As promised I would begin writing more about baseball, and I am looking forward to this process. Many time people ask of God how could this happen, and baseball like no other sport has its fair share of questionable heart breaks. Baseball is a cruel sport, and as a Cubs fan we know our fair share of heart breaks. It was 2003 and the Chicago Cubs looked like they were primed to be an elite team. They had the balance of youthful arms and veteran sluggers. The Cubs looked like they were something to watch. Baseball writer wrote this group is for real, and with their young arms they will be good for a long time. Anchored by ace Kerry Wood, another young up and comer was making his mark, Mark Prior looked like the next big thing in his rookie season garnering Cy Young consideration, and his next season did not disappoint. The Cubs feature another young, but rawer talent Carlos Zambrano. Rounding out the rest of the rotation were veteran Matt Clement who drew a number of Abraham Lincoln comparisons because of his goatee, and lefty Shawn Estes. With all of those arms the Cubs looked ready to win. The offense featured Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou. The Cubs added veterans Mark Grudzielanek and Eric Karros. Former first rounder Corey Patterson was finally coming around, and youngster Hee Seop Choi was getting a of hype. What could possibly go wrong?
I was an optimist and when the Cubs hired Dusty Baker, a manager who had just lead the Giants to the World Series, in my 12-year-old mind this seemed like a perfect match. I was not much of a stats buff, but mostly and avid baseball fan at the time. When the Cubs first kicked off I remember racing home from school and trying to see the game. The Cubs had dominated the New York Mets, and it was against eventual Hall of Famer Tom Glavine. The Cubs won 15-2. Kerry Wood looked sharp, and there was some optimism for this season right out of the gate. They would go on to win that series, win twelve more in the month of April. The Cubs were in contention, but no pennant race is ever won in April. Moving into June I would have a similar routine of racing home to watch the Cubs. June was here and the summer had begun so it was playing baseball and watching baseball. The Cubs were 28-24. Nothing incredible about the record. June came and there were some struggles, but the Cubs would eventually rebound. The Cubs would enter the break one game over .500. In the first half Hee Seop Choi was lost after a collision with Kerry Wood. Only Kerry Wood and Mark Prior were All-Stars. Nothing spectacular looked to come of this season at the break.
Fork in the Road
The Cubs featured what looked like an All-Star cast in the outfield, while they may not have actually been voted to the game, veterans Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou were two of the more feared power hitting duo’s that season, and both capable of hitting 30+ home runs. Between to two power hitting corner outfielders was Corey Patterson who was supposed to be the next big thing in center field. He looked like a 5 tool talent who was supposed to be the Cubs version of a Carlos Beltran like player, but things didn’t work out, but it looked like 2003 was going to be his year. Patterson was on fire and he looked like a safe All-Star selection all season long. He had 13 home runs, a sub-.300 batting average, and 55 RBI’s. His OPS was .839 and has stolen 16 bases. He was finally playing like the Cubs envisioned him to. July 6, the Cubs were playing the rival Cardinals, and while legging out an infield single, Patterson lands wrong and immediately people around the stadium are holding their breath. Patterson’s break through had ended. It was a big blow to the Cubs who looked like they could make a solid run in the second half it Patterson could provide the same production. The Cubs big hole on the roster went from third base to third base, lead off hitter, and center field. The Cubs looked to be in trouble.
The Trade that Changed It All
With those same Cubs on the fringe of being contenders the Cubs made a run for it. They offered up comically named top prospect Bobby Hill, Jose Hernandez, and Mike Bruback to Pittsburgh for Kenny Lofton and young and upcoming slugger Aramis Ramirez. The big knock on Ramirez was his foot work defensively, but that did not hold the Cubs back from pulling the trigger. They went out and acquired a bonafide lead off hitter in Kenny Lofton and another stable power bat in the middle of the line up. The Cubs hit the lottery with that trade which would propel them into the playoffs. Lofton gave the Cubs a top of the order and stable defensive presence they were lacking. They needed speed at the top of the line up. Ramirez was a plan b as the Cubs were seeking the services of Mike Lowell. Ramirez turned out to be the better option. Ramirez flourished with the Cubs and eventually would go on to become one of the faces of the franchise. His glove work improved and he became one of the most feared hitters at third base for the coming years. Following the trade the Cubs would go 34-21 following the deal and nab the division as it came down to the wire.
