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.

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September Redux

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Making predictions, or at least trying to divine what the future may hold, is a tricky business. The end result can either make one appear to be prophetic or stupid. That’s the peril of hazarding a guess about something that hasn’t happened yet, and might not ever happen at all.

The Chicago Cubs have been my principal muse, ever since I started writing this blog in the summer of 2011. They put the blue in my batting helmet.  And blue has been an apt metaphor for the sadness and frustration that has come from following a losing baseball team for forty years.

Even when the Cubs win in the regular season–and it has happened a few times over the years–they find some way to make it hurt even worse in October, when the playoffs come around. And the World Series? I see it every year on television, but never once have I taken an active role in cheering on my team in it.

Three years ago, the Cubs were in a terrible state. They had decided to rebuild the franchise by jettisoning their highest-priced players (Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, and so on) in favor of developing younger talent, instead. It wasn’t something I wanted to see, because losing isn’t fun. Believe me when I say that.

At the beginning of the final month of a lost season back in 2012, I reminisced about an unusual September of success in 2003, when Dusty Baker was managing the Cubs. That was twelve years ago, which in a player’s years is a lifetime. The aforementioned Ramirez is the only player from that team still playing at the major league level, and at age 37 his career is winding down. But for a fan, twelve years can disappear in the blink of an eye.

So I used a happy memory from a rare good season for the Cubs to help me get through a particularly bad season. And at the end of the piece, I tried to strike a hopeful note when I wrote this sentence:

But the memory of that September from almost a decade ago lives on,

sustaining me in the hope that a similar September will come along someday,

and then give way to an even more glorious October.

Today the Cubs are trying to sweep a three-game series from the Cardinals in St. Louis. They’re six-and-a-half games behind the Cardinals in their division, with just three-and-a-half weeks left in the regular season. But they’re surging at the right time, as September comes around.

This year appears to be the September I was hoping for, when I wrote that post from three years ago. This time it appears that I’m prophetic, or at least partially so; the glories of October have yet to be determined. But for now, I plan to dance as much as I can in the coming weeks.

Go Cubs! 

Dancing in September

On September 1 (it’s actually September 2 as I’m typing this out, but work with me), I’m remembering a happy memory that happened during this month, several years ago. September was once a great and glorious month, and it all started on September 1.

2003 was the first year that Dusty Baker managed the Cubs. They had played pretty well that year, but found themselves in 3rd place when the Cardinals came to Chicago for a five-game series. There were four games scheduled, and a make-up of a previous rain-out, so five games it was to be.

Normally, the Cubs would have lost this series, and then gone into a tailspin to end up well out of playoff contention. But Baker was new, and many of the teams’s key players (Kenny Lofton, Aramis Ramirez, Randall Simon, and a few others) were unaware of the Cubs’ losing ways, so they won four out of the five games from the Cardinals instead.

The team went 15-7 after that, and clinched the division title by sweeping a doubleheader at home on the second-to-last day of the regular season. They were in the playoffs, and had some momentum behind them as they went to Atlanta to play the Braves. It was a strangely euphoric feeling, which lasted for about two weeks before the painful collapse that I still haven’t recovered from. There’s just one way of getting over that, and the Cubs’ haven’t yet been able to achieve that goal.

I clearly remember hearing Earth Wind and Fire’s “September” on the radio the day after the Cardinals series ended. I sang along, and enjoyed the late summer sunshine as I drove home from work that day, dreaming of the good things that the rest of the month had in store. I imagine that I’ll always hear that song and think about the Cardinals, and Dusty Baker, and the way that a typically awful month surprisingly became something better.

There won’t be any dancing this September, while the Cubs are finishing up yet another forgettable season. But the memory of that September from almost a decade ago lives on, sustaining me in the hope that a similar September will come along someday, and then give way to an even more glorious October.

A gesture we all know


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I was nine years old when the 1978 baseball season started. One of the things I would do sometimes was look around the house for loose coins. A dime here, a nickel there, maybe a quarter under the couch. It seems kind of silly now, but that was fun for me back then.

Whenever I made it to sixteen cents (a dime, a nickel, and a penny was the typical combination), I would walk to the Super-X store near my house to buy a pack of baseball cards. The walk was about ten minutes, and I knew the way by heart. The idea of letting my nine-year old leave the house unsupervised is preposterous, but the world was a different place back in the late 1970s. Anyone who lived through those days knows this to be true.

When I got to the store, I knew that the baseball cards would be in a box near the checkout. I would pick out the pack of cards I wanted, hand them to the cashier (it seemed like it was always the same gray-haired lady) and she would ring up the sale on the cash register.

After handing over the coins, I would then leave the store, open up my new purchase, and go through the cards as I chewed the stick of bubble gum that came in every pack. I could tell right away which cards I already had, and could therefore trade with my neighbor from across the street, and which ones I needed. That was how I thought of them, too. If I didn’t already have a card, I needed it.

The cards I was looking for were the best players in the game at the time: Pete Rose, George Brett, Rod Carew and, above all others, Reggie Jackson. Reggie was the hero of the 1977 World Series, which made his 1978 card just about the most important one you could have.

I don’t recall if I ever had a Glenn Burke baseball card. It’s very likely that I did, though, because his was the very definition of a “common” card. He was a big leaguer, yes, but he wasn’t a star player by any means. In fact, he was a guy I had never even heard of before. I would have gladly traded a Glenn Burke card, and ten others of similar players, to get a single Reggie Smith card. Reggie Smith was the top slugger on a team of sluggers. His card had value, in my mind.

I couldn’t know this in 1978, but Glenn Burke was a hugely influential player. In fact, his influence goes far beyond the game of baseball. It extends into all of sports, and even into society itself. If you live in America in 2012, you’ve been touched by Glenn Burke, in a way that you might not even know about. And for that reason, the middle-aged version of me was beyond thrilled to acquire his baseball card recently.

The full story of why the late Glenn Burke (he died in 1995) matters so much can be found here. On the last day of the 1977 season, Glenn Burke was waiting on deck when Dusty Baker hit a home run off of the Astros’ J.R. Richard. Baker rounded the bases, enjoying the historic moment for him and his teammates (it was the first time that one team had four players with 30 or more homers in the same season), when he crossed home plate and came upon his teammate, Burke, who had extended his arm above his head. Baker reached up, slapped Burke’s hand, and returned to the dugout. History had been made, but in a way that nobody in the park could have foreseen.

