training by a purpose pitch. Yep, a purpose pitch, in Spring Training! Talk about adding insult to injury. To a simple man who played the game with respect, this was the wrong thing to do, and it truly didn't help that he never really recovered the entire year. By 1994, Ryno felt he was playing on a losing team, for a GM who resented him, with limited strength in his recovering hand, and on top of all that, his wife was wearing her trademark corncob dress to places without him! Perhaps if he was making a mere few million a year, he would have stuck it out, but as far as I know, Ryne Sandberg is the only man I know of in MLB history who walked away from money. His ethics were such, that he didn't think he was earning his keep (and if you look at his 1994 stats, he wasn't.) When he was benched, that was the final straw. He didn't want to overstay his welcome, so he quit.
His 1 1/2 year hiatus was good for him, though. He got his thoughts out in "Second to Home". He was finally able to settle things with wife #1, reconnect with his kids, and as an extra special bonus, found himself a new wifey. Ryno was able to reflect the best he could on his place in the game. The Cubs also got rid of Himes, and at the end of the 1995 season, there appeared to be an upswing in their fortunes. Jaime Navarro was a major free-agent success in his first year, and they actually finished with a winning record. His friends Grace and Shawon Dunston openly campaigned for Ryno to come down from the stands and rejoin the team, and in the Spring of 1996, that is just what he did.
In his first year back, he once again displayed the power he had when he led the league in homers, smacking 25 long ones. However, overall his timing was off at the plate. He only hit .244 for the year, with a career-high 116 strikeouts. His OPS was .760, which was slightly below average for the league. Overall, the team backslid to 76-86, and there were whispers that perhaps coming back wasn't the best thing for Ryno to have done.
The next year, of course, was the dreadful Cubs team that started 0-14. This particular edition of Cubs featured Opening Day starters Kevin Orie, Brant Brown, and Terry Mulholland - a regular "Who's Who" of Cubs futility! It really wasn't fun to watch Cubs baseball in 1997, except for the simple fact that most if not all of us realized that, this time, this was the true Ryno swan song. For his part, his power was down, but his overall performance was an improvement over his first year back. Sandberg ended his career with a .264 batting average in 1997, and while the loss of power brought his OPS down further below the league norm, at least he did not look uncomfortable at the plate his last year.
At that point, it was time to walk away, for good, on his own terms. He showed that he could still play the game decently, with respect and pride, and he did not overstay his welcome, becoming the burden many other great players became at the end. He left with enough dignity, and in a timely enough manner, that management was able to replace him on the roster with Mickey Morandini, who himself played a big role in one of the more memorable Cubs seasons. But that's getting over our skis a bit, at this point.
Ryne Sandberg - the best second baseman of our generation. Sorry, Lou Whittaker. Suck It, Joe Morgan!
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At this point, dear reader, you may be wondering why we include this particular collection of Cubs? Indeed, the true esoteric Cub fan can appreciate the overall value of an otherwise obscure 1995 Cubs team.
If you weren't there, let's reset the scene. After the Tribune bought the club and brought in Dallas Green, the Cubs actually made the postseason in 1984, and did it again in 1989. But then Green was shoved aside by the bean counters in favor of Larry Himes, who never met a team he didn't want to dismantle and rebuild in his own image. Being left to his own devices, by 1994 the team was stripped of nearly all the recognizable, marketable names, and replaced by one free-agent bust after another. Maddux was allowed to leave. Dawson and Sutcliffe were unceremoniously dumped. Even the great Ryne Sandberg was disheartened to the point that he walked away from, what was then, the highest salary in the game.
The Winter of 1994 was a cold one in the Upper Midwest, both in reality and in terms of Cub Hope. The players were locked out of the game, and in our case, it might have been a good thing, since the Cubs finished last in their division. The roster included a slumping Rick Wilkins at catcher, a putrid mixture of Sammy Sosa and Tuffy Rhodes, Derrick May, and Glenallen Hill in the outfield. In the infield with Mark Grace were the following whiff-tastic fan experts: Shawon Dunston, Rey Sanchez, Steve Buchele and Jose Hernandez.
