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May 17th 1979 – A Game to Remember

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

On Thursday May 17th 1979, the Chicago Cubs hosted the Philadelphia Phillies at Wrigley Field.  The announced attendance for the game was 14, 952, and the contest lasted 4 hours and 3 minutes.  Due to the length of the game, I was able to watch the conclusion after getting home from school.  This day was a defining moment in my personal timeline as a Cubs’ fan.  This an event that comes in and out of my consciousness…”a flashbulb” memory as psychologists would call it. (I hope to finish my second book on the Cubs this summer…which focuses on this particular game…hence you can call it a childhood obsession)

Why this game?   For starters…here is the line score:

Phillies        7  0  8   2  4  0   1  0  0   1   23 24  2

Cubs            6  0  0   3  7  3   0  3  0   0   22 26  2

After school it was my daily routine to jump off the bus, run into my house, and watch the end of the Cubs’ game.  Imagine my surprise arriving on this day…with the Cubs trailing 21-16, and in the middle of a 6th inning rally.  I was instantaneously mesmerized…this was like nothing I had ever witnessed in baseball.  The 6th inning ended, and the Cubs had trimmed the lead to 21-19 after another mammoth home run by Dave Kingman. (Check out the highlights on YouTube!) I called a couple of my little buddies to make sure they were watching…and settled in to watch this rare offensive extravaganza.

Greg Gross (an ex-Cub) tripled to center to start the 7th, and was quickly driven home on a double by Phillies catcher Bob Boone…making the score 22-19.  The Phillies’s 7th inning rally was halted as Ray Burris entered the game in a double switch with Bobby Murcer (my childhood hero) and pitched out of the jam.

In the bottom of the frame, Bobby Murcer’s first plate appearance resulted in a one out single that put men on first and second.  I couldn’t believe what I was watching…could the Cubs rally again? I was having a hard time wrapping my little head around the fact that the score was 22-19…and the Cubs were primed to close the gap even more.  Larry “Hawkeye” Bittner pinch-hit for Steve Dillard and hit into an inning ending double play…a typical outcome on an atypical day.

Pete Rose (3-7, BB, 4RBIs) promptly led off the 8th inning with a single; and I was certain another Phillies’s onslaught was in the offing.  Mike Schmidt followed Rose, and Burris was able to coax a fly-out from the slugger. (Schmidt was retired only twice in his eight plate appearances that day).  Burris, who entered the game with an ERA of 6.53, was able to induce consecutive ground-outs…and the Phillies put a rare zero on the Wrigley scoreboard for the 8th inning.

Ivan DeJesus singled to start the Cubs 8th…and was racing to third almost immediately as Scot Thompson followed suit with a single of his own.  Bill Buckner (ahhh…another childhood hero) smacked a single to center which scored DeJesus and the 20th Cubs run of the day crossed the plate…and Dave Kingman was due up! Kingman…who had already belted three homers on the day…could give the Cubs the lead with just one more of his majestic shots onto Waveland.  Regrettably, Kingman flew out to center and Steve Onitveros followed with a fielder’s choice. The Cubs now had men on 1st and 3rd with two outs…and the promise of the inning was dying.

My hopes for a Cubs’ miracle quickly returned as ex-Phillie Jerry Martin (“biting the hand that once fed him”…as Harry might say) knocked in Scot Thompson…and the score was 22-21.  Cubs’ catcher Barry Foote (3-6 on the day…despite entering the game with a pitiful .204 batting average) astonishingly followed with a single that scored Steve Onitveros…and the score stood tied at 22.  One little boy was jumping up and done going crazy in his family’s living room…like the 14,000+ were about 45 miles away at Clark and Addison.

Let’s pause and return from the land of 1979 to 2015, where metrics and statistics have been advanced and enhanced…to demonstrate just how noteworthy this Cubs’ comeback was.  Here are the Phillies’s projected win possibilities during various points of the game:

SITUTAION/INNING                                                         CHANCE OF PHILLIE’S WIN

-leading 7-0 after top of 1st                                                                     93%

-leading 15-6 after the 3rd                                                                       99%

-leading 17-6, top of 4th                                                                        100%

-leading 17-9, after the 4th                                                                      99%

-leading 21-9, top of 5th                                                                        100%

-leading 21-16, after the 5th                                                                    95%

-leading 22-19, after the 7th                                                                    93%

-tied 22-22, after the 8th                                                                          50%

Back to May 17th, 1979…Bruce Sutter came in to pitch the 9th for the Cubs. Sutter… the future Hall of Famer, the CY Young winner, and arguably the greatest Cubs’ reliever of all time. Sutter did not disappoint, pitching around a one out walk and the Cubs now had a chance to actually win this game.  After tallying 22 runs…and the most improbable of comebacks…if the Cubs scored just one more run… I would witness a marvelous ending.  Alas, Rawly Eastwick the Phillies closer, quickly took any drama out of the bottom of the 9th…and the Cubs were retired in order.

Sutter quickly retired All-Stars Larry Bowa and Rose to start the 10th inning…a pair that had been on base a combined nine times. (note…I realize some of you may wonder why a relief pitcher would pitch more than one inning…believe it or not this was a common occurrence before the bastardization of bullpens by one who shall remain nameless…okay, okay…he wears dark glasses and has a last name one vowel different than the Karate Kid)  With Bowa and Rose retired, Sutter was one out away from sending the Cubs to the bottom of the 10th with a chance to untie the game…unfortunately Mike Schmidt was the out Sutter had to get.

Schmidt…who had already homered on the day…and whom the Cubs had walked four times.  Schmidt…who had hit four homers in an 18-16 Phillies’s victory over the Cubs in 1976 at Wrigley.  Schmidt…who if he had played his career at Wrigley would most likely be the all-time home run leader.

The Cubs and Sutter pitched to Schmidt…and the results were predictable.

Now trailing 23-22 the Cubs still had the bottom of the 10th, but Eastwick bested Sutter and retired the Cubs 1-2-3…including a strikeout of Kingman.  The Cubs fell just short of a dream finish…as they frequently do.  I was disappointed but proud of the game that my favorite team had just played.