Burke and Baker had just pioneered the high five, at least on the playing field. I can’t say with any certainty that nobody had ever high-fived anyone else before that moment. I don’t even know if it was called a high-five just yet. But I do know that nobody has been able to identify an earlier occurrence of this action, which all of us now take for granted. It had to originate from somewhere, and this otherwise unremarkable player for the 1977 Dodgers appears to have been the source.

The high-five entered the sports mainstream, and the mainstream of society, in the early 1980s. And by now, there probably aren’t too many people who haven’t exchanged high-fives with someone. When the Chicago Bulls were winning their NBA titles in the 1990s, going out after the clinching victory and high-fiving everyone you saw was a common occurrence. It was the way to share a celebratory moment with a complete stranger, and probably will remain so for a long time to come.

Glenn Burke’s baseball career was cut short in 1979. He was suspected of being gay in a sport, and a culture, that couldn’t handle it. He was traded from the Dodgers to his hometown team, the Oakland A’s, and he played his last baseball game for them. How much of this was due to his sexuality might never be known. But three decades and more have passed by since then, and there hasn’t been an openly gay player in the major leagues since then. Baseball once led the way in terms of social integration, but it’s now very much behind the times when it comes to LGBT acceptance.

Glenn Burke’s standing as a ballplayer wouldn’t have impressed me as a nine-year old kid. But knowing what he did–both at home plate in 1977 and in his public acknowledgement of who he was after that–impresses me a great deal. To the extent that baseball cards can have any meaning at this stage in my life, this is one card I’m quite happy to have.

 

“Next year” never came for him

Today I went to an estate sale with a friend. I’ve written about them before, and being at one is different from going to a yard sale or a garage sale. As I get older, and realize that everyone’s time on this earth is limited, I also appreciate the opportunity to take a peek into the remains of a stranger’s private life.

I picked up a book, as I sometimes do at these things, along with a couple of Cubs-related artifacts. One was a couple of ticket stubs from Wrigley Field–one of which is shown above– and the other was a number of special pull-out editions from the Chicago Sun-Times detailing the 2003 Cubs’ playoff run. The absence of anything related to the others sports teams in Chicago led me to conclude that the recently deceased was a Cubs fan, and only a Cubs fan.

The fact that he saved only 2003 newspapers was especially telling for me. Like him, I thought that was finally going to be the year, the “next year” that every Cubs fans dreams that he or she will live long enough to see. There were no papers saved from the 2004 season, when the Cubs tried to get back into the playoffs before fizzling out late. And nothing from 2008, when the World Series looked to be a lock before the playoffs actually started, and the Dodgers swept the Cubs instead. Nothing from 1984, 1989, or 1998 either, suggesting that the urgency that set in after 2003 hadn’t arrived for him yet.

Psychoanalyzing someone based on their possessions isn’t something I do lightly. But it became clear to me what his story was, at least from a Cubs fan’s perspective. 2003 was the year that it was finally going to happen, until, regrettably, it didn’t happen.

Following that final crushing defeat against the Marlins in 2003, nothing again ever made a newspaper feel like a relic that was worthy of keeping. That feeling probably saved me a dollar or two at today’s estate sale, but it was something that I can completely empathize with. I feel the same way about it, myself.

A “win now” mentality for the Cubs took root in 2004, and it persisted until General Manager Jim Hendry was let go during the 2011 season. Then Theo Epstein came in and a building program started, where young prospects are being allowed time to develop into big league ballplayers.

This strategy might pay off in the long run; I’m certainly hoping that it does. But the downside is that the man whose estate sale I went to today went to his grave, without seeing something that he apparently wanted very much. I never met that man, but I can appreciate the way that he felt, just the same.

I’m sure that this story has repeated itself hundreds, if not thousands, of times already this season. And it will continue to be repeated, until the one moment that an MLB12 video game commercial has envisioned for us already. I can only hope that the current “rebuilding” process–which won’t end before 2013, at the earliest–doesn’t extend past too many more Cubs fans’ lifetimes.

Forget about the goat

Before reading any further, I want you to think of an unlucky number. I’m willing to say that the default answer is the number 13. Absent some searing personal tragedy–like someone who lost their job on January 6 and now considers 16 to be unlucky–most people just accept that there’s something unfortunate attached to the number 13.

I bring this up because, once again, I was fortunate enough to be listed on the mlb.com/blogs monthly leaders list for May. Each time I’m on the list, I use my position as a jumping off point for a blog post related to that number. Last month it was Dusty Baker and the number 12, and before that I have written about Ron Santo and others, Bobby Murcer, and Greg Maddux and Ferguson Jenkins. There are others, too, but those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

This month I won’t be focusing on a player at all, even though Starlin Casto, the Cubs’ incumbent number 13, is a very good player. No, I’ll be discussing the number and its association with the Cubs, in a way that you might not know about.

There was a story in the news recently about some Cubs fans who left Arizona and walked to Wrigley Field with a goat in tow. They arrived at Wrigley Field this week, having achieved their fifteen minutes of fame, while at the same time raising funds for cancer research. Kudos to them for coming up with the idea, and for doing what they see as something constructive to help end this terrible drought that all Cubs fans are suffering through.

But their efforts won’t make a difference, because the goat isn’t the reason why the Cubs have been losing for so long. No living thing–be it a man, a billy goat, or those infernal seagulls that invade the field sometimes– has the power to put such a hex on a professional sports franchise. And yet, fans, the media, and everybody who knows anything about baseball continues to eat up the billy goat curse. Those people are actually missing an even more powerful force, and that’s the federal government. Yes, Uncle Sam has been keeping the Cubs down all these years.

The building above is the post office that serves the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago.  To get there from Wrigley Field takes about five minutes in a car, and less if you don’t get stopped by either of the two traffic lights along the way. It’s the post office that would handle any correspondence you might care to send to Wrigley Field. I’m sure that in the age of email and texting that there’s far less mail going into and out of the ballpark than there once was, but it’s still there, and always will be.

A fun bit of trivia about this post office is that it is named for Cubs fan Steve Goodman, whose “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request” is required viewing for anyone who fancies themselves a Cubs fan. Goodman wrote this song in the early 1980s, but the reference to the Cubs as a “doormat” probably ruffled some feathers, and so he wrote the much happier “Go Cubs Go” as a protest song. It may be the biggest inside joke there’s ever been in baseball, the way the song has caught on with Cubs fan in the decades since.

