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Back In Time to 2015

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

I apologize upfront…I am going to sound a bit like an ogre…or at least an angry old man in this post.  This column may also seem irreverent to those of you looking for the usual nuggets of Cubs’ history that I typically write about…but this week I am hopping on a (very sarcastic) soap box.

The Cubs are NOT going to win the World Series in 2015.  I hope I am wrong, yet at this moment in “time”…I just don’t see it.  This team is light years ahead of the 2011-2014 versions …and extremely fun to watch.  The Cubs are an exciting young team with much promise. However they also possess a shaky defense, a very strikeout-y offense, and they are looking up at a Cardinals team that might win 130 games (unless they are all in white-collar cyber-criminal prisons by September).  I think the Cubs have a better than average shot of getting in as a wild card… I just can’t see them getting past the Nationals, the Giants, or the Dodgers. The “future” is bright however…yet part of me will actually be relieved when they don’t win in 2015.

Why? Why would a life-long Cubs’ fan say something so blasphemous…I shall explain:

I am a child of the 70’s and 80’s…so I love pop culture of that era.  Consequently, I am a fan of the “Back to the Future” films. (Well…at least the first two)  I may be one of the rare individuals who favor the second installment in the series. I love the “alternate” Biff Tannen 1985, where Biff is this rich American icon who amassed his empire through gambling…using Grays’ Sports Almanac…a book that has the score of every sporting event ever from 1955-2000! (Yet is remarkably thin)  He stole Marty’s idea for wealth and fame…and where did Marty get this idea?

Marty sees a hologram which congratulates the Cubs on winning the 2015 World Series over Miami…and a bystander says “if only you could go back in time and put some money on the Cubbies” and Marty’s scheme is hatched.

Now here in the actual 2015 I am tired of hearing about this silly connection. Apparently some have taken this as some sort of a prophecy (I realize some of it is tongue in cheek) but I have read dozens and dozens of posts, blogs and articles about this.  I also constantly hear “the Cubs are gonna win…Back to the Future said so” …comments from friends and co-workers.  Enough….please stop…it may have been kind of cute or funny the first 33 times I heard it, but now I find it annoying.  So here is my attempt to put this “prophecy” to bed- I will now point out what Back to the Future 2 also predicted about 2015:

-that the Cubs will play Miami in the World Series…yes I know there wasn’t a Miami franchise at the time, so the film did predict that correctly…but guessing that Miami would eventually have a baseball team does not qualify one as Nostradamus.

-Flying Cars?!….boy they were way off on this one…not only do we not have flying cars in 2015, we basically have the same cars we had in 1985.  Sure the designs are sleeker, mini-vans replaced station wagons, and we get about .1 more miles to the gallon…but no flying ability.  Rich people and the Military (they always get stuff 20 years before us) don’t even have flying cars in the real 2015…yet Doc Brown was stuck in bad aerial traffic in Back to the Future 2.

-Hydrating a Pizza? The McFly family hydrates a Pizza in seconds for dinner in their hydrating machine that looks suspiciously like a microwave. The movie did correctly predict that Pizza Hut would still be in existence in 2015. (I am guessing that a hydrated version would taste better than actual 2015 Pizza Hut does.)

-Marty’s Nikes…they were kind of close on this one…there have been advances in footwear in the last 30 years that have lessened the need for shoelaces. Frankly, I am surprised that shoelaces have made it this long…I can only attribute it to the historically strong aglet** lobby.

-the prevalence of Fax machines…I really can’t help but to burst out laughing at this one! A joke in the film has Marty’s boss say “Read My Fax!”…and it’s even on that old time computer spool paper! This might have worked had they traveled to 1995…but not 2015.

-Hover Boards…I actually did see an episode of Pawn Stars where they purchased one of these…so they get some credit here…but what I watched Chum Lee try to navigate was not anywhere near what Marty was flying around on.

-A “Café 80’s”…I want one of these in my town now!  I would frequent the place all of the time…in many ways I am stuck in the decade anyway….however I would want Pac Man, Tempest and Donkey Kong video games and not the lame, plot-foreshadowing, made-up “Wild Gunman” game that Marty plays.

- 2 ties as a fashion for men-I don’t fault them for this miscalculation…I still think it’s a very funny concept.

-Clothes that dry themselves-I do think I saw an infomercial about some kind of jacket that did this (maybe I was dreaming?)…just not to the extent that Marty’s clothes do.

-Using your hand-print to open the door-I am pretty sure this technology exists (I bet the military has it)…it’s just not readily available in all 2015 homes like say…fax machines! (giggle, giggle)

Even if the Chicago Cubs do happen to win the 2015 World Series(doubtful)…it will have nothing to do with BTF2 predicting it.  Like most conspiracies, prophecies, and oddities…my guess is there is a perfectly logical explanation for the Cubs’ inclusion in the 1989 film.  Let me ask you this-what other team could the filmmakers have used that would have gotten more of a reaction/laugh than the Cubs? Maybe the Red Sox because they were also still stuck in their own historical streak at the time…but they are not seen as “losers” as much as our beloved team is.  The White Sox could have been used as well…but no one cares about the White Sox.  I can’t think of any team that would have gotten the same reaction…it was a good choice by the filmmakers. It’s just not as sexy of an explanation as if they were really predicting this…sorry.