Is it the sheer rarity of a game like this that has stuck with me all of these years…and compelled me to write about it?  More likely…it’s the symmetry involved with the history of the Cubs and this particular game.  Phillies 23, Cubs 22 is a microcosm for an organization that can come so close…even be amazing at times…and then fall just a little short.

A more positive take (and one I don’t think we Cubs’ fans get enough credit for) is that 23-22 embodies the trait of never giving up.  This is my preferred take and one I feel Cubs’ fans should embrace.  The Cubs could be losing inning by inning, game to game, year to year, decade to decade, (century to century?); and Cubs’ fans will keep coming back.

…that’s what the 23-22 game means to me.

Epilogue- For those that play fantasy baseball…just imagine the stats from this game:

Larry Bowa 5-8 with 4 runs scored, Pete Rose 3-7 with 4 runs scored and 4 RBIs, Mike Schmidt 2-4, 2 HRs and 4 RBIs, Gary Maddox 4-4 with a HR 4 RBIs, Bob Boone 3-5 with a HR and 5 RBIs, Ivan DeJesus 3-6 with 4 runs scored, Bill Buckner 4-7 with a HR and 7 RBIs, Dave Kingman 3-6 with 3 HRs and 6 RBIs

UGH! Dennis Lamp 0.1 IP, 2 HRs 6hits and 6ERs, Randy Lerch 0.2 IP 5 hits and 5 ERs, Donnie Moore 2 IP 7ERs, Ron Reed 9 hits and runs in 3.1 IP

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Northside Archives: Houston’s House of Horrors

Thursday, May 7th, 2015

This is an excerpt from the latest edition of my book; “Beyond Bartman, Curses and Goats: 107 Reasons It’s Been 107 Years”…available next month.

“Let them play! Let them play! Let them play!”

If you are a child of the 1970s, you may recognize the above chant from the The Bad News Bears: Breaking Training. The movie was the 1977 sequel to The Bad News Bears which starred Walter Matheau as Morris Buttermaker and Tatum O’Neal as Amanda Wurlitzer.  Neither Matheau nor O’Neal reprises their roles in the sequel…which is just one of the many reasons it is inferior to the original.  The second “Bears” film featured the team on a chaperone-less trip to the Houston Astrodome.

Inexplicably, the Bears are the California champs, even without their star pitcher Amanda Wurlitzer.  The Bears are to square off with the Texas champ, the Toros, at the Houston Astrodome…prior to an Astros’ contest. Unfortunately, with the beloved Bears trailing…the game is halted due to a time limit set so that the Astros game will start as scheduled. The Bears’ manager walks on the field and starts to chant “Let Them Play!” Soon, the entire crown joins in…apparently more eager to watch the little league contest than the Astros. Even Astros’ players Bob Watson and Cesar Cedeno join in, “Let them play! Let them play! Let them play!”  The powers that be relent, the game continues and the Bears miraculously win.

The Chicago Cubs of the 1960s and 1970s did not fare as well as the Bears did in the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” as the Astrodome was often referred to. Essentially, Cubs’ fans should have been shouting in unison, “Don’t Let them Play!” or “Don’t Play There!”

From 1967 thru 1972 the Chicago Cubs finished over .500 for six straight seasons.  Yes, you read that right…six straight winning seasons.  During my lifetime the most consecutive winning seasons I have witnessed is three.  The success of ’67-72 shouldn’t be two shocking; the Cubs did employ four future Hall of Famers during this era.  The Cubs’ manager during this stretch was Leo Durocher (addressed in Chapter 8). Durocher was not a fan of the Astrodome.

In May of 1966, Leo and his Cubs made their first trip to the Astrodome…and the Cubs were swept and outscored 18-5. The field conditions were less than optimal and Bleacher Reports’ Al Yellon (with the help of baseball historian Ed Hartig) recently unearthed some of Leo’s thoughts on the new “Eighth Wonder of the World”. Leo termed the artificial surface “nylon,” added that the Astrodome was “a $45 million stadium with a ten cent infield” and labeled the Astros a “bush league” organization (“bush” was the term used to describe the minor leagues at that time) This incident started a petty feud between Leo Durocher and the Astros; Leo tore the bullpen phones off of the walls, the Astros mocked him on their scoreboard, and the two sides exchanged pieces of sod via mail.  1966 would prove to be just the beginning of troubles in the Astrodome for the Cubs and their manager.

On July 5, 1967, the Chicago Cubs arrived in Houston only a half game out of the pennant chase. They left Houston on Sunday evening 3.5 games out of first place in the National League. The Cubs were swept by the Astros…again… this time of the four-game variety.  The four game series dropped the Cubs almost four games in the standings.  The Cubs would rally in July of 1967 to pull within a game of the National League lead. Unfortunately when the teams met at the Astrodome for a two game series in September of ‘67, Chicago was 11.5 games back out of first place.  The deficit would be 13.5 when the Cubs left Houston two days later.  In a season (1967) in which the Cubs won 87 games, they were 2-7 in the Astrodome.

1967 was more the norm than the exception for the Chicago Cubs’ performance in the Astrodome.  During this phase of rare Cubs’ greatness (1967-72) the Cubs’ record was 14-28. (during the 60’s the Cubs were 14-27…ah… consistency!)

As the 60s changed to the 70s, the Cubs’ performance in the Astrodome stayed constant…it was bad.  Let’s take a look:

  • The Cubs were 2-4 in the Astrodome in 1970 and 19 71 and 1-5 in 1972 dis-respectively.
  • On their first road trip of the 1971 season the Cubs lost 3 out of 4 in Houston.
  • In April ’72 they would be swept by the Astros in the dome…losing two in extras innings.
  • In 1974 the Cubs dropped their first game in the Astrodome by the score of 18-2.  The Cubs wouldn’t suffer any more losses of that magnitude…yet they would lose every game they played in the Astrodome that year (0-6).
  • The Cubs’ first trip to Houston during the summer of our country’s bicentennial in 1976 resulted in a four game sweep.  The Cubs would split the other two Astrodome contests to salvage a 1-5 record.
  • The Cubs won a thrilling 7-6 thirteen inning game in their first game at the Astrodome in 1978!-then lost the next five to go 1-5 for the year.