The Pain Was Washed Away
For most of the year lefty Shawn Estes struggled, and he was getting jeer reviews from the Chicago faithful. He has lost the trust of a lot of people looking on, but that didn’t seemingly deter him from coming up big when it mattered the most. The Cubs were in do or die mode, and if the Cubs would have lost against Cincinnati on September 24 they likely do not win the division. The Cubs bats exploded, but it was Estes who stole the show throwing a complete game 4 hitter. Estes for the first time that season was spectacular, and while his presence was not a major one it was on September 24 the Cubs chances of the Central division crown were in sight.
Can They Clinch It?
The Cubs had a day-night double-header against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and they won their first contest as their young gun Mark Prior in a solid performance to allow the Cubs to stay in contention. The same day the Houston Astros lost earlier giving the Cubs a chance to clinch the division on the 27th of September. The Cubs bats were ready for the challenge and the 9th inning came and veteran Dave Veres was on the mound he walked the first hitter. The next one came up and quickly flew out. Then former Cub Jose Hernandez came to the plate with one runner on he took strike one. Then Cubs fans hear Chip Carey say, “Double play ball, second base one, on to first, THE CUBS ARE THE CHAMPIONS OF THE CENTRAL!”
For a brief moment the pain of the Cubbie nation was healed and it was on to the NLDS facing the Atlanta Braves. I remember seeing the celebration on the field and sitting at home just watching in awe as my team was going to the playoffs, maybe this would be the year, but only time would tell. People were beginning to see if their “Old Style Pledges” would have to become reality, and boy were there some interesting ones. However, for the Cubs fan bases and some of the hurting souls this would be a minor sacrifice to see the Cubs reach baseball immortality once again.
So Far So Good!
In game 1 against the Braves the Cubs gave the ball to Kerry Wood who would only surrender one run. The Cubs loaded the bases in the 6th and were able to score. Kerry Wood helped him self with the bat doubling in two runs making it 4-1. The Cubs would close the door on a 4-2 victory. Atlanta would take game two. In game 3, Mark Prior got the better of Greg Maddux. Randall Simon smacked a two run single and the Cubs would later get an insurance run off the bat of Aramis Ramirez. Prior would only allow two hits in the contest with the complete game. Game 4 was tight, but the Braves managed to squeak out the win as the Cubs made a come back attempt in the 9th. Game 5 was all Cubs, The Cubs would take the early lead off the bat of Moises Alou. Alex Gonzalez would lead off the 2nd with a solo home run. Aramis Ramirez would give the biggest blow as he smack a two run homer in the 6. The Cubs would go on to win the game 5-1. The Cubs win their first playoff series since 1908, and people were ready. I went to bed happy that night and it was the talk around the school. We talked about who was the better players on the Cubs. The chatter was nothing, but Cubs. We are all in a state of happiness and that was our new focus. The Cubs were all we were thinking of.
5 Will Haunt Us For Ever
It was wonderful we couldn’t stop talking about the Cubs for the next couple days. We had such Cub fever your were a complete outcast if you were not wearing Cubs apparel. If you though of wearing another teams gear stand by. We were full of joy and were bleeding blue all over the halls. The NLCS had come and one of my teachers promised a free 10 extra credit points just because assuming the Cubs would win the NLCS. Many people could feel those deep wounds healing. Game One was a slug fest. Seven total home runs, and it looked like the Marlins had game 1 under their belts. Sammy Sosa had other plans, Urgueth Urbina tried to throw a back up slider, it didn’t fool Sammy. Sosa was 1 for 11 in the playoffs, he had been irrelevant up this point. The whole time the announcers said as long as he avoids the slider he will be fine. He obviously didn’t hear the announcers. Urbina throws ball 1 then responds with a swinging strike. Right before the pitch was thrown Al Leiter says, “Don’t throw that back up slider.” The pitch is thrown “He did it, he did it!” says one announcer while the Thom Brennaman says, “Sammy with a deep drive and we are tied!” Leiter replies, “Unbelievable, Thommy I said don’t throw that back up slider because it’s the same one Grudzielanek saw earlier in the inning. Its one that stays in the zone and begs just hit me.” Despite Sosa’s Waveland shot the Cubs would drop game 1.