The mail has been delivered in Chicago for more than a century, but the invention of  ZIP codes to help route the mail officially dates back to the summer of 1963. That year, the Cubs had four–count ’em, four–future hall-of-famers on their everyday roster (Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, and an up-and-comer named Lou Brock) along with what would turn out to be the National League’s rookie of the year that season, the late Ken Hubbs. With so much talent, the Cubs were positioning themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the National League.

But in the offseason, Ken Hubbs died in a plane accident. And early in the 1964 season, when the Cubs traded away an African American player because of complaints from their fans, they decided to trade Brock for a pitcher with a more agreeable pigmentation. And you had probably chalked that trade up to front-office incompetence.

These two moves seemed to set the Cubs back, and even though they made a run at the pennant in 1969, they never got to the point where they were playing in meaningful games in October.

In the summer of 1963, there were twenty teams in the major leagues. Some have moved since then (the Milwaukee Braves now play in Atlanta) or changed their names (Houston’s Colt 45s are now called the Astros) or both (Washington’s Senators are now known as the Texas Rangers). But of those 20 teams, there is just one that hasn’t played in a World Series since then. And I’m quite confident you already know which team it is.

So how does the post office come into this? Well, Chicago ZIP codes typically begin with the numbers 606, with the last two digits depending on which post office serves that neighborhood. And the post office above, the one that carries every piece of mail that goes into and out of Wrigley Field, has the ZIP code 60613. Uh-oh. Didn’t you identify that as an unlucky number at the beginning of this piece? And yet there it is, the federal government’s cruel joke on the Chicago Cubs.

So unless the U.S. Post office steps in–which is unlikey, given that the president is a known White Sox fan–the Cubs may well continue their long pennant drought. And if you’re willing to believe in the billy goat story, don’t you also have to allow for the possibility that it’s something else entirely? Something as simple as two numbers, arranged in such a way that it has gotten a bad rap over the years.

Here’s hoping that the Cubs can prove me wrong in all this, preferably at some point in my lifetime and yours.

With Dusty we Busted

Back in 2003, Dusty Baker was a hot managerial commodity. He had managed the San Francisco Giants into the 2002 World Series, where his team lost to the Rally Monkey (and the Anaheim Angels, as they were then called) in seven games. The Giants had a 5-0 lead in Game six of that series, and their Win Probability was as high as 97% at one point late in the game. And yet, somehow, they lost the game and the series. But no matter, he was coming to Chicago, and whatever he did with Barry Bonds could easily be replicated with Sammy Sosa.  Things were looking up for Cubs fans everywhere.

Baker wore number 12 as a manager, which is the reason I’m writing about him here. I was once again mentioned on the list of top fan blogs at mlb.com/blogs, and my position on the list this month is number twelve. The current player wearing 12 for the Cubs, Alfonso Soriano, has been a large disappointment over his five years in Chicago, and if there’s ever a day I want to write about him in this space, it won’t be anytime soon. So Baker it shall be, instead.

The 2003 Cubs had a young Mark Prior, a healthy Kerry Wood, and rising starters Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano. A previously unheralded Joe Borowski emerged as a reliable closer, and the Cubs–for a change–had their pitching ducks in a row. And we know now that pitching wins pennants, for the Cubs and for everyone else, too.

On the offensive side of the coin, it was still Sammy Sosa’s team, and he was putting up gaudy numbers every year. The Cubs had also brought in veteran Moises Alou for some extra pop, and a number of key acquisitions such as Aramis Ramirez, Kenny Lofton and Randall Simon were made as the season progressed. But as of August 1, the Cubs were barely more than a .500 team. As of September 1, they were still in third place in their division. But winning 4 of 5 from St. Louis, in an epic series at Wrigley Field, seemed to launch the team. It was a fun month, which is something that September rarely is for Cubs fans.

A sweep of a doubleheader at home, on the final Saturday of the regular season, clinched the division title, but there was a pervasive sense that simply making the playoffs would not be enough. They then beat Atlanta, for the team’s first postseason series victory since the 1908 World Series. Momentum was on the Cubs’ side, it seemed, and beating the wild-card Marlins was almost taken as a given. The World Series was calling, and the Cubs seemed destined to be there.

And then came Game five in Miami. I wrote about that game here, and I wasn’t too concerned that Josh Beckett had thoroughly dominated the Cubs. The series was returning to Chicago, and it would mean more to win the pennant there, anyway. Years of Bulls titles in the 1990s taught me that it was better to wrap up a series in front of the home fans.

Game six of that series is something I’ve written about many, many times in this space. But the long and the short of it is that, like the 2002 Giants in the World Series, Dusty Baker’s team somehow found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. But this time, the hometown fans had to sit and watch as it unfolded. I hardly even remember Game seven anymore, but Game six probably won’t ever leave my memory.

So why harp on Dusty Baker? Aren’t the players the ones who are on the field? They are, but Baker also played the game, in an era where pitchers threw many more innings than they do now. In 1977, the year that Baker hit 30 home runs for the LA Dodgers, four pitchers in the majors threw more than 300 innings; by 2003, no pitchers did that. The game had evolved over the intervening quarter of a century, but Baker’s mindset hadn’t changed along with it, at least where his handling of pitchers like Wood and Prior was concerned.

Dusty Baker had signed a four-year contract to manage the Cubs, and they went progressively downhill after 2003. By 2006, his final year in Chicago, the team was so bad that I refused to go to Wrigley to see them play in person. In the twenty-five seasons that I’ve lived in Chicago, 2006 is the only one where all 81 home games came and went without me in the stands at least once. I just couldn’t support the team that season. It was hard, because I love going to ballgames at Wrigley, but in my mind I had to do it.

Fortunately, Baker was let go after 2006, and now he’s managing the Cincinnati Reds instead. The team that the Cubs played today, ironically enough. But as long as he’s still managing in the majors, he’ll be a reminder of what might have been that season, nearly a decade ago.

I can read his mind

Everybody knows about the  Vince Lombardi trophy  in football, given to the team that wins the Super Bowl each year. I remember the sad spectacle of how the trophy was groped and fondled as it was being carried to the NFL’s commissioner after the most recent Super Bowl. And the Stanley Cup, well, that goes without saying. If the Cup could talk, I’m sure it would have some fascinating stories to tell of the places that it’s been through the years.