The offense was the stronger portion of the club. Here's your 1994 rotation: Steve Trachsel, Willie Banks, Anthony (AY dammit) Young, Kevin Foster and a 2-10, 6.69 Mike Morgan. Yes, this WAS the team that lost its first 14 home games, and small wonder.
Suffice it to say that Cub fans were not expecting anything whatsoever from 1995. When it was announced that management was considering using scabs to start the next season, many of us hoped that possibly one or two of the linebreakers might be persuaded to stick around and help us when the real play started.
This was, I believe, the first full season of the Ed Lynch era, the sourpussed ex-Met pitcher most famous in Chicago for a angry, surreal diatribe directed at Cub beat report Bruce Levine. ("Without you...I don't have a jo-o-o-ob?") Classic...anyway, while Lynch's tenure would be marred by his tendency to doubletalk (he was a lawyer, after all), he did manage to bring in a few journeymen in 1995 that led this hopeless club to an improbable run at a Wild Card slot!
Between Wilkins and acquisition Scott Servais, the catching position contributed 18 homers. Mark Grace had probably his best year as a Cub, 16/92/.326. So did Dunston. Sosa of course had 36 homers, 34 steals, and 119 RBI. Brian McRae, whose career was marked by either very good or very awful play, was very decent as a leadoff hitter in 1995, a .288 batting average, a .348 OBP, and excellent CF defense. Hernandez was probably used in his true role by Manager Jim Riggleman, platooned for maximum impact and minimal strikeouts. Riggleman, for his part, was probably so damn happy to be away from San Diego and their fire sale mentality. As in 1998, he did a decent managerial job, in particular his handling of a modestly talented bullpen. Randy Myers saved 38, and Riggs wrung performances from such names as Mike Perez, Turk Wendell, Mike Walker, Larry Casian and Young.
1995 was probably the high water mark for Cub starters Jim Bullinger, Foster, Frank Castillo, and free agent signee Jaime Navarro. After several years of utter free agent flameouts, it was refereshing to see Navarro succeed in his first year here, with a 14-6 record, a 3.28 ERA, and 200 innings pitched.
The club itself, sensing that it was freed from not only the MLB lockout, but the single-minded myopic Himes, played with a joy seldom seen in Wrigley since Green's departure. The Cubs led the Central through April and May, but slowly lost ground and spent the year struggling to stay above water. They crept to a season-low 4 games under .500 on September 21, with a series-opening loss to lowly Pittsburgh, at home, and yes, even as far back as 1995, Pittsburgh was "lowly".
We all figured that the club was defeated, after a year of epic struggling just to break even, and that they would probably lose out the string. But with ten games left in the season, all at home, with three more with the Pirates, the fellas decided "why not us?" They took the last three with Pittsburgh, then swept the Cardinals, and entered the last four-game series of the year in 3rd place, four games behind the second-place Astros, who they just happened to be playing. There was a good possibility that the second-place finisher in the Central would qualify for the Wild Card, and even though the Cubs were 11 games behind first-place Cincinnatti, and two games above .500, if they could just win four more games in a row and sweep the Astros, they could force a one-game playoff for the Wild Card. We still had a chance at postseason play on Sept. 28, 1995, one year after losing our first 14 at home!
The September 28th game was an all-timer, a see-saw affair that saw us blow a big lead, only to tie it and force extra innings. Walker gave up a run in the 10th, but Sosa hit a sac fly to tie it again. Walker then gave up a leadoff homer in the 11th, and was replaced by AY, Anthony Young, infamous for losing 16 games in a row for the Mets, and brought in as an reclamation project by the desperate Cubs. Young shut down the Astros, and in our half, Dunston got on base, made things happen with his speed, and eventually scored on a hit by Scott (I Was a Better Basketball Player Than Baseball Player) Bullett, who in turn scored on a hit by beefy third-string catcher Mark Parent. Cubs Win!