The Cubs finished the 1970s with a 20-40 (.333) record in the Houston Astrodome.  Hence for the first fourteen years of its existence (1966-1979) the Cubs had a record of 34-67. (.336)  The Cubs had winning records in the ‘dome (4-2) in 1969, 1973 and 1977…three of the fourteen seasons.  A winning record on the road is something very few teams are able to accomplish, but consistently playing at a .336 clip in one place over 100 games is a trend that validates inclusion on our list of 107.  A .336 winning percentage over a typical 162 game major league season would end in a 54-108 record… a dreadful performance.

1999 was the last season that the Houston Astros played in the Astrodome, before moving to “The Ballpark at Union Station”…which later became “Enron” Field. (insert own Enron joke) The Cubs fared a tiny bit better during the 80s and 90s going 49-70 (.411) before the Astros left their world famous dome.  The Cubs final Astrodome record comes in at 83-137…a .377 winning percentage.

“Let them play! Let them play! Let them play!”

I realize that I am dating myself with the Bad News Bears references, and I will confess that the ORIGINAL remains my favorite baseball film. While the sequel was disappointing…at least the Bears won in the Astrodome.

…something our favorite team could rarely do.

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Is 2015 a Historic Start for the Chicago Cubs?

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

The 2015 season is only two and a half weeks old and the Chicago Cubs have a record of 8-6. They may have played only 14 games…but there has been more joy, excitement, drama and fun than in the previous 3 seasons…combined.  Aside from those four nouns I used in describing the season thus far…just how good of a start has it been? How does it compare to Cubs’ seasons past? Is it even a benchmark worth comparing?

I am 46 years old…actually 46.5.  Most people refer to themselves as “life-long” fans of their respective favorite teams.  I just don’t feel right saying “I have been a fan for 47 years!”…because I haven’t been.  Born in the tumultuous year of 1968…if you would ask me in 1972 or ’73 who my favorite baseball team was… I would most certainly say the Cubs.  I remember arguing with the dreaded Sox fans on my block when I was 6.  However, in my personal timeline of Cubs’ fandom I would refer to these years as B.O. (Before Obsession) I had a favorite player (Rick Monday), and many times I knew if they had won or lost…but that’s about all I could tell you.  I was much more interested in comic books, action figures, and waiting for the ding-ding man to drive down our block.(also known as the ice cream man, Good Humor man or Mr. Softee)

Conversely, 1977 is the season I would declare as Year 1 of my Cubs’ fandom, or A.O. (After Obsession).   I followed every game, could recite all of the player’s statistics, and lived or died with each win or loss. Therefore, the 1977 season has been a point of reference in my previous columns…and in my book as well.  Obviously the older I get, the more of a database I have to analyze from my Cubs “Year 1” or starting point.

As we Cubs’ fans sit here on April 23, 2015…the Cubs’ season has had an exhilarating start! We have 9th inning come-backs, multiple Rookie of the Year candidates, and a winning record.  From my Year 1…I have never seen a season start with as much flare…and with mega-prospects impacting the early portion of a season.   Yet, from a sheer bottom line performance comparison…how good of a start is this?

I realize that 14 games is a very small sample size…but a record of 8-6 looks glorious compared to the last 5 years at this point:

2010- 5-9    2011- 7-7    2012- 3-11  2013- 5-9    2014- 4-10

Yes…Yes I know, it’s only 14 games…yet the beginning of a season is scrutinized much more…fair or not.  A start of 3-11 or 4-10 spurs trade deadline anticipation in late April.

Using my Year 1 of 1977, here are the Cubs best and worst records after 14 games respectively:

1985- 10-4

Ah…a season right in my wheelhouse!  I had finally recovered from the disaster of 1984 and the Cubs looked like they were going to make amends for the massive disappointment of the previous season. The same team that finished one game short of the World Series was kept intact, and things initially looked rosy. The ’85 Cubs stood at 35-19 on June 11th before a (gulp) 13 game losing streak derailed the campaign. Injuries to Rick Sutcliffe, Steve Trout and every other pitcher on the team sent the team spiraling down to a 77-85 finish.  The Cubs would fall even further back in 1986, and the window closed on this incarnation of our favorite team.

1997- 0-14

Oh my…I forgot/repressed this or something. 0 and freakin’ 14! The Cubs opened up with 10 straight games against the eventual World Series Champion Florida Marlins and the powerhouse Atlanta Braves (with Greg Maddux…argghhhh!).  The closest the Cubs would get to .500 was 24-33.  Amazingly, this team only lost 94 games after this wretched start.  The 1997 season was a train wreck in many ways. The Cubs did not have a starting pitcher with an ERA below 4.20.  Sadly, 3/5ths of the rotation (Geremi Gonzalez, Kevin Foster, and Frank Castillo) have all passed away…a tragic and eerie footnote to this putrid season. A fact even more catastrophic about the 1997 Chicago Cubs? -Mel Rojas was the teams’ closer.

If we examine the Cubs’ record after 14 games during their play-off seasons from ’77-14 there is remarkable consistency: 1984- 8-6, 1989- 8-6, 1998- 8-6, 2003- 8-6, 2007-5-9, and 2008- 9-5.  Translated…the Cubs are a lock for the play-offs this year.

I am joking of course, yet history has proven that the Cubs have very little chance when they don’t at least get out of the blocks well.  From 1977 to 2014, 2007 is the only year in which the Cubs would have a losing record after 14 games and finished above .500. Therefore when the Cubs start slow…they are usually dead in the water. A caveat to this would be that the Cubs have only had 9 winning seasons of 38 seasons since my Year 1 of 1977.(…depressing)

Yet in 7 of those 9 winning seasons (small sample size alert…again) the Cubs stood at 8-6 after 14 games. So while I wouldn’t go making any play-off plans just yet…the Cubs, historically speaking, have had a good start.  After finishing 9 percent of the season they are still in the race!

…which is something we haven’t been able to say in a while.