And the Larry O’Brien trophy, given to the NBA champions each season, became a common sight in Chicago two decades ago. The image of Michael Jordan clutching the first trophy he won, while pressing his forehead against the basketball on the top, forever consecrated the trophy as far as Chicago fans were concerned.

But what about baseball’s championship emblem? Like the Lombadi trophy, it dates back to 1967, which means the NFL’s trophy made its public debut in January, a few months before MLB’s trophy in October. And, like the Lombardi Trophy, it was designed and produced by Tiffany & Company. The similarities between the two trophies are hard to miss.

I’ve never seen the Commissioner’s trophy (as it’s called) on a baseball card before, other than the image of Mike Scioscia shown above. This was taken at the end of the 2002 World Series, which was the Angels franchise’s only win to date. They made the playoffs that year as a wild card team, which all by itself could have been a great season for a team that wasn’t picked to do very well before the season started.

But the Rally Monkey, and those irritating thundersticks, became etched into baseball history that fall, as the Angels went all the way to the Word Series, where they defeated the Giants in the only all-wild card World Series to date. And Mike Scioscia got to carry the trophy around as a result.

Looking at Scioscia, holding the trophy that I as a Cubs fan have only ever seen on the South Side of town, I know exactly what he’s thinking: “Kiss my ass, I won this thing. I won two of these things with the Dodgers as a player (in 1981 and 1988), but now I get to say that I won as a manager, too. 43 years old, and my managing legacy is firmly established, whatever happens after this.” 

And what’s happened since then has been pretty remarkable, from a manager’s perspective. Unlike his 2002 World Series opponent, Dusty Baker, who left the Giants and is now on his second team since then, Scioscia has stayed put in Los Angeles. He’s won five division titles, and a second Manager of the Year title, to go with the one he collected in 2002. In a job where a losing record gets you bounced in a hurry, Scioscia has endured in one place.

And now, as a manager with LaRussa-like longevity and success, he gets to manage the game’s greatest player in Albert Pujols. Expectations are through the roof, and Scioscia will doubtlessly take the blame if Pujols pulls a LeBron and fails to deliver a championship. But whatever happens, he’s held the trophy before, and nobody can take that away from him.

Now I understand

Since last September, I’ve been excited at the prospect of Theo Epstein coming to Chicago. I suggested that it happen almost immediately after the Red Sox collapsed in Baltimore on the final night of the regular season, and I’ve written about it here and here and here. And it’s always been with the assumption that whatever worked for him in winning a championship with the Red Sox (two championships, actually) will be brought here to Chicago as well.

But the news today changed my assumptions. I guess I wasn’t really listening, or hearing only what I wanted to hear, when Tom Ricketts spelled out the reasons why Theo was being brought to Chicago. But today it all became clear to me.

I went to Fenway Park for the first time in my life in May of last year. It was on my “bucket list” of things to do in life, and I was glad to cross that one off the list. I was blown away by what a great baseball experience it was. The Cubs were crushed, almost as badly as the baseball that Kevin Youkilis hit over the billboard above the Green Monster. But I loved it just the same.

A sense of baseball history pervades Fenway Park. You just have to soak it all in, and appreciate how unique it is. Baseball can tear down and rebuild any stadium it wants to, but it can never lose Fenway Park or Wrigley Field. The “baseball stadium as American cathedral” idea comes from these two places, and no others.

Toward the end of the game, as my baseball buddy and I were leaving the park, I pointed some sort of a gift shop  in the bowels of the stadium. He indicated that it had been built just a year or two ago. I looked at it again, and at the sections of the park all around it, and realized that I couldn’t tell the difference between something Babe Ruth would have recognized, and something that didn’t exist when the 21st century began. It was a seamless transition from one to the other, and it was very well done.

One of the things that Fenway Park now has, and I was very taken with during the game, is a number of very large scoreboards high above the action. I remember looking at them on several occasions, and telling myself that Wrigley Field needed something comparable. And if the announcement that a big 70-foot LED screen is coming to Wrigley Field next summer, then it looks like that’s going to happen. It’s decades overdue, but it can only make the fan experience better for those at the game.

The idea of seats on top of the Green Monster in left field seemed silly once, but I will tell you that every seat was sold when I was there, and it’s basically a license for the team to print money. I’m certain that Theo Epstein had a hand in that, and will be expected to offer his suggestions about how the Cubs can do something similar at Wrigley.

I was also struck by how the road outside the ballpark–Yawkey Way–is part of the Fenway Park experience. The mother of all gift shops is literally across the street, so you can actually leave the park, go to the gift shop, and return to your seat during the game. I would expect something similar at Wrigley, either with Sheffield Avenue (similar to the Wildcat Way that preceded the Northwestern-Illinois football game a year ago) or along Clark Street north of Addison.

The Ricketts family also just purchased the plot of land where the McDonald’s is, literally across the street from the ballpark. I would look for that to be incorporated into the park in some way, as well. There are lots of possibilities, and lots of money will be spent to make this a reality.

Some people will just instinctively oppose new changes in the name of “tradition.” But the biggest tradition of all at Wrigley–losing–is what we all want to see changed. Any other tradition is negotiable.  Paint the grass blue like Boise State’s turf, if you have to. Tear out all the ivy and convert it into padded walls covered with corporate signage, if need be. Remove the bullpens down the first and third base signs and put them behind the outfield wall. Do all of that and more in the name of winning, and I’ll happily go along with it.

I started going to games at Wrigley Field in 1987, and the only season I missed going to at least one game (but usually many more than that) was 2006. The Cubs had brought Dusty Baker back for his final year under contract, and I successfully staged a boycott of one during that season. But the result of all this is that Wrigley–for all of its history and charm–now seems a bit old hat. And if the ballpark and its surroundings are overhauled successfully, this feeling should vanish overnight.

Creating something new–while giving the appearance that it has always been there before–won’t be an easy task. But I have seen it up close, and I can attest to the fact that it can be done. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what they come up with.

