Chicago Cubs fans will always remember 2003. Most will not have particularly fond memories of that season. With the 10 year anniversary of that season just around the corner, Cubs fans still think about what might have been without injuries and that wretched curse.
Oh, yes. The curse. I, for one, have never believed in it. However, after spending last summer cringing at the product the Cubs put between the lines, maybe there is something about Billy Sianis and that doggone goat.
But 2003—that was different. It was a solid team defensively, well, at least in the infield. It was a good offensive team, well, at least in the outfield. This was when Sammy Sosa still had adoring fans in right field who rose to their feet when he sprinted out to begin the game. The fans weren't worried about corked bats or corked biceps.
Kenny Lofton came over to play center field and energized the team. Moises Alou, he of the infamous play along the left field wall, seemed to be an ageless wonder with his potent bat. No one even cared that he peed on his hands to toughen them up. But it was the pitching that really mattered.
The Cubs had the best young rotation in baseball.
Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano, and Matt Clement.
The collapse in the playoffs against the Florida Marlins has been well documented. The disappointment at the time was palpable—but there still seemed to be hope. Again, the Cubs had the best young rotation in baseball. They would be back in the playoffs. They would be the team to beat for the next 10 years. With a pitching staff such as they had—anything was possible.
Kerry Wood had come up as a phenom from the state of Texas. He had already thrown what was arguably the most impressive game in the history of baseball, with the 20 strikeouts and only one hit in a shutout against the Houston Astros. He had successfully come back from Tommy John surgery. He was primed to be a staff ace.
Carlos Zambrano was a very green young pitcher who some felt had the best arm on the entire staff. He could be absolutely dominant at times. In 2003, we didn't yet know he was as crazy as he was talented.
Matt Clement, he of the weird beard. While no one was sharpening their pencils to nominate him to the Hall of Fame one day, he certainly seemed more than serviceable as a fourth starter. In fact, he would have probably been a two on many teams.
But Mark Prior he was the special one. He was the guy who was going to be the Cubs Tom Seaver with the silky smooth delivery. He was going to be the Cubs Don Drysdale with his impressive command of the strike zone. He was going to be the Cubs Greg Maddux...nah, I'll leave that one alone. There are already enough regrets going on here.
There seemed to be no reason to doubt Mark Prior was going to be the best pitcher in the National League for the rest of the decade. No one could have known in 2003 that Mark Prior would never again return to the form he showed that season. His fall, due to shoulder injuries, is the most disappointing of all the disappoints from 2003.
Some blamed Dusty Baker for Kerry Wood and Mark Prior's subsequent injuries. Is that fair? Maybe. Probably not. No matter, what happened happened, and the Cubs have never rebounded from that season.
It's tough to be a Cubs fan. Perhaps there is nothing tougher than thinking back about what could have been with that 2003 pitching staff.