Goatriders of the Apocalypse

Cubs 101

warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/managed/grota/drupal/modules/taxonomy/taxonomy.pages.inc on line 33.

Cubs 101 - Pt 35 - The End of a Cubs Era

Brought to you by Coast to Coast Tickets!
At this point the departure of Greg Maddux has been covered ground.  Still, before we step into the wondrous realm of the MacPhail Rebuilding With Hope years, the loss of the greatest right handed pitcher in decades deserves one final reflection.

Greg Maddux was amazing.  Overlooked early in his career because of his size, by the time he was 22-years-old he went from his auspicious 8-18 start to an 18-8 season.  It wouldn't be until he was 39-years-old that he would have fewer than 15 wins in a season.

In his final season with the Cubs, 1992, Maddux went 20-11.  How he lost 11 games is a mystery perhaps solved through an in depth look at just how terrible the Cubs offense was. 

Put it to you this way -- his ERA in wins that year was 1.69.  His ERA in losses was 3.29.  For comparisson, in 2008 Cubs pitcher Ted Lilly won 17 games with an ERA of 2.96 -- a scant .33 runs lower than Maddux's.  And most pitchers -- Lilly, for example -- have extremely high ERAs in games they lose.  That Maddux suffered 11 losses with a 3.29 ERA is absurd.

So, maybe it's not a shocker that he left.  As a 12-year-old kid, I felt betrayed by the departure.  Worst of all, whenever the Cubs played him he'd kick their asses.  Maddux would retire with a 12-4 record against the Cubs, including a 2.65 ERA.  There would be other teams he'd win more games against, but against teams in which he'd throw 100 or more innings, he'd never win as often as he did against the Cubs -- 75% of all decisions, in fact.

In some ways, Maddux is the ace the Cubs have never replaced.  They've had flashes of brilliance from pitchers like Wood (who never even managed to win 15 in a sason) or Prior (pretty much a one pump chump), but nobody -- including Carlos -- has been able to pitch as reliably as he.

It's hard to imagine what the 90's would've been like with Maddux in a Cubs uniform -- maybe they would've never drafted Wood, perhaps Sandberg would've never quit -- but it's hard to believe things would've been worse for them. 

Find the Chicago Cubs schedule at Cubs 101 sponsor Coast to Coast Tickets!

Cubs 101 - Pt 33 - Larry Himes, Destroyer of Dreams

Brought to you by Coast to Coast Tickets!
Jim Frey’s successor, Larry Himes, had been fired by the crosstown White Sox the previous season, despite having drafted—in four consecutive first rounds—Jack McDowell, Robin Ventura, Frank Thomas, and Alex Fernandez.  Those four would comprise the nucleus of the eventual AL East division winning Sox in 1993, but by then Himes was on the North Side, proving that either A) his drafting success with the Sox was dumb luck or B) he was still on the Sox payroll, sent to sabotage the Cubs.  One of Himes’ first moves with the Cubs  proved to be the only one of value—trading an aging Bell to his old employer for Sammy Sosa.  Other than that, though, the Himes Era proved to be a bigger disaster than Frey’s.

No matter who was in charge, of course, the die had been cast.  The expense invested in personnel was not to be excessive.  Though the Cubs were in a major-market and they drew a healthy attendance, the Tribune management had put the brakes on big-time spending.  After all, the thinking went, why spend so much money  to field a winner if the fans were going to show up anyway? The one major exception to this mindset was when the team committed to star second baseman Sandberg prior to the 1992 season.  In signing Sandberg to a $28.4 million extension, the Cubs made him, at the time, the highest-paid player in baseball.  But even this had as much to do with marketing as it did with performance.  Sure, Sandberg was future Hall of Famer who was still playing at a high level, but more significantly to the Tribune, he was the face of the franchise, the one player around whom the team could most easily market.  Letting him go would be as much a marketing disaster as it would be a personnel disaster.  In re-signing Sandberg, Cubs management was ensuring that many of the fans who came out to Wrigley Field for the experience would be able to see a player who, over the course of the previous decade, had become as much a part of the experience of going to Wrigley Field as the sunshine and ivy.

The ’92 Cubs turned out to be another mediocrity—not awful, but not in serious contention either.  Their 78 wins in 1992 had come on the heels of back-to-back 77 win seasons in 1990 and 1991.  In spite of nearly typical seasons from Mark Grace and Andre Dawson—as well as a 20-win, Cy Young Award-winning season out of Greg Maddux—the Cubs never challenged for divisional supremacy.  A three-game sweep of two-time defending champs Pittsburgh at the end of July provided some brief hope, but it was short-lived and for the third straight season, the Cubs played meaningless baseball in September.

Following the ’92 season, management executed what would turn out to be the biggest blunder in player personnel in 25 years of Tribune ownership.  In spite of winning the Cy Young Award—and completing a five year run wherein he had won 87 games—Maddux, still only 26 years old, was allowed to walk away in Free Agency following the season.  Thanks to the blinding arrogance of Himes and CEO Stanton Cook, the Cubs let go of their ace pitcher for nothing, and fans of the team would watch helplessly as Maddux became the premier pitcher in the world throughout the remainder of the decade while pitching for Atlanta.

Of course proving the point that management could count on the fans showing up in spite of what moves they made or didn’t make, the Cubs set a an attendance record when 2,653,763 fans came to the park in 1993.  Indeed, although the team had unceremoniously dumped Maddux and Dawson, this had no effect on fans’ decision to come go to games—further proof that, unlike most every other sports franchise, the Cubs didn’t need to build a winner in order to draw.  Yes, the Cubs actually finished above .500 (84-78) for only the third time since the early 70’s in 1993, but this was due in part to an 18-9 September, which was credited to the players’ fighting to save the job of second-year manager Jim Lefebrve.  As it turned out, this effort turned out to be in vain as Himes—following a pattern of going against the grain and exhibiting an almost pathological and ultimately self-destructive contrarianism—fired Lefebrve anyway.  In firing his first managerial hire, Himes of course was leaving himself with a lot less wiggle room as the Cubs headed into 1994.

On Opening Day 1994, Tuffy Rhodes—acquired by Himes late in 1993 for Paul Assenmacher—famously began his season by homering in each of his first three at bats—all against New York’s Dwight Gooden.  This would turn out to be the high point of the season for not only Rhodes, but the team.  In fact, the Cubs didn’t even win the game, losing 12-8.  The Cubs followed up this loss by losing the final two games against the Mets and ended up losing their first TWELVE home games of the season, finally winning on the final game of their third homestand of the season.  Again, though, while the fans may have been disgusted—who can forget when Himes forced manager Tom Trebelhorn to hold court at the firehouse on Waveland with a collection of angry and disgusted fans after losses?--they still showed up.  28,103 fans on average attended those first twelve losses--this in spite of the fact that seven of those twelve games were weekday afternoon games…in April!

1994 was when the bottom fell out for the Cubs.  The decade started with high hopes in 1990, but quickly regressed to steady mediocrity.  From 1990-1993, the Cubs’ average record was 79-83.  In ’94, however, bolstered by the 0-12 start at home, they weren’t even part of the mediocre glut—they were horrible.  The young nucleus of the ’89 division winners—Walton, Smith, Berryhill, Girardi and Maddux—were all gone.  Dawson was gone.  On June 13th, their marquee player—Sandberg—suddenly announced his retirement.  On the date, the Cubs were 23-37, and 11.5 games out of first place.  On this date, the only two players from the NL East division winners from merely five years earlier that were still on the club were Grace and Dunston.