Hanu-Cubs, Night 6

We begin, as always, with the music of Steve Goodman. This is actually a remembrance piece about him, but it’s still worth a watch:

The rotation so far (and with so many pitchers, that word seems appropriate) has been Dave Roberts, Sam Fuld (the only non-pitcher), Ken Holtzman, Jason Marquis, and Steve Stone. The only other non-pitcher in this series is featured tonight. And if there’s a sadder tale than Adam Greenberg’s, I don’t know what it is.

Cubs fans probably know all about the story I’m about to revisit, but others might not. When I came upon an Adam Greenberg card a few weeks ago, I was suprised to see it, and glad to have one at the same time. On some level, these things can memorialize a player’s career, however briefly it may have lasted. And briefly is an all too fitting word in this case.

Adam Greenberg was drafted by the Cubs in 2002, and played for the Lansing Lugnuts in single-A that year. I went to a couple of Lugnuts games that season, but I can’t recall whether or not Greenberg played in any of the games I was at. At that level, I don’t really look at the names too closely. So I can’t say that I saw him play with any certainty, but it’s possible. He made his way up to the Cubs’ double-A affiliate, and then to triple-A, during the 2004 season, and then–midway through the 2005 season–he was called up to the majors. At the age of 24, Greenberg seemed to be on his way.

His major league debut came in a Sunday night ESPN telecast. The Cubs had begun their descent in the final half of Dusty Baker’s term as manager, but that night they were ahead 4-2 going into the ninth inning. After a groundout to begin the top of the ninth, and with the pitcher’s spot due up, Baker tried to get the offense going by calling Greenberg’s number (which, for the record, was 17. I still think of it as Mark Grace’s old number).

Greenberg hadn’t yet taken the field, or come in as a pinch-runner, so this was truly his major league debut. He came to the plate and stood in against Valerio de los Santos, who was probably best known for surrendering Sammy Sosa’s 60th homer as a rookie in 1998. De los Santos went into his windup and fired a pitch that came up and in and made a sickening collision with Greenberg’s head.

It was the first and only pitch Greenberg ever saw in the majors, and he probably saw almost none of it. The immediate concern, for Greenberg’s family, de los Santos, and everyone watching in the ballpark and on TV was “is he going to survive this?” A 90+ mile-an-hour fastball is scary enough if it hits the arm or the leg. But in the face? I can’t imagine that.

Greenberg did survive, and Carlos Zambrano was summoned to run in Greenberg’s place. Greenberg suffered severe headaches afterward, and the Cubs–in what might have been a good baseball decision, but seems very cold-hearted otherwise–released Greenberg at the end of the season. He came back in the Cubs’ system in 2006, but was released in the middle of the season. He was subsequently signed by the Dodgers, Royals, and Angels organizations, and for the past three seasons he has played–and played well–for the Bridgeport Bluefish in the independent Atlantic League. Greenberg also received a single at-bat during the 2012 campaign, at the culmination of a campaign by filmmaker Matt Liston. He struck out on three pitches, but received a standing ovation for doing so.

I’m glad to have an Adam Greenberg baseball card. The picture of him in the Cubs hat and jersey, against a sky blue backdrop, seems almost heroic in some way. Here’s the All-American guy, playing the All-American sport, so what could go possibly wrong? But we can’t take anything for granted in life, and what happened to Adam Greenberg is an extreme example of how true that really is.

I’ve reached the limit of my Cubs players in baseball card form, but I do have two more players lined up (both pitchers, if you’re curious) to bring this to its conclusion. I hope you’ll join me over the next two nights. And the full Greenberg card is below:

Ahoy and good riddance

The word came down today, not from the player himself but through his agent, that Aramis Ramirez won’t be coming back to the Cubs. The actual term that his agent used was “that ship has sailed.” And that’s music to this Cubs fan’s ears.

Ramirez first came to the Cubs in 2003–that year again–and unlike all the others from that team, he has stuck around ever since. He did play well in the 2003 playoffs, but he wasn’t a leader on the team. Anything that the Cubs got from him that year was an unexpected bonus, really.

The 2006 team–which was Dusty Baker’s final year in Chicago–was brutally bad. Ramirez wasn’t quite a leader on that team, either, but he was in a contract year, so he put up the best numbers of his career offensively. He got his big payday from the Cubs (he’s now in the $16 million range annually) and hasn’t put up anywhere near the same numbers since.

Worse, though, was his complete disappearance from the playoffs in 2007 and 2008. He was a leader on the team, due to his experience and his salary, and he completely fell on his face when it counted. If you want a reason for why the Cubs went a combined 0-6 in the playoffs for those two years, look no further than Aramis Ramirez. He downed a bagel with an 0-12 showing in the 2007 loss to the Diamondbacks, and then bulked up to a .182/.250/.273 performance against the Dodgers in 2008.  And his regular season stats for those two years didn’t matter nearly so much.

This year’s All-Star game was another telling moment. Ramirez was offered a spot on the team to represent the Cubs, but he turned it down. I can understand wanting to be with your family, but baseball–and the Cubs in particular–have been more than good to Ramirez over the years. Turning down a chance that only a few players will ever get to have left a strong impression in my mind about what matters to him. And baseball and the Cubs aren’t it.

So he says–or at least his agent does–that he wants a ring. The implication is that he won’t get one in Chicago, but many in these parts thought that 2008 was the year, at long last. And Ramirez and four other everyday players (Edmonds, Soto, Fukudome, and Soriano) couldn’t break .200 for the playoff series against the Dodgers. He should look in a mirror if he wants to know what went wrong in the postseason that year.

Ramirez is widely considered to be the premier free-agent third baseman on the market this year. But I would advise whoever wants to commit three or four years and tens of millions of dollars to him to look at his track record. Wrigley is widely thought of as a hitter’s park, and that has padded his numbers a bit over the years.  In the 2010 season–the year that drove Lou Piniella out of baseball–Ramirez didn’t break .200 until after the fourth of July. Does that make him worthless as a player? Of course not. But his final numbers for that season are deceiving.

The talk around the Cubs now is about “changing the culture” and paying for future performance, rather than past performance. And Ramirez’ exit from the team provides an excellent opportunity for both to happen.

Thoughts about Game Sevens past

Game time is almost here, and I wanted to get these out there before the first pitch.

There hasn’t been a Game seven in the World Series since the Rally Monkey Angels beat Dusty Baker’s Giants back in 2002. The nine-year stretch without a Game seven is the longest in the history of the World Series. We we’re overdue for one of these, so let’s hope it lives up to the hype.

