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Bob Hunt:This year doomed from outset for Cubs

BY BOB HUNT: UNLEASHED

Published October 6, 2004

As the baseball playoffs begin this week,
one of the sport’s most popular teams will be sitting at
home. With the National League wildcard in their grasp, the Cubs
lost seven of eight games in the final week and a half of the
season to be eliminated from playoff contention. At this time last
year, the Cubs became the team of bandwagon jumpers everywhere,
sending ratings into the stratosphere. They were poised to become
the story of the sporting year, needing to win just one out of
three games to win their first pennant since 1945.

They lost all three.

But 2004 was a new year. The foul ball snatched by Steve Bartman
was gone — literally. The ball was blown up in public display
on national television, beginning the team’s downward spiral
in the eighth inning of the 2003 National League Championship
Series.

Forget the old Cubs fan phrase “Wait ’till next
year,” 2004 was supposed to be the year where the team would
make and advance in the playoffs. Sports Illustrated picked the
Cubs to win the World Series (even though this was probably just
done to sell magazines, but I digress). Cubs tickets became more
popular than ever before, as the entire regular season sold out
before the home opener.

Chicago, and much of America, believed the hype. Yeah, the
Astros were improved, but the Giants hadn’t done anything
during the off-season, the Braves were the weakest team to come out
of Atlanta in years and the Dodgers had no offense. And the
Cardinals. Heck, they didn’t have any pitching. The Cubs
couldn’t miss the series this year!

As it turned out, the hype ended up being like watching one of
those infomercials for a Jujitsu knife at 4 a.m. It sounds great,
but once you get it, it doesn’t seem to slice and dice the
way that guy who had drank way too much coffee told you it
would.

Frankly, the fact that the Cubs had the opportunity to lose five
straight games at home in the final week was a miracle in itself.
The season ended up being one fiasco after another off the field,
something few teams could recover from. Yes, many Cubs complained
so much that the media have labeled the team a bunch of whiners.
While almost every team in every sport at every level has to face
some type of adversity in order to succeed, what occurred this
season gave me the feeling that maybe this wasn’t the year
everyone made it out to be.

For those of you who weren’t paying attention, these are
some (there are more) of the things that happened to those Cubbies
this year:

• Starting with Mark Prior’s nagging Achilles tendon
in spring training (and later, his elbow), almost every important
Cub spent some time this year watching from the dugout. Kerry Wood
missed a month with a bad elbow. Sammy Sosa injured his back while
sneezing. Yes, sneezing. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez had a
strained groin. Second baseman Mark Grudzielanek had his own
Achilles injury. Even Nomar Garciaparra, the team’s major
mid-season acquisition, spent weeks at a time on the bench for
various reasons. The list goes on …

• At the request of his art-loving agent, Prior agreed
during the off-season to make a promotional appearance at
“Just Ducky,” an arts and collectables store in the
western Chicago suburb of Naperville. He supposedly agreed to sign
a bunch of $300 handcrafted porcelain replicas of Wrigley Field.
The problem is, the event happened to fall the night before
Prior’s first start of the season, which was following a
two-month stay on the disabled list. Prior tried to get out of the
event, but the store declined after putting thousands into
advertising. The pitcher, who rejects all media requests any day
before he takes the mound, freaked. He left over an hour before he
was supposed to, forsaking people who bought something just to get
Prior’s signature with an expensive desk item and others who
didn’t know about the purchase requirement, furious. The
store sued Prior, and it has yet to be resolved.

• Richard Daley, Chicago’s Mayor and a White Sox fan
who has never set foot in Wrigley Field, threatened to cancel home
games at the last minute twice because of falling concrete in the
ballpark. Daley fought with the Tribune Company — which owns
the Cubs — throughout the entire year, and the Cubs put up
protective netting around the stadium. The two groups, which have
squabbled over the Cubs’ proposed ballpark renovations and
the expansion of night games for years, still aren’t in
agreement as to Wrigley’s status for next season.

• In September, the Cubs left for Miami to play a
three-game series against the Marlins. They ended up taking the
weekend off because of the arrival of Hurricane Frances. This
forced the Cubs to play 26 games in the remaining 24 days of the
season, which definitely could have led to team’s final-week
collapse.

• Putting the cherry on top of the sundae of disaster,
Sammy Sosa, whose me-first antics wore thin as his performance
diminished, decided that he couldn’t take it anymore. After
the Cubs were officially eliminated from the playoffs last
Saturday, Sosa decided to skip town — without permission
— before the season finale. This capped a feud between Sosa
and manager Dusty Baker that was just one of the disputes Cubs
players had this season. Almost no one was spared. Management,
coaches, broadcasters and umpires were all involved in verbal
fisticuffs with Cubs this season.

In the end, the Cubs finished three games behind the resilient
Astros, and light years behind the Cardinals. The season ended like
the season finale of a primetime soap, with plenty of issues yet to
be settled before next April. Play-by-play announcer Chip Caray has
already announced that he’s leaving for Atlanta. Sosa trade
rumors are flying everywhere. Garciaparra’s and Alou’s
chances of re-signing look dim. Now a team looking to build a
multi-year run doesn’t know where it will be next week.

What will happen to these Cubs? Well, like most years, fans are
just going to have to wait ’till next year.

Bob Hunt can be reached at "mailto:bobhunt@umich.edu">bobhunt@umich.edu.


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