The Cubs’ 2016 Graveyard

img_2439

Some people, in my neighborhood and in other places, turn their front lawns into faux graveyards at this time of year. So with Halloween upon us and the Cubs still playing meaningful baseball, here’s a look at some of the fake styrofoam tombstones that the Cubs could plant at Wrigley Field this year:

The Cardinals’ reign as NL Central champions: The St. Louis Cardinals have been the bullies of the division for some time, going all the way back to Albert Pujols’ days with the team. Wainwright, Molina, and all the rest have won and won and won again, and were trying to be the first team to ever win the Central division four years in a row. The Cubs laid waste to that, and controlled their division from Day 1 of the season.

The Giants’ beliEVEN thing: Winning the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014 was a nice pattern to be in for Giants fans, and when their team won the Wild Card came this year they thought the pattern would repeat itself this year. The Cubs had other ideas, though.

The Billy Goat Curse: Oh, that curs’ed goat. The reason–some would have us believe–for the Cubs’ decades worth of World Series absence is the old story of a goat that was denied entry into the 1945 World Series. A man who brings a goat to a baseball game has no mystical powers of any sort, but people talked about it, anyway.

1969? Billy goat curse.

1984? Billy goat curse.

2003? Billy goat curse.

But the Cubs finally laid that one to rest and made the World Series. May we never hear about that goat again.

So the one thing left to do is scratch the 108-year itch and win the World Series. The Cubs have to beat Korey Feldman tonight, or find themselves in a Series of elimination games. They’ll come around tonight, I hope, and even the Series up with three games left to play. It’s been a great, cemetery-making run this year, and it’s not over yet.

Advertisements

The Cubs’ World Series trail led through California

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

One year ago, I wrote a piece for WrigleyvilleNation pointing out that the Cubs were beating teams from the old National League East in the postseason, and I liked that idea. Teams from the NL West had been nothing but trouble for the Cubs, and I thought maybe the Eastern route would pay off in the end.  The Mets had other ideas, though, and the season came crashing to a halt in a stunning four-game sweep.

“Wait ’til next year!” we Cubs fans cried, for what felt like the thousandth time. But this time the team backed us up, and here we are in baseball’s equivalent of the Promised Land.

Before the games get going in Cleveland, I wanted to point out that the Cubs pulled off a California two-step that’s never been done before. By beating the Giants and the Dodgers in the same postseason, history was made by my team in blue.

The ghosts of 1989 and Will Clark were dispatched in Round 1, and the letdown of the 2008 playoffs (James Loney was the main culprit that time) melted away when the Cubs waxed Clayton Kershaw on a Saturday at Wrigley. California’s a lovely state, but the Cubs ushered two of its fan bases into the off-season this year. Good.

Here’s looking forward to lots of baseball in the week to ten days ahead. This is what we’ve all waited for, Cubs fans. So let’s be sure to enjoy it.

Thank you, #Batkid

Batkidd

I’ve not written anything here in a couple of days, not because I’m out of things to say, but because sleep feels pretty good sometimes. I’m also quite confident that I’ll never run out of things to say.

The story of #SFBatkid makes me feel good inside. It was certainly a day that a little boy named Miles will never forget. Hats off to Make-a-Wish, the city of San Francisco, the Giants, and anyone else who helped Miles have a great day today.

Kids are our future, whether we have any in our own lives or not, and they deserve the best that we can do for them. I’m happy that so many people worked together to give Miles a great experience like this. And I’m happy to finally have the Riddler and the Penguin off the streets. What a menace they were!

Even the throwbacks didn’t work

The Cubs have worn “throwback” uniforms–which are designed to recall earlier eras in their history–five times prior to last night’s game against the Giants in San Francisco. They won each of those games, including last summer in Fenway Park (shown above), and for the first interleague game against the White Sox back in 1997. And if there’s anybody who remembers when the other three games were, please leave a comment below and fill me in.

It’s rare for the Cubs to be perfect in anything. But five in a row, without a loss, was pretty impressive. And last night’s loss brought an end to this sort-of streak. They’re now 5-1 in throwbacks, which still isn’t bad, but the air of perfection they once had is gone now.