Cub fans may have been the only ones glad to see the season prematurely end on August 12th from the players strike.  On that day the Cubs were 49-64, on pace for a 92 loss season.  Yet in spite of a .434 winning percentage and only 59 home dates, the Cubs managed to draw 1,845,208 to Wrigley.  Still, the Tribune management had to at least pretend that they were unhappy about the results on the field, and thus fired the irascible Himes after the truncated season—their third axing of the position in seven years.

In five short years the Cubs had gone from a young, up-and-coming division winner to a team in disarray with the second-worst record in the National League.  However, things could not be better in the Tribune boardroom for, in spite of the team’s on-field aimlessness, this period in time also had ushered in the concept of Wrigley Field as a cash cow, regardless of the team’s performance. 

Kurt
When Larry Himes came to the Cubs from the White Sox in October of 1991, probably nobody knew exactly how destructive a force he would be on the organization.  I suppose that, upon reflection, he shared Dallas Green's negative-if-not-condescending opinion about the "tradition" of the Cubs -- he saw the team as his to make, favorite players be damned.  In his short tenure he burned bridges with players and broke the hearts of fans through his egotistical, bungling, ridiculous moves.  And even the one genius move he will always be remembered for will probably be seen as less-than-genius by the guys who actually had to play with Sammy Sosa. 

When Himes came to the Cubs, his first moves were to wave goodbye to oft-injured fan favorite Rick Stucliffe.  Sut was replaced in the rotation by free agent acquisition Mike Morgan, best known at the time for his One Good Season the previous year with the Dodgers.  Himes also signed -- and released -- Jamie Moyer (oops), and on the eve of the 1992 season he dealt George Bell to the White Sox for his favorite player, Sammy Sosa.

With the White Sox, Himes had already acquired Sosa once before from the Rangers.  On the surface this was a brilliant trade.  Bell would be out of baseball by 1994 while the kid who once shined his shoes -- Sosa -- would go on to hit more than 600 homeruns.  The only problem is that from the first day until the last Sosa grated on his teammates.  He alienated them with his ridiculous haircut.  He annoyed them with his constant talk of money, even in the dugout during games.  He pissed them off with his drive to inflate his stats.  He ... well, we'll have plenty of time to discuss the merits and demerits of Sosa another time. 

The point is, Himes was building his team his way and he didn't care who he pissed off while doing it.  The only problem was that he was short-sighted.  He was so set on being right that he failed to recognize how ridiculously wrong his moves were.  The worst of them?  December 9th, 1992 -- Greg Maddux, the reigning Cy Young winner, signed with the Atlanta Braves.  This occurred on the heals of Himes's choice to let go of Andre Dawson.

In short order, Himes built the 1993 Cubs off of the carcass of the money that had been earmarked for his ace.  He acquired a lefty starter in Greg Hibbard from the Marlins, followed by signing Jose Guzman to a 4 year, 13+ million dollar deal (of which Guzman would spend 3 seasons on the DL).  He then wasted more than 3 million over 2 years on Dan Plesac, who would have a 4.68 ERA while with the Cubs, followed by a move for ace closer Randy Myers -- this one was okay -- and, perhaps worst of all chose to replace the Hawk with a guy named Candy. 

Maddux earned roughly 6 million a year with the Braves in '93 and '94.  Just think -- Himes spent 7 million a year on Guzman, Plesac, and Maldanaldo alone.  I think we'd all agree that the Cubs would have been better off with the one instead of the three.

Thanks in part to the surprise 30 homerun year of catcher Rick Wilkins and the emergence of 30-30 man Sammy Sosa, coupled with the workman-talents of an aceless rotation, the Cubs managed to win 84 games in 1993.  It must have been a small consolation for Cub fans who got to watch Maddux pitch in the first of his 12 playoff appearances with the Braves.

By 1994, the Himes Empire began to collapse.  The pitching staff went from competent to impotent while the offense evaporated.  Ryne Sandberg, who in 1993 had signed what was briefly The Largest Contract in Baseball never managed to put his season together.  Frustrated with himself, his family situation, and Himes, Sandberg quit in disgust 57 games into the '94 season. 

It was all over for Himes soon after the strike began, although the damage had already been done.  On September 9th, 1994, the Cubs hired former Twins executive Andy MacPhail to take over as president and CEO of the team.  Like Jim Frey before him Himes was reassigned within the organization and his dreadful reign over the Cubs finally came to an end. 

Still, consider the fruits of his labors.  In his three-season control of the organization, Himes disposed of Rick Sutcliffe, Andre Dawson, Joe Girardi, Greg Maddux -- and, through attrition Ryne Sandberg -- while bringing in the most polarizing player in the recent history of the organization.  He inherited a cannibalized mess and did little more than destroy the few remaining worthy parts. 

But here's the amazing thing.  It's been almost fifteen years since Himes was let go.  In that time, Andy MacPhail swooped in and promised a change he would not deliver.  Knowing that MacPhail would be a failure, I'd still take him and the mess he made over the one created by Himes. 

Larry Himes was that bad.  Mike would disagree, but even in retrospect he makes MacPhail look like a freakin' genius.

Sponsored by baseball ticket broker Coast to Coast Tickets.

Cubs 101 - Pt 32 - Jim Essian Hired?


Brought to you by Coast to Coast Tickets!
As the Cubs entered the decade of the 1990’s, optimism was running high.   Having won their second divisional title in six seasons--which, relative to the nearly-four decade postseason drought which preceded this period, marked a distinctive success for the franchise--the franchise felt that better days were ahead.  This was bolstered by the fact that the 1989 division winners had an incredibly young and talented nucleus.  Greg Maddux, Mark Grace, and Shawon Dunston were joined by an in-his-prime Ryne Sandberg as well as proven veteran Andre Dawson.  The reigning Rookie of the Year heading into 1990 was a Cub—Jerome Walton, and he was joined by the runner up for the award, Dwight Smith.

Alas, everything is not always as it seems.  As every single one of the above players had been acquired by General Manager Dallas Green either by draft (Maddux, Grace, Dunston, Walton, Smith, Damon Berrryhill, Joe Girardi, Les Lancaster) trade (Sandberg) or Free Agency (Dawson), the fact that Green had now been gone for over two years would prove to cripple the team as the decade wore on.  A hint of this was displayed prior to the 1989 season when Green’s successor, Jim Frey—Field Manager of the ’84 Cubs for Green—traded away two other Green-produced players, Jaime Moyer and Rafael Palmeiro, to the Texas Rangers.  While this trade netted the Cubs a very important piece for the 1989 division winner—closer Mitch Williams—it came at a pretty high cost, and would serve as merely one example of the moves made by the post-Green Cubs front office that would set back the franchise for most of the decade.

The feeling around the ballpark, however was different.  While the Cubs sputtered and stuttered, the businesses around the neighborhood that enveloped Wrigley Field thrived—in fact, one could point to the early 1990’s as the period in time when winning became secondary to attendance, as fans were as eager—if not moreso--to see the historic ballpark and enjoy the trappings of the area before and after the games as they were to watch a first-rate baseball team.  This would, ironically, be traced to winning in the first place.  In 1984, the Cubs had ended a 39-season postseason drought and, in the process, set a Wrigley Field attendance record as 2,107,655 people came through the turnstiles.  By the time they had won their second division 5 years later, the entire landscape had changed.  Whereas the neighborhood around Wrigley in the early 80’s had grown a little sketchy and benefited from the fact that the absence of lights minimized ay potential danger by having all of the games take place during the day, by 1989 the area had become a destination.  Lights had been installed in 1988 and, contrary to the fears expressed by the community organizations that protested it, contributed to the gentrification of the neighborhood.  The neighborhood even got its own unofficial moniker—“Wrigleyville”.  As the 1990’s progressed, the Cubs were mired in an annual state of mediocrity, and yet attendance at Wrigley Field never suffered.  While the 2 million + mark in attendance had never been hit prior to 1984, it was surpassed in every non-strike season in the 1990’s, in spite of the fact that the team was rarely, if ever, in contention.  The 1993 Cubs, despite not having been in serious contention the entire season, set a franchise mark—which would later be broken—with an attendance of 2,653,763.  In fact, the early 90’s was the time when marketing guru—and future president—John McDonough was as valued an executive of the Cubs as the General Manager.

