So, we've arrived in 2004. The Chicago Cubs have just undergone the worst choke in the history of the NLCS. Stunned, Cubs fans could only watch in horror as Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett dominated the mighty New York Yankees in the World Series.
You'll forgive us if we didn't enjoy the Jan Brady-like feeling running through our veins during that entire series and subsequent off-season.
The Marlins have two rings, and the Cubs continue to play foil for teams we fans thought our teams were better than.
In 2004, though, it seemed things were looking up. After Eric Karros went out to pasture and Hee Seop Choi didn't develop, the Cubs managed to catch the Marlins on yet another fire sale and acquire the villain of the NLCS, Derrek Lee, shoring up one of the few infield weaknesses.
Things got better when the day before my 21st birthday, Greg Maddux came home to the city that introduced him to the MLB audience (and something I will NEVER forgive the Cubs front office for) and suddenly the Cubs had the best rotation in the National League. It was suddenly a question of 'Who could beat this rotation?'
At Busch Stadium, Walt Jocketty slipped on his Darth Vader mask. Cue the ominous Star Wars music. Because Jock had AP5, and Jim Edmonds at his borderline hall-of-famer best, and Scott Rolen at his most dangerous.
The Cardinals pretty much shook their head pityingly at the Cubs that season, and then ran away from them and the rest of the National League like Usain Bolt.
It was a tense clubhouse. During the previous season Sammy Sosa, if he can be believed, grabbed the wrong bat and exploded his reputation, along with the Louisville Slugger.
Instead of really understanding what he did wrong or apologizing, Sosa grew a Fu Manchu goatee and basically started acting like Dr.Evil.
Dusty Baker then really stuck it to a superstar he'd had nothing but problems with by claiming he prohibited the use of corked bats on his team (Sosa's always been believed to be a cheater even as the rest of his bats were clean...figure it out).
He'd completely alienated the fans, but then some Cubs fans...well, listen to Chicago sports radio, you'll know what I mean. On top of all of this, Alex Gonzalez was hearing it from Cubs fans all that season for his performance in the NLCS, forgetting his role in getting the Cubs there, and it completely destroyed his play.
Jim Hendry did some wheeling and dealing, and acquired Nomar Garciaparra from the Red Sox. Nomar was in the process of destroying his potential hall-of-fame chances by seeming to forget what "playing hurt" means, and in retrospect, theirs was the wrong move.
Gonzalez went to what remained of the Montreal Expos, Garciaparra and his considerable ego moved in, and there was no sense that this team was really good enough to be playing in the post-season.
The Cardinals were run by, arguably, the best GM in the National League. And when he grabbed Larry Walker, who despite being on the downside of his career still brought much value to the eventual NL Champion Cardinals than Garciaparra ever brought to the Cubs, and it was when this deal was announced on Aug. 6 that you could feel the air go out of the Cubs potential division winning.
Sosa was so-so, putting up a .253 batting average with 35 homers and 80 runs batted in. Not what you want out of your "superstar," downside of his career or not.
Then LaTroy Hawkins, who wasn't and never was a closer, no matter what any of his managers may have thought, pretty much blew the Cubs up.
They lost the Wild Card to Houston, Sosa finally cut his last ties to the Chicago Cubs like an idiot, going out like Terrell Owens, and the Cubs were ready for 2005 (I would have a moment in the sun as my 1B team, the Boston Red Sox, came from a 3-0 deficit against the despised New York Yankees and went on to win the Series...against the aforementioned Cardinals).
The Cubs had won 89 games, yet had the misfortune to play in a division with the Cards and Astros.
With Sosa gone, the Cubs expected a lighter clubhouse, and a better record. Well, they got halfway there. Picked to win the division by some publications, they went 79-83, cratered, and it was awful to watch.
However, I didn't see any of this, as by then I had mercifully moved to Minnesota, otherwise my rage would have been worse than it was, as Mr.Garciaparra qualified for workman's comp more than the batting titles that had been envisioned, the bullpen failed more than the Timberwolves, and Dusty Baker continued his impression of Dr. Salvador, using his chainsaw to cut through the tendons in Mark Prior's right arm.
Then came 2006.
Jacque Jones signed as a free agent, and Mr.Slap-and-Run, Juan Pierre, was acquired in a fire-sale trade with the Marlins. Speaking of the Marlins, maybe the Cubs should start looking at them as the enemy. Somehow whenever the Cubs trade with the Marlins, something goes wrong.
Somehow, whenever the Cubs have a meeting with the Marlins, a screwjob happens. I was convinced Vince McMahon was pulling the strings behind the Marlins, and the Cubs had the opportunity to play Bret Hart. Not really smart.
The Cubs finished 66-96, and Dusty Baker had completely destroyed the clubhouse by his willingness to destroy the respect of the players, him and his damned toothpick.
