Monthly archives: August 2005
I Like This Feeling Better
The Cubs have gone from tight and formidable to sloppy and foolish then back to tight and formidable again, all in the course of three days. We might have even more of this yo-yo ball coming our way as some young guns finally get some much deserved work, so just be prepared to take the good with the bad. In the meantime, enjoy these fine, hand made bullet points in celebration of last night's victory.
It's the rubber game this afternoon, and hopefully Glendon Rusch can get things turned around. A series win wouldn't heal this year's wounds, but it could act as a welcome dose of morphine as we lie on the season's death bed.
Next Year is Here
The changing of the guard. Taking out the trash. The purge. Whatever you want to call it, the process that began with this weekend's dealing of the disappointing Matt Lawton to the Yankees continued last night as Todd Hollandsworth was sent to Atlanta in exchange for two A-ball pitchers, Angelo Burrows and Todd Blackford.
As is the case with many of these type of trades, the interest that's generated for me has less to do with the prospects acquired than it does with the impact on the team's plans for the immediate future.
For the Cubs, the combination of space created on their 40-man roster by these two deals and the extra space on the regular roster created by Kerry Wood's move to the DL in anticipation of his shoulder surgery on Wednesday make it possible to do two very positive things: bring Matt Murton back up, and finally add Jermaine Van Buren to the 40-man and give him the look he's deserved for a while.
I'd anticipate seeing a lot of Murton down the stretch as the organization tries to figure out if they can count on him to capably man the post next season (I think the answer will be 'yes'), as well as seeing Van Buren in some high pressure situations out of the pen, testing him for what, if his 1.98 ERA and 65/22 K/BB ratio in 54.2 AAA innings are any indication, could be a very prominent role with the Cub relief corps next year.
Think of this as the beginning of preparations for next season, as that's what it really is: an opportunity to see exactly where the holes are and what issues need to take priority this winter. That said, I don't think we're done with deals yet, and what goes down over the next couple of days will tell us a lot about what Jim Hendry is thinking.
Mind the Gap
The broadcast of Saturday's game was on Fox, and when the Cubs are having their images sent out to a national audience via a national network, one can nearly always count on various painful subjects being broached - the "curse", Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS ("the Cubs were five outs away from a World Series"), the existence of Jose Macias - but this time they trotted out one of the truly standard warhorses of the genre: the number of third baseman who have played for the Cubs since Ron Santo left.
The first thing that bothers me is that with the emergence of Aramis Ramirez, it seems that this subject has played out. He's easily the best third baseman to play for the team since Santo, and has a legitimate shot to be an All-Star for years to come. Even if the Cubs wind up losing him due to financial factors after next year, I think a case can be made that the matter has been resolved.
Of course, that's not the way Fox saw it, and since Ramirez is currently on the DL, and Nomar was newly christened as the latest to play the position in the post-Santo era on Friday, in the minds of those fine gents, this was cause to bring the beast back out for another turn around the park.
Item #2 sticking in my craw is the question of whether the numbers they present are as bad as they seem. In other words, while the Cubs have had a lot of men manning the hot corner since Number 10 held down the job, is this period of flux unique during the time in question?
Naturally, I had to take a look, so for your enjoyment, here's a short list of the teams who have had the most different players at a particular position since the beginning of the 1974 season. I've left out pitchers and outfielders for obvious reasons, and DHs have been excluded as well, since it's a position often used to give position players with big bats a partial day off. These numbers are good through this weekend's play.
So not only do the Cubs not have the most different players at an infield position since '74, they don't even have the most different players at third base. Oakland has the single position title - and interesting that it would be at first base where they've had men like McGuire and Giambi in recent years - but the overall title goes to the Padres who have fielded a total of 220 different players at their infield corners over the last 31+ seasons.
I understand why they keep harping on the Santo Gap, not only was he a Hall of Fame calibre player, but he was there nearly every day for most of his 14 seasons in blue, and these other teams on the list don't have a similar player whose shoes they've trying to fill since then.
Still, while I recognize Santo's contribution to Cub history, now that the team can finally say they have someone at the hot corner who is potentially worthy of sharing in his legacy, I would hope broadcasters could stop talking about this former wasteland and get back to telling us how we're cosmically screwed.
Know Your Enemy 2005: Weeks 20 & 21
So, it seems I skipped a week. Again.
I'm all out of excuses, so let's just get down to business.
Of Scylla and Charybdis
There was a juxtaposition over the weekend between what is and what might have been.
