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Three Monday Columns
by alex ciepley
END OF THE CUBS SUCKAGE ERA
For the first time in my life, the Cubs have had back-to-back winning seasons. In 1971 and 1972, the Cubs posted records of 84-78 and 85-70, the last two seasons in a string of six successive winning years under manager Leo Durocher. Who knew then that such middling seasons would prove to be so noteworthy? Who knew that future futility would make this, a 6-year span during which the Cubs averaged 86 wins, seem like the golden age of the past half-century?
During the thirty-year span from 1973-2002, the Cubs had a record of 2227-2500, which is a .471 winning percentage and translates to an average season record of 76-86. This is bad, of course, but this isn't *horrible*. It isn't Devil Rays bad, or post-Bonds Pirates bad, or even Brewers bad.
Interestingly, the Cubs had no season of 100 losses during this "streak". The closest they came was in 2000—Don Baylor's first year on the job—when the Cubs went 65-97.
The Cubs had 5 winnings seasons during this stretch. Not for nothing, three of these five winning seasons resulted in trips to the postseason.
I think we should call the years from 1973-2002 the Cubs Suckage Era (CSE). Despite the teams generally being hosed year in and year out, you can make a pretty great team from the parts. My CSE All-Stars (with stats from time spent on the Cubs during these thirty years):
C: Jody Davis (251/313/416, 122 HR)
1B: Mark Grace (308/386/445, 148 HR)
2B: Ryne Sandberg (285/344/452, 282 HR, 344 SB)
SS: Shawon Dunston (267/295/407, 175 SB)
3B: Bill Madlock (336/397/475)
LF: Leon Durham (279/362/484, 138 HR, one big error)
CF: Rick Monday (275/367/473)
RF: Sammy Sosa (287/369/575, 470 HR, 181 SB)
RP: Lee Smith (644 innings, 180 saves, 2.92 ERA)
RP: Bruce Sutter (494 innings, 133 saves, 2.39 ERA)
I'm tempted to put Andre Dawson in centerfield, but Monday was probably a bit better as a Cub than Dawson, and was a real centerfielder to boot. Yes, Durham was really a first baseman, but I need his underrated offense in the lineup, and Lord knows we don't want him playing first base. Bill Buckner, Keith Moreland, and Ron Cey probably make the bench, but aren't starters on this team. Finally, Steve Trachsel wins the "pitched a lot more than any of us knew" award, and finished this span with the fourth-most innings pitched (1146 IP). But he's Steve Trachsel, worthy of an "ewww" and a yawn, so he's not on my team.
Back-to-back winnings seasons. It's worthy of some champagne-popping. But how about back-to-back trips to the postseason? Would you believe this hasn't happened since—gasp—1908?
Joe Sheehan had an interesting article a couple weeks ago in which he posited that some bad teams appeared to give up towards the end of the year, while others played hard. He had just witnessed the Cubs sweep the Brewers, and was thinking Milwaukee manager Ned Yost and a few select others weren't good at motivating the troops in the dog days:
I can get myself into trouble this way, but I think that it's instructive, in evaluating managers, to look at how their teams approach the season when all hope is lost. I have a lot of problems with Lloyd McClendon's decision-making, but I can honestly say that I don't think the Pirates have mailed in many games under his stewardship. The Devil Rays and the Expos, postseason hopes long gone, always seem to play hard. On the other hand, teams like the White Sox, Diamondbacks, Mets and Rockies always seem like candidates to be blown out at any moment, and not just because the talent isn't there. There's an apathy that shows in their play, a lack of concern for the outcome of an at-bat, an inning or a game.
I've certainly had this feeling about the Brewers, Mets, and Reds, who always seem to be losing—rather easily—to teams in the playoff hunt, so I checked out the records that the following bad NL teams have posted against contenders since mid-Augustish. All of them have losing records, which is to be expected, but I still think you can glean something about the teams through their records.
Since beating the Cubs on August 17th, they've gone 0-17 against contenders, losing every game they've played against the Cubs, Giants, Phils, and Astros. That's pretty pathetic, and I think Sheehan is right in making an example of the Brewers.
The D-Backs have gone 3-12 against contenders in the last month, including games against L.A., the Giants, and St. Louis. This is bad, of course, but I also would argue that the Diamondbacks are the worst team in baseball (while somehow having the best pitcher in the NL), so maybe their record just reflects their reality.
Starting August 20th, the Mets played 28 straight games against contending teams. They were horrible, dreadful, painful, and put up a 6-22 record during this span. I plan on going to all three Cubs games this weekend in New York, and lemme tell ya, I'm going to be pretty pissed if the Cubs don't win the series.
I don't follow the Rockies all that much, but was surprised Sheehan tagged them as a team that mails it in. I've always just tagged them as a team with no talent (okay, other than Helton). Since August 24th, they're a respectably poor 9-16 against contenders.
I'm surprised that the Reds didn't make Sheehan's cut, since in watching them I was under the impression that they didn't give a crap about the games they were playing. This impression mostly has to do with my irritation that they went 0-6 recently against the Astros, helping keep the hated Houstons hot in the Wild Card race. They've gone 8-17 overall recently against contenders.
Despite impressions that they play hard, the Pirates have not played well against contenders. Since August 19th, they're a mere 4-15 against the three good NL Central teams. The Cubs have some more games against 'em this week; let's hope this trend continues.
Finally, you have the only team that is really playing the part of spoiler. Other than a three-game series with Colorado, the Expos have spent every game since August 12th battling a postseason hopeful. They have a losing record against these teams, but it is still a mighty impressive 14-20. We got to see the Cubs battle these Expos for six games recently, and their approach to each of those games was commendable. This is a team without a lot of talent, but one which is clearly still putting forth the effort to win as many ballgames as they can. The Expos still have a couple games left against the Phils and Marlins to continue their spoilerrific efforts.
Since last Saturday, the Giants, Cubs, and Astros have put up an awesome combined record of 20-4. Starting Tuesday, something's gotta give, as the Giants and Astros clash in what may be the most important series for either team yet this year. The Cubs need to take advantage of their simulaneous series with the Pirates while their two top challengers square off.