This is the sort of thing that really doesn’t matter to anyone, myself included. This season is down the tubes, with slightly more than 100 games left to play. It’s hard to spend six months in the offseason waiting for baseball season to return, and then be rewarded with this. But that’s the bargain I once signed onto, whether I fully realized that or not.

In plain terms, the annual progression works like this:

Summer = Baseball

Baseball = Cubs

Cubs = Losing (with a few exceptions) and Disappointment (always)

Then wait until next year, and repeat

So here we are again. Theo Epstein and his team will have a mulligan for this season, and next year we’ll see where we are. But the “wear throwback uniforms every day because we’ll never lose in them” strategy can now be tossed out the window.

How a baseball custom began

 

Sometimes the origin of a baseball custom or tradition gets lost in the mists of time. I wrote a piece last year about how the Star-Spangled Banner came to be played before baseball games, but only after I had inadvertently come upon the story online one day. Other customs, though, are well-defined as to when or how they came into existence. Take a look at Brian Bannister’s photo above for an example of one of them.

If you were to sit down and watch a ballgame all the way through this upcoming season, my guess is you’ll see at least one example of what Bannister is doing over the course of that game. Whenever a conference is held on the pitcher’s mound, the pitcher habitually talks into his glove and, presumably, everyone on the mound can still hear what the pitcher is saying. But on an October evening back in 1989, a future Hall-of-Famer did not do this, and his team paid a steep price for it.

It was the 1989 NL playoffs between the Chicago Cubs and the San Francisco Giants. Game one was the first post-season game ever to be played under the lights at Wrigley Field. The game started off with an offensive bang, and when the Giants came to bat in the top of the fouth inning, the score was 4-3 Giants. The Giants had loaded the bases, and Will Clark was due up next.

Clark had already homered and doubled in a run–by the fourth inning–and the Cubs wanted to keep the game close. Catcher Joe Girardi went out to discuss how to pitch Clark at this juncture, while Clark waited in the on deck circle. Clark was watching pitcher Greg Maddux, who was not speaking into his glove, and read the words “fastball in.” Clark knew what pitch was coming, and he didn’t miss it when it came. His grand slam gave the Giants an almost insurmountable 8-3 lead, and set the tone for a Giants victory in the game and in the series.

It wasn’t until much later that Kevin Mitchell, the hitter who followed Clark in the Giants’ order, spilled the beans about what had happened during the conference on the mound. And once the word got out, you can be sure that no pitcher would ever take that risk again.

Going the distance and shutting ’em out

Rick Reuschel was one of the prototypical Cubs of the 1970s. He was from downstate Illinois (Quincy, to be exact), which is an area that, as George Will put it, is “infested with Cardinals fans.” You might think that Illinois folk would have a predisposition to root for the Illinois teams in Chicago. But you would be misguided in that.

As a college professor of mine once put it, “Outside of Chicago, there’s this place called Illinois.”  So the folks living in Quincy, which is just upriver from St. Louis, are more likely to identify themselves as Cardinals fans than anything else. And yet, Rick Reuschel and his brother Paul Reuschel still made their way to Wrigley Field in the early to mid-1970s.

When Rick Reuschel broke into the majors in 1972, baseball was a much different game than it is today. There was no such thing as a Designated Hitter, Divisional play was still a new thing, and the reserve clause was still in effect. Do you ever wonder why Brooks Robinson played for the Orioles for so many years? For most of them, he didn’t have a choice.  The reserve clause meant that he was an Oriole for as long as they wanted to keep him. He wasn’t able to play wherever he wanted. And so it was with Rick Reuschel, too.

Reuschel tossed five complete games his rookie season, with four of them being shutouts. It sounds impressive enough to our modern ears, but consider that the National League’s leaders that season were Steve Carlton, who pitched thirty complete games, and Don Sutton, who pitched nine shutouts. Who knows how many millions that would have meant for them in today’s game? But, as I said, it was a different game back then.

Seven other National League pitchers, besides Reuschel, threw four shutouts in 1972. In other words, his accomplishment wasn’t such a big thing back then. But the game began to change over the course of Reuschel’s career. Free agency set in, and pitchers like Carlton became a true investment for teams. Gone were the days when starting pitchers threw 300+ innings per season, as Carlton did in Reuschel’s rookie season.