When I was born in 1968, the Cardinals were a perfect 6-0 in Game sevens (they won in 1926, 1931, 1934, 1946, 1964, and 1967). In my lifetime, though, they’re just 1-3 (winning in 1982, but losing in 1968, 1985, and 1987). If the Cardinals don’t win tonight, I’m sorry.

The best Game seven memory I have is from 2001. I was in Huatulco, Mexico, and my wife and I were having dinner in this little Mexican town when Alfonso Soriano hit a home run to put the Yankees up late in the game. As he was circling the bases, we decided that the Series was over, but once we got back to our resort I turned on the television anyway. I was then treated to the dual beauty of moonlight over a tropical bay, and a Yankees collapse in the ninth inning. It was a sweet evening, indeed.

In 1987, the Cardinals jumped out to an early 2-0 lead. In the next half inning, the Twins got one of the runs back to stay in the game, and they eventually scored later in the game and won the Series. A big hit was delivered by one Steve Lombardozzi, a career .233 hitter who somehow hit .412 in that World Series. When the Twins returned to the Series in 1991–this time beating the Braves in seven games–Lombardozzi was out of baseball altogether.

And finally, Gary Carter was the only Mets regular player to go 0-4 in Game seven of the 1986 World Series. His heroics in the series came the night before, when his rather harmless-looking single with two outs in the tenth inning of Game six turned into an inferno that swallowed Bill Buckner and the Boston Red Sox. The Win Probability for the Red Sox when Carter stepped in was at 99%. But without a game clock, anything truly can happen in baseball.

Hope you enjoy tonight’s game!

Don’t overlook that first game

Reliving ballgames from the past is a bit like watching Titantic and hoping the boat won’t sink. The boat’s always going to hit the iceberg, and panic is always going to ensue, and that band will always keep playing with the chaos around them. Watch it again and again if you like, but those things are just always going to be there.

And so it is with me and the 2003 NLCS. The recent ESPN documentary, Catching Hell, was bad on many levels, but perhaps the cruelest bit of all was the very final scene were “Alou” finally makes the catch on that foul ball down the third base side. I don’t know what the point of that shot was, but life just doesn’t happen this way. You can’t make a credible documentary about a factual event and then change the final outcome. You might just as well show Joe Jackson coming out of the cornfield.

In any best-of-seven series, winning the first game is crucial in establishing momentum. For each of the ten years before 2003, the team that won Game one of the NLCS had then gone on to capture the pennant. Looking at how Game one was won and lost in 2003 is futile, but I’m about to do it anyway. Come on along if you’re so inclined.

The Florida Marlins were the wild card entry into the playoffs, and so the Cubs, as a division winner, got to host Game one of the series. Carlos Zambrano was pitching for the Cubs, and he was staked to an early four-run lead. Zambrano gave it all back and more in the third inning, and the game see-sawed all the way to the ninth inning.

In the bottom of the ninth, Sammy Sosa hit a dramatic two-run homer to tie the game and force extra innings. Joe Borowski pitched a scoreless tenth inning, and for the 11th inning, Dusty Baker turned to Mark Guthrie. Guthrie was a veteran middle reliever, in his second tour of duty with the Cubs.

The first batter Guthrie faced was Mike Lowell. Lowell had broken his wrist, and thus lost his starting third base job, in late August of that year. Coming off the bench as a pinch hitter was a new role for him, but one that he evidently took to quickly enough. Guthrie hung a 2-2 fastball, and Lowell sent it to the bleachers in centerfield, giving the Marlins a lead they would not relenquish.

After taking the loss in Game one, Guthrie came back and pitched one inning of mop-up duty in Game two, but he did not pitch again in the series. In fact, it was the final pitching outing of Guthrie’s career. No one can say whether this home run had any impact on Guthrie’s career after 2003, but clearly Dusty Baker had lost confidence in him. Otherwise, Guthrie might have pitched at some point in Games three through seven of the series.

The Cubs came back from the opening defeat to win the next three games, and they had the Marlins on the ropes until Josh Beckett shut them out on two hits in Game five. If the Cubs had captured Game one, it’s possible that Beckett wouldn’t have had another chance at the Cubs. The series would have then been over in four games.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda. It’s all conjecture, and none of it changes what actually happened. But it’s also worth remembering that plenty of things did happen in the series before the eighth inning of Game six, even though ESPN would rather fixate on Moises Alou and the foul ball he didn’t catch, at least not in real life.

Cubs should get the F in, and let the Q out

In the thanks for nothin’ department, the Red Sox let Tito Francona go today. Something about a collapse or something. I understand the frustration that must come with such a shocking finish, and I realize some heads had to roll. But Francona will go somewhere else, and he’ll likely make any team he signs with better right away.

Tito Francona was actually the son of a big leaguer named (oddly enough) Tito Francona. Tito Francona I played from the 1950s until 1970, and Tito Francona II played in the 1980s. One of those seasons was spent on the North side of Chicago in a Cubs uniform. The blue pullovers he’s wearing above are no more, but I’m hoping he decides to come back and manage the team, anyway. The two World Series that he won in Boston are enough of a winning pedigree for me.

The Cubs drafted Francona out of high school back in the 1970s, and he turned them down cold. He signed a few years later with the Expos, instead. So maybe he feels like he owes the organization something for that long-ago snub. Or maybe his one year of playing in Chicago sparked an interest in returning as manager some day. Whatever will be, will be.

I know that Baker and Piniella had both won to some degree before they came to Chicago and got eaten up by all of the expectations. But a two-time World Series winner could bring some excitement just by signing his name on a contract.

The General Manager situation is more important, I realize, and the idea that Francona and Theo Epstein are a package deal is silly. Whoever the new General Manager is, he may not want Francona around. So the Cubs’ hands are tied, for now. But Mike Quade should take one final look around, if he hasn’t already. There’s no way he should return after a 91-loss season. And if Francona can lose his job, all but a handful of managers at the big league level should wonder about their own job security.

Bring on the postseason!

The Buckner Surprise

At the end of tonight’s ESPN documentary Catching Hell, I found myself saying one simple word: No. To expand upon that, I offer the following instant analysis:

No, I don’t see the connection between the Red Sox collapse in 1986 and the Cubs of 2003. For one thing, the Red Sox were at least in the World Series, which is something that no Cubs fan under 70 knows anything about.