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The Cubs’ Pitiful History of Opening Day Positions Players (since 1977)

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

The Cubs lost to the Cardinals on opening night 3-0.  I imagine the vast lot of you knows this already, unless you were in a cave somewhere…or scrubbing toilets aboard a ship for a strange cult.  I was disappointed, as you were…but I rebounded quickly.  In my mid-40’s (closing in on “upper mid”) I have finally grown up.  I am still “in to” the Cubs almost as much as when I was a 9-year old…I just don’t react like I did as a 9-year old. I quit doing that in my late 30’s. What I mean to say is I don’t live or die with each Cubs win or loss.  Nevertheless, Opening Day does seem like much more than one game…doesn’t it? (especially against the dreaded Cards!) I imagine most fandoms view opening day this way, but Cubs’ fans take in dread like oxygen.    Thus the loss to the Cardinals and Adam Wainwright was difficult for many. I am ready to move on to the next 161, yet still have a bit of “opening day spirit” (I still haven’t taken down my opening day decorations) left over from Sundays’ debacle.  I decided to research the worst opening day starters at each position for the Cubs…and put together a really awful 9 player contingent.  I put in a couple self-imposed conditions:

  1.  I only went back to 1977. Why 1977 you ask? Well that’s the summer that this 9 year old boy began following every game.  In some ways it my A.D. if you will. (I hope I didn’t offend any ones religious sensibilities, unless you belong to the aforementioned cult)
  2. I only included players who started at the position on one opening day for the Cubs.
  3. I used WAR (wins above replacement) for my statistical analysis, because unlike Hawk Harrelson, I want to prove to you young bucks I can “get down” with saber metrics. OPS (on-base plus slugging) is actually my favorite statistic…but only deals with offense.

Hence using that criteria, here are 9 pitiful position players who started for the Chicago Cubs on opening day (with a brief comment or two thrown in):

CATCHER      2002  TODD HUNDLEY                                         0.4 WAR

Todd’s father Randy is also a former Cub, who when called upon in the Cubs’ radio booth has displayed an insightful baseball mind. Todd displayed that by 2002, he was washed up as a player…and that he could never button up his shirt.

1st BASE        2012  JEFF BAKER                                                  -0.4 WAR

Poor platooning Jeff is only on this squad by default…this is a position in which the Cubs have had few one year opening day starters. Bill Buckner, Leon Durham, Mark Grace, Derek Lee and now Anthony Rizzo take up most of the past opening day’s spots at first base.

2ND   BASE     1981  JOE STRAIN                                                   0.4 WAR

After the Manny Trillo years, yet prior to the Ryne Sandberg era…young Joe Strain was an extremely forgettable player the Cubs acquired from the Giants.  The 1981 opening day line-up of the Cubs was shockingly awful.

3rd   BASE      1981 KEN REITZ                                                      -0.8 WAR

Reitz was acquired along with Leon Durham for Bruce (cough) Sutter.  There were actually worse third sackers than Reitz who started in multiple years. (I am looking at you Kevin Orie and Gary Scott!) Did I mention that the 1981 Cubs’ opening day line-up was frightful?

SS                    1998    JEFF BLAUSER                                               -0.6 WAR

Did you forget the Cubs had him…or maybe you just blocked it out?  Blasuer was a Cubs’ killer as both an opponent and a member.

LF     1990    LLOYD MCCLENDON                                                  -1.6 WAR

Another platoon casualty here…McClendon did enjoy some nice moments for the Cubs.  If you never saw him play…you missed Harry Caray pronounce his name about 13 different ways…McClennan, McClenlen, McClendand, MacLyndon, McLandin…

CF     1980    CARLOS LEZCANO                                                                 -0.4 WAR

I was so excited that this rookie was starting the season in center for the Cubs in 1980…that excitement was gone by May 1st.

RF     2009    MITLON BRADLEY                                                                  0.3 WAR

Settle down! No really…settle down!  I get it…you are still angry at Milton.  In fact, if Milton were to be introduced at Wrigley in 2015…I think he would be booed louder than AJ Pierzynski, Satan, and Steve Bartman…combined.

SP     1991    DANNY JACKSON                                                     -1.8  WAR

The Cubs first major foray into free agency included signing George Bell (pretty much a bust), Dave Smith (definitely a bust) and Jackson. (a colossal bust) Of course in true ex-Cubs fashion, Jackson rebounded and helped the Phillies advance to the 1993 World Series.

Does this appalling trip through the gallery of Cubs’ opening day lineups past make you feel any better in 2015? Certainly none of the starters from the other night will ever appear on a collection like this in the future?

Jorge Soler? No way…never! Dexter Fowler? Highly…highly…doubtful. Chris Coghlan? P…p…probably not? David Ross? (Symbolically pulls collar away from neck) I kid…I kid…we all know that 2015 is going to be different.  All things Cubs’ related are going to go smoothly.

…unless you need to use the bathroom.

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Cubs Spring Training Flashback to 1982 and a Flash-forward Game

Friday, March 20th, 2015

I was 13 years old in the spring of 1982. I know, I know, many (most?) of you weren’t even born at that time.  In March of 1982 I was gathering as much info regarding my beloved Cubs and spring training.  In 1982 I had just two means of knowledge acquisition regarding Cubs’ spring training news: 1. to “hope” the late Tim Wiegel would mention the days’ spring training games on his 10:25 sportscast on the ABC news and 2. search for any scraps of info in the daily sports pages.   Around mid-March of that year, I stumbled across an article about a Cubs’ rookie that was dazzling the team in Arizona.  The article stated that the player was a phenomenal athlete and this wunderkind was a possibility to start the season in center field, shortstop, second base or third base.  Psychologists would refer to my memory of this article as a “flashbulb” or “snapshot” image…a recollection so vivid, that it is burned into your psyche forever.  Cubs’ fans acquire “flashbulb” memories more often than most fan bases…and yes, most of the time they are negative. (Actually “scarring” might be a more appropriate term)

Twenty-three years later (ironically), the Cubs are loaded with rookies.  Most Cubs’ fan today can find all the information they need about Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javy Baez, Jorge Soler, and the Cubs’ cast of hundreds (okay, maybe not hundreds) of other prospects.  Numerous prospect lists and scouting services have Bryant, Soler and Russell as potential All-Stars…or at least strong Major League contributors.  In 1982 coverage of prospects and rookies was miniscule compared to today…perhaps that’s why that article remains embedded in my brain. At a time when there was little prospect coverage, and a period when the team had few heralded rookies, what I read in mid-march in 1982 filled me with hope.