On Saturday, we saw the team we've seen nearly all year. Failing to deliver in key situations, making mistakes in the game's most important moments, they sat back and hoped things would be different next time they were at bat, or next time they threw the ball.
What we were treated to on Sunday was an aggressive team. They played good defense, went after hitters in the zone, ran hard on the bases, and attacked good pitches to hit.
It's what Dusty has been preaching all year aggressiveness but we've rarely seen it properly applied during this lost season. This, I believe, is because while Dusty might be after the sort of play we saw yesterday, he hasn't the ability to properly define what he craves, to communicate his desires to his players.
It seems from a distance that there is an assumption from Dusty that his players will know what he means, that they won't twist his instructions into something that resembles his directions in part, but as a whole fails to meet the mark.
It is a classic form of mismanagement, where the leader in question issues instructions which are perfectly clear to him because they formed in his mind, yet neglects to elucidate the details to those who haven't the benefit of being inside his head. What follows is misunderstanding, defeat, and frustration - a primary theme of the Cubs' season.
The breakdown of what's not brought to light goes something like this: Dusty wants his players to be aggressive, which means playing in a style that puts pressure on the opposition. He wants the other team back on their heels.
This is something that you'll notice good teams doing, teams that always seem to be sharp and tight on the field. Think of the Cardinals of the last couple of years, and you'll know what I mean.
It isn't simply that St. Louis has had great offensive players, or that their pitching and defense have been solid or better, it's that you know in the back of your head that if an opportunity to do something positive presents itself, if you let your guard down for just a moment, they'll sneak in there and get it done.
This means that there's a certain amount of intellect in being effectively aggressive an ability to recognize true opportunity and act quickly to capitalize - and this seems to be the principal issue for the Cubs. Most times I believe they are sincerely attempting to bring this aggression to their play, but they fail to engage their minds along the way.
What occurs then is aggression for aggression's sake futile attempts to make things happen as a mindless reaction to stagnation. It is flailing. It is thrashing. It is what animals do in a state of panic.
In removing the thinking component, the team has taken Dusty's instruction to be aggressive and transformed it into an edict of recklessness.
The issue isn't just that recklessness leads to bad things, but that there is a natural reaction that follows after one is consistently burned by throwing oneself headlong into failure it is passivity.
So, because the Cubs don't instinctively understand what Mr. Baker wants from them, and because Mr. Baker is incapable of clarifying his entreaty, the team bounces between extremes doomed to disaster alternately raging and cowering - always knowing they aren't getting it right, but never knowing what needs fixing.
There is plenty of blame to spread between the players, coaches, and front office for this problem, and what the club must do over this final month of the season is figure out what needs to happen in order to make days like yesterday the norm, and days like Saturday the exception. I don't envy their task.
I suppose I could spend this time re-hashing another Cubs loss. I could bemoan the most recent injury to Aramis Ramirez and the possible uptick in playing time for Jose Macias. I could even rail against the 132 pitches thrown by Mark Prior in an essentially meaningless game. But I haven't got the stomach for it.
Instead, I'm going to divert you towards something fun. I got an email this weekend from a gentleman named Dan who is a beer vendor at Wrigley Field. He and his brother Pete (also a beer vendor) have developed a site that profiles all the beer vendors at the Friendly Confines on virtual baseball cards.
Whether you're in Chicago and are familiar with some of these faces, or outside the city and just looking for some flavor of the ballpark, the site's a kick. And on a day like today, where the alternative is wallowing in the mire that is the Cubs' 2005 season, I can't think of a better baseball related diversion.
Doin' Pappa Proud
What a night for Jerome Williams. Not only did he pitch his finest game as a Cub - not allowing a hit until the fifth, which also accounted for the lone run he allowed - but he had his first career multi-hit game and his first extra-base hit as a Cub. All while performing in front of his father, for whom he had missed most of Spring Training, caring for him after kidney and liver transplants.
It was a storybook night for a kid who's had a lousy year - not so much as a player, but as a human being - and I couldn't have been happier for him, or happier for the Cubs, who finally broke through against the Braves. A lovely time was had by all, and so in celebration, I think I'll fire a few shots in the air.
Mark Prior goes this afternoon, and it would nice to win this series because....well, it's just nice to win. There's little else to play for the rest of the year but pride and the future, and since I think Mr. Prior has an abundance of each, let's hope we can see some of it come into play.
The Blame Game
During the frustrating times of a season when loss piles upon loss and failure begets failure like a virus dividing and multiplying, there can be some comfort taken, cold and sick though it may be, in finding someone to blame.