No, the fact that Bill Buckner was traded from the Cubs to the Red Sox, or that he wore a Cubs glove on his hand that night, does not make him or his error relevant to what happened to the Cubs in 2003.

No, Alex Gibney, your feelings of empathy–or whatever it is that compelled you, as a Red Sox fan, to make this documentary–do not make things any better for me as a Cubs fan. You don’t know what being a Cubs fan is like, and it’s insulting to think that you can channel it through your own team.

No, the footage of  Bill Buckner triumphantly entering Fenway Park in 2008 did not add anything to the story of the 2003 Cubs. And forcing Cubs fans to watch it felt like forcing a hungry man watch someone else eat a steak. It seemed sadistic on some level.

No, the quasi-confessional nature of the interviews with the FOX producer and with Steve Lyons does not change what the hapless Cubs fan went through, and will continue to go through until further notice. They may or may not feel bad about the way they acted that night, but the impact of their actions cannot be undone by anything they say or do now.

No, speaking with Eric Karros was not enough to fully convey the team’s reaction to what was going on that night. He’s clearly a telegenic guy, and maybe that’s why he was chosen, but there were others on the team that I would have liked to hear from too, such as Mark Prior or Kerry Wood, or maybe even Alex Gonzalez. And Dusty Baker wasn’t worth talking to, either?

I appreciated some of the angles that I hadn’t seen before, and the Matt Liston footage from inside the park was also very engaging, but the documentary itself seemed like a Buckner Surprise, with far too much emphasis on the Red Sox and their travails, and not enough attention paid to the Cubs and their fans in the days since 2003.  Our itch remains unscratched, and although Gibney acknowledged as much at the end, I don’t think he really understands that.

One game, two historic acts

In the final games of every major league season, batting titles are won and lost. Playoff berths can be decided. And, as Doug Glanville has pointed out, many playing careers will come to an end. And, every so often, history is made. Such was the case on the final day of the 1977 season.

On Sunday, October 2, 1977, the Los Angeles Dodgers had a home game against the Houston Astros. After two straight seasons of playing second fiddle to Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, the Dodgers had broken through and captured the National League West title. They had already clinched the division title, and knew their playoff opponent would be the Philadelphia Phillies. They had very little to play for on that day.

The Astros, however, were at the other end of the baseball spectrum. A win that day would get them to .500, but they had long since been eliminated from the postseason. Still, they sent the ace of their staff, J.R. Richard, out to face the division champions. The Astros would win the NL West title three years later, but their time had not yet come.

Tommy Lasorda, in his first year of managing the Dodgers, gave most of his starters the day off. Reggie Smith, Ron Cey, and Davey Lopes did not play, and others, such as Steve Yeager and Bill Russell, made only token appearances. But one of the Dodger regulars, leftfielder Dusty Baker, did have something to play for.

Baker was sitting at 29 homers for the year, which was good enough for a top ten finish in the National League. Three of his teammates—Smith, Cey and Steve Garvey—had already hit 30 home runs, and if Baker could also get there, it would be the first time that four teammates had accomplished this feat in the same season. 46,000 fans were waiting to see if the Dodgers could make history on that day.

In order to give him an extra at bat if needed, Lasorda put Baker third in the lineup that day. Reggie Smith was the Dodgers’ usual number 3 hitter, and Baker typically hit sixth or seventh in the order. But Smith was out, and history was on the line, so Baker got moved up in the batting order.

Baker’s first at bat against Richard resulted in a base hit. It was better than an out, but not what the fans were waiting to see.  Baker came up again in the fourth inning and struck out. He still had at least one chance, and possibly two, to take Richard deep, but it wasn’t looking good so far.

When the bottom of the sixth inning came around, Manny Mota led off with a pinch hit home run. That ensured Baker would get another chance that inning. Two outs later, history was made when Baker homered to center. It was the first and only time in his career that Dusty Baker hit 30 homers in a single season.

As he was heading toward home, basking in the Dodger fans’ applause, Baker came upon the on-deck hitter, a young outfielder named Glenn Burke. Burke had gone in for Rick Monday the inning before, and was hitting in the cleanup spot in the order. Burke had a hand raised up over his head. Baker crossed home plate, raised his hand to meet Burke’s, and went back into the dugout. His day was over, as he was taken out of the game the next inning. But he had put his team in the record books, in his last at bat of the regular season.

Inspired by Baker’s feat, Burke then proceeded to hit a homer of his own. It was his first in the majors, and one of only two that he would ever hit. But at the time, it had lifted the Dodgers into the lead and gave the fans who had stayed around something else to cheer about. The Dodgers had taken the lead, and three home runs in the same inning against J.R. Richard didn’t happen very often.

The Astros came back to score 4 runs in the top of the seventh, and Richard went the distance, striking out 14 along the way. The Dodgers won the National League pennant, but lost the World Series to the Yankees in six games, capped off by Reggie Jackson’s dramatic three home run game in Yankee Stadium.

While Baker’s home run that day will be recorded in the annals of the game for all time, Burke’s response to it lives on, as well. Two and a half years later, when the Louisville Cardinals basketball team made their run to the NCAA championship, the act of “high-fiving” someone entered into the sporting and cultural mainstream. And yet Glenn Burke–whose name you likely had not heard before you read this–was the one who pioneered this gesture of affirmation thirty-four years ago.

Here’s hoping for an exciting and memorable playoff season in the weeks ahead.

Dusty left him in too long, twice

I’ll never forget the 2003 playoffs. The way it ended is something that I might never recover from. I’ve posted about that before in this space. But there are some good memories from it, too. I was scheduled to go to Atlanta on a business trip, and lo and behold, the Cubs were going to be playing there the very week I would be in town. I took that as a sign that I was doing something right with my life.

Wearing my Sammy Sosa jersey–back when I would still do such a thing– while walking through the Atlanta airport was another good memory. So was getting ready for work on Monday, and hearing “Seats are still available” on the radio. It struck me as odd that the games weren’t sellouts, but Braves fans had gotten blase’ about simply making it to the playoffs by that point. And walking through the streets of Atlanta with thousands of fellow Cubs fans after the Cubs won Game one of that series is something I’ll always remember fondly.