The rookie in the 1982 article (as most of you surmised) was Ryne Sandberg.  Sandberg would make the team out of spring training and be the Cubs’ opening day third baseman (the great Bump Wills was manning 2B).  There was no talk of service time, getting an extra year, etc.-Sandberg just made the big league club.  Cubs’ fans were excited about Sandberg, but I doubt any of us would have wagered that he would be a Hall of Famer one day.  In fact, if you were watching in early ’82… Hall of Famer was the last thing you would have been thinking.

Sandberg started 0-19 and 1-30…before having his first 2 hit game against the Pirates on April 17th. (I was at that game…I know you are happy for me)  Ryno settled in and ended up hitting .271 with 7 home runs, 54 RBIs, and 32 SBs.  He finished sixth in Rookie of the Year voting behind Steve Sax (winner), Johnny Ray, Willie McGee, Chili Davis and Luis DeLeon. (Not many Hall of Famers in that group) Sandberg would win his first of 9 straight gold gloves at second base in 1983, win the National League MVP in ’84, appear in 10 all-star games, and get inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005.(F%&k you Joe Morgan!)  On the day Sandberg was elected, I reflected back again on the article I had read in March of ’82…and I felt really flippin’ old!

Unfortunately we Cubs’ fans know that Ryno was the exception rather than the rule in regards to Cubs’ rookies.  For every Ryne Sandberg rookie season, there has been a Jerome Walton (flash in the pan), Kevin Orie (pretty much a bust) and Gary Scott (complete bust).  Yet now with good reason, Sandberg-like expectations are set for rookies Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, and Addison Russell…as well as should be considered rookie Javy Baez.  These guys are different…right????

So here is the question which is the genesis of my “flash-forward” game; will any of these players have Hall of Fame careers?  I know none of us can predict the future (…yet), and there are too many variables to even mention…but if you had to bet…what would you do?  In the comments section or via Twitter…give your answer to the following scenario:

You have two million fictional dollars to wager that have the potential to become real dollars if any of the following players eventually make the Hall of Fame: Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Jorge Soler.  You may wager on all four, you may wager on just one. But wait…you can wager $500,000 fake dollars (that will turn real) if you bet on none of them making it. (that makes it a bit tougher…doesn’t it)  You have to bet on the players…or against them.  I am a gambling man by nature (line from the film Stripes), so I am taking the plunge.  I would go with $1.25 million on Bryant, $500,000 on Russell, $150,000 on Soler and $100,000 on Baez.  Yes…I am hedging a bit, but I believe in diversification.  “None of them” for the 500 grand is probably the safest bet…but I am going for the big money.

No one would have wagered on Ryno back in the spring of ’82…what do you think of this crop of Cubs’ rookies?

This column is in no way an endorsement of the evils of gambling and other games of chance.

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The End of the Cubs “Maddon-ing” Lack of Managerial Instability?

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

I love HBO.  I consider it to be the finest network in the history of the universe; The Sopranos, Deadwood, Game of Thrones, Curb Your Enthusiasm, True Detective and on and on and on.Another of my HBO favorites is Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. While Bryant may not be everyone’s cup of tea (unless you like your tea with a dash of arrogance), I think the show’s segments are exceptionally captivating more times than not.  In April of 2012 one of the pieces was a feature on then Tampa Bay Rays’ skipper Joe Maddon.  The segment centered on Joe’s unique leadership style; using humor and fun, while still getting grown men to play hard for him.  The section of the show also focused on Maddon’s ability to prod his teams to overachieve.  I had already formed a positive opinion of Maddon as a manager prior to this viewing, but the Real Sports episode cemented Joe as one of the guys in the game I really admired.  Never (I can’t emphasize that “never” enough) in my wildest, wildest Cubbie dreams did I ever think Joe Maddon would be managing the Cubs.

It is for this reason, that I have constantly caught myself saying “I can’t believe the Cubs got Joe Maddon” at random times since last fall.  The idea is still too surreal for me. The Cubs have gotten their man before (i.e. Baker, Piniella), but this time they landed the guy many consider to be the man.  Skeptics will say that Joe will ultimately fail like Dusty and Lou before him, and that certainly would seem to fit with our beloved team’s history.  Nevertheless, irrespective of the wins and losses, I am excited about a different aspect I believe Maddon will give the Cubs: stability.

In my critically acclaimed (and soon to be updated) book Beyond Bartman, Curses &Goats: 105 Reasons Why It’s Been 105 Years, Reason 94 is the Cubs’ total instability at the managerial position.  Of all National League franchises, would you care to guess which team historically has had the most managerial changes?

I bet you answered correctly.

In the chart below, this fact will be illustrated with clear data.  I researched every National League franchise and came up with their AMT (Average Manager Tenure).  The AMT is not really a complex formula; I divided a team’s total number of managers by the number of years they have been in existence since 1908. (1908 is year one in regards to data collection in my book for reasons obvious to a Cubs’ fan.)  The only caveat is I only included men who managed at least 25 for their respective club, so interim managers were included…but their 25 game stints seemed like a less “interim” starting point for me.  Below are the 16 current National League franchises, complete with their AMTs, and World Series appearances and titles.

Numbers can be confusing, a little scary, and one can manipulate them in many instances. However, if this chart makes sense to you, there are two overwhelming conclusions that can be drawn.

