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!

An unexpected payoff

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Being a Cubs fan is never an easy thing. After spending almost forty years in that fold, I can make such a statement with complete confidence. The good years–as measured by when the team makes it to the playoffs– can be counted on one hand, or two hands at the very most. And every one of them has also supplied a moment of defeat and disappointment, whether it’s Leon Durham letting a ground ball go through his legs in 1984, or Greg Maddux serving up a grand slam to Will Clark in 1989, or Moises Alou throwing a fit when he didn’t catch a foul ball in 2003. Even the best years haven’t ended well for Cubs fans like me.

But every once in a while, there’s a moment of validation. The Rolling Stones got it right: you do, once in awhile, get what you need. And what I needed is a sense that decades of following a baseball team has put me in league with some good people who share my interest. Our team never has won the big prize in any of our lifetimes, but so what? That doesn’t mean we can’t follow them, all the same.

I very publicly threw up my hands on the present version of the Cubs, as constructed under the front office of Theo Epstein and others. I’m convinced that they aren’t worth following at this point, because they aren’t doing anything to make the team on the field any better this year. But even if that’s the case, decades of following the Cubs are still with me, and purging all of that from my memory just isn’t possible. I’d sooner cut off one of my hands than deny all of the memories I have acquired through the years, and have put so much time and effort into trying to describe them in this space.

And so tonight, I had an opportunity to put all of these memories to use. The Chicago Public Library sponsored a Wrigley Field centennial celebration, centered around Wrigley Field: The Long Life and Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines by Stuart Shea. The format of the evening was a trivia game, where members of the audience were randomly chosen to compete for prizes. I would have had fun watching others compete, but fate was smiling on me as I had a chance to put my Cubs experiences to work.

I answered some of the questions correctly, and missed some other questions, and had a great time in the company of others who cared about the Cubs as passionately as I do. I even walked away with a copy of the book, which is great because books are the best thing that anyone can give me. Abraham Lincoln once said that his best friend was the man who could get him a book he hasn’t read, and I agree wholeheartedly, particularly when that book is about the Cubs and Wrigley Field.

Knowing that there are others like me who enjoy the Cubs, despite all of the disappointment that they will inevitably bring in October (if not earlier), is something like finding old treasures in an attic, or finding money in the pocket of your jeans. It makes this year’s team (which was shut out for the second game in a row today, and will have the worst record in the majors until further notice) tolerable, not for the feelings of victory which EVERY OTHER TEAM in this city has experienced in my lifetime. No, it makes it tolerable because even though the team on the field has been defeated time and time again, the part of this city who loves the team has not allowed themselves to be defeated.

On the day that Maya Angelou passed away, many of her inspirational writings have been making the rounds on the internet. One of my favorites is “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.” And tonight, I put those words into action at the public library in Chicago. Ms. Angelou’s words were undoubtedly meant in a larger context than following a particular baseball team, but the spirit of her remarks can be applied to any circumstance at all.

We all fail in life, and it’s not fun when it happens. We suffer defeats, and our expectations do not always meet the realities that we encounter. Certainly that’s been the case for the Cubs this year, and last year, and every year before that, as well. But those setbacks must never serve to crush our spirit. And following a team like the Cubs reinforces this lesson on a regular basis.

Eddie Vedder sang that someday we’ll go all the way, and there are untold numbers of people waiting for that day to arrive. In the meantime, at least there’s a new book about it to read. I think I’ll get started right now.

Thoughts on Papi and Alou

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Today was quite a day. Not only did I spend the day on a field trip with my daughter’s Girl Scout troop (more on that later, some day), but I had a variety of pieces running in different places. The I-still-can’t-quite-believe-it-happened comeback by the Red Sox in the ALDS–keyed by a grand slam by David Ortiz–gave rise to two different pieces, one at ThroughTheFenceBaseball and the other at FiveWideSports.

Writing for two different blogs in the same general vein can be time-intensive, but it allows me to take something in two different directions, as I did with yesterday’s Red Sox game. There were dozens of ways to go with it, and I was happy to have multiple options.

