The Cubs’ new everyday Joe

So an unknown guy, with lots of minor league stops on his playing resume, just made the Cubs’ Opening Day roster. And he did the old-fashioned way, by wanting it and working hard to make it happen. And his first name just happens to be Joe. It’s a good story so far, and it’s all true.

Joe Mather toiled in the Cardinals’ minor league system for a decade before they gave up on him in late 2010. He played a bit with the Atlanta Braves, and a bit in the Colorado Rockies’  farm system, but at the beginning of this year he found himself on the outside of baseball, looking in. Then he signed with the Cubs, came to spring training, and did what he had to do to start the season on a big league roster. He’ll play for the minimum salary, or close to it, and won’t be eligible for free agency until 2017. But he clearly wants it, and now he’s got it, meaning a spot in the big leagues.

There’s two points I want to make about Joe Mather.  One is that he can play anywhere: all outfield positions, first base, third base, and he even pitched a couple of innings for the Cardinals in an epic 20-inning game back in 2010. He took the loss in that game, but I like the way that he’ll play anywhere, as long as it means getting out onto the field. That’s something the Cubs haven’t had in my memory.

Secondly, I can’t remember that there’s ever been a Cubs player who shared a name with a Chicago high school before, especially on the North side of the city. If only Mather High had caps or shirts available for the public to buy.

Whatever number Joe Mather’s  going to wear is a mystery, since it’s not posted on the Cubs website. Whatever he wore in spring training will probably be the number he wears this season. A Joe Mather Cubs jersey might be a hard thing to find, in any event. But a blue and white hat (Mather High’s colors) with “Mather” on it would be pretty cool, wouldn’t it?

It feels good to write about baseball once again. Just one more week until the season starts.

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The year that the world changed

There have been a couple of times where I have found a penny on the sidewalk, picked it up, and used the date on that penny as a jumping off point for a post in this space. And so it was today, as I was visiting Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History. I hadn’t been there in many years, since the group of high schoolers that I taught throughout their four years graduated in that facility back in 2000. It was a turning point in their lives, and in mine as well, since I had decided to leave teaching and go try something else. So it was a graduation ceremony for me, as well.

Back in 2000, my older daughter was still a baby, and my younger daughter hadn’t yet been born. So going back to the DuSable Museum today with my wife and two daughters–none of whom had been there before–was a special experience for me. And as I was leaving, I saw a penny on the sidewalk. I picked it up, looked at the date, and saw a year that seems like another world ago.

It’s probably fair to say that every year brings some change in a person’s life. I’m not sure which year I learned how to read (probably 1973 or so), but my world was never again the same after that. So to single out any year as a pivotal moment, above any other year before or after it, isn’t the best way to use this space. But, having said all of this, I feel like something did change back in 1995, the year that was stamped on the penny I found on the sidewalk.

In that year, my long-suffering alma mater, Northwestern University, shocked the sporting world by going on a Rose Bowl run that’s still being talked about. The team started out the year by beating Notre Dame, and since the two schools haven’t played since, I still get to claim bragging rights on that front. But they lost the second game of the season, to Miami of Ohio, in stunning fashion, and it wasn’t until they beat Michigan in the “Big House” that the season really took flight. And I remember that game, and that weekend, well.

A friend of mine and my wife’s from college was living in Atlanta at the time, and over the Columbus Day weekend, we flew down there to visit him. We watched the Michigan-Northwestern game on ESPN, and after the game was over we went to a Braves’ playoff game at the old Fulton County Stadium. I could look up the Braves’ opponent that night if it mattered, but just going to a baseball game in October was a new experience for me.

I wore my Northwestern hat to the game that night, and heard some complimentary things from people who had watched the game that afternoon. Michigan was the team that everybody not affiliated with the school loved to hate, and apparently that feeling extended to Atlanta, too. But a football game in the afternoon, and a playoff baseball game at night, made it a special sports day for me.

But what happened after the game was even more lasting. Our Atlanta friend took us to his office, where he showed us this new thing called America Online. I hadn’t seen it before, but it was fascinating, and I’m pretty sure that my wife and I signed up for it shortly afterward. We had dial-up at the time (who didn’t back in 1995?), but being able to get on the computer and interact with others was a revolutionary thing back then. The cheesy AOL ad above was really what it was like for me, and probably for millions of others, as well.