The losses build animus, and that animus seeks a direction, a focus. It does not want to sit and be still, it wants action. It wants a target.
That's the gift of blame. It provides something at which to aim your malice, keeping the rancor from doing its damage to you instead, which it most certainly will, if only out of boredom.
Which is what can make a loss like last night's difficult, as truly, I can find no one to blame.
There were no glaring mistakes that should have been otherwise. True, Chipper Jones hit two homers, making him the generator of the entirety of the Braves offensive output, but while the pitches he hit weren't great, neither were they terrible. At some point the talent of your opposition is a factor.
Such is also the case with Tim Hudson, who held the Cubs to two runs during his fine complete game outing. Certainly there were a couple of moments when a big hit could have made a difference, but Hudson threw good pitches at those times and got his outs. The outcome of a game is not solely determined by the actions of your favorite team.
Often we as a community blame the Cubs' hitters for not scoring runs, much as we praise their pitchers when they hold the opponent down. However, we usually fail to acknowledge when the other guy does their job with aplomb.
This is a mistake, because sometimes you are beaten. Sometimes you do your damnedest and it's not enough. Sometimes, much as you try to affect the outcome, it's out of your hands.
In these situations there is no one to blame, so the malignance turns inward. Yet, having nowhere for the hostility to go isn't all bad. There is comfort, too, in simply being bested. In putting forth your finest effort, only to be outdone by your opponent. There is honor in that, and in a season so devoid of honor, it should be a nice change of pace.
I think it would be, had there not been so much that was blameworthy coming before it. If it weren't for all the poor play, all the times when dividing a single brain between the lot of them would have been a tenfold improvement, just being beaten would have been an acceptable, if unwanted, result.
But after a year of finding fault wherever I turn, blame has become my solace. I'm addicted to it. I need it like I need my coffee. In a year that has, once again, been defined by expectations unmet, it seems somehow fitting that now, when I want, desire, expect someone to blame, this team can't even give me that.
This weekend's games put me in mind of a conversation my wife and I had a couple of weeks ago. We were preparing to leave the house for a morning excursion to the local playlot with our daughter. I was, as is usual for these type of trips, sporting my ancient Cubs hat, while our little girl had decided on a much smaller, much newer, pink version of the same.
My wife came out of our bedroom ready to go, wearing her own Cubs hat, but then looked at the wee one and I both already showing our colors, removed her cap and said, "I can't wear this while you guys are wearing those, we'll look silly."
"What do you mean?" I said.
"All of us going out wearing the same hat like that? Come on, we'll look stupid."
"I don't know. Think of it this way: It shows our deep family commitment to overwhelming institutional mediocrity."
She paused. Thought about it. "Good point," she said, reapplying hat to head, and out the door we went for a lovely morning at the park.
This exchange came to me because, once again, the Cubs displayed their own commitment to the concept in losing the final two games of a three game series with the lowly Colorado Rockies.
As we've seen time and again this season, the club managed to find the near perfect path to defeat against a lesser foe.
Are you facing a pitcher who's making his fifth start of the year and still in the process of building his stamina? Hack, hack, hack away so that he can get through 7 innings in only 81 pitches. He'll probably buy you a beer!
While your offense struggles are you still getting a very solid performance from your own starter? Be sure to muff multiple plays in the field. Free outs and runs are fun to give away!
Did your bats finally awaken in the last game? Don't let your sticks be the only potent weapons, give the opposition plenty of big fat pitches to hit. Sharing is caring!
In the end, this will be the story of the season, not that the team was necessarily bad, but that they perpetually put themselves in a position to win, yet were wholly unable to consistently do the last thing necessary to bring it home.
It is a team that walks a tightrope between two cliffs, coming to within a step of reaching their goal despite being buffeted by wind and rain, putting its foot out to finally achieve its end, only to be distracted by the cessation of the hurricane and emergence of the sun. What should be a help causes a misstep, and down into the chasm they go, all the while cursing their good fortune.
It's a maddening trait, and one I have no idea how to fix. But fixed it must be, and while it may be too late to help this year, there's no better time to start than now. No better time to build the foundation for next season so that 2006 can be the beginning of a deep family commitment to overwhelming institutional excellence.
Looking For A Breeze In The Windy City
It's Friday morning, and I'm having a fashion crisis.
I'm in Chicago. For some reason, I neglected to check weather.com before leaving New York last night, and now I'm stuck in the city of broad shoulders and deep dish pizza on a muggy mid-90s day without a pair of shorts. Why did I assume that Chicago would be as cool as it's been in New York? Because New York is the center of the universe, didntchaknow, and I couldn't deign to believe that another city in the world would dare have different weather than my home town.