On the field the disintegration of the carefully-constructed Dallas Green organization was  taking place.  The Cubs followed up their division-winning season in 1989 by going 77-85 in 1990.  Williams, their closer, went from 36 to 16 saves, and would be dealt prior to the following season for Chuck McElroy and Bob Scanlan (for those of you keeping score, Moyer and Palmeiro would lead to McElroy and Scanlan).  Walton showed up in Spring Training in 1990 looking like he had taken every opportunity to celebrate his Rookie of The Year accolades by eating everything in sight.  The positives were a bounceback season for Andre Dawson, whose worst season had been, ironically, during the Cubs’ division winner the year before, a Rookie of the Year runner-up in Mike Harkey (another example of the lasting strength of the now long-gone Green regime, as Harkey had been Green’s last first round draft choice in 1987) and Ryne Sandberg, who would become the first second baseman to lead the league in home runs since Rogers Hornsby had done so 65 years prior.

Heading into the 1991 season, hoping to recapture the magic of 1989, Frey went out and made a splash in the free agent market and signed pitchers Danny Jackson, Dave Smith and outfielder George Bell.  Of the three only Bell would pay dividends.  Jackson would make only 14 starts and go 1-5 and Smith was a disaster from the outset, blowing three consecutive saves in a late-April stretch that went a long way toward sabotaging the season.  Manager Don Zimmer was fired before June, but things did not improve under Zimmer’s successor, Jim Essian.  By this point the Tribune Company had begun to notice that the fans seemed to come out to Wrigley Field regardless of the performance of the team, and decided to make Frey pay for his failed investments in personnel by firing him after the season.

Kurt

The early 90's were a tumultuous time for the Cubs as the team was a mix of have and have-not players. The 1990 Cubs, for example, saw Greg Maddux fully assume the role of ace-hood -- even though he managed only a 15-15 season -- while the Cubs turned to 14 other pitchers to start games. Included in that list of 14 is closer Mitch Williams -- whose career as a Cubs starter includes a 9.95 ERA over the span of 2 starts -- and relievers Les Lancaster and even Paul Assenmacher. (As a starter Assenmacher -- who posted a 2.38 ERA in relief that year -- lasted 1 inning and surrendered 4 earned runs.)

The problem stemmed from the failure of Mike Bielecki to repeat on his 18-win 1989 season (he went 8-11 with an ERA of 4.93) coupled with a serious injury to Rick Sutcliffe (who'd only pitch 5 games and win 0 in 1990) mixed with a dash of the failure of Mitch Williams to reliably save games along with the team's inability to improve at all upon the offense that got them to the playoffs in 1989. In other words, shit hit the fan and the Cubs got covered in it. Still, they managed to win 77 games which, under the circumstances, is actually fairly impressive.

1991 was more of the same -- except this time Jim Frey went out and "improved" the team. He signed free agents George Bell to play left field and protect Andre Dawson in the lineup, not to mention former 23-game-winner Danny Jackson to provide a reliable arm in the rotation along with long-time Astros closer Dave Smith to shore up the bullpen.

The only problem was that most of those guys sucked. Jackson, the "big name pitcher" of the bunch had won a combined 12 games the previous two seasons while losing 17. He'd continue the trend with the Cubs in 1991, going 1-5 with an ERA of 6.75 while earning 2.65 million -- a fairly hefty salary back then (gawd I feel old). Dave Smith, meanwhile, would accomplish the improbable task of being even less reliable than Williams had been, saving 17 games with an ERA of 6.00 while earning 1.9 million for the Cubs. And George Bell managed 25 homeruns and 86 RBI in his single season with the Cubs, although his biggest impact would occur in the off season.

Consequently, the '91 Cubs would only turn to nine starting pitchers en route to their second consecutive 77 win season. Then, on May 19th following a 2-1 victory over the Phillies Don Zimmer was fired and the Cubs would turn to Jim Essian to guide them the rest of the season.

Essian, a former player, had been a coach in the Cubs system before receiving the call to manage at the major league level. For reasons beyond explanation he preferred his players to refer to him as "Skip." The Cubs would start Essian's reign as manager with a five-game winning streak. By June 14th they were 31-29, 6.5 games out of first, and at a moment in which they could have been poised to narrow the gap and compete as we'd hoped they would, they instead embarked on a 9-game losing streak that they'd never really overcome.

Essian, meanwhile, was given a two year contract to manage the team -- a contract the Cubs would not honor. They let him go at the end of the disappointing season, along with reassigning Jim Frey to a position in which his decisions did not result in the disposal of half a dozen future Hall of Fame-caliber players. Essian would then join a long list of former Cub managers on the bread line as he would never manage at the major league level again. (The Never Manage Again Streak began with Gene Michael, who'd be fired only to never work again in 1987, and includes Frank Luccheski, Don Zimmer, Joe Altobelli, Essian, Jim Lefebvre, Tom Trebblehorn, and would end with Jim Riggleman who went almost a full decade without managing before the Mariners turned to him half way through the 2008 season.)

In other words, two years after their second divisional title in half a decade, the Cubs went out and signed a bunch of bust free agents, fired their manager, re-assigned their GM, and then -- with the hiring of former White Sox GM Larry Himes -- their troubles began.

Don't miss Cubs playoff tickets - bookmark Coast to Coast Tickets!

Cubs 101 - Pt 31 - The Great Talent Drain


Along with billy goat curses, black cats, day baseball, and bespectacled yuppies with a lack of spatial awareness, one of the more compelling arguments behind the lack of Cubs success the past, oh, 75 years or so has been the poor performance of their farm system.  It is true that throughout P. K. Wrigley's ownership, he did not make the farm system a priority.  I have never figured out, though, how the "1969 Cubs" managed to emerge from the cesspool, for except for Fergie Jenkins, that was a homegrown bunch.

However, with the arrival of the Tribune and Dallas Green, for the first time since the Thirties, the farm system became a priority.  Remember that, prior to 1984, home attendance revenues were paltry compared to most other teams.  Most other teams had stadiums that held upwards of 50,000, so if they drew to 50% of capacity, they drew over 2 million.  In those days, yearly attendance of 1 million was cause for great celebration at 1060 W. Addison.  So, oddly enough, Green saw the Cubs as a "small market" team.  The "market" itself was big enough, but the "revenues" were not.  As we well know, the best plan for the "have-nots" is to build from the farm.

Green was in the catbird seat in his first draft - the #1 overall pick was shortstop Shawon Dunston.  He also spent first round picks on guys named Tony Woods and Stan Boderick.  No, I never heard about them either until I looked them up.  His #1 picks the next three years were P Jackie Davidson, P Drew Hall, and OF Rafael Palmiero.  Generally, Green hit about .333 in the "first innings" of drafts.  A few guys (Dunston, Derrick May, Mike Harkey) had decent careers, a few (Davidson, Hall, Ty Griffin) were total busts, and then you have Raffy.