Almost seventeen years have gone by since then, and today I can’t remember how long it’s been since I had AOL. But it was my gateway into the online world, and for that reason I’ll always remember that trip to Atlanta back in 1995.

A fascinating name

When I hear the name “Biff,” I assume it’s a nickname for something else. I found the name “Biford” online, which is of English origin and means “lives at the river’s crossing.” Perhaps it rhymes with Clifford and is shortened the way we would turn it into “Cliff.” And if there’s a better explanation for where the name comes from, I don’t know what it might be.

In fact, there were no recorded instances of this name being given to any boys born in the United States until 1944. Somehow, in the darkest days of World War II, there were six boys who were given that name. It’s as if a small coterie of parents decided to create a special club or something. And then when the war ended and all of the soldiers returned home, all the Biffery stopped. No other “Biffs” appeared until the early 1950s.

To be fair, though, the data I have found on the subject does not apply to names that are given to fewer than five children in any single year. If I name my child “Spongebob” because I’m a total doofus, the government isn’t going to record that name for the world to know about. “Biff” is a much better name than “Spongebob,” but the government’s record keepers don’t really distinguish between the two.

With that said, a television show called Biff Baker, USA began airing on CBS in 1952. The actor playing the role of Biff Baker in the series was Alan Hale, Jr., who had been acting for many years but was a bit more than a decade away from the role that I know him for, as the Skipper on Gilligan’s Island.

It was during the two-year run of Biff Baker, USA that young Biff Benedict Pocoroba was born in Burbank, California. Is it possible that he was named for a character on a television show? I’m at a loss to think of a better genesis for his name, which has only been given to a handful of other children throughout history, which hasn’t appeared on the government’s list of names since 1980, and which will be forevermore linked to the bad guy from the Back to the Future movies.

And to end this post

I’m wondering if

We’ll ever again see

Another named Biff

(With my apologies to all the Biffs out there, Pocoroba and otherwise)

My tribute to a great player

The World Series starts today, and it’s both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because, after all of the Spring training drills, regular season games, and postseason drama, now we get to see which team can say they’re the best. And it’s bad because, after it’s over, the game will go away until spring time. Just take the bitter with the sweet, I suppose.

The best World Series I’ve ever seen–before 2011–happened 20 years ago. The Twins beat the Braves in seven games, but every game seemed to go down to the wire. I think that any truly great World Series has to go seven games. This shows that the teams were evenly matched, and needed one final, winner-take-all contest to settle things once and for all.

But some Game sevens don’t live up to their promise. In 1985, the Royals and the Cardinals went to a Game seven, but it was nearly over before it started. The next year, in 1986, Game seven was a bit closer, but it wasn’t quite pressure-packed, either.

1991 was as close as a series could be. The two teams played 9 scoreless innings in Game seven, and the Twins pushed across a run in the tenth for the win. But it only happened like that because of the Game six heroics of the late Kirby Puckett. His home run in the bottom of the eleventh tied the series, and set the stage for the dramatic finish in Game seven.

Puckett was born in the raised in housing projects not very far from the school I taught at in Chicago. He was the focal point of the Twins teams that won two world Series titles, but he was beaned in the face at the end of the 1995 season and never played again.

Some people speculated that the 12 seasons he played weren’t enough longevity to merit Hall of Fame selection. But he was elected on the first ballot he was eligible, with 82% of the voters believing he had done enough to deserve the honor.

When Kirby Puckett died in 2006, at a very young age, I was saddened by the news. At the time, I was working on a content-creation program for a textbook publisher. Factual passages were always needed, so I sat down and began to write about baseball and the World Series and the heroics of Kirby Puckett in 1991.

The students who would  one day come across that passage might have known little about baseball, and even less about Kirby Puckett. But I made sure that, even if they couldn’t tell a ball from a strike, or a ground ball from a pop fly, they would know that Kirby Puckett was the hero for the winning team on the biggest sporting stage that America has to offer. It was a small tribute to his achievements–to be sure–but one that I felt very proud about being able to make.

Here’s hoping this World Series will live up to what baseball has given us since the final day of the regular season.