The next day was another extra inning affair, won by the Cubs with a bases-loaded seeing-eye single by Luis (pre-steroids) Gonzalez. It was THIS game, attended by the recently remarried, happy, and antsy Ryne Sandberg, that convinced him to come back to the Cubs in 1996, which is why this club is appreciated by the most esoteric of Cubs fans.
Alas, the fairytale ended the next day in another high-scoring affair. The Astros put a run over in the seventh to take the lead, 9-8. We still had three innings left, though! Certainly Riggleman could wave his magic wand one more time? However, a steady stream of pinch hitters could not overcome the final deficit, and in the end, we were eliminated on September 30th, which was far, far more than any of the most optimistic Cubs fans could have hoped for.
The more logical fan could see this team was held together by duct tape, spit and chewing gum, but with the return of Ryno in 1996, hope once again returned to the North Side.
In many ways, I consider the 1995 Chicago Cubs to be the first team of my adult life -- although I was still only fifteen years old that season.
Understand that there was very little to speak warmly about from the previous seasons. My hero Rick Sutcliffe left after a disappointing 1991 season. My all time favorite player Andre Dawson left after 1992, as did reigning Cy Young winner Greg Maddux. Ryne Sandberg quit the Cubs in disgust in the middle of the 1994 season. The last Cub playoff appearance seemed to have occurred forever ago.
Then, Andy MacPhail and his World Champion pedigree came to Chicago at the end of the '94 season. One of his first significant moves was trading for Brian McRae, a center fielder for the Royals and he followed that up by signing Jaime Navarro on April 9th. When the strike-delayed season began on the 26th, the Cubs were ready to make up for lost seasons.
The '95 Cubs were in first until June 4th. Their success came from the bats of Scott Servais and Luis Gonzalez -- acquired for the failed Rick Wilkins, not to mention the previously mentioned McRae.
For a number of years, there had been a lot of talk about the Santo curse. Between Ron Santo and Aramis Ramirez, the Cubs went through more than 100 third basemen in about 30 years trying to find a replacement. What gets less coverage is the shadow of Rick Monday -- he'd been the Cubs center fielder for five years in the 1970's. In his final season he hit 32 homeruns for the Cubs before leaving for Los Angeles (following in the footsteps of the only other memorable Cubs center fielder Andy Pafko, who was traded to the Dodgers partway through the 1951 season in the middle of his second consecutive 30-homerun season). Since Rick Monday, the Cubs have gone through more center fielders than Derek Jeter has gone through girlfriends. And while McRae would be just as short-term a solution as many others, he did shore up a weak spot for a few years.
In '95, on top of his previously mentioned .288 AVG with 12 homers, McRae hit 38 doubles, 7 triples, and had 27 steals. He was the spark, and the reason why the Cubs offense managed to create the illusion of being good for most of the season.
The other reason the Cubs surged into competition for most of the '95 season was their pitching staff. None were older than 29-year-old Jim Bullinger, and all but Steve Traschel had good seasons. Navarro would have his good year, and 26-year-old Frank Castillo would win 11 with an ERA of 3.21 while coming within an out of throwing a no-hitter (not even a reckless diving catch from Sammy Sosa could preserve the spectacle).
1995 was also the first year of realignment, and the first season with the Wild Card. And while the Cubs would fall to 15 games out of first by September 22nd, they were still within striking distance of the Rockies. While Colorado went 3-6 over the next nine days, the Cubs would rattle off 8 straight wins. They entered the final series of the season against one of the two teams they were competing with, and after beating Houston in the first two games with some high drama (winning the first game 12-11, and the second game 4-3), the Cubs needed to finish off the Astros and pull for a Giants sweep of Coloardo to make the playoffs.
Upon reflection, as a grown man, I realize just how unlikely it was. But for a fifteen year old hungry for Baseball That Matters, it was a taste of something I hadn't had since before my voice had changed.