It was clear from day one of his major league career that Palmiero was special.  Yes, he ended his career in infamy, smeared by steroids.  Maybe part of his motivation was this: upon coming up with the Cubs, the man had innate plate discipline, incredible bat control, and solid baseball instincts.  But he was dogged in the press from the start for what was termed a "lack of power".  No, he did not hit home runs in bunches for us.  But his first two seasons with the Cubs, when he was 21 and 22 years old, in 300 ABs, he hit 19 doubles, 17 home runs, and 42 RBI.  Sounds like enough power to me.  The one statistic about Raffy that has stuck with me to this day?

In 1986, when he was 21, in 78 plate appearances, he swung and missed exactly ONCE.  One time.  Uno.

So he, like Barry Bonds, did not NEED PED's to be successful in the big leagues.  It would be another twelve years or so until another guy with his kind of batting skill would break into the MLB, guy named Pujols.  And WE developed him.

Know who else we developed in the mid 80's, besides Raffy, Dunston, and Harkey?  Greg Maddux, of whom you've heard about.  Also Joe Carter, who actually was drafted the year the Cubs were sold, but whose name will always be linked with Rick Sutcliffe in Cubs lore, since they were traded for one another.  Jamie Moyer, who as of this writing is still laboring as a 'crafty lefty' for the Phillies, came up along with Maddux in 1986.  Mark Grace, Mr. Slumpbuster himself, came up in 1988.  Jody Davis, an all-star catcher and key to the 1984 Division winner, was also home grown, as was his replacement, Damon Berryhill.

Dave Martinez, who ended up crafting himself a nice career as a fourth outfielder, was one of ours.  Big Lee Smith, of whom it is impossible to refer to without the "Big" qualifier, was actually a 1975 draftee, but was one of ours.  The final fruits of Green's labors became ripe in the 1989 Division winning season, as a rash of injuries caused manager Don Zimmer to bring up a squadron of young Cubs farmhands, including ROY Jerome Walton, Dwight Smith, Joe Girardi, Garry Varsho and Darrin Jackson.

So, to recap: the Cubs farm system bore infielders Grace and Dunston, outfielders Palmiero, Carter, Martinez, Walton, Dwight Smith, catchers Davis, Berryhill and Girardi, Greg Maddux, Jamie Moyer and Lee Smith.  Throw in Ryne Sandberg (why not?  The Phillies did) and hindsight being 20/20, but it looks to me like a totally home-grown nucleus of a dynamic team.  No 50-homer guys, but lots of line-drive impact hitters, speed, great fielding, along with a staff ace, a wily lefty with durability, and an intimidating closer.

The Cubs should have been loaded for success, like the "1969 team" for five or six years, from about 1988 to up to the mid-nineties, with a few free agent acquisitions to fill in at third base and the back-end of the rotation.

Of course, the talent drain started when the original plan was scrapped, when the Cubs made the shift in 1984 from "have-nots" to "haves", when Carter was traded for Sutcliffe.  Sure, we "won" that trade in the short-term.  Sut won the Cy Young in 1984, should have won it in 1987 and made a case the next two years after that.  But Carter became an offensive force for the next decade.

From there, our "winning" record on trades took a plunge.  Beginning with the dumping of Lee Smith in 1987, a trade made as much in the local papers as it was made in the club offices, Cubs management totally scrapped their plan of development from within, and as a result doomed the franchise to yet another decade of futility.

Kurt Evans
As Rob pointed out, it was perhaps the trade of Lee Smith -- if not that of Joe Carter -- that began the Great Talent Drain.  After all, take a look at those players again. 

Lee Smith -- dealt in 1987 for Al Nipper and Calvin Shiraldi, two pitchers who would be gone from the Cubs before 1990.  Smith meanwhile would close successfully into the mid 90's.

Joe Carter and Mel Hall -- dealt in 1984 for Rick Sutcliffe.  Carter would be best remembered as the RBI machine who hit a Series-winning homerun while with the Blue Jays against ex Cub Mitch Williams.

Speaking of Williams, he was acquired as a "makeup" move for the loss of Lee Smith.  The price on Mitch?  Drew Hall and two players with Hall of Fame caliber numbers -- Jamie Moyer and Rafael Palmeiro.  Williams, meanwhile, would be done as a Cub by the end of 1990, as would pretty much every other player acquired from Texas in the trade.

Dave Martinez would be traded in 1988 for Mitch Webster, who would leave Chicago after the '89 season.

Damon Berryhill would be ruined by injuries and traded from the Cubs in 1991.

Joe Girardi would be claimed in an expansion draft, only to return to Chicago well past his prime nearly a decade later.

Mike Harkey -- who Rob failed to mention -- would have one good season for the Cubs before suffering a career-wrecking injury, the result of a stupid backflip. 

And, of course, perhaps the hardest drain of all -- Greg Maddux was chased from the Cubs, his recently won Cy Young trophy in hand, by Larry Himes after the 1992 season.

But hey, it bought us 1984, and 1989, and a lot of mediocrity in the early 1990's.  It's amazing to see the house that Green nearly built and how quickly his predicessors were able to swoop in and demolish it.  But a strongly-stocked Cubs farm system became quickly barren after he left and the many fruits of Green's labors bloomed elsewhere ... except for Grace and Dunston, who would stick around for the longest.  But while those two were talented, fun to watch, and -- at their best -- All Stars, the men the Cubs lost were giants. 

In many ways, the organization has yet to recover from their loss.

Let Coast to Coast Tickets get you to those Chicago Cubs games!

Cubs 101 - Pt 30 - The Boys of Zimmer

Brought to you by Coast to Coast Tickets!
I became a Cubs fan around 1987, when Andre Dawson came to town.  But while I would follow the team occasionally as a kid, probably the first year where my interest became intense was 1989.  That was the year everything just clicked for the Cubs, where a number of average players had career years, where every role-player actually did his job, where I became flat-out obsessed with the team.

Blame Jim Frey for giving away the kingdom for a bauble, but it was one hell of a bauble at that.  The team was young -- six offensive regulars were under the age of 30, as were three starters (with Mike Harkey waiting in the wings), and no regular in the bullpen was over the age of 28, and Don Zimmer was the gruff old skipper who'd make it all happen on the field.

Born in 1931, Zimmer was 57 years old when he took over the managerial reigns in 1988.  He brought with him a lifetime of baseball acumen, including more than a thousand games as a player and by then better than 1,200 games as a skipper.  By today's standards we'd probably hate him -- he was a guy who went with his gut, trusting instinct over stat, and while his coaching style would be outdated now he's probably somebody who'll work in baseball until the day he drops.  And in '89 everything worked in his favor.  He should probably thank Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith for a lot of it.

In 1988, the Cubs had traded for Mitch Webster, one of many former Expos who would have some play-time on the Cubs.  Webster was unimpressive, a career .263 hitter who'd do a servicable job as the 4th (or 5th) outfielder.  Still, he was almost certainly the projected starting center fielder in 1989 until Jerome Walton came along.

Walton was a 23-year-old second round selection in 1989.  In Spring Training - in which the Cubs bombed, by the way - Zimmer had asked Walton if he thought he could hit .250 in the majors.  Walton responded by saying "I could bunt .250."  He'd wind up doing better than that - in 475 at bats Walton hit .293, smacking 23 doubles, 3 triples, 5 homers, and stealing 24 bases from the leadoff spot.  By today's standards his .335 OBP is mediocre at best, but his scrapiness, talent, and consistency (including a 30-game hitting streak) won out and he'd finish the season with the Rookie of the Year trophy in his possession. 

