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.

Goodbye Goose

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I still remember so many things that happened twelve years ago tonight. I’ve relived some of them here so many times. But try as I might, I haven’t just let them go. I’ve been like Maverick in the movie Top Gun, wishing things had turned out differently than they did. And the only way to finally get past it is to wind up and let those dog tags go. Here’s the music that plays during the scene, if the audio experience is desired.

So goodbye, memories of a champagne bottle that was never acquired, much less consumed.

Goodbye, Bernie Mac singing “Root, Root, Root for the Champions” during the seventh inning stretch.

Goodbye, Moises Alou jumping up and down like a baby.

Goodbye, Mark Prior melting down at the worst possible moment

Goodbye, shortstop who couldn’t start the double play that would have ended the inning.

and most importantly of all, Goodbye Steve Bartman. I’ve written about you a dozen times and more without ever typing out your name. It was my way of trying to respect you as a person and a fan, and not make things any worse than they must already be. But dredging up that moment over and over again wasn’t helping anybody out, so I won’t do it anymore. May you find peace one day, if you haven’t already.

Great things are ahead for the Cubs in the coming two or three weeks. I predicted this early in the year, before Spring training even got started.  And only through clearing away the past will this celebration be complete. This is my one last time of rubbing the dog tags, and

away…..

they……

go!

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There! I feel better already.

GO CUBS!

All this could be such a dream

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Nothing like quoting from an old Night Ranger song to start a post, is there? I actually like their song “Goodbye” because it has a wistful, reminiscent air about it. Which is just how I feel about Mark Prior and the Chicago Cubs.

It’s now been a decade since he pitched the Cubs to the edge of the World Series, and almost that long since he did anything worth noticing on a baseball diamond. He got hurt, like many athletes do, and his physical gifts couldn’t survive that process. I wish it hadn’t happened like that, but life is full of such disappointments.

But there was always a hope for a Hollywood ending, or another shot at making it in the big leagues again. I really wanted that to happen for him, to show that the past can sometimes be just a prologue. But it seems that it couldn’t, at least not in this case.

Mark Prior recently retired from baseball, and the memories–good ones as well as bad–will now be retired along with him. I wrote a piece for ThroughTheFenceBaseball, putting my thoughts into a little more focus. But the guitar strumming at the beginning of Night Ranger’s song is always going to accompany any thoughts about his career.

It’s sad that what once looked like a great career has reached its end, but all things have to end sometime, and the true end in this case came many years ago. Now that end has to be reckoned with, and it’s on to the next thing. So shall it always be in life.

Link to a post on ThroughTheFenceBaseball

MarkPrior

Yesterday brought a strange bit of baseball convergence, as the Atlanta Braves retired Chipper Jones’ number 10, while the Cincinnati Reds released Mark Prior. Ten years ago, in the first round of the National League playoffs, Prior got the better of Jones in game three, retiring him three times.But in the end, Chipper Jones is going to the Hall of Fame, while Mark Prior is struggling to make it back back to the majors.

I wrote this piece as a lamentation of sorts for the way it has been for Cubs fans since 2003. And I hope that one day these memories will be supplanted by something more celebratory. But for now, this is all I have.

Best of luck to Mark Prior as he moves on from here. I’d like to see him pitch again in the majors one day.

Sammy Sosa and the ghosts of 2003

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With Sammy Sosa on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year, the annual debates about who should be inducted–or not inducted–have commenced. The proprietor of The Hall of Very Good asked me to make a case for or against Sammy Sosa, and the piece appears here.

I came out as forcefully as I could against Sosa’s election, on the grounds that he was one of the central figures of the Steroid Era, and this alone is enough to disqualify him. But I also hold the way that Sammy left town against him. On the last day of the 2004 season he quit on the team, left the park early, and got his radio smashed by a still-unnamed teammate. He was traded to the Orioles in the offseason, and never set foot on a baseball field in Chicago again.