As if to counterbalance the stories about joy in Boston, I later cranked out a piece about my own lingering heartbreak–and that isn’t too strong a word–over the way the 2003 NLCS turned out in Chicago. I already had an alternate history piece on ChicagoSideSports, but I added one more bit of perspective about Moises Alou.

Would he have caught that ball that was hit down the third base side by Luis Castillo in the eighth inning of Game six? We’ll never know for certain. One day it will be an ancient memory, but that day hasn’t arrived yet.

Writing about it helps a little bit, if only to bear witness to how it all came apart so suddenly. Here’s hoping the next ten years will be better than the first ten were.

Looking beneath the fold

Last weekend, I found myself in the position of having to explain the Cubs and their 2003 collapse in the playoffs to a young fan who didn’t know anything about it. I’ve written about this before, from many different angles, but writing is so much more preferable to me than speaking. It’s always been that way: I don’t make eye contact very well, I mumble, my thoughts get jumbled up, my tongue doesn’t function as well as my brain wants it to. It’s a confidence thing, I’m sure.

When I was teaching, and had no choice but to overcome this on a daily basis, I found that a visual aid–or a prop, as I thought of it–could make a point better than I could on my own. And so, to explain what happened to the Cubs that year, I pulled out a Chicago Tribune front page dated October 15, 2003. It was the day after Moises Alou and that foul ball down the left field line.

I explained how the Cubs were ahead, and had just five more outs until the pennant was won. I described how Mark prior was a robot that year, seemingly unbeatable every time he went to the mound. I explained how people were ready, both inside Wrigley Field and out, to yell and scream and celebrate like they never had before. And then, in the course of one half-inning of play, it all came apart. And it hasn’t been close to that point ever since.

I saved that newspaper, as I did a lot of them during the 2003 postseason, because I was expecting great things to happen that fall. I wanted to keep them, as tangible proof that yes, it really did happen for the Cubs, after decades of waiting for it. It felt like a lifetime of waiting was finally going to be over.

The young Cubs fan, who seemed to be intrigued by the story I was telling him, looked at the picture and noticed something interesting. It was below the newspaper’s fold, and I had never noticed it before because all of the action takes place above the fold, which runs through Moises Alou’s torso and is visible above if you look at it the right way.

It was only after the paper was opened up all the way that this revealed itself to him, and only after he spotted it that I saw it too. He pointed to a fan with a blue Cubs jacket, a smile on his face, and his arms spread wide apart, and asked me “Why is this guy so happy?” I looked at him, and right away I understood the reason for his big smile.

Everyone in the park at that moment, and around the outside of the park, and watching on TV felt exactly as he did, at least until that ball twisted toward the stands. This guy was looking for a TV camera, oblivious to what was unfolding just a few feet away from him. I’m certain that, in five minutes’ time, he wasn’t nearly as happy as he was in that moment.

If only that exuberance, captured surreptitiously and preserved in a newspaper for all time, could return again. Almost nine years have now gone by, and life has moved on for all of us. The Cubs are finishing up yet another season that hasn’t quite turned out the way we wanted it to.

I still have some more baseball seasons left in me, I hope, and one of them might end up the way that I thought that the 2003 season would. And if it does, perhaps this old newspaper won’t be worth looking at, anymore. Hope springs eternal.

Blame Jeff Pico

I love Tumblr, even if I don’t use it very much. I cross-post a few of my posts here on my page, which shares the BlueBattingHelmet name. My Twitter page, incidentally, does not use this name because “BlueBattingHelmet” has more characters than a Twitter handle allows. I would have to call it @4BlueBatting or something like that, and I don’t want to bastardize it that way. That’s just how I roll.

It’s through Tumblr that I learned of a great video by Chicago atrist Serengeti. The video is called “Don’t Blame Steve” and it begins with footage of that infamous foul ball from Game Six of the 2003 NLCS. It strikes a theme similar to one that I’ve stated in this space, but has a funkier hook than anything I could come up with. And there’s a Beastie Boys sample thrown in for good measure, too.