His partner in crime was another rookie outfielder Dwight Smith.  Smith joined the Cubs on May 1st of the '89 season and, as Andre Dawson battled knee problems, would go on to play in 109 games.  Smith would bat .324 with 19 doubles, 6 triples, 9 homers, and 9 steals for the Cubs, giving the Cubs another reliable hitter and the second-most vote-getter behind Walton for the Rookie of the Year award. 

On paper, the '89 Cubs starting offense doesn't really look very special.  Nobody drove in more than 79 runs that year and Ryne Sandberg was the only player to hit more than 20 homers, but for the most part the hitters were reliable and consistent and the team saw some outstanding play come from their bench, too.  From Lloyd McClendon, who'd bat .286 with 12 homers while playing four positions - including catcher! - to late-trade Luis Salazar, who'd step in and bat .325 as the team's new third baseman, the Cubs didn't have many easy outs.

On top of that, their true strength was their pitching.  Rick Sutcliffe had spent previous seasons as the team's ace, but even with 16 wins and a 3.66 ERA he was no more than the third best pitcher on the team behind 18-game-winner Mike Bielecki and 23-year-old Ace in Training Greg Maddux, who won 19 games and posted his first sub-3.00 ERA.  I was obviously a pretty stupid kid because Maddux wasn't even my second favorite pitcher on that team.

Then again, I was also pretty enamored by the team's 24-year-old fireball closer Mitch Williams, who made his Cubs debut by throwing 1.2 innings against the Phillies, where he gave up 3 hits, 2 walks, and struck out 3 in 52 -- 52!!! -- pitches to get the save.  Most fans misremember Williams as having walked the bases loaded that game before striking out the side to get the one-run save, but in fact he'd issued his 2 walks in the 8th before surrendering 3 hits in the 9th.  Still, the rest is true - he struck out Mike Schmidt, Chris James, and Mark Ryal to end the game.

Although Ryne Sandberg would later describe that team as being incredibly streaky, they would take first place on August 5th and never look back.  By the time mid September rolled around they'd pretty much put it out of reach and it surprised no-one when they reached the NLCS against the Giants.

At which point Zimmer's legendary gut -- and his over-worked bullpen -- failed him and the Cubs got snuffed out in 5 games.  Aside from the Game 1 route, it was actually a pretty close series -- closer than I remember it being, at least.  The Cubs lost Games 3, 4, and 5 by 2 runs or less. 

It would be the only Cubs playoff team of my childhood.  I was too young for 1984 and I'd be a high school graduate in 1998.  By 1991 Zimmer would be gone, as would many of the components that won it for the Cubs that year.  If I wanted to be overly-dramatic I would say that I could tell I was growing up based on how many pieces of the '89 team fell away, but that would be over-selling it a bit.  Instead I'll just say this: for a long time the summer of 1989 was one of my most favored memories.  Part of it was because of my age, part of it was because it was my final summer with my friends before moving away from home, and part of it was because of the Cubs.  The early '90's would be a huge disappointment because of the promise this team carried -- a promise the Cubs have yet to fulfill.

Let Coast to Coast, sponsor of Cubs 101, get you to Wrigley Field!

Cubs 101 - Pt 29 - Shawon Dunston

Brought to you by Coast to Coast Tickets!
It was 1982 and the Chicago Cubs were in the rare position of having the first pick of the draft.  Imagine then the level of talent that must have been on display for such a wily judge of potential like Dallas Green to pick ... Shawon Dunston.

Dunston was a high school selection, straight from Brooklyn, who was a five-tool player perhaps best compared with 1998's first round selection Corey Patterson.  He was seen as being defensively competent, with the ability to flash a hot bat - he hit .632 his senior year in a tough league - and run wild on the bases.  Of course, in the end, he never met his ridiculous potential.

I say his potential was ridiculous only because of one of the guys picked after him that year -- Dwight Gooden.  Dunston must've been seen as something special indeed to have leap-frogged over the greatest pitcher of that decade.  I realize that we have already fantasized about what could have been, but imagine a Cubs rotation that included Maddux, Moyer, and Gooden.  Imagine Dwight Gooden playing outside of New York, away from the temptations that would destroy his career.  But instead the Cubs picked a shortstop with a rocket arm who walked about as often as Stephen Hawking.

But don't get me wrong.  As a nine-year-old falling in love with the Cubs (and entirely not preoccupied by the crazy notion of "on base percentage") Shawon Dunston was right in my wheelhouse.  He was fun.  He was flashy.  He and Mark Grace had a unique chemistry.  He also was the inspiration of the legendary Shawon-0-Meter (for which we have bitten in the creation of the Zambran-0-Meter), which monitored his batting average over the course of the 1989 season. 

At one point Dunston was batting as low as .145 in '89 and into June he was batting around .180 before he took off and had a great second half.  He'd bat .311 in June, .356 in July, and .294 in both August and September (all while walking 13 times in total).  From that point on, he was a favorite of this Cub fan who was justifiably too young to recognize that he was pretty mediocre.  Alfonso Soriano is reminicent of Dunston when it comes to his hesitance to adjust for the good of the team.  Dunston's legs and arm, coupled with his bad back, suggested to one and all that he would make a better outfielder (which was a dire Cub need at the time) than shortstop.  But Shawon insisted, publicly as well as privately, that he was born a shortstop, and would not entertain the thought of playing anywhere else.  But he began missing balls because of his inability to bend and lay out, and coupled with his offensive inconsistency, his value with us dwindled.

By the time Shawon left the Cubs (for the first time) it was after the 1995 season and we'd already seen more than our fair share of Cub hero departures.  Still, I was pretty devastated.  After all, just like Mark Grace, and Ryne Sandberg before him, to me he had always been the Cubs shortstop.  From the first game I ever saw in 1987 until the heartbreaking final out in 1995 Shawon Dunston had been firing baseballs over to Mark Grace.  So when the Cubs brought him back to rejoin Grace (and an unretired Ryne Sandberg) in 1997, it was a happy time for this Cub fan -- little did I know his return would be greeted with a 14 game losing streak to start the season and a mid-season trade to the Pirates after he'd finally agreed to try playing the outfield.

Dunston would finally finish playing baseball in 2002, as one of Dusty's boys in San Francisco.  He left the game after having played parts of 18 seasons in the major leagues and it's hard to call any 18-season career a disappointment.  But Dunston left with one of the worst on base percentages ever for anybody who's had more than 4,500 career plate appearances.  Still, that probably wouldn't be so bad if he hadn't played as the leadoff man for the Cubs more than 200 times in his career. 

Let Coast to Coast Tickets get you to those Chicago Cubs games!

Cubs 101 - Pt 28 - Amazing Grace


Brought to you by Coast to Coast Tickets
It is perhaps a sad state of affairs when the team most people my generation associate with the Cubs is either a greedy steroid freak or a light hitting first baseman who never hit more than 17 homeruns in a season and never drove in 100 runs while batting in the third spot of the lineup for most of his career. Still, if I had to associate my fandom with one Cub hitter from the 90's, I could do a lot worse than putting it on Mark Grace.

Grace was a hitter whose name was onomotopoetic -- he was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed smooth swinger who was easy on the ladies' eyes. He started with the Cubs in 1988, a 24th round pick of the '85 draft -- and a replacement for the fallen Leon Durham, whose drug addictions surpassed his awesome talent -- and he then proceeded to bat .296 or better for the next 12 years ... except for 1991 when he was in the midst of a divorce.