So there were the steroids and the issue of quitting on his team. But there’s another piece to the equation that I didn’t even consider, until after I saw the piece I had written online. Is it possible that I might view Sammy’s candidacy differently if 2003 really had been the year that the Cubs won the World Series? Kerry Wood and Mark Prior got all the attention, but the number three hitter in the lineup everyday was good old number 21. Didn’t that count for something?

There was a moment, in Game 7 of the NLCS against the Marlins, where Sammy could have saved the day. The Cubs were trailing by a run in the bottom of the fifth inning, and the Marlins had just brought Josh Beckett into the game on short rest, after he had pitched a shutout against the Cubs in Game 5. When Sosa came to the plate with two outs and nobody on base, every Cubs fan wanted to see him take Beckett deep and tie up the game.

But instead of working the count, or even taking a pitch to force Beckett to work a little bit, Sammy swung at the first pitch and flied out to right field. Had he put one in the bleachers to tie the game–as he had already done in Game one of the series, he would have helped to swing the momentum back the Cubs’ way. But it was not to be, and Beckett worked through the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings, to effectively seal the win for the Marlins. Sosa had a chance to make himself a hero, but he didn’t take advantage of it.

Would I now support Sosa for the Hall of Fame, if things had gone differently back in 2003 or 2004? Sadly, I won’t get to know the answer for certain, but I have to think that I would. Seeing the Cubs play in the World Series, to say nothing of actually winning it, is something I never have seen, and may never see before the inevitable occurs. The sour taste left by 2003 is something I hold against a lot of people, and Sammy Sosa is included in that group. He’s probably even at the head of line.

Since Moises Alou, Eric Karros, Aramis Ramirez, and a dozen other players from that team either aren’t yet on the Hall of Fame ballot–or never will be on it in the first place– Sammy Sosa’s candidacy is the time to let those feelings of disappointment out. Those are the breaks, I’m afraid.

“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.

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.

Farewell to the assassin

I can’t deny the greatness of Pudge Rodriguez. He’s the Johnny Bench of his generation, the player by which future catchers will be measured against. We’ll see him again in five years when he’s inducted into Cooperstown, no doubt.

But I’m going to depart from the career retrospective approach that others might take. For me, as a Cubs fan, the 2003 NLCS is Pudge’s legacy. His role in that series cannot be overstated, and–as painful as it may be–I want to describe the moments where he earned his MVP award, and snuffed out the hopes of Cubs fans everywhere.

In Game one, the Cubs jumped out to an early 4-0 lead. Carlos Zambrano was on the mound, and all was good in Wrigleyville. But Pudge came up in the third inning, with two runners on base, and smashed a home run to get the Marlins back in the game. This got inside Zambrano’s head, as he surrendered two more home runs that inning, and gave up his big lead. The Marlins won that game in extra innings, which kept them in the series after the Cubs won the next three games. If the Marlins lose Game one, perhaps there would have been a sweep, and the nightmarish last two games in Wrigley could have been avoided. But this was not to be.

Game six, which I have written about many times, was the game that Pudge really came through for his team. In the ill-fated eighth inning, there was a diversion created by Moises Alou and the incident that we all know about. And in the confusion this created, a walk and a wild pitch to Luis Castillo were the first signs of Mark Prior’s unraveling. Up stepped Pudge Rodriguez.

The count went to 0-and-2 on Rodriguez and Prior, perhaps in an attempt to get his groove back, served up a big meatball. And Rodriguez, like the man behind the fence on that grassy knoll in Dallas, didn’t miss. He singled to left, plating Juan Pierre and continuing the meltdown that didn’t end until 8 runs had crossed the plate. The World Series dream, in retrospect, died at some point in the eighth inning of Game six, and Rodriguez’ single was the esoteric moment when that came to pass.

