Wednesday, October 6, 2004
Failed Season, Dismal Future For Cubs
I recall back in late February and early March, the so-called "baseball experts," predicted the Chicago Cubs win the World Series. The experts of Sports Illustrated and Peter Gammons of ESPN are two basic examples. Most fans ate all of it up, considering when exactly was the last time the Cubs of Chicago were favored to win the World Series.
Allow me to go back in time by one year. The 2003 Cubs season was a good year, but the 2003 postseason brought out a majority of the excitement. The Cubs in 2003 were not favored or necessarily expected to make the playoffs. The Cubs and the Houston Astros fought bitterly until the final weekend of the regular season. With lots of luck, the Cubs just so happened to have the division lead on the final weekend of the regular season.
It was not until the Cubs surpassed the Atlanta Braves in last year's National League Division Series that fans started to truly believe something special might happen. By now everyone recalls Game 5 of the National League Championship Series between the Cubs and the Florida Marlins. The Cubs are five outs away from the World Series ... when all hell breaks following the Steve Bartman incident (notice I said after the Bartman incident).
With that said, it was all over. "Wait until next year" ... again. This time, the attitude was different. The "wait until next year" finally meant something. To the fans and experts, the Cubs were actually believed to have something special. While the Cubs lost a key acquisition, Kenny Lofton after the 2003 season, a few familiar, and unfamiliar faces were on their way to further ensure this team was going to the World Series. A returning Corey Patterson (who Lofton replaced following Patterson's injury in July of 2003), the signings of Greg Maddux and LaTroy Hawkins, and acquiring Derrek Lee via trade were suppose to be the final ingredients that brought this team to the World Series, and win once and for all.
Spring Training finally begins, and within a week or two, news suggesting that Mark Prior's Achilles tendon is bothering him stirs the first scare by Cubs fans. Prior would miss the rest of Spring Training and the entire month of April, before starting in early May. Once Prior made his return, Kerry Wood missed over a month due to his own injury. We all recall the single sneeze that knocked out Sammy Sosa's back and kept him out for over a month. Third basemen Aramis Ramirez, second basemen Mark Gruzielanek, and closer Joe Borowski are all examples of players who missed time during the season (Borowski never pitched after the month of May).
The five-man pitching staff, hailed to be one of the best pitching staffs ever assembled, never lived up to the full potential. While Maddux, Matt Clement, Carl Zambrano, and fill-in starter Glendon Rusch all were able to step it up, without the consistent dominance of Prior and Wood, the Cubs never were able to capitalize off their pitching.
The offense at many times failed to show up. The Cubs relied too much on home runs. This killed them at Wrigley Field on days that the wind was blowing in. If the wind happened to be blowing out, however, the Cubs looked like an offensive powerhouse. The dilemmas of not having a true leadoff hitter (Corey Patterson), while a slumping Sammy Sosa continued to strike out in key situations proved to play a pivotal role in the team's downfall on offense. The emerging of Ramirez on offense, and a solid performance by Alou proved not to be enough when it was all said and over.
There was one area in which the 2004 Cubs were consistent in ... complaining. As I wrote earlier this summer, the Cubs did not make it easy for their fans to cheer them. Through the course of their 162 game schedule, rather than blame their misfortunes on themselves, the Cubs always had an excuse: the weather is too cold, the weather is too hot, too many day games, injuries, a hard schedule, the team's broadcasters, and umpires are only a few examples.
All year long, I have heard day after day the controversy surrounding the Cubs' announcers, Chip Caray and Steve Stone. Since when were a team's broadcasters suppose to be the news? Players have all season long complained about Caray and Stone, repeatedly, until no end. It was even mentioned that a few players went to management and requested that the announcers not be allowed to fly with the team. This has been going on all season. All the announcers have done, more so Steve Stone, is told the truth. They have criticized the team when necessary, and rightfully so.
Reliever Kent Merker called the announcer's booth in the middle of a game sometime this season, to complain over what was being said. Moises Alou has ripped the announcers for talking about the pitching too much, and failing to give enough credit to the offense. Umm ... excuse me?
Lets not forget that Alou, along with Hawkins, have complained about the umpires. Hawkins claims to have a beef with an umpire dating back to 2002, during his Minnesota playing days. Alou believes the umpires are out to get him, by calling every pitch a strike, when he previously already had two strikes in the count. Alou stated in an interview a week ago that he will have to do something about that situation.
Steve Stone is in hot water with the Tribune Company (the team's owners) for comments he publicly stated on Chicago's WGN Radio (720-AM) on Thursday night. Stone spoke the truth, saying the Cubs should have clinched the NL wildcard by six or seven games. Stone went on to say that the Cubs were willing to blame their woes on everything else, except themselves.
Manager Dusty Baker was offended by those comments, and so was the organization, who spoke with Stone on Friday. Manager Jim Hendry stated that Stone's comments went beyond his role as an analyst, and instead were personal. It is unclear if Stone will return next year. Caray has already stated he will not be back and instead will join his father Skip in Atlanta calling Braves baseball.
Sammy Sosa has proved to once again be a cancer for a team in no dire need of further distractions. Sosa refusing to drop down the batting order earlier in the year caused lots of heat from the media and fans. Sosa later on "supposedly" agreed to drop down in the order. Just recently, Sosa showed up late on the final game of the year, this past Sunday. Sosa claimed he was hurt and unable to play. Sosa told the media he left in the seventh inning, yet Wrigley Field security cameras confirm Sosa left in the second inning! How interesting that the Tribune company is easily willing in going all out to prove that their $17 million dollar superstar is a liar.
The entire season has been one giant headache for all fans involved. Why would I ever believe this team was destined to win it all, let alone make the playoffs? The Cubs failed to capture a large consecutive winning streak, and by midseason, the Cardinals were too many games ahead in the NL Central. If the Cubs would have won the NL wildcard, it would have been because of luck. When I say luck, I am referring to luck as in "the right time." The Cubs and Giants bounced back and forth between games, with the Cubs being ahead one day, and the Giants ahead the next. If the Cubs would have won the wildcard, it would be because they just so happened to be ahead by a game or half game on that particular day.
New questions arise in regards to next season? Will Nomar Garciaparra be back? Most experts would agree that he probably will not, though that has not been completely ruled out. Moises Alou probably is gone. How about Sosa? After his stunt on Sunday, will the team want him back? Sosa is going to receive $17 million dollars next season. The year after that is a team option. However, if Sosa is traded, that option for 2006 is automatically kicked in. Will any team be willing to take in high of a salary for a player obviously on the decline?
Matt Clement is a free agent. It is unsure if the Cubs will bring him back or not, even though I believe they should. Will Mark Prior be healthy, and dominate like his former self? Will Kerry Wood's back hold up? Will age finally catch up to Greg Maddux?
After a season of many disappointments and lows, the future of the Cubs remains in further question. The 2004 Cubs team was obviously built to accomplish one thing, and that was to win the World Series. The team fell way short of those expectations. With the future of Sosa, Alou, and Garciaparra unknown, only God knows what this team will look like next season.
Perhaps 2004 was the final realistic chance the Cubs had to win the World Series. General Manager Jim Hendry has a lot of work to complete this offseason. Until the obvious questions are answered, Cubs fans only have one sure idea going for them ... "wait until next year."