Ah, and here we find the one chink in Gracie's armor.  He did not invent the term "slumpbuster", but thanks to Jose Canseco and "Juiced", Grace perfected it.  Jose went out of his way to mention that Grace was Not Juiced, but perversely brought up one of Grace's supposed game-related habits to somehow justify his own aberrant behavior.  Seems that whenever Mark would be in the throes of one of his infrequent batting slumps, he would "go out and find a fat chick and just lay the wood to her, then go out the next day and go four-for-four". 


It is easy to once again write Canseco off as an opportunistic clown, but once again, there's a grain of truth to his ramblings.  His marriage to his first wife, whom he met while he was a Peoria Chief, and whom I personally knew...well, Mark and Michelle were the Jon and Kate of the 90's.  Fame got to the both of them, eventually.  Mark knew the ladies, absolutely, although the union only unravelled when his wife started becoming 'enamored' with a few of the actors and athletes they would meet.  So Gracie dined on his share of road beef.  When Jim Riggleman was managing Gracie, no nurse, travel agent or dental hygenist in the 312 or 773 was immune to their charms.


All of that doesn't make him any more succeptible to criticism than 95% of big leaguers.  He was amusing, he was a leader, and he was as loyal to the team as fans were to him. He was also the key third to a memorable infield that also consisted of Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg and glove-and-gun shortstop Shawon Dunston. Dunston-to-Sandberg-to-Grace was perhaps never quite as memorable as Tinker-to-Evers-toChance, but it wasn't through a lack of effort on their part.

I can remember many occassions in which Shawon Dunston would recklessly field a grounder only to wildly gun it over to an outstretched Mark Grace who would manage to snag it for the out. Grace would often trot back to the dugout while shaking his glove hand, sore from the hard throws. All told Grace would win four gold gloves in the 90's, while also leading all of baseball that decade in hits and doubles.  He was the kind of old school hitter who almost never wore batting gloves and would choke up on a 2-strike count with the hopes of sending a bloop single into the shallow outfield.  In other words, he played the game the right way.

Like a lot of Cubs, though, Gracie is probably best remembered for how he exited after the 2000 season, but we'll save that for another time as our rough-shod timeline still has us in the early 90's. But I will say this about Grace before closing - he's about one of half a dozen guys who should have been career Cubs. He's the kind of ballplayer it's easy to love -- he played the game right, every single day, sometimes hurt, sometimes hung-over, but aways with everything he had. For a long time we'd hoped he would collect enough hits to enter the Hall of Fame but he came up about 500 short of the necessary number. Still, he was one of the great Cub first basemen even if he never led the league in homers or topped 100 RBI.

Sponsored by Coast to Coast Tickets, your Chicago Cubs tickets source!

Cubs 101 - Pt 27 - All That Could Have Been

Brought to you by Coast to Coast Tickets!


The year is 1993 and the Cubs are in the midst of something special.  Among their cleverly-acquired free agent talent, the team is built on the broad shoulders of home-grown talent (that, or young players acquired through genius trades).  The lineup is a modern-day Murderer's Row with no easy outs amongst them.


Their catcher is Rick Wilkins, who steals the job from Joe Girardi and goes on to hit 30 homeruns and bat .303 for the Cubs.  Their infield includes Mark Grace (.325 AVG, 14 homers), Ryne Sandberg (.309 AVG, 9 homers), Jose Vizcaino subbing for an injured Shawon Dunston at short, and Steve Buchele (.265, 15, 65) at third.  Their outfield consists of Rafael Palmeiro (.295 AVG, 37 homeruns, who replaces in the outfield a sore-kneed Andre Dawson during the '89 season and never looks back), Sammy Sosa (.261, 33, 93, 36 SB) in center and Joe Carter (.254 AVG, 33 homers) in right, with fourth OF Dwight Smith batting .300 and hitting 11 homeruns.  Pinch hitter extraordinaire Glenallen Hill smashes 10 homers in less than 100 ABs. 

But the real story of the '93 Cubs is their pitching.  Leading the way is Greg Maddux, who wins 20 games for the second straight year while posting a 2.36 ERA.  Behind him is Bob Tewksbury, who wins 17 with an ERA of 3.83.  He's followed by Jamie Moyer, who wins 12 and posts an ERA of 3.43 -- Cub fans don't know it yet, but the Moyer&Maddux duo will dominate their rotation for more than two decades as the two aces combine to win more than 600 games.  At the back of the rotation is Mike Harkey, returned from a self-inflicted injury, who manages to win 10 games, along with 24 year old Frank Castillo, who wins 5 games as the spot starter, but has a smokin' hot wife.  The closer is venerable Lee Smith, who saves 46 with an ERA of 3.88 that season. 

In other words, it's a team of young stars, several of whom go on to post Hall of Fame-type numbers, and, coupled with talent purchased from outside, these home-grown Cubs are world beaters.  And of course, it never happened.  (And granted, even if it had happened Carter certainly wouldn't have been part of the mix, as Green had dealt him for Sutcliffe and the '84 playoff drive.  But work with me here, we're fantasizing.)

The truth is that while I just painted a pretty picture, we'll never know what those early 90's teams could've been like had Jim Frey not dismantled the organization through stupidity and cover-up trades.  (Or, for that matter, had certain Cub prospects managed to stay away from a certain Cub star's latino-loving wife.)  We'll never know who else the Cubs might have drafted, or developed, or stolen through brilliant trades, or signed as free agents.  But still, looking back with my 20/20 hindsight I have to feel somewhat robbed by how things turned out.

The early 1990's was a rough time for Cub fans, in part because of the way the farm system was decimated, and because of how management (read: Jim Frey and Larry Himes) treated its star players, and because of the useless free agents brought in to the club.  Instead of being treated to Cub teams battling it out with the Pirates -- and then the Braves -- every year for the NL East pennant, we got to watch Cub teams just bad enough to only win about 79 games a year, which is what they averaged from 1990 through 1993.  It's hard to think about how many more games they would've won with the offensive contributions of Raffy Palemeiro and Joe Carter -- who would combine to hit 965 homeruns in their careers -- or with Lee Smith reliably closing tight games. 

In other words, as we have harped on in the past, Dallas Green was a genius who built a winner.  It's too bad that the Tribune didn't support him more because had he stuck around we may have never had the chance to suffer through 101 years of a championship drought. 

Find quality deals on baseball tickets at Coast to Coast Tickets!

Cubs 101 - Pt 26 - Young Mr. Maddux


The great 1969 team was for most part a home-grown production, except for Fergie Jenkins.  We mention this because there was not another influx of farm talent until the Dallas Green-era prospects arrived in the late 80's.  Do the math, and there remains a gap of many years when nearly everyone the Cubs brought up from the minors either fizzled, bombed, or if they had any promise (Roger Metzger, Andre Thornton, Joe Carter) were traded before they had any serious impact on the game.

So most of us who were around in 1986 didn't think twice when a scrawny, babyfaced rook took the mound in the 18th inning in a September exercise in futility.  He promptly lost the game.  Five days later, in Cincinnatti, he was given a start, his teammates gave him 11 runs, and (this is something you'll never see today) he was allowed to stand out there, give up 11 hits and three walks, yet earn himself a complete game victory.  Pitch counts were not taken yet, but he must have tossed an ungodly amount that day.  Based on that "success", he was inserted in the rotation the rest of the year, where he was lit up for 12 earnies in 13 innings his next three starts, before bouncing back with a tidy 10-hit effort to win his last start.

The next year, even while backed by an Andre Dawson-led offensive attack that hit 240 homers, this new guy managed to lose 14 games while winning only six.  A 5.61 ERA tends to net this kind of result.  He did a little shuttling to and from the minors that year, but the fact is, they kept running him out there to get his brains kicked in.  Was it out of sheer desperation because of a roster lacking in pitching quality?  This is possible, because another Cubs rookie, Jamie Moyer, also posted an ERA over 5 that year, although he did manage to win more games than our guy, Greg Alan Maddux. 