In the aftermath of that game, the media had their Oswald, their fall guy. Everything that went wrong was blamed on him. But the real culprit, the one that fired the equivalent of the Zapruder film’s kill shot, was Pudge Rodriguez. It didn’t so much as tie the game, but it further dazed Mark Prior, to the point that he should have come out of the game immediately after this at-bat. But Dusty Baker left  Prior in the game too long, and we all know how that story ended.

In Game seven, with the World Series on the line, Rodriguez delivered again. In the fifth inning, after Kerry Wood had issued two critical walks to put the tying run on base, Rodriguez came up and delivered a huge double on the first pitch he saw. And, more importantly, he became the lead run at second base. When he scored on Derrick Lee’s single, the Marlins never trailed again.

Rodriguez wasn’t the only Cubs killer in that series, but he was the primary one. So as Pudge Rodriguez hangs up his catching gear, I tip my cap and give him his due. He beat the Cubs more than anyone else did in that series, with the possible exception of Dusty Baker. The fans of the Marlins, and the other teams that he played for in his career, will remember him fondly. But Cubs fans like me can’t do that.

and I believe in the Promised Land

Over the nine months I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve written more posts about the Chicago Cubs than any other topic. But I have other favorites, too, and Bruce Springsteen’s music is definitely on that list. This is the first time I’ve been able to fuse the two subjects together, and I’m excited to be doing this, so here goes:

The first–and so far, the only–Springsteen concert that I’ve seen was at the United Center in Chicago back in 2007. I went with my sister, and we had a great time, both at the show and in the perfect fall weather that bookended it. Lately, I’ve been listening to a bootleg of the show that I found online. My favorite song from that show–and possibly my favorite Springsteen song of all–is one called the Promised Land. The concept in the title goes back thousands of years, but I can relate to it as a Cubs fan in the 21st century.

The Israelites in the Hebrew Bible wandered through the desert, looking for a land that they had been promised. I’m not religious–13 years of Catholic school notwithstanding–but I’ve been wandering about my whole life. And the absence of anything to show for that hasn’t diminished my belief that it’s still out there. For some reason, it’s only become stronger over the years.

Bruce Springsteen played at Fenway Park in Boston for two nights back in September of 2003. For the first night’s show, he and his band played The Promised Land as the 17th song and before the first encore started. But for the second night’s show, he didn’t play it at all. Every show has a different setlist, and sometimes songs don’t get played. But the year after those two Springsteen concerts, the Red Sox finally did get to their promised land, after eight decades of wandering through baseball’s desert.

Did that song finally help to get the Red Sox over the hump? It sounds like a goofy thing to say, but is it any goofier than a ground ball rolling through Leon Durham’s legs in 1984? Or the almost unbeatable Mark Prior blowing a 3-run lead in 2003? Or the persistent belief that one man and his goat have effectively cursed the team for over 60 years? It’s certainly worth a shot to find out if there’s anything to playing this song live in a star-crossed baseball venue. Perhaps it has worked once, already.

After reports, rumors, and speculation, it’s now official that Bruce Springsteen will be coming to Wrigley Field this fall. He played in the Uptown Theater once upon a time, and Soldier Field back in the 80s, but this is the first time he’ll be at Wrigley Field. I hope to get tickets, but even if I don’t I’ll try to find a listening party in the Wrigleyville area. Bruce and his band will be heard up and down Clark Street, when the time comes. (NOTE: I attended the first of the two shows, and wrote about it in various places online.) 

In trying to get ahead of that curve, I humbly suggest to Bruce Springsteen, and to everyone else reading this, that The Promised Land would be an essential addition to a Wrigley Field setlist. Not only is it a fantastic song–one that calls on the power of an unshakable belief in something–but it could also be the portent of something great to come for the Cubs. (NOTE: The song was the first one played at the second Wrigley Field show in 2012, and not the first show that I attended. But at least it was played.) 

I’d like nothing more than to argue about whether or not this made any difference, after it finally takes place. And so I’m laying down this marker now because, as Tug McGraw once said, you just gotta believe.