The unique nature of Game 163

This is my 163rd post on this blog, and I wanted to spend a few moments ruminating on the most unusual game in all of baseball.

The baseball regular season is a very predictable thing, in the sense that a team travels around from city to city, plays 2 or 3 or sometimes 4 games in one place, and then moves on to the next city. Aside from three days off in July for the All-Star break, a few Mondays or Thursdays here and there, and the occasional rainout, there isn’t much to interrupt that over the course of six months during a year.

Sometimes, there’s a tie at the end of 162 games. And baseball can’t abide ties, so something has to be done to break the tie. That’s where Game 163–the odd duck of all baseball games–comes in.

The three major sports leagues in the U.S.A. all do things a little bit different. Football is a one-off every week, where one team travels to another city and plays a game. There is no follow-up, it’s just one and done. A visiting player may get a chance to play another game in that city, if they survive in the league long enough, but it’s very likely that the game is a one-time thing for them (“That time I played in Cleveland,” for example). The playoffs are the same way: One game and out. On to the next city, if you win, or done for the season, if you don’t.

Basketball does it a bit differently. They use a traveling around model, like the NFL does, but they return to the same city a couple of times during the regular season. An NBA player gets to play in Cleveland, or Atlanta, or San Antonio at least a couple different times in a season, for each season that they’re in the NBA. And the playoffs are a series of games, so that each individual game counts for something, and there isn’t a “win or go home” situation unless there’s a Game seven.

Baseball does it a different  way. Since the team plays games almost every day, they don’t travel to a city just to play one game and then move on. Rather, they play, as mentioned before, anywhere from 2 to 4 games games in the same place. There’s talk in baseball of a team “winning the series” during the regular season, but over the course of 162 games, no three- or four-game series can mean too much. And the playoffs are when “winning the series” matters, but baseball players are conditioned to play games in a series, anyway.

But a tie after 162 games means that all bets are off. It means that one team will travel to another city to play a single game, like the NFL and NBA regular seasons, and that the winner of that game gets to keep playing, while the loser is done for the year. There’s no other situation like that in baseball. That’s what makes it so special.

I was lucky enough to go to a Game 163 once. In 1998, the Cubs and the Giants finished the season tied for the Wild Card (which was still a relatively new thing back then), and so a one-game playoff was held at Wrigley Field. Sammy Sosa got another game to try to catch Mark McGwire in home runs. He needed four, but didn’t hit any. Scottie Pippen threw out the first pitch. The Bulls were still the kings of Chicago sports, even after the Jordan era had come to a premature end. Bill Murray sang “Take me out to the Ballgame” with a passion that probably hasn’t been seen  from any of the singers since then. And my wife and I had been to the doctor that day, where we heard our daughter’s heartbeat for the first time. It was a special day all the way around.

And the Cubs won the game, too. A jouneyman player named Gary Gaetti hit a flyball to the outfield that somehow made it into the bleachers, and the park exploded in a way I had never seen before, and doubt I’ll ever see again. The Giants had a rally going in the ninth inning, and I ran out of room on my scorecard for all the pitchers that were brought in to try to end it for the Cubs, but the late Rod Beck came in and got it done. Mayhem ensued, because the 1990s were a very bad decade for the Cubs, and making it to the playoffs, by the slimmest of margins, was cause for a wild celebration.

The team played the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the playoffs, and was swept in three games (it was a best-of-three back then, instead of best-of-five as it is now). So we all got worked into a frenzy, only to be let down at the end. It made Game 163 seem like a very hollow victory.

The next summer, after my daughter had been born and my wife and I drove east to introduce her to family in New York, we drove past Yankee Stadium. Even from the highway, I could see the ring around the top of the Stadium that read “26 World Championships,” which included the World Series win from the previous season. So the Cubs’ fans like myself, who got so worked up over winning a Wild Card spot in the playoffs, seemed kind of silly in the face of all the Yankees’ success.

The game itself was a great experience, the way any single, win-or-go-home playoff game is supposed to be. And I would have much rather won the game than lost it that night. But it left me–and I would imagine many others–feeling unfulfilled, especially in light of how the playoffs turned out. The team wasn’t able to build on that success in the next year, either. Sammy kept on hitting his home runs, but it would be several more disappointing seasons until the Cubs made the playoffs again.