But having watched as much Cubs baseball as humanly possible that year, I believe they kept running the Mad Dog out there because he was battling.  He was in a jam in nearly every inning, but he wouldn't give up, and a lot of times, he would make the key pitch and get the key out to escape damage.  There were also a lot of times when he did not.  1987 was an experiment, and the mounds across America were the laboratories, for Dr. Maddux.

By 1988, the now 22-year-old Maddux finished his first half of baseball 15-3, and yes, he got an All-Star nod, the first of many.  In total, he threw three shutouts, nine complete games, won 18 games and finished with an ERA under 3.  In what should have been a valuable lesson learned for Cubs management, patience paid off, as Maddux completed the first of what would be seventeen (17) consecutive seasons with at least 15 wins.  It even got better in the Division-winning year of 1989, as Mad Dog won 19 games and serious Cy Young consideration.

By the next year, reigning Staff Ace Rick Sutcliffe was breaking down due to shoulder injuries, and Maddux stepped up and took over the Ace role.  For the next two years, the young hurler became the de facto pitching coach and ultimate teammate.  Never injured, and a decent bat handler to boot, this was a franchise cornerstone, along with Ryne Sandberg.  In the off-season after 1991, he was supposedly offered a five-year, $25 million extension, for 1992 would be his salary drive year.  By this time, though, the Cubs were being "generally mismanaged" by one Larry Himes, and Maddux for his part was one of the first clients of the Anti-Christ, one Scott Boras.  Boras was able to convince Maddux that Himes didn't respect him (possible) and that he would make more money by waiting until the next year (true, but that's what Boras is always about). So the offer was turned down.

So, amongst the whispers that Maddux may be pitching his last year in Chicago, he went out and won 20 games, posted a 2.21 ERA, threw 268 innings and had several other great games trashed by the Cubs bullpen (Ladies&Gentlemen, I bring you Bob Scanlan, Jim Bullinger, Chuck McElroy, Dave Smith and Ken Patterson)!  He completed nine games, threw 4 shutouts, and led the league in 14 hit batters.  Mad Dog owned the inside half, and he protected his own!  He was the stud of studs!  Of course he won the Cy Young (his first of 4 CONSECUTIVE), how in God's name, in a sport where pitching was everything, could you let the Cy Young Award winner walk?

As we well know now, in any proceeding that involves Larry Himes and Scott Boras, God has precious little to do with it.

Probably, though, Boras was not the bad guy here.  His advice to his client was to field offers, and they came from the Braves and Yankees.  Boras then asked Himes to match the Braves' offer (the lower of the two), and Himes declined.  In retrospect, Himes was simply following his M.O. - getting rid of incumbents and bringing in his "own guys" - the same M.O. that got him fired from the White Sox two years prior.  There are claims that Himes lost Maddux over $500k - not per year, but total - but that stems from the difference between a failed July 1992 extension conversation between Himes and Boras.  Fact is, Himes did not really care about keeping Maddux, did not treat him with the respect befitting a 26-year-old Cy Young winner, and Mad Dog just wanted to be where he was wanted.

Anyway, the final result was that Maddux went to the Braves, Larry Himes brought in Jose Guzman for nearly the same amount of money it would have taken to simply KEEP Maddux, Maddux beat us 1-0 on Opening Day 2003, Guzman spent the majority of his time with us injured, and Maddux won three more Cy Youngs and 11 straight Division titles before coming back to us to form the infamous "Five Aces" of 2004.  And, oh yeah, we'll discuss that shipwreck in good time.

Sponsored by Coast to Coast Tickets, where Chicago sports tickets are our specialty!

Cubs 101 - Pt 25 - The Hawk

Brought to you by Coast to Coast Tickets!


You might say it all began with a blank check.  Or possibly even slightly further than that, it all began with an all-advised attempt by big-league ownership to keep player salaries down.  Or even take it one step further, it all began by the cheap, chintzy management in Montreal, and their attempts to keep facility costs down by employing a rock hard, unrealistic, and eventually destructive artificial turf surface in their cavernous, oft-empty stadium.

Because, if all these otherwise unconnected factors were not in place, one of the bravest warriors in all of sports, Andre Dawson, would never have worn the pinstripes for us.

Over the years, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle became the prototypes for the do-it-all, 5-tool outfielder - Run, Hit, Hit for Power, Throw, and Catch.  Since then, dozens of "Next Willie Mayses" have come and gone, falling short of expectations due to a variety of circumstances, physical, mental, and sometimes it was something as innocuous as a carpet. 

The Montreal Expos eventually became a laughingstock franchise with a completely inglorious past, but they employed exemplary farm system directors and scouts who could beat the bushes to find developable talent.  The Expos outfield of the mid-70s would absolutely make the geeks at Baseball Prospectus quiver with pleasure.  First there was Warren Cromartie, who could hit, outrun anything and anybody.  There was Ellis Valentine, a true man who had one of the three best outfield arms I have ever seen (re; Roberto Clemente and Jesse Barfield).  And in center was a true five-tool player named Andre Dawson, he of the V-shaped torso and the perpetual scowl. 

Like most Florida boys, Andre played football in high school along with baseball, and came away with (by today's standards) minor knee damage.  Well, fine, it dropped him down to the 11th round of the draft, but he became a real steal when less than 2 years later, he was hitting over .250 in Montreal during a late season tryout.  He won 8 Gold Gloves in his time with Les Expos, was a multiple-All-Star, and was considered by many experts to be the best player in the game, even with the lack of publicity that goes along with being an Expo.

Enter the first bad guy in the Andre Dawson story: Olympic Stadium with its hard, crappy French AstroTurf, which battered his knees, robbing him of nearly all five of his baseball tools.  It first forced him to move out of center, then to consider abandoning the Expos all together after the 1986 season.  Now, one would think that teams would be crawling over one another for a man who was a lock to provide 25 homers, 100 RBIs, a .280 average, 20 steals, and to catch everything hit in his general direction.

Ah, but this was the lovely off-season of 1986-87, more commonly known in baseball lore as The Collusion Era.  For Dawson picked the absolute worst year to be a free agent.  Eventually, Dawson and his peers would end up with millions in settlement money from courts ruling against the owners for banding together and refusing to sign free agents, but at the time, this wasn't helping the Hawk any.  He considered all factors, and decided that it wouldn't be a bad thing to join a team that had a gaping right-field vacancy, that played on grass, in the sun, on TV every day of the season.  He wanted to be a Cub so bad that he famously handed Dallas Green a standard Players' Contract with the amount left blank.  Green scribbled in 500k for one year, with 250k incentives for making the All-Star team, making the All-Star starting lineup, and winning the National League MVP.

Even for 1987, that was a pittance for a guy who was worth maybe 20 wins a year, singlehandedly.  Here's the thing, though: between the time Andy Messersmith signed the first true Free-Agent contract in 1975, until Jim Hendry signed Alfonso Soriano in 2007, the Cubs only ended up with the "top free agent in the game" one other time, and that was only because he knees could not stand another year on AstroTurf, and because his agent handed us a blank check.  The Cubs simply did NOT end up signing guys like Dawson. 