It was a bad season all around, as Juan Pierre continued to rack up 200-hit seasons while posting OBP's below .350 and slugging percentages that would bring a smile to the face of a Little Leaguer.
And Juan Pierre is NOT Ichiro Suzuki. Juan Pierre is not 1/10th of the player Ichiro Suzuki is. That random bit of info is in reference to the fact that Ichiro hits 7,000 singles a year, like Pierre.
Unlike Pierre, Ichiro's heard of a walk, and unlike Pierre, pitchers actually fear him because Ichiro can hit the ball further than 200 feet.
Baker finally was dumped by Jim Hendry, who told Baker he was not bringing him back for the 2007 season. I heard, but did not confirm, that Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez were overheard singing "Ding, Dong, the witch is dead."
And Aramis has a hell of a singing voice, according to my source, doing the entire song with impressive breath control.
Before I proceed to the 2007 Chicago Cubs, I need to go off on a mini-rant here.
As you well know, Baker is one of the leading proponents of the theory that people with high on-base percentages "clog up the bases unless they can run well."
One of the people he shares this with is Joe Morgan, who ironically is one of the all-time leaders in OBP. But anyway, here's a thought: Has it ever occurred to Mr. Baker that this is why he's never won anything?
Despite my hatred for the Yankees, when they were winning back in the late 90s before Jason Giambi arrived and was bad, they didn't need window-breakers. They won with Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Tino Martinez, some washed-up vets, and an impressive array of arms.
Not because Joe Torre stood in the dugout and gave the famous "Joe Torre look" immortalized in one of Charles Schulz' last Peanuts comic strips before the legendary cartoonist passed into time.
The best player in baseball over the past five years, a guy who plays for the Cardinals and wears No. 5, has had OBP's well over .370, and a few of those have been over .400. Oh, and he's got a World Series ring.
So the last thing I would need to read from some lunkhead with a toothpick in his mouth is how people "clog up the bases."
Because the one thing Dusty forgets is, if this half-baked theory wasn't in his mind, had he put a few high OBP guys who run like dump trucks on ahead of Barry Bonds, HE'D HAVE A RING BY NOW, AND HE WOULDN'T BE MANAGING THE HOPELESS CINCINNATI REDS. Endeth the sermon.
Anyway, the Cubs surprised me with their next hire. Fully expecting Jim Hendry to hire someone out of the system who would come cheap, the Cubbies locked up Sweet Lou Piniella to a three-year deal, got Mark DeRosa to play second, and it all looked good...
Until the Cubs bid against themselves, basically, locking up Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year deal worth about $17 million a year.
Soriano was about to turn 31 at that point. At the time, as all sports fans do with contracts that huge, all I could think about was that Soriano would be 39 and making 17 million long after his production was gone.
All I could think of was, could you imagine what Ted Williams would command in today's market, with free agency?
Soriano is a good player, yes. $17 million a season worth? We were about to find out.
He sure as hell wasn't worth it in the first month. As a matter of fact, it now becomes a question: Despite my love for Soriano as a player, who decided he was worth $136 million?
With the Cubs sinking out of sight, Derrek Lee demanded the presence of every Cubs player in a meeting. Derrek Lee is 6'5, 245 pounds, no one with any sense is going to turn him down.
Something happened during this meeting, because with Carlos Zambrano spitting fire because of Michael Barrett's mistakes, and Zambrano not being known as the Marquis of Queensbury, there was no avoiding what happened next: In full view of the television cameras, Barrett, who the previous season had been involved in an altercation with the universally loathed A.J. Pierzynski, began yelling at Zambrano, and Zambrano responded with 1) a burst of unrepeatable Spanish curse words, and 2) a right cross.
While the Braves whacked the Cubs on the field, the two repaired to the clubhouse and battled. Lou Piniella got himself ejected for kicking an umpire in the very next game.
You know those hokey stories about how fights clear the air and unite the team? Those exist only in the imagination, kids.
In reality, Barrett was not done, arguing with Rich Hill after Hill gave up an RBI single to Jared Washburn (Jared Washburn? Really?)
Barrett cost the Cubs that game, and Jim Hendry had had enough. Barrett was traded to San Diego, and suddenly the Cubs were winning.
And they kept winning, driving the Brewers back like Orlando Pace in his prime, leading to an excellent finish where the Brewers cratered and the Cubs grabbed the edge of the cliff.
Only for the Diamondbacks to smack the smile off the faces of Cubs fans by smothering the Cubs' potent offense.
So wrapping part 2, we poise at the edge of the historic 2008 season. In the final chapter, after the 2008 season, I'll cover the 2009 season in detail.
And everything you will read will be laced with anger and red-tinged rage because of the failure the 2009 season ultimately became.