New Year’s Eve and the humanitarian impulse


Forty years ago, Roberto Clemente lost his life on New Year’s Eve, trying to deliver supplies that had been donated to the people of Nicaragua after a devastating earthquake. His own spirit of generosity and determination to help people who weren’t even his countrymen is a heroic thing. I salute him for this, and wish there was a similar spirit among the ballplayers of today. They have a lot more money than Clemente did, and perhaps they donate some of it to charity, but the idea that a star player would get personally involved with relief efforts–as Clemente did–seems to be lost anymore. And if I’m wrong about that, I’ll certainly take it back. But I’ll need some proof first.

A fleeting Cub’s story

It’s Opening Day, 1973 at Wrigley Field. Baseball has returned from a long winter’s nap, but it’s still in a daze. During the offseason, one of its brightest stars, Roberto Clemente, was lost in a plane crash in Puerto Rico. The Pirates came within three outs of the 1972 World Series, but that seems less than important when matters of life and death are involved.

The Cubs are coming off a winning season in 1972, and a distant second-place finish to the Pirates. But hope springs eternal, particularly on the North side of Chicago, and 40,000+ fans have come out to Wrigley Field to see if Whitey Lockman’s team can do something that Leo Durocher’s teams never could: win the division title and make it to the the postseason.

The day’s opponent is the Montreal Expos, who send Mike Torrez to the mound to face off against Ferguson Jenkins. The game starts off with a bang, with the Expos scoring two in the first, and the Cubs answering with a run of their own in the bottom of the inning. It looks as though the season will begin with a fair amount of offense.

But the starters find their respective grooves, and nobody else crosses the plate until the ninth inning. The Cubs are coming up to bat, needing one run to tie and two to send their fans home happy. Torrez again takes the mound, in this pre-closer era of baseball. There’s just three more outs that  he needs to get.

The Cubs’ Joe Pepitone leads off the ninth with a single, which brings Ron Santo to the plate as the winning run. Santo is 2-for-3 and has the Cubs’ only RBI on the day, so there’s reason to like the Cubs’ chances. But when Santo hits the ball to Ron Hunt at second base, it creates a moment of anxiety for the Cubs faithful, until Hunt boots the ball and gives the Cubs a new lease on life.

Cleo Jones had already come in to run for Pepitone, and Lockman sends in a pinch runner for Santo, as well. The Cubs are going for the win to open up their season. Torrez then walks Glenn Beckert, and is lifted from the game in favor of Mike Marshall. Marshall has emerged as one of the best “firemen” in the game by 1973. With the bases loaded and no outs, and the home team batting, things look very bleak for the Expos. But relievers are supposed to put out the fire, right?

Marshall walks Randy Hundley to force in the tying run, to the delight of the home crowd. Now there there’s no margin for error, as the winning run is at third base. Marshall then retires the next two Cubs batters. Now there are two outs, and Marshall only needs to get a ground ball at somebody, or a fly ball that stays  in the ball park, or a strikeout in order to escape the threat. But he walks Rick Monday instead, which allows the Cubs to start off  the new  season with a walk-off win, in a literal sense.

I doubt that anyone in the ballpark that day thought to snap a picture of the Cubs’ winning runner as he was making his way around the bases, entirely on the basis of charity from the Expos’ pitchers. The fans in the park that day had no way of knowing that it would be the only game he would ever appear in a Cubs uniform, or that he would never again appear in any major league game. He was sent down to the minors for the remainder of the season, and continued to bounce around until he retired as a player in 1977.

If you or I were the player who scored the winning run on Opening Day some thirty-nine years ago, we might consider that to be a career-making accomplishment, a story worth telling to anyone who wanted to hear it, and a moment that every little kid dreams about. But if you’re Tony LaRussa, I doubt that one run scored in 1973 registers very high on the career highlight reel. He certainly went on to bigger and better things after that day.

Hanu-Cubs, Night 4

As with the previous nights of this festival of Jewish Cubs players, we begin with the music of Steve Goodman. For more about this song, and Steve Goodman generally, click here.

The profile of Dave Roberts is here. Sam Fuld is here, and Ken Holtzman is here. Tonight’s post will focus on the winningest active Jewish pitcher in the majors, Jason Marquis. He wasn’t drafted by the Cubs, and isn’t with them anymore, (he’ll be with the Minnesota Twins next season, if you’re curious) but he spent two seasons with the Cubs in 2007 and 2008.

The thing I’ll always remember about Jason Marquis is that he wore number 21, which Sammy Sosa also wore during his heyday in Chicago. Sosa left after the 2004 season, and his number (which he wore because it was Roberto Clemente’s number) lay unused for a couple of seasons thereafter. But like the big dirt spot out in right field at Wrigley Field–which, it was said, was there to tell Sammy where to stand during the game–the stigma of  “Sammy’s number” was eventually papered over, and Marquis was the first to wear it post-Sosa. Others to wear #21 since have included Milton Bradley and Tyler Colvin.

There’s an irony to the number that Marquis wore, as there so often is. When Sammy Sosa left the game, he was within reach of 600 career home runs. The situation with the Cubs fans–which was fueled by his walking out on the final day of the 2004 season–was such that the milestone would not come in a Cubs uniform. After a season in Baltimore, and another season out of the game, Sosa came back with the Texas Rangers in 2007. He did hit his 600th homer, in an interleague game against the Cubs, off of Marquis, who was wearing his old number at the time. You can’t make this stuff up.

Marquis was signed for three years with the Cubs, but was traded away to the Rockies after only two seasons on the North Side. The Cubs were but one stop on Marquis’ major league journey, and I wish him well in the years to come (especially when he’s in the American League).

There are four nights left in this series, and another pitcher will be profiled tomorrow night. The full Marquis appears below:

As always, thanks for reading. See you tomorrow night.

Countdown to #Cubs #DoubleTriple at 39 losses

The Cubs finally put together a three game win streak by sweeping the Astros at home last weekend. The conditions were right, and the Cubs took advantage. But all good things come to an end, and tonight’s loss brings us to the epic 1972 season, where only one team in the majors made it to the 100 loss plateau.

1972 Texas Rangers

Expansion team: Not exactly (previously the Washington Senators)

Overall record: 62-10o

# of win streaks of 3 games or more: Four

Manager(s): Ted Williams

Hall of Famers on roster: No players, but Nellie Fox served as a coach, along with Williams

100 loss seasons since: 1973

Pennant wins since: 2010

1972 was a watershed year for baseball: The first players’ strike in the modern era wiped out the first week and a half of the season. The Oakland A’s began a three-year championship run, becoming the only team not named the Yankees to accomplish this feat. Jackie Robinson died, just days after throwing out the first pitch in Game Two of the World Series.  Roberto Clemente reached 3,000 hits, and then lost his life in a plane crash on New Year’s eve. And The American League voted to adopt the Designated Pinch Hitter (DPH) on a three year experimental basis. We know how that one turned out. But the focus here is on losing, and the new Texas Rangers franchise made their way into the loser’s circle.

The Washington Senators had suffered several 100 loss seasons in the 1960s, but Ted Williams had guided the team to their first (and only) winning season in 1969. They fell back below .500 after that, but the move to Texas was more than Williams could tolerate, and he resigned at the end of this season.

To reach 100 losses, the Rangers suffered through an almost unbearable September, where they went 3-23 for a winning percentage of .115  There may have been worse months in big league history, but there can’t be too many of them. The team’s  100th loss came on the last day of the season, in the final game played in Municipal Stadium in Kansas City.

The next Cubs loss will usher in the Designated Hitter era. Should be interesting.