  1. The Cubs have the worst AMT amongst all National League franchises since 1908.  The Marlins, a team with two World Series titles (you know, in case you forgot about that one in 2003), is the only team that is close.  For the last 106 years the Cubs have changed their field manager (on average) every two seasons.  Think about that for a minute…starting all over again…every two years!
  2. The teams that have represented the National League in the World Series over fifty percent of the time since 1908 have AMTs of 3.9, 4.9 and 5.7 respectfully.  The Cardinals, Giants and Dodgers have AMTs that double and almost triple (in the Dodgers’ case) the Cubs.  There may be a bit of a chicken/egg conundrum here…good players on good teams equals a long and successful managerial career.  Yet a number as low as the Cubs’ 2.0, indicates a history of impatience and poor decisions.

This brings me back to my school-girl like giddiness over the hiring of Joe Maddon.  For a fan that has seen the likes of Herman Franks, Preston Gomez, Lee Elia, Jim Essian, Tom Treblehorn, Mike Quade and the aforementioned Baker and Piniella, this just feels different to me.  I see Maddon managing the Cubs for at least five seasons, which would be double their current AMT!  Call it a hunch, blind-faith, or whatever you would like, but that segment I watched about a manager I never dreamed would be a Cub one day stuck with me.

Recently I read some spring training quotes from Maddon talking about his affinity for The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm (ahem…HBO).  Joe even mentioned one of his prize possessions is a signed 8X10 of Larry David, the creator and star of Curb Your Enthusiasm.  I wonder what Larry thinks about the Cubs’ new manager?

…he’s pretty, pretty good!

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The Final Frontier: The Cubs’ Convention

Friday, January 16th, 2015

I used to have an ongoing argument with one of my co-workers; which franchise is cooler…Star Wars or Star Trek? Having seen Star Wars (now referred to as Episode IV: A New Hope) three times in the theater as an eight year old, it’s pretty obvious where I stood on the divide.  I never had any interest in Star Trek as a kid, although I may have had a toy or two.  As I aged, and “Trekkies” and their conventions were labeled as gatherings of basement dwelling nerds, (see the classic William Shatner SNL sketch) I became further entrenched in my Star Wars preference. (In my defense this was prior to the putrid prequels… Damn you, Lucas!) Perhaps I was stereotyping Star Trek fans…but I never planned on attending a convention to validate or refute my preconceptions.

I had also never attended the convention for my favorite baseball team until last year. (I really don’t have a phobia of conventions…I did go to Beatle Fest when I was in college.) However, after authoring a semi-successful (and very well- reviewed) book, I was “chosen” to be a vendor at the 2014 Cubs’ Convention.  Unfortunately when you are “chosen”, you still have to pay for the booth and hotel room…but that’s what my accountant is for.  It was a great experience, and I came away with three overarching themes for the weekend.

  1. It was Fun

It was surreal and humbling to be in this place; my booth next to the great Pat Hughes, signing and fortunately selling about 110 copies of my book.  The days were long, yet the time flew by as I sat at my booth the entire time, my brothers the beneficiaries of my convention passes to all of the presentations. I loved interacting with the fans, signing my book…people wanting me to sign for them (hence the “surreal” feeling).  These types of moments have been the most rewarding part of the book writing experience, just meeting and talking to people.

One family I met was particularly intriguing. They informed me they were close personal friends of the Bartmans. Yes…that Bartman family.  Being that I have always been a Steve Bartman sympathizer and never in the least bit held him responsible for the 2003 disaster, (heck…it’s one of the reasons I wrote the book!) I asked if they could get a copy to Steve and they agreed to try. Unfortunately, he declined the offer.  Leaving me to wonder if he did not realize my book exonerates him, or that the poor guy is still suffering from shell-shock.  If you are out there, Steve Bartman, I would still love to get you a copy!

Other than that missed rare opportunity, the interactions at my booth were wonderful, humbling and just plain fun….and I look forward to it again on Friday, January 16, 2015.

  1. It was Weird

Okay, here is where the Star Trek connection comes in. I think a portion of Cubs’ fans who attend the convention are the equivalent to Trekkies.  I mean this in the nicest way, (Does that sound sincere?) but I felt like I was in an alternate Cubiverse. The outfits: hats that would make Elton John blush, jerseys with names of players who played ten games for the Cubs, and loads and loads of people cavorting in Cubs pajamas.  Cubs’ tattoos were also aplenty; in fact, one fellow with the numbers 10, 26, and 14 emblazoned permanently on his shiny dome. (Google it…please)

Yet the weirdest part of my weekend occurred in the men’s room (Insert your own joke). I must warn you, this story borders on the tasteless. If you are easily offended, you may want to skip to the next section.  As I was standing at the urinal in one of the luxurious (seriously…they are very nice!) washrooms of the Sheraton, I was startled by an incredible noise emanating from one of the stalls.  It sounded…all at once…like a murder taking place, a birth occurring, or some regurgitating an entire marching band.  I am NOT exaggerating; it was like nothing I ever heard before or since. (In fact, back to Star Wars…it was a sound possibly reminiscent of what a Wookie’s washroom might sound like). I was honestly frightened, and decided to finish my business and hightail it out of there. Alas…I was too late. The door of the stall flew open like an old western saloon door and out walked an individual I instantly recognized.

I really don’t want to besmirch or embarrass this person too much, so I will conceal his identity as much as possible…and if you don’t want to know, skip ahead to the next section. The man who walked out of the stall was dressed in a full Cubs uniform, is a self-appointed Cubs’ mascot and his name rhymes with Donnie Boo-Boo.

  1. Pat Hughes is Awesome

I was very excited to find out my booth was located next to the Cubs’ radio play-by-play voice.  When he arrived to his booth, I approached him stating, “Mr. Hughes.” He immediately stopped me and said, “Call me Pat.”

Of all the experiences of my initial Cubs’ Convention, my impression of Pat Hughes will always remain the strongest.  Even if I were the world’s most proficient writer, I could not do justice to the grace and humility this man showed.  Throughout the weekend, he was constantly under siege for photo-ops and autographs…requests that make many celebrities and semi-celebrities run away screaming, as if this is beneath them.  “Pat” treated them all as if they were all old friends, remembering many by name, and taking time to engage with each of them.  I was truly amazed, and I wish others handled “celebrity status” with the same modesty and elegance. I learned that I should try to emulate Pat in any future endeavors dealing with people, but his is a lofty standard.