Whether he was pissed off at the world for his lousy timing, or whether he was just happy to be out of Olympic Stadium, Andre Dawson put on a clinic the entire 1987 season, from Day 1 to Day 162, when he homered in his last at-bat in Wrigley.  I always compare the 1958 and 1959 Ernie Banks seasons with Dawson's 1987 and Derrek Lee's 2005 when I think about Cubs clean Offensive Excellence.  Banks won the MVP both years, Dawson won his, and Lee could have won his, finished third to Grampa Pujols (whose stats were identical to Lee's) and a swollen Andruw Jones and his 51 dodgy homers.  Lee was truly great in 2005, do you remember how much he carried us?  I would say Dawson's "carrying power" in 1987 was Lee's times three.

People who did not watch the Cubs every day in 1987 (re: the rest of baseball) always point at Dawson's MVP as one of the true misnomers in baseball, because the Cubs finished last that year.  Here's a couple of reasons why they can stick it up their ass: number one: the 1987 Cubs were probably one of the BEST last place teams in baseball history, winning 77 games, and being in first place at the end of May and in second at the end of June.  Number two, putting aside his 49 homers and 137 RBIs in an era where those stats were simply unheard of; watching the 1987 Cubs day in and day out, it seemed to me that every single game was a battle, with Andre Dawson at the point of the charge, and everyone else on the team (including Ryne Sandberg) falling in behind him.  It seemed that every one of the 49 homers and 137 RBIs were critical, he threw himself around the outfield, base-paths, and batters box with complete abandon, and played his game with (mostly) controlled ferocity.

Here's a thing: these days, it seems like the umpires have legislated away any kind of inside pitching; any kind of brush back, purpose pitch automatically brings at least a warning, sometimes an immediate ejection?  You have 1987 to thank - the last of the big purpose pitch seasons.  Dawson was a particular target, since he was pretty much wearing pitchers out all season long.  You probably have Dawson to thank, too, for the trend of batters going after pitchers who throw at them that was prevalent in the 90's and early part of this decade. 

Now, there are some of you who may hate pitcher Eric Show, and you may not even know WHY!  Well, on July 6th, 1987, the Cubs were still in the race, and they beat San Diego 7-0, thanks to a double and two 2-run homers from Dawson.  The next day, Eric Show was given a 1-0 lead (over Greg Maddux!) in the bottom of the first, which he promptly gave up, thanks to an Andre Dawson homer.  So the next time Dawson came up in the third, the sniveling little punk Show had a little present - a fastball right in the face!  A true act of cowardice, this triggered one of the great brawls in Cubs history, and perhaps all of baseball.

Thing is, the whole park went silent for about two seconds, like a great WHOOSH sucked everyone in the place into the same hole - OMG - THEY KILLED HAWK!!  THE BASTARDS!!  And Dawson had dropped violently and was lying in the dirt.

Then rose a cry of righteous anger, and the Cubs, led by Rick Sutcliffe, charged the mound and pummeled Show.  This, bizarrely, went on for several minutes while trainers tended to Andre near home plate.  They got Dawson to his feet about the time umpires were able to separate the two teams - and then Dawson charged Show, who was already bloodied, and wailed on Show himself.

Quite possibly the coolest thing I ever saw on a ball diamond.  Dawson was out a couple of days, but strangely enough, the team dropped out of contention pretty much from that day forward.  By the end of the year, the only reason to watch was to see if and how Dawson would win the game for us that day.  He did hit his homer on the last pitch he saw that year, the fans chanted M-V-P, and perhaps it was the 'blank check' story that helped the writers overlook the team's standings placement.

The next year he played nearly every day yet struggled mightily, and we were introduced to the term "bone rubbing on bone" when announcers home and away described his knees.  He was a part of the wacky 1989 team that won the East Division, but he did miss over 40 games to knee pain, and he was a complete non-factor (.105 average) in the NLCS.  Surgery that off-season (he had surgery EVERY off-season) seemed to help him the next two years, where he averaged 29 homers and 102 RBI.  His last season in Chicago was 1992, when he was 37, and the whole "bone-against-bone" thing because an issue again as he visibly struggled to stay in the lineup while playing right field, which in Wrigley Field is as difficult as position to play as exists in baseball, due to the close side wall, the sun in late afternoon, and the ridge in the infield that cut off full visibility from the outfield. 

He still managed to go .277/22/90 for a team that finished above .500, but do you recall that off-season?  Yep, that was the same one where our GM let reigning Cy Young Award winning Greg Maddux go to Atlanta...so what chance do you think a 38 year old outfielder with no knees had of getting a contract?  We will cover the human pecker track that is Larry Himes on another day, but Andre Dawson deserved to retire as a Cub, and we deserved to have him retire as a Cub.  All of us were cheated of that last chance, and to this day, Dawson has never really felt welcome back, even withstanding recent attempts by Cubs management to reach out to him. 

Now we know Dawson as "that guy who is getting only 65% of the votes for the Hall of Fame".  Maybe he'll make it, maybe not.  Signs say he will, someday, but if it weren't for his knees, and that damn Le Turf in Montreal, Andre Dawson would have been a first-ballot guy.  He doesn't have first-ballot joints, but he has a first-ballot heart, that's for sure.

Kurt Evans
The first Cub name I ever learned was Andre Dawson's.  I was exiting kindergarten the summer he came to the Cubs and my best friend was a huge Cub fan.  In fact, I still remember being over at Margeson's house, watching Andre Dawson step forward out of the dugout to wave after hitting one of his 49 homeruns in 1987.

I immediately began to mimic the Hawk's batting stance, to admire him for his perseverence from his "bone-on-bone" knee injuries, and to follow his stats religiously.  My favorite number became "8."  My favorite position, right field.  My favorite middle name, Nolan ... well, maybe I didn't go that far.  But I collected Dawson's cards, I perked up any time he stepped to the plate during a game, and I quickly discovered that he would be my all-time favorite player.

My best memories of 1989 -- Andre Dawson playing against the Dodgers, going 4 for 4 with 2 homeruns before disappearing from the scene for more than a month while battling his recurring knee problems. 

My second best memories of the Hawk -- discovering by proxy (thanks, Baseball Weekly) that Dawson hit grand slams against the Pirates two times in three days, despite the fact that the Cubs failed to win either of those games.  

When he left the Cubs after the '92 season, I was heartbroken.  How could they possibly have denied Andre Dawson the chance to hit his 400th career homerun in a Cubs uniform?  What were they thinking?   But if you were a fan of Cub players back then, the early 90's were rough on you because the Hawk was just one part of an exodus of tears. 

Sometime probably during the '99 season, I made an order from Wrigleyville Sports for a Dawson jersey.  It was the third I owned -- the first two were Sosa and Banks, bought during the '98 palyoffs -- and I cannot describe how excited I was when it arrived in the mail.  It had been half a decade since he left, I'd only been a kid when he exited, and yet I was giddy to see the number  8 with his name hanging over it. 

It has since become one of my pet peeves that most #8 Cubs are backup catchers or sloppy middle infielders.  None have lived up to the player who made that jersey number famous in the eyes of this man when he was just a boy.  As I've grown up, I've come to accept that the Cubs will never retire it in Dawson's honor and, should he make it to the Hall of Fame, he will likely go wearing an Expos cap.  (Not that it's a problem, I bought my second Dawson jersey -- an Expos #10 -- a few months ago.  I'm covered.)  But regardless of what hat the Hall makes him wear, like Sutcliffe before him, Dawson is a Cub.  From the highs of the 49 homerun season to the lows of the '89 struggles, Andre Dawson belongs to Chicago and Chicago belongs to him.  He is a Cub and he always will be.

Looking for Cubs tickets in Chicago? Check Coast to Coast's online MLB marketplace!

Chicago Tribune's Chicago's Best Blogs award