(NOTE: The video presented above was filmed in 2016, four years after I wrote this post. The original video was removed for copyright grounds, but this one’s really good, too. They all are, I’m sure.)

Has it really been eight years?

I remember the weekend before it happened. I was in Albuquerque with my family for the annual balloon festival. I had been there before, but it was different that time. The Cubs had advanced in the playoffs, and I could taste the World Series. It seemed inevitable.

A couple of games in the Marlins series took place while I was in New Mexico. I was, for a brief moment, concerned that I would not be in Chicago for the clincher. But it lined up well, since I returned in time for Game six on a Tuesday night. Mark Prior was pitching, and he had been his unhittable self in the postseason so far. It was in the bag.

I bought a sheet of window cling stickers, and cut out the Cubs logo shown above. I put it in the rear window of my family’s 1999 Subaru, which was newly ours after we had finished a four-year lease and bought out the car when it was over. I wouldn’t have put the sticker in if the car was still being leased, but in my exuberance it seemed like a small act of confidence.

As the Cubs built an early lead, and Prior was cruising along, I told my wife I was going to get a bottle of champagne to celebrate the first pennant of my lifetime. She objected, and told me that the Cubs were just going to lose the game. There was a split second of disbelief on my part when she said that. I went back to the game, but never did get the champagne. It was a harbinger of what was to come.

I didn’t know that Bernie Mac was a Cubs fan, but there he was in his blue warmup jacket, singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with 40,000 fans in the ballpark, and who knows how many more outside the park. I would have been there too, but I had an infant daughter that I wanted to watch the game with. I wondered at the time if her birth had something to do with the Cubs’ success. I know that’s silly, but she had been born on the night of the All-Star game (which was held in Comiskey Park that summer), so anything seemed like it was possible.

When Bernie Mac warbled out “root, root, root for the Champions” I thought it was kind of sweet. I didn’t consider it a jinxing moment, the way some others are claiming they knew it was. He was just enjoying the moment. Everybody was.

The Cubs took the field in the eighth inning, just six outs away. The  next half hour or so is a painful blur. It happened, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t angry at the unnamed fan (at that time) over what happened. I’ve gotten over that part of it in the years since then, but it’s still something I turn over in my mind. What could have changed? Did it have to end up as it did?

The short answer is yes, it did have to be this way. Fate knocked me on my butt that night, and left a scar that can only be healed when the Cubs win the World Series. Are you reading this, Theo Epstein? There are thousands, if not millions, who feel this way. And we’re looking to you to fix this.

The car with the Cubs sticker on it was towed away for good a few months ago. I had planned to drive it for several more years, but the Prius that has since replaced it means I’m paying less for gas than I used to, so that’s a good thing. And this time, I’ll wait until the deed is done before putting a sticker in the window.

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.

Why does Gonzo get a pass?

If I’m Alex Gonzalez, the one shown on the card above, I would consider myself an extremely lucky man. Without the widely known–and tragically unfortunate–interference event that happened during the top half of the eighth inning of Game six of the 2003 NLCS, Gonzalez would be as renown as Bill Buckner for the error he made in the 1986 World Series.

Perhaps Gonzalez would not be quite as well-known to the general public, since the stage in 2003 wasn’t exactly the World Series. Cubs fans, however, would still know his name. And they would point to a play he failed to make as the reason for the Marlins’ comeback victory that evening. But instead, the Cubs fan that everyone knows about takes the heat. The game even has his name attached to it, as if he were actually on the field that night. I somehow feel the need to explain that this was not the case.

I’ve written about that game before here and here. I haven’t used the fan’s name in either post, but not for the same reasons that I couldn’t use the recently-departed reality mother’s name. With this guy, it’s different. He didn’t seek the notoriety he has, and his split-second reaction is something that has haunted him enough already.