Game two the Cubs were more fortunate in game two. The Cubs already up 3-0, Sosa comes up to the plate and shuts the door. Thom Brennaman makes the call “Sammy plays long ball, and I mean long ball!” The Cubs would win 12-3. The series would head to Miami, and the Cubs took the first two contest thanks to mid-season acquisitions Randall Simon and Aramis Ramirez. I was so sure the Cubs were going to win the series that year, they were up 3-1 and they had Zambrano, Prior, and Wood taking the mound. Boy was I wrong.
I wished I was wrong, but I wouldn’t be. Josh Beckett took over game 5 and it was heading back to Wrigley Field. Before I went to bed that night I told my mom the same thing I told all my friends the next day at school, “It’s OK the Cubs, lost the game, there’s no way they beat Prior and Wood at home the next two games.” Pride go the best of me, and it got the best of the Cubs, we all assumed because we had such a dominate duo, history wouldn’t come into play. We were due, this was out year, no one would dare take this from us. We were 5 games away from winning the World Series, and we just dropped game 5.
Game 6, everything was going well. We had who we wanted to have on the mound. Mark Prior, our next big thing was out there mowing down Marlins. We were looking to celebrate our fish fry. Then it happened and it all unraveled. A pop fly went into left and Moises Alou thought he had a play, but fans seeing a fly ball do what fans do they reach for it. Alou doesn’t make the catch as we all know. The first thread was popped, Alou looked up to the stands and throws his hands down. The Wrigley faithful was in a wreck. People pointed their fingers to one fan, but many fans reached for that ball. Mark Prior pointed to the out field begging for fan interference, but to no avail. The next thread was popped, I sat at home crying out “It’s fan interference, its fan interference, are you kidding me make the call blue.” People want to look back and blame the fan, but it was not his fault. The ball was in the stands, no guarantee Alou makes the catch. Then it gets worse. Dusty Baker chooses to leave Prior in the game when all other logic says other wise.
The Cubs were 5 outs away, and after walking Luis Castillo, the third thread broke. Ivan Rodriguez hits an 0-2 pitch to left, and the fourth thread breaks. Baker still sticks with Prior. Miguel Cabrera grounds to one of the more sure handed shortstops in the game, number 5, Alex Gonzalez, but he bobbles what would have been the inning ending double play. The 5th thread pops, and the bottom falls out. The bases are loaded and Derrek Lee doubles tying the game. Prior is finally removed, but it was too late. The Marlins score 8 runs in the 8th with the help of 3 future Cubs.
Game 7 came, but it was on better. The Cubs would eventually take a lead into the 5th, and lose the lead for good and the Cubs would go on to lose the series.
That season ended with so many what if and left thousands of fans in tears following the game. Baseball like life is not fair, but the Cubs took things for granted much like we do in life. God never promises that everything will work out for better, but he will give us what we need. For a moment that season the Cubs got a slim taste what it was like to be a winner, but in the final moments, they could not keep it together. The last three games had a number of what if’s, but it’s too late for those questions. However, how many of us do the same thing? We mope around when we get hit with adversity and we let it drag us down. Instead of building off the tragedy we ask God, “Why me?” or “How could them this happen to me?” Far too often we point the finger at God or someone else, but the finger needs to be pointed right back at ourselves. Other times there was nothing any of us could to do, but we still sit there and ask why. It’s not our place to ask why. It’s not our place to blame God. We are given trials from God to learn. The Cubs lost plain and simple and they can only blame themselves. In life we can not assume everything will go as planned. We are not promised the next day or the next minute for that matter. In a split second tragedy can strike, the course of the game of life can change, and will we sit there and let it bring us down or will we go out and fight. The Cubs looked like the team of the future with their bountiful stock of arms, but it continued to get worse for the Cubs following 2003. The Cubs would end up seeing Mark Prior’s career end too early. They let Kenny Lofton walk. Sammy Sosa would become distanced from the franchise. While the Cubs would go on to add Juan Pierre and Derrek Lee in the coming seasons, Dusty Baker would later be fired. Lou Piniella was brought in to provide a change of face. The Cubs would bounce back, but not make it to an NLCS until last season after many harsh seasons. When we face adversity we must use it as a trial and not let it weigh us down. The emotions of that 8th inning weighed down the Cubs, but so much could have been done to potentially change the course of that game. Rather than 2003 being the year, we once again sat there saying “Next Year.”