But the best memory of all happened at the outdoor bar known as ‘Turner Beach” after the Cubs lost game two. A Braves fan was telling me that the Cubs stink and, instead of putting my head down and walking away as I might normally do, I decided to give it right back to him. I told the Braves fan that when the series returned to Chicago for Game three, his team would be facing Mark Prior, which meant they had no chance. I proceeded to make up Prior’s stat line for the game–something like 7 2/3 innings, three hits, two runs (at most), eight strikeouts, one walk–and then walked away, supremely confident that Prior would indeed deliver a stellar performance. And that’s exactly what he did.

The terrible irony of 2003 is that as much as Prior carried the team on his back–along with fellow starting pitcher Kerry Wood–he was the one on the mound when everything started to unravel during Game six. He didn’t give up all of the eight runs that cost his team the game and, eventually, a spot in the World Series, but the chain of events started while he was on the mound.

It didn’t have to be that way. The previous start that Prior made during that series was Game two, where he earned the victory but went much deeper into the game than he had to. It’s all hindsight now, and I know what they say about hindsight being 20/20, but Prior was badly mismanaged by manager Dusty Baker all season long, and it eventually caught up to the Cubs in Game six.

Mark Prior, over the course of his first full major league season in 2003, made 30 starts and threw an amazing 3,401 pitches for the regular season. That’s an average of 113 pitches per start,  which once wasn’t a big deal, but now is the cause for some serious alarm. Not only can it lead to arm injuries for the pitchers, but it can also cause them to simply run out of gas, which is exactly what happened to Prior in Game six against the Marlins that terrible evening almost eight years ago.

Back to Game two for a moment. The Cubs jumped out to an 8-0 lead after three innings, and they extended their advantage to 11-0 after five innings. Starting pitchers must throw five innings to qualify for a win, and had Prior been removed from the game at that point, he would have thrown a mere 73 pitches. But, for reasons that only Dusty Baker can explain, Prior went out to the mound in the sixth inning (throwing 21 more pitches), the seventh inning (10 more pitches) and the eighth inning (12 more pitches before being taken out of the game).

Yes, Prior was young, nearly unhittable, and in possession of the best pitching mechanics anyone had ever seen, but throwing 43 additional pitches–on the heels of throwing an excessive number of pitches already in the regular season and the playoffs–didn’t serve too much purpose in a game that was so far out of the Marlins’ reach.

In Prior’s next start, the ill-fated Game 6, Prior threw 102 pitches through the first seven innings. For a team with an established setup man, that’s the time to take your starter out of the game. By turning it over to the bullpen, you get a fresh arm to face the hitters, and a look from the new pitcher that the batters on the other team haven’t seen before. Regardless of whether or not Prior was beginning to tire after seven innings, the top of the Marlins order–Juan Pierre, Luis Castillo, and Ivan Rodriguez–was coming up in the eighth inning, and they had each faced Prior three times already. I wonder if Dusty Baker considered that fact before he sent Prior out to start the eighth inning.

The foul ball episode, which happened while Luis Castillo was at bat, didn’t change a thing about the outcome of the game. By the time Ivan Rodriguez singled home the Marlins’ first run, Prior had thrown 22 more pitches and was seeing the game starting to slip away. His last, best hope to escape the jam he was in fell by the boards when Alex Gonzalez booted a bouncing ball that could have been a double play.

And yet the Cubs still had a two run lead. Baker let Prior face still another batter–future Cub Derrick Lee, and Prior’s 126th pitch of the night resulted in a game-tying,  season-changing double to left field. Prior was finally removed from the game, but by then the damage had already been done. We know how it ended up, and it wasn’t pretty.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it seems that any of the Cubs relievers should have come in for the sixth inning of Game two against the Marlins, or the game should have been turned over to a setup reliever for the eighth inning of Game six. We won’t ever know how these moves might have worked out, but I promise they wouldn’t have been any worse than the results we did get.

Whatever it takes

I read an article online today about an interesting possibility that I had not considered. The article is here, but basically the idea is that if the Cubs hired Walt Jocketty, the former General Manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, he would in turn hire Tony LaRussa, who would convince Albert Pujols to sign as a free agent. The possibilities briefly sent my mind spinning, but now I’ve had a few moments to digest it.

I don’t think this will happen. I know that Pujols will be the free agent prize of a generation this offseason, and the Cubs would need to commit lots of cash to bring him in. We’re talking nine digits worth, with the first of those digits being a 3. If I could command that type of money, I would do it. And in all likelihood, so would you. Albert Pujols will be able to command that type of money, if not from the Cubs than certainly from someplace else.

But putting Pujols aside for a moment, the prospect of Tony LaRussa managing the Cubs is intriguing. He started off here in Chicago, on the South side, as the manager for the White Sox at the tail end of the 1970s. Yes, he has been doing it for that long. He’s been Manager of the Year in both leagues, has won multiple pennants in both leagues, and–most importantly–has won the World Series in both leagues. The man’s a winner, pure and simple. He’s exactly what the Cubs need.

Yes, he’s been the Cardinals manager for a long time, which has earned him a place of disdain in my heart, and those of many other Cubs fans, too. The epic five-game series in Chicago, at the start of September 2003, was but one example of LaRussa being a schmuck. When the Cubs won 4 of those 5 games, though, everything seemed to fall into place that year. LaRussa’s team was the hurdle, and for once the Cubs were able to overcome it.

I love the Cubs, and have since I was a little kid, but the one thing I want more than anything else in baseball is to see the them winning the World Series. Not only getting to the World Series, but winning it. LaRussa has already done that, and  if he’s the guy to do it for the Cubs, I’ll gladly go along with it.

I wanted to title this post “I’d cheer for the devil himself” and insert a picture of LaRussa. That would send a bad message, like LaRussa is the devil himself, so I went another direction with the title. But the feeling is sincere. If Sarah Palin could manage the Cubs to a World Series win, I’d even pull for her. But she doesn’t have LaRussa’s resume of baseball success.  She’d probably quit halfway through the season, anyway.

Lou Piniella and Dusty Baker had some managing success before coming to the Cubs, but both of them were beaten down and run out of town without so much as a single World Series appearance. And I can’t imagine that this would happen to LaRussa. So I say to the Cubs, spend the money for Pujols and LaRussa, and Jocketty too. Nothing matters but a World Series title, in my mind at least. And if it all happens this way, I’ll be the loudest person at the victory parade.