Thinking back on that game, with the dozen or so years of life experience that have followed since then, I understand that a triumph one day doesn’t mean anything in the days that follow it. The Braves were a better team than the Cubs were (they won the World Series the year after that one, I believe) and they sure showed it.

The Tribune company owned the Cubs for two decades, but they never brought the team to the level that the Yankees were at. The Ricketts family hasn’t shown much so far, but they’re still cleaning up the mess of a franchise that the Cubs were back then. They’re going in a new direction now, and I’m hoping that the fleeting celebration of the 1998 Wild Card playoff game pales in comparison to what happens when the Cubs finally do, as Eddie Vedder once predicted, “go all the way.”

Jody! Jody! Jody!

At the dawn of the 1980s, I was an eleven-year old kid living in Springfield, Illinois. And at the end of the 1980s, I was a 21-year old who wanted to live as far away as possible. You might say I passed through the crucible of youth that decade, going from 7th grader to college senior in the bat of an eye. And my oldest is getting ready to do the same in this decade. Life goes on.

I didn’t have access to major league games in 1980, but the Triple-A Springfield Redbirds were close enough. These were guys on the verge of making it to the majors, and some of them even had long careers: Tom Herr, Ken Oberkfell, Leon Durham, and a few others whose names you may or may not know. I even got to see Mark Fidrych pitch as he was trying to get back to the majors in 1980. It was an exciting time for a young kid.

At the tail end of the 1979 season, the Cardinals organization traded for a young catcher named Jody Davis, who I saw play in a game at the end of the 1980 season. The Cardinals apparently gave up on him, but by 1981 he had surfaced with the Cubs on their major league roster, replacing Barry Foote as the everyday catcher. His popularity grew with Cubs fans, especially when Harry Caray became the Cubs announcer and took to serenading him on the air (to the tune of the Davy Crockett theme)

Joe-Dee, Jody Davis! King of the home run ball!

Davis was one of the Cubs’ main stars on the 1984 team that won the first division title in franchise history. He was also  was the Cubs’ everyday catcher through most of the 1980s, but the shelf life of a catcher is usually shorter than for other position players, because of all the abuse they take behind the plate. By the end of the 1988 season, Davis was traded away to the Atlanta Braves. It was hard to see such a well-loved player go, but that’s how it is in pro sports.

But there’s a postscript to this story. During the 1989 season, my brother–who was itching to get out of the house for a weekend, I’m sure–came to visit me on campus, and we ended up at Wrigley Field (where else were we going to go?). We were outside the ballpark on Addison near Sheffield, when a cab pulled up and out came Jody Davis. The two of us nearly flipped out, and our first instinct was to get a picture with him.

My brother went up and stood next to him, while I did the honors with the camera. He was off in a flash (no pun intended) to go inside the clubhouse, but we felt like whatever happened at the game itself, it had already been a success because of the Jody Davis sighting.

Like Jim Morrison in the 1970s, Jody Davis’ baseball career in the 1990s didn’t last for very long. He’s now managing in the Cubs’ minor league system, and he’s a nostalgic figure for all Cubs fans from that decade. And if the 1989 me could travel back in time to tell the 1980 Jody Davis how it would all turn out, I have to believe that he’d be pretty pleased.

The game without any drama

When history looks back on the baseball games of last Wednesday night, the Red Sox/Orioles game in Baltimore and the Yankees/Rays game in Tampa will receive the lion’s share of the attention. The endings of the games were weirdly synchronized with each other, in a way that Hollywood would never be able to script.

But it does go beyond that, too. The sports establishment–and by that I mean ESPN–seems to have a vested interest in keeping the focus on the Red Sox and the Yankees as much as they can. Fans of those teams will deny it, of course, or perhaps they’ll just tell you they’re the two best teams, anyway.

The baseball media world was praying for the Yankees and Red Sox to meet in the playoffs, so they could bandy the word “epic” around a few hundred more times than they already have over the years.  But fate intervened, between Papelbon’s meltdown, Longoria’s bat, and an inexplicable quirk in the left field wall at the Trop. So no heaping dish of Yankees/Red Sox epicness this year. Sorry.

Then, as an afterthought, the Braves’ loss to the Phillies may get some discussion, especially since the game went into extra innings. They’ll mention the Braves collapse (but quickly point out that Boston’s was bigger), and probably leave it at that.