The 2015 Convention is almost upon us, and this year should have a much more positive vibe with Joe Maddon, Jon Lester and prospects galore! I highly recommend it if you have the opportunity. I have decided to give it another go this year.  I hope to sell some books, meet some people, and hopefully experience all of the weirdness and fun again.

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2015 Free Agent Pitchers: My Quick Take

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

I think the Cubs signed Jon Lester this week…at least that’s what I heard? No really, apparently his “friends” expect him to sign with the Cubs. I am not sure which of his friends said this or even how many friends Jon Lester has. I have a lot of friends…many of whom I am not sure I would label as “friends” more like “acquaintances” or even “potential acquaintance”.   Hopefully these were some of the closest friendliest friendly friends that Mr. Lester has. I just imagine this: Jon Lester’s cousins’ friends’ sister said she saw Jon at 31 Flavors last night; and she said she heard Jon say he is most definitely possibly considering thinking about the idea of signing with the Cubs.

All rumors from “friends” aside (and the cast of Friends), the Cubs will have money to spend, and Lester could be a prime target. If you want to see a FULL list of potential free-agents…I would advise against looking at it. It’s a bit like going through your grandparents attic…you will find some valuable things…but much of it is worthless and smelly. So, I did the digging for us…and I will list some potential Cubs’ targets. I will examine the possibility of that player becoming a Cub, and add my own take/opinion. I decided to focus on pitchers this week, because we all know the Cubs’ are totally set at ALL other positions forever!(seriously, I may tackle other needs later)

JON LESTER

I am going to have to disagree with Jon’s friends; I am not sure I see it happening. If he would sign a contract similar to what Cole Hamels has left on his deal (4 years at $90M plus) then the Cubs will be in. If it takes a 6-7 year deal…I wouldn’t blame the Cubs’ for passing. I will give this a POSSIBLE. 4 for 100(maybe)… 5 for 125(pushing it)…6 for 150(no thanks)

MAX SCHERZER

If it’s true that Scherzer turned down a 6 year $144 M deal during the offseason…I see no way Cubs top that. If they pass, it’s not because they are cheap…I just think without a warranty guarantee on his velocity…it would be a really bad signing. I give this signing a chance of NO WAY. Some team is going to over pay…and they may be stuck with a Justin Verlander type contract…without the benefit of Kate Upton being around.

JAMES SHIELDS

Shields has been a consistent starter for the past for seasons. Shields will be 33 on Opening Day 2015 and unless he goes to the Roger Clemens’ Fountain/Pharmacy of Youth (…hey, I worked that one in again!) he is not going to improve. Never underestimate the AL to NL benefit though…Shields could be dominant for a year or two in the NL. I give it a chance of SLIGHTLY POSSIBLE, but with most of the guys in this group it will all come down to the length of the deal.

JUSTIN MASTERSON

Masterson’s has a history with Theo and Jed; therefore this is definitely POSSIBLE. I hate to rely on my fantasy baseball experience here…but I would say, please GOD NO! The Cardinals (the smartest baseball organization in the history of the universe)…are finding out that his velocity is down, and his “rockings” are up…way up. Masterson is currently sporting a 5.94 ERA this season, and 11.25 for the Cards. (Geez…that’s too bad) He may yet turn it around this season, but he is maddeningly inconsistent….and he is murder on your fantasy team’s ERA.

JORGE DE LA ROSA

If you are a Simpsons’ fan like me; when you see his name you may think of Santos De Los Halpos. If the pitching market doesn’t go completely crazy (not bloody likely), De La Rosa is a lefty who could benefit from playing somewhere not named Coors Field. De La Rosa has put up pretty decent numbers including an ERA plus of 126; for non-Saber types, this adjusts for his ball park and 100 is considered league average…so De La Rosa has been good again this year. He will be 34 next season, so a 3 year deal would probably be max. POSSIBLE

SCOTT FELDMAN

Maybe we can sign him to a one year deal, and then flip….oh yeah.

JOSH BECKETT

I am highly in favor of the Cubs signing Josh Beckett…as long as they have a time machine and get the 2003 version of Josh. NO CHANCE

JASON HAMMEL

Whenever players get traded away midseason…there are usually people who say “They can sign him over the winter anyway”….the problem is, it almost NEVER happens. However, I would not dismiss the possibility with Hammel. Hammel found his greatest success as a Cub, and a return to the NL on a reasonable 3 year deal (?)…and I would say SLIGHTLY MORE THAN POSSIBLE.

FRANCISCO LIRIANO?

MLB Trade Rumors does not list him as a free agent, but Baseball Reference does…I am saying he is…and if he is, I want him. His injury history may deflate his price, and he will only be 31 next season. If anybody out there could settle this for me, I would greatly appreciate it…Free Agent or Not? Assuming he is, I would still put him as DOUBTFUL due to teams that will overpay. Full disclosure, I watched him pitch the other night and I was just drooling over the way his change-up was diving away from righties and he was hitting 95 on the gun…that was just one outing…so I probably shouldn’t ever be a scout.

BRANDON MCCARTHY

While not the sexiest name on the list, he has been pitching really well since being traded to the Yankees. McCarthy will be 32 next season, and peripheral numbers outshine his traditional baseball stats. Example: McCarthy’s FIP (fielding independent pitching) has been much lower than his ERA, the last 4 seasons…meaning he has pitched better than his ERA suggests. I could see the Cubs taking a “flyer” on McCarthy if he remains unsigned close to spring training, but otherwise…I say HIGHLY DOUBTFUL.

There are too many variables for one to accurately predict if the Cubs will wind up with any of these arms…but just for the fun of it…I will complete a quick wish list, then I am interested to hear what you have to say. Mine would be

  1. Lester 2. Liriano   3. Shields  4. De La Rosa   5.Hammel

I have already mentally prepared myself for the possibility of the Cubs getting NONE of these guys. Oh, and before we get your opinion…here are the guys I deemed not good enough to include:

Kevin Correia, Chris Capuano, Gavin Floyd, Aaron Harang, Roberto Hernandez, Josh Johnson, John Lannan, Colby Lewis, Paul Maholm, Jake Peavy, Edinson Volquez, and Jerome(we had him like ten years ago) Williams

I told you there wasn’t much else to see on the list.

