LaTroy Hawkins and my basement elliptical

Yesterday morning, I had the house to myself and some time before I needed to work, so I heeded the typically-ignored elliptical machine in the basement. I put on some Pearl Jam (Vs., if it matters) and began to work out. It actually felt good to be working up a sweat. And as it sometimes does, my mind began to wander.

I thought about when I first assembled it in our basement “workout” room (it’s more of a camping equipment storage room than anything else). It was sometime in September of 2004, which means it’s now seven years old and–paradoxically–not too far from being in “like new” condition.

I remember this date for two reasons: it was a month after we purchased the house, and it was also the month that the Cubs failed to follow up the 2003 season with another playoff berth in 2004.

Yes, I know Theo’s in charge now, and we’re building a World Series champion, and what’s in the past doesn’t count anymore. But one particular memory from that year has attached itself to the elliptical machine, and it came flooding back to me as I began to work up a sweat.

After an evening of assembling parts, I had finished the machine up and went to try it out the next afternoon. It was a Saturday in September, and the Cubs were playing a series against the Mets in New York. We had a radio downstairs, and I turned it on to help the workout go better. Music always helps this way, but the Cubs were in the lead of the NL Wild Card chase (St. Louis, as usual, was far ahead in the division race).

I turned on the Cubs game, and was pleased to hear that they were ahead going into the ninth inning. One more game in New York, and then they were coming back to Chicago for the final week of the regular season. The Cubs were looking good in their bid to make the playoffs. Too good, as it turned out.

Ryan Dempster, the Cubs’ starting pitcher, got the first out in the ninth, and the Cub’s Win Probability stood at 98%. As if to toy with the opposition,  Dempster then issued a walk, and then a second walk. The game clearly wasn’t over yet.

The Cubs turned to their closer, LaTroy Hawkins. He had come over from Minnesota, where he had been a set-up man for Eddie Guardado, and Chicago was his chance to be the closer. He saved 25 games that season, so he couldn’t have been terrible at closing. But a closer’s job is to close, and that’s what he was coming in to do.

Hawkins retired the first batter he faced, and the Cubs’ Win Probability stood at 95%. And then a rookie outfielder named Victor Diaz came to the plate. Diaz was a product of Chicago’s Clemente Community Academy, located a couple of miles from Wrigley Field. He had come to the Mets in a midseason trade with the Dodgers, and was trying to make it in the big leagues as a September call-up. This was his 25th plate appearance in a big league uniform.

On a 2-2 count, Diaz hit an unexpected home run to tie the game. My workout was nearly over, and I couldn’t believe what had just happened. The Cubs didn’t lose the game when Diaz homered, but they ultimately did lose it in 11 innings. They lost again in New York the next day, and came home and lost five of their last seven games, to lose the wild-card spot to the Houston Astros.

An 89-win Cubs team, which is normally very good by Cubs standards, failed to make the post-season, and the freefall collapse of the Dusty Baker years was officially on. And one of its first victims was Sammy Sosa, who bolted from the park early on the last day of the regular season, never to be seen at Wrigley Field again.

I wish I could say that this bad memory is the reason I don’t work out enough, instead of the laziness and inertia that are really to blame. But things can change, and hopefully that process is beginning on the North side of Chicago. Victor Diaz is out of baseball, but LaTroy Hawkins pitches on, most recently for the Milwaukee Brewers. My elliptical machine is still around too, and I’m looking forward to having some more positive memories of my workouts on it in the very near future.

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