The game that will be largely ignored, though, is the one that was played in Houston that same night. And as much drama as the other three games, the fourth one was devoid of any drama at all, thanks to a five-run first by the Cardinals and the pitching brilliance of Chris Carpenter. And the Astros being the worst team in baseball, of course.

I’m not sure why Carpenter even took the mound to begin with. A big lead over an inferior opponent, what could go wrong? Injuries, that’s what. Why not just give him the night off, or let him throw five token innings to pad his 2011 win total? Saving him for the one-game playoff against the Braves–if necessary–also made a lot of sense. But it was Carpenter’s turn to pitch, and he went out and threw a two-hit complete game shutout. Unbelievable.

It was great for my fantasy team, which features Carpenter as one of the starters (Jon Lester, Johnny Cueto, and an ever-changing cast of characters are the others). A complete game shutout was the next best thing to a no-hitter in my league, and that’s probably why I paid any attention to it at all.

But Carpenter’s gem put the pressure squarely on the Braves. They already had the collapse on their minds, and seeing that the Cardinals were cruising to an easy win only made it worse. The Braves took it down to the wire, and beyond, even, but one great collapse deserves another, doesn’t it?

Reconstructing an old memory

As a kid who wore glasses from an early age, I identified with ballplayers who wore them, too. One of the most prominently spectacled players was Jeff Burroughs, who had a long career in the majors, with most of it spent in the American League. For some reason, though, I have a partial memory of him from my childhood. The memory goes like this:

It’s a Saturday afternoon, and I’m in my parents living room watching a Cubs game on WGN. I’m dressed for church, because we would sometimes go to mass at 4 PM on Saturday to fulfill our weekly obligation. And that’s all it ever was in my family; we went to mass once a week for school, and once on the weekend. And we went on the holy days too. But it was never something we wanted to do, and I always saw it as a pointless exercise. That must explain why I haven’t been a Catholic for thirty years.

But all that is beside the point. I remembered having a Cubs game on, and the game ended in the bottom of the ninth when Jeff Burroughs let a routine ground ball go through his legs in left field. I remember thinking that I could have made that play, but somehow he missed it. I then turned off the TV, and we went to mass like we had done a hundred times before, and would continue to do until I went away to college and stopped going altogether.

With just that sketchy bit of information–Jeff Burroughs, left field, and a game at Wrigley that ended on an error, I wanted to see if I could reconstruct the game to find out exactly how old I was at the time. And as it turns out, it took less than 5 minutes to accomplish this.

I started off by using baseball-reference.com to determine which seasons Burroughs played in the National League, which turned out to be 1977 through 1980. The only National League team he played for was the Braves, so I was already able to establish the Cubs’ opponent on that day.

From there, I was able to eliminate 1977 as a possibility, since he played in right field only that year. In 1978, he was moved over to left field, where he played for the remainder of his time in Atlanta. The next step was to look for one run games in Chicago that ended in the Cubs’ favor, which eliminated all games from 1978. I was getting closer.

From there, I was able to identify the date of the game as Saturday, July 21, 1979. Jackpot. I was eleven years old at the time. From there, it was a simple matter of pulling up the retrosheet boxscore for the game, and filling in the early-40s me on what the eleven-year old me had witnessed and largely forgotten about.

The Cubs went into the ninth inning of that game behind 2-1. Mike Lum, who would one day come to the Cubs for the final season of his career in 1981, hit a pinch hit home run off of Mike Krukow to break a 1-1 tie and provide the  slimmest of all margins to Braves’ reliever Gene Garber. Garber had pitched the 8th inning already, and was in line for the win if he could get the final three outs.

In modern baseball, the ninth-inning closer would have been ready to go out and get the last three outs to save the win for Garber. But that practice didn’t begin until Tony LaRussa, Dennis Eckersley and the Oakland A’s of the late 1980s. Garber was already in the game, and it was his game to finish out.

The Cubs pushed the tying run across in the bottom of the ninth, when Dave Kingman came through with a pinch single to score Miguel Dilone. The words “Kingman” and “single” don’t always get used in the same sentence, but this was clearly an exceptional day at Wrigley Field. The Cubs’ next batter was Scot Thompson.