In the end, it didn't work out. The Cubs lost the September 30th game 9-8, and the October 1st game 8-7. In both cases Houston scored late -- and last -- to get the win. The Rockies meanwhile won both of their remaining games and became the NL's first Wild Card team.
After it was all over, an emtional Harry Caray bid a tearful goodbye from the booth. "This isn't me, I'm not like this" he said. For whatever reason, perhaps feeling his age or the crush of disappointment, Harry was sobbing in the booth. Maybe the old legend knewn that he didn't have many more goodbyes to make. Whatever it was, it struck a chord with me that has never left. The 1995 season remains one of the most meaningful in my life, even though the Cubs accomplished nothing but a winning season.
Then again, they did manage one other accomplishment during that last series of the season. As Rob mentioned, watching from a luxury box in Wrigley Field was a retired and refreshed Ryne Sandberg. Apparently I wasn't alone in feeling the pull of that amazing, heartbreaking last series, because he would come out of retirement the following season. It's too bad that '96 was otherwise a total disappointment.
Let Coast to Coast Tickets get you to those Chicago Cubs games!
(with some editorial contributions by Kurt)
Being a huge baseball geek since 1979, I was aware of the Twins' two World Series titles and was immediately suspicious of them. I may have been one of the few who, when Andy MacPhail was hired by the Cubs in 1994, was unimpressed with him. History would prove me right - MacPhail did nothing in his twelve seasons to make me think my instincts were wrong.
He is a fraud. Tell your friends. Tell your neighbors. And it is just our dumb luck as Cub fans that we had to suffer through twelve years of this fraudulent management.
As for MacPhail's Reign of Terror in Chicago, well shoot. Where do you start? He burned through three general managers, one of whom was himself, who signed a thirty-one year old Todd Hundley to a four-year deal. His teams compiled a woeful 916-1011 record. MacPhail's teams finished above .500 only five times in his twelve seasons, which is also the same number of seasons in which his teams lost at least 94 games. In those twelve seasons, the Cubs failed to develope a legitmate, blue-chip offensive starter. They've wasted #1 picks on such forgettable names as Todd Noel, Ben Christansen, Luis Montanez, Bobbie Brownlie and Ryan Harvey. Most of these players are out of baseball, and some are still flailing away in obscurity, apparently no closer to real major league sucess than they were when they were drafted by Andy MacPhail's "braintrust".
When they have drafted well (usually because their own godawful seasons landed them a Top-5 pick), they haven't had any organizational skill at bringing players along. Mark Prior was gift-wrapped and, on Andy MacPhail's watch, was used, abused and put away wet by Dusty Baker and Larry Rothschild. Nobody in the organization took a proactive approach to refining Kerry Wood's delivery until it was far, far too late. They drafted Corey Patterson, rushed him to the bigs, then sent him out of town for a case of Rawlings after they successfully jerked him around. One of the few bona fide big-leaugers that the MacPhail regime did draft --Jon Garland -- was allowed to be dealt by a panic-stricken Ed Lynch -- MacPhail's right-hand man -- for a middle reliever who was out of baseball by the time Garland had arrived in the bigs.
The plan, as it appears to have been during the MacFailed Era, was that there was no plan.
The sick part of this is that the bar had been set so low for MacPhail when he arrived. His two predecessors, Larry Himes and Jim Frey, did their best to drive the franchise into the ground and yet -- and YET -- MacPhail still managed to underperform each of those bozos. With the help of a clueless Stanton Cook, Himes ran off Greg Maddux while Maddux was in his prime, and rationalized it by idiotically asserting that in acquring Jose Guzman, Dan Plesac, Randy Myers, Willie Wilson and Candy Maldonado, he was being more efficient than he would have been had he re-signed his reigning Cy Young Award winner. Sheer stupidity. Himes also fired his first managerial hire -- Jim LeFebrve -- after LeFebrve had led the Cubs to only their third above-.500 season in 21 years. Having alienated pretty much everybody in the organization, Himes was shown the door after three seasons in 1994.