If I asked fans on the street to tell me what happened to the Cubs in 2003, they might use the names “Prior” or “Baker” or even “Alou” in their descriptions. Marlins players like “Lee” or “Rodriguez” might be in their descriptions as well. But everyone would use the name of the fan in the stands, who wasn’t a ballplayer, and was just a paying customer like everyone else in the ballpark that evening. And few, if any, would use the name “Gonzalez.”

The stage needs to be set just a little bit. With the Cubs ahead 3-1 in the eighth inning, and runners on first and second with one out, Marlins rightfielder Miguel Cabrera hit a bouncer at Gonzalez, who was the Cubs’ shortstop. The back of the baseball card above indicates that Gonzalez “shines at shortstop,” and so a bouncing ball should have been an automatic double play. Field the ball, throw to second, and then watch as the second baseman “makes the turn” over to first. Automatic. Cabrera had grounded into 12 double plays that season, and one in Game four of the series, so there’s no reason to believe he was getting to first base very quickly.

But Gonzalez booted the ball. It hit his glove, fell to the ground, and by the time he picked it up, the bases were loaded. That play had to be made, if the Cubs were to have any chance at getting out of the inning and winning the pennant. Not only did it give at least one more out to the Marlins, but it put the go-ahead run on at first base. The tying run was in scoring position, and there was a runner on third, too. But Cabrera–who should have never reached base to begin with–now represented the lead run at first base. It should be pointed out that the incident between Alou and the fan didn’t actually put a runner on base.

The Cubs proceeded to self-destruct that inning, and I don’t want to run down all of the gruesome details here. At the end of it all, that 8-spot the Marlins put on the Cubs effectively crushed any chance for a comeback. But Cabrera’s run was the one that counted the most, and Gonzalez made it possible when he botched the double play ball.

So why does the fan get all of the attention, including ESPN’s documentary that will pull the scab off the wound all over again? I can think of two reasons: First, it gives everyone the iconic, snapshot image that all of the papers put on their front pages the next day. If the foul ball hadn’t occurred, and the Cubs still lost the game, maybe there would be a picture of the booted double play ball on the front pages. Or perhaps there would have been an anguished Mark Prior, or a dejected fan, or some other shot for the readers to look at instead. We’ll never know this for sure, either.

But secondly, the everyday fan can relate to another fan in the stands before he or she can relate to the players on the field. We know nothing about where these players come from, how hard they have to work to get where they are, or what their lives must be like, travelling from city to city and being paid very handsomely in the process. Alex Gonzalez made $4.5 million in 2003, and upwards of $30 million over the course of his playing career. And as much as I would like to relate to that, I can’t do it.

The fan in question was closer to most of us. He loves the game–and even coached it if I remember correctly– but since he wasn’t blessed with extraordinary natural skills, he had to get up in the morning, go to work, sit at a desk, send and answer emails to his colleagues and supervisors, and do all of the things that we do in the daily course of our lives. We can’t relate to what he’s gone through since that night, of course, but up until that instant, he was one of us. And he’s still one of us, even if he now has to keep himself out of the public eye at all costs.

There was a story that the fan in question was recently offered a substantial sum of money to show up at a baseball card show in Chicago and sign one autograph. To agree to that would have been like walking into a lions’ den, since angry Cubs fans would also be there to give him some of their frustrations over how it all turned out. And that’s truly unfortunate.

My guess is that he probably just wants his old life back, but the lingering misperception that his reaction cost the Cubs the pennant that year has made it all but impossible. In a way, he’s already served eight years to life, and hopefully Cubs fans, and the media, will let him out on parole someday. At least, that’s what I’m advocating for here.

As I’m getting ready to watch the ESPN documentary this week, I remember how, on that awful night back in 2003, I didn’t pound the floor in frustration when Moises Alou missed a ball that was already out of play. I certainly did pound the floor, however, when Gonzalez made his incredibly costly error. There’s a real difference between these two moments, and I hope ESPN doesn’t gloss this over. We’ll find out soon enough.

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.