My neighbor across the street at that time was also named Scott, but his name had two t’s at the end, as did every other Scott I had ever met or heard about, with the exception of Scot Thompson of the Cubs. If you ever get stuck for a word in Scrabble, “scot” with one t means a form of taxation. It’s where the term “scot-free” comes from.  So don’t say you didn’t learn anything today.

Scot Thompson delivered a single into left field, the ball rolled through Burroughs’ legs, Kingman came around to score, and the game came to a happy end for the 28,000 in attendance that day. Every game the Cubs won was a “thriller” to Jack Brickhouse, but this one legitimately fit the bill. And I have to believe that the ending of the game made mass more tolerable that evening, too.

The internet helped me to fill in some of the blanks about that game, turning a vague memory into something a bit more clear. The time or effort that it would have taken me to research this game in the pre-internet age would have probably prevented me from taking any action about this. And the results, now that I know them, wouldn’t have justified the time expenditures, either. But the internet is a great thing, isn’t it?

Same old, same old for the Pirates

Is it fair to say that Jerry Meals cost the Pirates a chance at a winning season? Probably not. But can a case be made that his blown call didn’t help? Absolutely. And if instant replay ever does find its way into the game on a widespread basis, it should be called the Jerry Meals rule to commemorate his role in bringing it about.

Chances are, you already know the details surrounding this one fateful play, but let’s go into them for just a moment. For starters, Pittsburgh hasn’t has a winning baseball team since Sid Bream scored from second base to end the 1992 season. That’s 19 consecutive years of sub-.500 baseball. No professional sports team on this continent has been losing for so long. I’m used to losing as a Cubs fan, but this one is beyond anything that  I can imagine.

But things were different this year. The team was rolling along, and found itself battling with both the Cardinals and the Brewers for the division lead into July. After the All-Star break, even. Things were looking good for the Bucs, and they had reason to like their chances in the second half of the season. A winning record probably seemed like an afterthought to the Pirates and their long-suffering fans.

On July 25, the Pirates beat the Braves to open a four-game series in Atlanta. They stood at 53-47, tied with St. Louis for the divisional lead. In the second game of the series, they jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead, before the Braves plated 3 to tie the game in the third inning. And then both offenses went cold. After fifteen more innings of scoreless baseball, the game was still tied.

But baseball is the only team sport that does not use a clock, and there are no shootouts, or penalty kicks, or anything that might send all the players and fans home  with a quick final result. Somebody was going to have to push one across in order to end this game.

The Pirates went 1-2-3 in the top of the 19th, but a walk and a single by the Braves put runners on second and third with two outs. Conventional wisdom dictates that the next batter should be intentionally walked to load the bases and set up a force at any base. But there were two factors at play with that decision, the first being that pitcher Scott Proctor was due up next. Intentionally walking a pitcher is almost unheard of, and the Braves had no relievers left to bring in. Proctor was definitely going to take that at-bat.

But there was a second factor for Pirates manager Clint Hurdle to consider. If he walked Proctor, the next hitter would be Martin Prado, who sported a respectable .268 average but was 0-for-9 in the game so far. If the baseball cliche “due for a hit” has any meaning at all, it applied to Martin Prado at that moment. So Hurdle went ahead and pitched to Proctor.

Everyone knew right away that Meals missed the call at the plate. But had the bases been loaded on the play, the catcher would not have needed to apply the tag at all, since the runner would have been forced out at home instead. The need to apply the tag, and Meals’ inability to see the tag as it was applied, is what caused that sorry scene to unfold in the first place.

But back to the Pirates for a moment. Including that loss, they have gone 14-35 since Meals blew the call. Their winning percentage of .285 over that period would translate to 46-116, if it were spread across an entire season. That’s not possible, of course, but it is a pretty strong indicator of the terminal tailspin that the Pirates have been in since that early morning in Atlanta.

If Meals got that call right, there’s no guarantee that the Pirates would have won the game. But the way that they lost was so jarring, so bewildering, so completely nonsensical that it must have had an impact on their collective spirit. There’s no other way to explain how the bottom has fallen out for them since that moment.

