There’s something about the number 99. Maybe it was because I grew up watching reruns of Get Smart, and Barbara Feldon’s Agent 99 was always so much easier on the eyes—and the ears—than Don Adams’ abrasive 86. The Cubs, for their part, are closing in on 99 losses for a season, which is something they haven’t done in my lifetime.
In almost 40 years of following the Cubs, there are only three things that I haven’t yet seen: The World Series (of course), 100 wins or losses in a season, and for the Cubs to be on the wrong end of a no-hitter. Since Carlos Zambrano threw his no-hitter in Milwaukee, you could put seeing a no-hitter in Wrigley Field on that list, too. But otherwise, there’s nothing that I haven’t seen the Cubs do to an opponent, or seen someone else do to the Cubs.
But what’s so interesting about the number 99 is the amount of music it has inspired. When all of us were kids, once of the first songs that we all learned was “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Never mind whether it’s inappropriate to be singing to kids about beer drinking when they don’t know what beer is, anyway. Maybe it’s just teaching them how to run up a tab, which isn’t such a bad skill to have if you plan to follow the Cubs one day.
Back in 1979, a band called Toto had a hit song called “99.” I always assumed it had something to do with the aforementioned Agent 99, but apparently it was written to honor George Lucas’ film THX-1138. You learn something new every day.
Three years later, Bruce Springsteen released “Nebraska.” If you’ve ever seen Springsteen perform live, you may have been lucky enough to see “Johnny 99,” which is much more fun live than the studio version is. And Johnny Cash even did a pretty swingin’ version of the song, but then again, Johnny Cash could turn any song into something great.
The following year, Prince came along and hit it big with “1999.” Even though the song was recorded sixteen years before the actual year, it was eminently danceable, and was the title track to what was his biggest hit to that time. Many musicians would love to have a song that well-known, but Prince then went on to even bigger and better things the following year with “Purple Rain.”
At about the same time as Prince’s song, there was an unknown German band called Nena scored a huge international hit with “99 Luftballoons.” The video got played on MTV, even though nobody knew what she was singing. It had the “we’re all gonna die in an accidental nuclear war” theme that briefly permeated the culture (see also Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” and the movie “WarGames,” among other examples). The song was recut into English, and it became a hit all over again. That synth line just couldn’t be denied, I guess.
And to bring the number up to a more current sound, Jay-Z gave us “99 Problems” back in 2006. The Cubs themselves were awful back in 2006, as it was the final year of the Dusty Baker era in Chicago. They fell out of contention in May, but stabilized a bit and wound up with 96 losses that year. Or to put it another way, the Cubs had 96 problems but, once the season was over, a manager wasn’t one.
So, barring an unexpected turn toward respectability in the desert this weekend, the Cubs will hit 99 losses for the first time that many of us have ever seen. And from there, there’s only one place left to go.
And here is a souvenir, Just to prove the Cubs were here….