Himes was preceeded as general manager by Jim Frey. Frey, who managed the aforementioned 1980 Royals to their first-ever American League pennant, and led the Cubs to their first postseason in 39 years when they won the NL East in 1984, turned out to be disastrous general manager. One of the first moves Frey made was dealing his '84 closer, Lee Smith, for Calvin Schiraldi and Al Nipper, two pitchers whose contributions to the Cubs would be minimal, at best.
Sure, Frey's 1989 Cubs team won the NL East, but this was almost entirely due to the outstanding, young nucleus that his predecessor, Dallas Green, had assembled -- Ryne Sandberg, Rick Sutcliffe and Scott Sanderson had been Cubs since Green traded for them, and Shawon Dunston, Greg Maddux, Mark Grace, Les Lancaster, Damon Berrhill and Joe Girardi were Green draft picks. Like Andy MacPhail's pickup of Jeff Reardon in 1987, Jim Frey's one helpful move was the acquisition of a closer -- Mitch Williams. However, in acquiring Williams, Frey dealt two other talented picks of Green's--Rafael Palmeiro and Jamie Moyer. While Palmeiro went on to hit 500 home runs (with a little help, of course) and Jamie Moyer went on to win more than 250 games, Mitch Williams was dealt out of the Cubs organization two seasons after he was acquired.
By the time Jim Frey was canned in 1991 -- his ill-advised free agent signings of oft-injured Danny Jackson and over-the-hill Dave Smith were the last straw -- all of the work that Dallas Green had put into the farm system had turned to dust. Suffice to say, Jim Frey only required four years to quash any momentum that the franchise had built under Green. Larry Himes merely shovelled more dirt on the mess.
And yet as bad as Jim Frey and Larry Himes were, even they were not as bad as Andy MacPhail has been. MacPhail has managed to do worse than both Himes and Frey. No easy task, to be sure.
As general manager, Larry Himes' winning percentage was .483 (211-226). Jim Frey's record was actually above .500, as his teams, bolstered by the '89 club, went 324-322. Combined, in seven seasons (or, a little more than half the time that MacPhail has been in charge) the Frey and Himes regimes collectively went 535--548, for a .494 winning percentage. Andy MacPhail's Cub teams went 916-1011. A .475 winning percentage after twelve seasons work is hardly the work of a genius. The fact that he cannot measure up to proven losers like Frey and Himes is bad enough -- but the fact that he has had more resources to spend than not only Himes and Frey, but Dallas Green as well, and underperformed them all is beyond appalling.
But not nearly as appalling as the fact that he remained in charge of the club for as long as he did.
Had he not been fired after the 2006 season, it would have taken MacPhail until 2008 to notch his 1,000th victory with the Cubs -- two years after he'd gotten his 1,000th loss. Perhaps some of the inert fatheads at Tribune Tower (*cough**dennisfitzsimons**cough*)-- should have asked the question:
"If Jim Frey could be fired after four seasons, and Larry Himes after three, how on earth can Andy MacPhail still be employed by the same organization for twelve seasons?"
It's a legitimate question but one that, apparently, was never asked by anybody in power as he never was fired; rather he resigned.
Clearly during his tenure Andy was a popular guy at Tribune Tower. Thanks to the Cubs' carnival barker John McDonough, who had been with the organization since those halcyon Dallas Green Days, the Cubs were able to make money in the marketing department to mask the failure of the front office. Still, shouldn't that have been painfully embarassing to Andy MacPhail? That this third-generation baseball man will go down as a more valued advertising executive than a baseball man? That he's proven to be nothing more than a latter-day PK Wrigley?
It never mattered to Andy, though. Where there should have been pride, there was only blinding arrogance. He was more secure than any executive with his track record had a right to be -- and his departure from Chicago merely landed him into a cushy job with Baltimore.
And the Cubs, desperate to cover the steaming pile that he left behind, took the only route available to them -- they threw piles of money at a handful of players, buying short term success but failing to fix the long term problems. That's the legacy MacPhail left -- failure, losing, and continued disappointment.
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