So next year, the Pirates will go back to work and see if they can avoid extending their record to 20 straight seasons. Hurdle will be back as manager next year, and if the gains they have made this year are any indication of their future, the Pirates’ long nightmare will be over one day soon. But it’s a shame that it didn’t happen this season.

Countdown to #Cubs #DoubleTriple now at 43 losses

No big league baseball team lost 100 games in 1968. The closest any team came was the Washington Senators, who lost 96 games that year. But I still feel the need to riff on 1968 for a bit, anyway. So here goes:

A lot has been written about all of the things that happened in 1968. I can’t add too much to that, except to say that it was also the year I was born. So if I find a penny on the sidewalk, I always pick it up for good luck (I’m superstitious that way). And if it’s a 1968 penny, well, good things will follow me all day long. That’s how it’s supposed to work, isn’t it?

In baseball, 1968 is known as the “year of the pitcher” because Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA, Denny McLain won 31 games, and Carl Yastrzemski won a batting title by hitting .301. We may never see any of those things happen again, because the pitcher’s mound was subsequently lowered to give the batters a better chance at hitting the ball. But before that, the Cubs also had one terribly bad week, which happened to coincide with the moment of my birth.

Some personal background is needed first. I was born on Friday, June 14, 1968 at a few minutes past 12 noon. My weight and length are not important to this story.  According to baseball-almanac.com, the Cubs welcomed me into the world with a 2-1 victory in Atlanta. So far, so good.  The team I would one day call mine was undefeated, so far as I was concerned.

The next day, while still in Atlanta, an outfielder named Lou Johnson drove in 2 runs in the second inning, and the Cubs got out to an early 2-o lead. And then, things suddenly took a turn. It was about as bad a turn as could be imagined, as if a group of grown men got together and decided to prove to all fans–both present and future–just how hard it is to follow the Chicago Cubs. Brace yourselves for what comes next.

The Cubs didn’t score again that day, and lost 3-2 in 10 innings. That’s how it goes, c’est la vie, you can’t win ’em all, etc. You can imagine the cliches that were being used at the time. One loss is nothing to get too excited about.

For the final game of the Series in Atlanta, the Cubs’ ace, Fergie Jenkins, was pitching against Phil Niekro for the Braves. Jenkins pitched 10 innings (yes, 10) of shutout ball, but took the loss after Joe Torre singled home Hank Aaron in the 11th inning. A hard luck loss, of both the game and the series, but the worst was still to come.

After an off day for traveling, the Cubs opened up a three game series in St. Louis. Had I been able to understand, it could have been explained to me that baseball teams don’t stay in one place very long, and they have to move around from one place to another in order to play games. But I would have just  stared blankly at you, or maybe soiled my diaper, so it would have been a waste of both of our times.

The Cubs began the next series with another 1-0 loss. They had now gone 28 innings without scoring a run, which isn’t good but certainly wasn’t cause for alarm. But the next day they faced a young lefty (and future Hall of Famer) named Steve Carlton. Carlton allowed a 4th inning single, hit a batter, and had one of his fielders make a harmless error. And that was it. The scoreless streak now stood at 37 innings, and counting.

The Cubs had only one real chance to tally a run before leaving St. Louis the next day. Bob Gibson was on his game for the Cardinals, and the Cubs had only one runner reach 3rd base, and couldn’t get him in. So the Cubs left town oh-for-St. Louis, in wins and in runs scored.  I’m certain that the next series in Cincinnati couldn’t come quickly enough.

By now, 46 innings had come and gone without any runs scored by the Cubs. I was not yet a week old, and the Cubs were on the verge of setting a record for offensive futility. The record, by the way, dated back to what was called the dead ball era in baseball. It appears the Cubs were doing their part to usher in a new dead ball era of their own.

The next game, on the first full Friday of my days here on earth, the Cubs broke through with a run in the third inning. The Reds’ pitcher walked the bases loaded, and Billy Williams hit a flyball deep enough to score a run. The record had merely been tied, at 48 consecutive scoreless innings. And no big league team has come close to matching that feat since.

The Cubs went on to win that game, 3-2. They finished the season at 84-78, and were poised to make the next season, 1969, into something special. People still talk about it to this day in Chicago. But no one ever mentions the 1968 season, and particularly that one bad week in the middle of June. And if I hadn’t been born during it,  I would try to ignore it, too.