Teams also switched from a four-man starting rotation to a five-man starting rotation. You won’t see a pitcher get 40 or more  starts in a season anymore, which hasn’t happened since 1979. Fewer starts necessarily means that fewer complete games, and fewer shutouts, are now being pitched.

Pitch counts have also dramatically changed the way starters pitch. Pitchers once pitched until they were tired, but those days are no more. Innings pitched is a reflection of this trend. Between 1973  and 1980, Reuschel pitched between 234 and 260 innings every season. He was a workhorse back then, but he would be considered almost superhuman in today’s game.

When Rick Reuschel split the 1988 season between Pittsburgh and San Francisco, he again pitched four shutouts, but this time it was tops in the National League. His 12 complete games also led the league, but would have been no better than eighth in the NL in his rookie season. He was still the same pitcher at age 38 that he was at age 23, but the game itself had shifted under his feet. Change is indeed the only constant.

The curse of Terry Kennedy

It’s an off day in the World Series, and no matter what happens on the field, this will be the last weekend of baseball for 2011. And the NBA isn’t going to be taking up any of the slack after baseball goes away, either. Not that it ever really could.

I usually give deference to the big league players who passed through the Cardinals’ organization in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For reasons I still can’t comprehend, my hometown of Springfield, Illinois was the home of the Cardinals’ AAA affiliate in those years. It wasn’t major league ball, but it was literally the next best thing. By the time a player gets to that level, they’re either on the verge of making it in the big leagues, or if they don’t, they’re still pretty damn good.

Terry Kennedy was a catcher who spent only a couple years in AAA. His dad was a big leaguer before him, and was also the General Manager of the Chicago Cubs at the time.  I remember seeing a picture of the two Kennedys talking together before a game in the local paper, but I had no idea what a General Manager did back in those days. Now I know that his job is to assemble World Series-winning teams. Isn’t that right, Theo?

Terry Kennedy played for the Springfield Redbirds in 1978 and 1979. At the end of those two seasons, he went to the major league club  and backed up Ted Simmons, who was entrenched back then as the Cardinals everyday catcher. Kennedy was in the majors for good next season, even if he was there to give Simmons a day off more than anything else.

So what exactly is the “curse” of Terry Kennedy? I suppose that, until I looked at the back of one of his cards, I had blocked out what Terry Kennedy did over the course of his career. The Cardinals traded him to the Padres, where he was their everyday catcher for the 1984 team that snatched the pennant way from the Cubs. The Cubs had replaced Bob Kennedy as GM after the Tribune company bought the team, and so sticking it to the team that fired your dad must have felt pretty good, I would imagine.

Kennedy only hit .222 for the series, with no extra-base hits, so it’s hard to hold the Cubs’ collapse against him personally. Besides, hating on Steve Garvey is where the real action’s at for Cubs fans, anyway.

After a couple more seasons with the Padres, Kennedy went to Baltimore for a couple of seasons, before being traded to the Giants in early 1989. The Cubs made the playoffs that year, after winning their second division title. But once again, they ran into a team with Terry Kennedy behind the dish. Kennedy was a non-factor offensively, hitting a lowly .188 for the series. But again, he and his teammates successfully kept the Cubs out of the World Series.

Kennedy retired after the 1991 season, and began managing in the minors. He managed the AAA affiliate of the San Diego Padres this season, and he’ll probably get a shot to manage at the big league level in the next few years. As when he was a player, he probably won’t be at the AAA level for long. And I’d like to see the Cubs beat his team, when he does get that chance. It appears that he’s due a couple of beatings.

The unique nature of Game 163

This is my 163rd post on this blog, and I wanted to spend a few moments ruminating on the most unusual game in all of baseball.

The baseball regular season is a very predictable thing, in the sense that a team travels around from city to city, plays 2 or 3 or sometimes 4 games in one place, and then moves on to the next city. Aside from three days off in July for the All-Star break, a few Mondays or Thursdays here and there, and the occasional rainout, there isn’t much to interrupt that over the course of six months during a year.

Sometimes, there’s a tie at the end of 162 games. And baseball can’t abide ties, so something has to be done to break the tie. That’s where Game 163–the odd duck of all baseball games–comes in.