Not that I'd wear shorts if I'd packed them. I have the pasty legs that come with my eastern European heritage, and I have several reasons for hiding them on this day, reasons that go beyond the general altruistic tendency to not want to blind strangers while walking down Michigan Avenue.
Today I'm meeting up with two friends, neither of whom I've actually seen in person before. I want to look good--casual, but good--and that most certainly means hiding the pasty legs and suffering in my sweaty jeans.
The first friend is someone Cub Town readers know and love. Derek Smart and I are meeting for lunch downtown by Derek's office. We're in regular contact, of course, but have never met. I'm excited. I also have a series of important questions to ask him.
1) If the Cubs played as well as you write, would they have lost a game yet this season?
2) I go into spontaneous convulsions when Mark Prior loses, and I don't even live in Chicago. Does the entire North Side tremble with fear and loathing when he starts allowing homeruns to the likes of Todd Pratt and Mike Mahoney?
3) So, was it worth it to wear my jeans and spare you the pasty legs?
First things first: I have to figure out how to get to Derek's office. I'm staying with some cousins in be-A-utiful Hyde Park, and am trying to wrap my head around this whole Metro-to-the-Red Line thing that I apparently need to do. Where's the 1/9? How 'bout the N/R? Why is this subway thing above ground?
After lunching with Derek, I plan to wander around the Loop, do some shopping (maybe buy some shorts!), maybe visit the Art Institute. All before meeting un-met friend number two, the best friend of the new guy I'm dating.
Talk about wanting to make a good first impression. Meeting your mate's family is one thing. We don't choose our family, we stumble into them, so if the sister or great aunt has a problem with you, you can try to rationalize it away as some deep-seated familial angst that has nothing to do with you, a quirk of genetics. But the best friend is different. Our friends are, to a degree, an extension of who we are in life, a reflection of the choices we've made. I'm excited as all hell to meet the boy's main guy, but I'm sure the sweat running down my sides will be due to more than just the humidity.
I suppose I'll do what I do best. Smile, be myself, and frantically chatter my way through the afternoon. We're heading to Millenium Park, which I've never seen, and I'm optimistic that we'll have a grand time.
I'm in Chicago, after all. The Cubbies are out of town, but who better to fill that void than Mr. Smart? And I'm really digging the boy in my life, too, so who better to make up for his absence here than his best friend? Chicago folk are great people--mixing the sincerity and kindness of the Midwest with the worldliness of living in an international city--and I'm certain I'm going to be meeting two great people today.
The Cubs got it completely backwards, but I'm not complaining. They may have lost the game when Wandy Rodriguez was on the hill, but when confronted with two-thirds of the Astros' Troika of Dominance, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt, they got the job done.
The formula: score four runs and hope for the best. That's what they did all three nights, and against an Astros' offense that's inconsistent in its happiest moments, it worked to near perfection. So to celebrate a fine series victory, here's a few congratulatory shots in the air.
It's a day off today, followed by a trip to "The Land That Gravity Forgot." What interests me most is to see how this team responds to playing a sub-par club. They've been responding to challenges and folding before mediocrity, so this weekend is a chance to finally buck the trend. I'll have my fingers crossed.
Now That's Baseball
In what has become the standard late-season Greg Maddux outing, The Professor gave up a run early, struggled a bit with his command, then settled down after the first inning to shut down the opposition, throwing seven solid innings in a measly 70 pitches on his way to a very satisfying 4-1 victory over the Astros.
I love these sort of games, even more than blowout wins. There's something about winning a game and winning it handily without having to get a ten run spread that just feels better. Feels more like baseball.
It's the big matchup tonight, with Z going up against Ultimate Cub Nemesis, Roy Oswalt. To say that winning this game would be tasty doesn't quite do the concept justice. Go get 'em, boys!
I don't have a cohesive bone in my body today, so I'm likely to toss up quick vignettes like this as the mood strikes me.
We got a pretty good look last night at what the Cubs give up defensively when sporting their ideal offensive left side of the infield. The play that comes to mind in particular is Craig Biggio's base hit in the first inning, where a weakly hit ball found the exact spot between Aramis and Nomar that their range would not allow them to cover.
That play, along with a few others, was also a solid illustration of how a ballpark can affect a game's outcome. Had that ball been hit at Wrigley with its long, slow infield grass, it's not unreasonable to think that Ramirez might have made a play on the ball (no matter what, Nomar was going to be too deep in the hole to get an out). As it was, the little bugger scooted into the outfield and the ducks began to nibble away at Glendon Rusch.