The song is written from the vantage point of someone next to the fan (you know his name) when the ball came toward them at the same time as Moises Alou did. Serengeti is positing that the fan’s reaction was something that you or I would have done, and just because we know how it all ended up, that doesn’t mean he was in the wrong to do what he did. Serengeti names a bunch of old ballplayers that we can blame (Paul Assenmacher and others who played for the Cubs (or not) over the years), but states, again and again, that we should not “Blame Steve.” And he’s absolutely right about that.

Jeff Pico, one of Serengeti’s potential blame targets, was drafted by the Cubs in June of 1984, a few weeks before the fabled “Sandberg Game.” By 1988, Pico had made it to the majors, and could count Sandberg as a teammate. I’m sure it was quite a thrill for him.

Jeff Pico’s three-year stint with the Cubs lasted from 1988 to 1990, meaning this 1990 Topps card may have been one of his last. I don’t know if a 1991 card of him exists, but he spent the 1991 season at triple-A in the Oakland organization. He was with two other organizations in 1992 and 1993, meaning that his big-league talent was somehow only apparent to the Cubs. Jeff Pico’s professional baseball career ended after the 1996 season.

So Serengeti’s point, as I understand it, is that Jeff Pico, as a player, deserves more blame for what happened on that night in 2003 than the fan does. By 2003, Jeff Pico hadn’t been seen at Wrigley Field in 13 years, so blaming him makes no sense at all. But blaming a fan, even one who went for a foul ball hit his way, makes even less sense. And Serengeti has a point there.

Sometimes art imitates life, and sometimes it’s the other way around. Serengeti’s song, appearing eight years after the game was played, is art imitating life, but he makes a very good point. And he mentions “Hawk Dawson” a few times along the way. It’s definitely worth a listen or two.

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.

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.

2003 will not leave me alone

There was an Alex Gonzalez playing shortstop at Wrigley Field tonight. No, not the Alex Gonzalez who was the Cubs shortstop in 2003. He was the one who booted a double play ball, and opened up the floodgates that washed away the World Series dreams of me and millions of Cubs fans. If he had made the play cleanly, it’s entirely possible that we’d never even have learned that fan’s identity (and I can’t bring myself to say the name here, but you know who it is). That whole incident could have been an amusing bump on the road to the World Series. But it was not to be.

The Alex Gonzalez playing shortstop for the Braves tonight was actually the other Alex Gonzalez, who played for the Florida Marlins that year. Both teams in that series had a shortstop named Alex Gonzalez. I suppose I had blocked that out of my mind until tonight. I googled his name when I heard it tonight, to make sure that it wasn’t the former Cubs’ Gonzalez on the field. It was a relief to learn that it wasn’t actually him.

Nearly eight years after that fateful series, I still can’t seem to shake its painful memories. ESPN will be airing a documentary about that unfortunate fan, and it has come out that two of the Cubs players in 2003–Moises Alou and Aramis Ramirez–booked flights home to the Dominican Republic after the loss in Game 6. I knew that it was over before Game 7 was played–and I think a lot of others knew it too–but to hear that the players also knew it was very unsettling. At least play the game first, and if you lose, then you buy the ticket home. That’s how I would do it, anyway.

It’s now been 66 years since the Cubs even played in the World Series. Anyone alive who can remember it is now collecting Social Security and hoping they will live to see the Cubs in the World Series again. Some Cubs fans, like Steve Goodman, who wrote “Go Cubs Go” and “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request,” lived their whole lives and never saw their team in the World Series. Cubs fans like this are dying off every year, with the one thing they wanted having been denied them. And the Florida Marlins have already won it twice. It’s difficult to think about sometimes.

I know that I’ll watch the documentary when it’s shown on ESPN. I should either avoid it if I can’t deal with what happened, or make my peace with it and move on with my life. Perhaps the only way to truly expunge these feelings is to see the Cubs to win the whole thing. After all, Bill Buckner’s standing in Boston has now been restored for that very reason. And I’d like to think that the Cubs can also win in my lifetime. My optimism about many other things in life should carry over to my baseball team too, shouldn’t it?