I did not include pitchers that have either a club or player option and are likely to remain with their current clubs.

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Are the Chicago Cubs at the Tipping Point?

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

95,242. That’s my place in line.

This morning I decided to sign up for the Cubs’ season ticket waiting list.  I did so knowing I would have no chance of having them anytime soon. Considering I will have a child in college for 12 of the next 13 years, my disposable income will be…let’s just say… limited. I joined just to see where I would place on the list. I have heard unconfirmed (maybe one of you can confirm) reports that waiting listers were getting calls just last winter from the Chicago Cubs…stating that their numbers had come up and they could get tickets.  If this is true, and anyone passed…that person may be waiting a long time for another opportunity.

I know very little about the ins and outs of season tickets and ticket brokering, but I know a little about supply and demand.  For the last couple of summers, I have heard angry callers to sports radio begin conversations with “I am a season-ticket holder, and…” they then rant about Jeff Samardzija being traded or whatever other move they are upset about.  My thought when I hear these rants? Get rid of your tickets then. I have a friend who has a ticket business on the side…and I have listened to him lament for the last 3 summers regarding the Cubs.  This may sound insensitive to those who have had tickets for the last 3 summers, and watched bad, bad baseball…but they didn’t have to keep them.  Yet if you did, I think you are about to be rewarded for your patience.  I view season tickets like stocks…buy low, sell high. If you bought Chicago Blackhawks season tickets in 2006, the idea would have seemed rather silly. Yet, in 2014, those lucky enough to have done so have 41 sold-out dates each year to use or sell at their leisure….and they have benefited greatly during two Stanley Cup runs.

I spoke with my long-time friend, Dale Bradley, a financial adviser with 25 years of experience, of Bradley Investment Center in Evanston…and a Cubs’ season ticket holder for the last 20 years. In regards to his tickets, Bradley stated; “You love them and you hate them…when times are bad you are tempted to sell.  When times are good, they are golden”. In my opinion…times are about to be very good for the patient ones.

This brings me to my “Tipping Point” regarding the Chicago Cubs.  The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell is a book that combines economics, human nature, and social trends.  The book may be a bit “thinky” for some, but here is how Gladwell defines a tipping point: “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point”.   Gladwell demonstrates messages, ideas, products and behaviors that race like wildfire through our society…after reaching their tipping point.  In my opinion, as year three of the Theo Epstein regime comes to a close…the Cubs are either at a tipping point or on the precipice of one.

Am I just a Cubbie blue Kool-Aid drinker?  I will let the reader be the judge, as I give my reasons why the tipping point for the Cubs’ organization is nigh:

  1. Before we get to the fun stuff (players)…lets address an off the field issue.  It appears as though the renovations to Wrigley will finally begin.  With the way this issue has played out, I will keep my fingers and toes crossed, but the Cubs finally give the impression that they have their “ducks in a row” on this. The dark cloud regarding future revenues concerning the park…might finally be lifting.  In fact (fingers crossed, fingers crossed), we may see some of these changes take root during the 2015 season.
  2. The contract of Alfonso Soriano (the equivalent of two Presidential terms) is finally off the books in 2015.  Not including players eligible for arbitration, the Cubs currently have $31.2 million allotted to salaries in 2015.  Let’s give them a modest payroll of $85 million for 2015…you are looking at a heck of a lot of dough the Cubs will have to allocate to free-agents.  They will not enter 2015 with a $40 million dollar salary.  However, I would like to caution those of you who already have Jon Lester in the 2015 Cubs’ rotation…if Lester wants anything more than a five-year deal…that might not be where the money goes.  Regardless of Jon Lester and other top of the line free-agents, the Cubs will have the flexibility to sign, and trade for contracts they have not had for the past six off seasons.
  3. Recent events, the call ups of Arismendy Alcantara, Kyle Hendricks, and now (cue, shining light coming through the clouds) Javy Baez, have me thinking that Theo and Jed are ready to at least compete in 2015.  They have stated numerous times they like to call players up to stay…if that’s true, these players will be on the opening day roster in 2015.  A line-up that will include the current NL home-run leader in Rizzo…and perhaps some of the other amazing offensive prospects the Cubs have in the system. These call-ups signal to me that the regime is not concerned about tanking the last two months. I am not alluding that Baez, Alcantara and Hendricks are going to give the Cubs a winning record for August and September…but I get the feeling that the regime isn’t  worried as much if the pick 3rd or 7th overall next June.
  4.  I know some people will always be suspicious of prospects…but when you have respected national writers stating that this may be the best assortment of position prospects ever assembled…you can dismiss those thoughts of Ty Griffin, Corey Patterson and Felix Pie. Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber seem to hit home runs daily.  Alcantara (yes, small sample size) has looked as smooth to me as any prospect in recent memory upon arriving in the Majors.  The Cubs system is “boiling over” with offensive potential.  The “graduation” of these prospects will not leave the minors barren of talent, as players such as Eloy Jimenez and Gleyber Torres will ascend to the top of prospect lists.
  5. Almost under the radar, the Cubs have done an excellent job of stockpiling young power arms for the bullpen.  Justin Grimm has shown flashes, yet still inconsistent. (side not…you don’t have to pitch him every day Ricky) Hector Rondon has stepped in nicely as the current closer, and Neil Ramirez has been filthy for most of the season.  Pedro Strop, although not as young, has displayed his magic slider recently.  At Iowa, the Cubs actually may have the two best power relievers in the system in Armando Rivero (83 k’s in 54 innings) and Arodys Vizcaino.  The Cubs could enter spring training next year with 6-7 relievers who throw 95 mph.

I have had this Tipping Point concept floating in my head for the last month or so…and I finally decided to own it.  I loved Gladwell’s book and the analogies made sense to me.  Some of you may take a much more pessimistic view about 2015 for the Chicago Cubs…and that’s fine. If you do have a negative outlook on the future for the Cubs…please try to convince the 95,241 people ahead of me on the season ticket list that they should drop off.

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