The three major sports leagues in the U.S.A. all do things a little bit different. Football is a one-off every week, where one team travels to another city and plays a game. There is no follow-up, it’s just one and done. A visiting player may get a chance to play another game in that city, if they survive in the league long enough, but it’s very likely that the game is a one-time thing for them (“That time I played in Cleveland,” for example). The playoffs are the same way: One game and out. On to the next city, if you win, or done for the season, if you don’t.

Basketball does it a bit differently. They use a traveling around model, like the NFL does, but they return to the same city a couple of times during the regular season. An NBA player gets to play in Cleveland, or Atlanta, or San Antonio at least a couple different times in a season, for each season that they’re in the NBA. And the playoffs are a series of games, so that each individual game counts for something, and there isn’t a “win or go home” situation unless there’s a Game seven.

Baseball does it a different  way. Since the team plays games almost every day, they don’t travel to a city just to play one game and then move on. Rather, they play, as mentioned before, anywhere from 2 to 4 games games in the same place. There’s talk in baseball of a team “winning the series” during the regular season, but over the course of 162 games, no three- or four-game series can mean too much. And the playoffs are when “winning the series” matters, but baseball players are conditioned to play games in a series, anyway.

But a tie after 162 games means that all bets are off. It means that one team will travel to another city to play a single game, like the NFL and NBA regular seasons, and that the winner of that game gets to keep playing, while the loser is done for the year. There’s no other situation like that in baseball. That’s what makes it so special.

I was lucky enough to go to a Game 163 once. In 1998, the Cubs and the Giants finished the season tied for the Wild Card (which was still a relatively new thing back then), and so a one-game playoff was held at Wrigley Field. Sammy Sosa got another game to try to catch Mark McGwire in home runs. He needed four, but didn’t hit any. Scottie Pippen threw out the first pitch. The Bulls were still the kings of Chicago sports, even after the Jordan era had come to a premature end. Bill Murray sang “Take me out to the Ballgame” with a passion that probably hasn’t been seen  from any of the singers since then. And my wife and I had been to the doctor that day, where we heard our daughter’s heartbeat for the first time. It was a special day all the way around.

And the Cubs won the game, too. A jouneyman player named Gary Gaetti hit a flyball to the outfield that somehow made it into the bleachers, and the park exploded in a way I had never seen before, and doubt I’ll ever see again. The Giants had a rally going in the ninth inning, and I ran out of room on my scorecard for all the pitchers that were brought in to try to end it for the Cubs, but the late Rod Beck came in and got it done. Mayhem ensued, because the 1990s were a very bad decade for the Cubs, and making it to the playoffs, by the slimmest of margins, was cause for a wild celebration.

The team played the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the playoffs, and was swept in three games (it was a best-of-three back then, instead of best-of-five as it is now). So we all got worked into a frenzy, only to be let down at the end. It made Game 163 seem like a very hollow victory.

The next summer, after my daughter had been born and my wife and I drove east to introduce her to family in New York, we drove past Yankee Stadium. Even from the highway, I could see the ring around the top of the Stadium that read “26 World Championships,” which included the World Series win from the previous season. So the Cubs’ fans like myself, who got so worked up over winning a Wild Card spot in the playoffs, seemed kind of silly in the face of all the Yankees’ success.

The game itself was a great experience, the way any single, win-or-go-home playoff game is supposed to be. And I would have much rather won the game than lost it that night. But it left me–and I would imagine many others–feeling unfulfilled, especially in light of how the playoffs turned out. The team wasn’t able to build on that success in the next year, either. Sammy kept on hitting his home runs, but it would be several more disappointing seasons until the Cubs made the playoffs again.

Thinking back on that game, with the dozen or so years of life experience that have followed since then, I understand that a triumph one day doesn’t mean anything in the days that follow it. The Braves were a better team than the Cubs were (they won the World Series the year after that one, I believe) and they sure showed it.

The Tribune company owned the Cubs for two decades, but they never brought the team to the level that the Yankees were at. The Ricketts family hasn’t shown much so far, but they’re still cleaning up the mess of a franchise that the Cubs were back then. They’re going in a new direction now, and I’m hoping that the fleeting celebration of the 1998 Wild Card playoff game pales in comparison to what happens when the Cubs finally do, as Eddie Vedder once predicted, “go all the way.”