The year that still haunts me

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2003 should have positive associations for me. It was the year that my younger daughter was born, and if there’s one thing in life I enjoy more than anything else, it’s being a dad. She’s going to become a teenager this summer, and looking at her now is a daily reminder that 2003–in human terms–was a long time ago.

And yet I have to admit that 2003 has a hold over me. As I was out walking the dogs this morning, I spotted a penny on the sidewalk. Sometimes the year stamped on the penny reminds me of other stages in my life, and I’ll add a few words about that year here. But today’s penny was from 2003, and it reminds me of some things I’d rather not think about.

In the five years that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve written about Mark Prior and Moises Alou, Dusty Baker and Pudge Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa and Brian Banks. And I’ve analyzed Luis Castillo’s foul ball down the left-field line over and over again.

After decades of waiting for the Cubs to win the World Series, I felt that 2003 was finally going to be the year I saw it. Every Cubs fan felt that way, too. Watching it all fall apart in a half-hour’s time on a Tuesday night was excruciating. And the only way to ever make it go away is to–as Eddie Vedder put it–actually Go all the way.

2016 is looking really good so far, much more so than 2003 was looking at this point.On this day in 2003 the Cubs were in first place, but a few days later they had fallen to third place, where they remained until early September of that season. So there’s still a long way to go.

The Cubs’ present four-game losing streak isn’t enjoyable, but there’s not much doubt in my mind that they’ll win their division by a comfortable margin. They’re too good a team to do otherwise, I hope. And then the business of finally vanquishing the ghosts of 2003, and 1984, and any other near-miss season in our collective lifetimes can begin in earnest.

A move that backfired on the Cubs

Even when Ron Santo was alive, he didn’t have the title of “Mr. Cub.” That distinction will always go to Ernie Banks, the Cubs’ Hall of Fame shortstop of the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s. His statue stands outside of the Wrigley Field ticket booth on Clark Street. His number 14 was the first one that the Cubs retired, some thirty years ago. It’s fair to say the name “Banks” generally has a cherished place in Cubs’ lore.

But there’s another intriguing “Banks” in Cubs’ history. And no, it isn’t Willie Banks, who was a pitcher for the Cubs in 1994 and 1995. No, this “Banks” is even more recent than that. Few Cubs fans would be able to tell you who Brian Banks was. But his story is an endlessly fascinating one that I’m going to spend a few paragraphs sketching out.

Brian Banks was originally drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1993. He was a September call-up for the 1996, 1997, and 1998 seasons, and spent the 1999 season in the majors, being mostly used as a pinch hitter and a defensive replacement. He was released at the end of spring training in 2000, and missed the entire season. He was, at that point in time, out of baseball.

And then the Cubs came calling in November of 2000. They signed Banks, sent him to their triple-A affiliate in Iowa to start the 2001 season, and effectively revived his baseball career. But he didn’t hit very well, and was released after 17 games and 43 plate appearances. But unlike when the Brewers released him in 2000, this time Banks caught on with another team, the Florida Marlins. He spent the remainder of 2001 in the minors, and in 2002 he again was a September call-up.

In 2003, Brian Banks made the Marlins team out of Spring training, and on July 7 of that year he got a taste of what might have been. He made his post-Cubs Wrigley Field debut, and grounded out to third in a pinch-hitting appearance in the seventh inning. He played against the Cubs again later that month in Florida, striking out against Kerry Wood in one game, and popping out against Mark Guthrie in the other game.

In late July of 2003, when both teams were in third place in their divisions, it seemed unlikely that they would meet again in the post season. But that’s what happened, after the Central-division champion Cubs beat the Braves, and the Wild-Card Marlins beat the Giants in the first round of the NL playoffs.

Brian Banks was called on to pinch-hit in the 4th inning of Game two of the NLCS, with his team already in a 8-0 hole against Mark Prior. He popped out to center, and did not take the field for the next half-inning. And had things gone differently in the series, that might have been his second and final post-Cubs appearance in Wrigley Field.

After the Marlins staved off elimination in Game five in Florida behind Josh Beckett, and again in Game six when that awful eighth-inning collapse occurred, Game seven offered Brian Banks the chance to make it to his first World Series.  But in order to get there, the Marlins would have to beat Kerry Wood, the ace (or co-ace, if Mark Prior is included) of the Cubs’ staff, in front of legions of Cubs fans packed into Wrigley Field. A daunting task, indeed.

The Marlins jumped out to a quick lead, but Wood hit a homer onto Waveland Avenue to tie the game, and then the Cubs took a 5-3 lead going into the fifth inning. Wood retired the lead-off hitter, and fourteen outs stood between the Cubs and their first pennant in generations.

With the pitcher’s spot due up next, Banks was sent in to pinch hit. Since he had struck out against Kerry Wood the only time they faced each other in the regular season, nobody in Wrigley Field had reason to fear Brian Banks.

But Wood’s control momentarily deserted him, and he walked Banks on five pitches. After recording the second out, Wood then issued another pass, this time to Luis Castillo. Banks advanced to second, and with two outs he would be able to run on contact. Ivan Rodriguez doubled to tie the game, and the rally that Banks had started was in full force. A single by Derrick Lee then brought Rodriguez home, and the Cubs’ collapse was complete.

When Banks came around to score on Rodriguez’ double, it marked his final appearance in a major league game. He didn’t play at all in the World Series that year, and he began the following year in triple-A before being released. No other teams were interested in his services, and so his career came to an end after a decade of bus rides, call-ups, and pinch-hit appearances. Very few people can say they’ve had any experiences similar to that.

Brian Banks’ walk, issued by Kerry Wood, was the beginning of the end for the 2003 Cubs. There’s no telling what might have happened, had the Cubs had not claimed Banks off of baseball’s scrap heap three years earlier. But Cubs fans generally don’t think of 2003 in those terms. It’s just easier to dwell on Game six, Moises Alou, and that foul ball that went into the stands, isn’t it?