So back in our real 2015 where the Cubs are an improved bunch, cars don’t fly, and my lack of scientific knowledge prevents me from knowing if “hydrating” is even a thing, let’s put to bed the whole Cubs/Back to the Future connection.  If by some miracle the Cubs do win their first title in 107 years it will be just a fun, silly coincidence…and if they do win…the Hover Boards are on me!

** an aglet is that little plastic tip at the end of your shoelace…which has a lifespan of about a month after the purchase your shoes.

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A Look at the Cubs First Draft Ever

Friday, June 5th, 2015

On Monday June 8th the Cubs as well as the other 29 MLB teams will participate in the 2015 amateur draft.  Today the draft is quite a production…it is televised, analyzed and scrutinized.  The draft itself has evolved as well as scouting and the technology involved.   Early returns on Cubs’ drafts under Theo are encouraging…but let’s go back to 1965…the very first MLB draft ever.

Rick James.  Have you ever heard of him?  No, not the much-lampooned late funk master of the 80’s…the baseball player. C’mon, you know him; the former Cubs’ pitcher! The player the Cubs drafted 6th overall in 1965. (Okay, so that is a bit of sarcasm.) You would have to be an older Cubs’ fan, with freakish recall, to dredge up the Cubs’ career of one Rick James…the pitcher. Let’s look at some of the career highlights of Rick (not the Super Freak) James:

- Mr. Rick James appeared in three major league games.

- Mr. Rick James had a career major league record of 0-1.

- Mr. Rick James had a career ERA of 13.50.

Perhaps the funky Rick James could have pitched as well as Cubs’ draft pick Rick James.Former-Cub Rick James may be a really nice guy (I have never met him), but I think it’s safe to say he could be classified a bust of a 1st round pick.

How did the Chicago Cubs do in the rest of the 1965 draft? They made one great pick in the 4th round; KenHoltzman.  Holtzman went on to win threeWorld Series…with the Oakland A’s. Out of the 28 names the Cubs selected other than James and Holtzman, only two are recognizable: Darrell Evans and Tom House.

Darrell Evans, who the Cubs drafted but did not sign, went on to have a fine career with the Braves, Giants, and Tigers. Tom House is most notable for catching Hank Aaron’s 715th home run in the Atlanta Braves’ bullpen. Mr. House is also famous for the towel drill used as a training technique for pitchers.  Therefore, of the 30 players selected by the Chicago Cubs in the inaugural draft of 1965, only Holtzman contributed to any Cubs’ success. The Cubs then traded Holtzman so he could have mega-success with the A’s. Regardless of that fact, let’s examine other players drafted in ’65, and where they were selected:

 

PLAYER                     ROUND         PICK #            COMMENTS                                                           

JOHNNY BENCH                 2          36                   Best catcher ever!

LARRY HISLE                       2          38                   A solid OF with a .273 BA 166 HRs

ANDY MESSERSMITH      3          58                   130-99, 2.86 ERA for career

GRAIG NETTLES                  4          74                   Perennial Gold-Glove 3B, 390 HRs

AMOS OTIS                         5          95                   Gold Glove CF for Royals, 193 HRs

SAL BANDO                         6          119                 Three- time World Series 3B

NOLAN RYAN                   12         295                Other than Bench, 293 worse picks

GENE TENACE                     20       340                 Three- time World Series C/1B

Considering that all Major League teams drafted 293 players before the Mets selected a hard throwing right-handed pitcher out of a Texas High School, I can’t blame the Cubs alone for not drafting Nolan Ryan. Considering Johnny Bench and Ryan are two preeminent Hall of Famers, I am amazed they were in the same draft! Bench was the type of pick who completely altered the Reds’ franchise, and it was demonstrated in their 1970’s dominance.

The other players listed above were solid contributors throughout the 1970s and 1980s.  All teams miss in the draft, but as future drafts would prove, the Cubs tend to miss a lot.  The Holtzman pick was the only worthy pick in ’65, actually UN-Cubs- like in its goodness. (Did I mention they traded him?)

Let’s just dream and imagine if the Cubs had selected Bench or Ryan.  Can you picture a world where Johnny Bench breaks in with the Cubs’ teams of the early 1970s?  How about Nolan Ryan coming up with the 1969 Cubs as opposed to the ’69 Mets?  Wait, my imagination is not that good…it’s too unrealistic.

Returning to 2015 from my alternate Cubs’ time-line the Cubs have the 9th overall pick on Monday.  I highly doubt they will draft a Johnny Bench or a Nolan Ryan…but might they get something close to a Schwarber like last year?  If you want to get a very precise detailed look at past Cubs’ drafts I recommend picking up a copy of the next edition of my book…coming to Amazon soon.  Although I must warn you…it is not a pretty chapter.  By selecting just Holtzman, 1965 actually qualifies as one of the Cubs better drafts…even if they did blow the first pick on Rick James!

…the non-funky one.

 

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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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