Of course, the ugly truth is that, while it's a potent offensive group, the Cubs' infield as originally conceived and currently configured is at best a weak defensive unit - even considering Derrek Lee's excellence. Ramirez has been bringing that point home a lot lately (although, some blame goes to his quad and some goes to his brain), and seeing a direct comparison between Todd Walker and Mark Grudzielanek over the weekend was not without its pain.
Aramis isn't going anywhere - he could practically boot a ball a day and you'd still have to consider stomaching the incompetence in exchange for his bat - but I find myself wondering if there isn't a better idea to be found up the middle. The problem in this, for me at least, is twofold, because on the one hand I really like both Nomar and Walker, and on the other, there aren't exactly an endless sea of available free agent or in-house options.
It's going to be one of the big issues this offseason, but I have a feeling it will be resolved quickly in favor of what, at the moment, is the status quo. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, only that I hope all the options are appropriately weighed.
Know Your Enemy 2005: Weeks 18 & 19
I wish I had a good story for why this feature didn't appear last week - something about three-headed devil dogs rising from a fissure in the earth, impeding my progress toward internet access with the rivers of acid drool flowing from their scarred black jowls - but the truth is disappointingly vanilla. I forgot.
Looks like I remembered this week, and barring any further distractions on the order of eight game losing streaks, I likely will for the rest of the year. So on to it, then!
Good to See Ya Dr. Jeckyl
It was an evening of home run firsts: Mike Mahoney's first Major League homer; Matt Lawton's first Cub homer; Corey Patterson's first homer since returning from Iowa, and his first multi-run homer of the season. It was all for a good cause, too, as the Cubs took last night's game 5-4, and the series 3-1.
I could say something about not being able to figure this team out, or how if they could only play this well against decent to bad teams that they would still be in it this year, but I'm not going to waste my breath. I'd rather just fire off a few rounds.
It's the start of three at Houston tonight. Glendon Rusch will take the hill tonight, with the bad news being that he isn't likely to last very long since he's spent so much recent time in the pen. However, the good news is the Astros are sending Wandy Rodriguez to face him - a weak link in an otherwise deadly rotation.
While these games might not be meaningful in relation to the outcome of this season, that doesn't mean I don't want to spend the next three days pounding Houston into submission. If we can't get the Wildcard, why should they? Go get 'em, boys!
Fruits and Loops
It was nice to see the Cubs finally put their losing streak behind them last night, though I missed it entirely due to an ending of another sort.
Last night, the mighty Bearcats played their final game of the year.
For those not in the know, the Bearcats are the super-scrubby softball team to which I belonged this season. We had some valiant moments throughout the year, but still ended up with a miserable record of three wins, eight losses, and one tie.
Two of our victories were due to forfeit, and the third victory came against the local Hooters squad.
We lost our last game, but the team played well, as we have in our last five contests or so. Since my debut on the diamond at second base/right field, I'd been wisely relegated to DH duties. Ideally, your DH is a big thumper who sucks in the field. In my case, I was a nonthumper who sucks in the field--I hit last in the lineup in every game I played.
Still, I like to think of myself as the secret bottom-of-the-order-leadoff-man, a la Adam Kennedy. I didn't really get many at-bats throughout the season, but I did end up a nifty 8-for-9 with a walk, 4 runs scored, and 2 RBIs. All eight of my hits were singles, usually dribblers I legged out, but hey, they're screaming line drives in my memory.
In the field, I finished the season with zero putouts and two errors. I think I'm a shoo-in to begin my streak of Gold Gloves when awards are handed out during the offseason.
But while I had fun playing with the Bearcats this year, I think I'm gonna use my mighty free agent status to wander towards pinker pastures.
I'm going to try out for NYC's gay softball league next year. Yeah, that's right: I have to "try out", because these folks don't mess around. There are five "tiers" of play, with six or so teams in each tier. I hear most people get to join a team, but these days it's popular enough that not everyone makes the cut. Like, the guys who make zero putouts and two errors when they take the field.
Hopefully I'll get in. I think it'd be a hoot. Fruity Softball, any takers?
Mental Health Day
For starters, let me apologize for the down time yesterday. If you haven't already, you can see what was going on here. Needless to say, we here at the Toaster owe Ken a debt of gratitude. Or some scotch or something (okay, I'm projecting there).
It's important to note, however, that site issues or no, there was going to be no word from me yesterday. Recent goings on brought me to the point where I desperately needed a mental health day, and so I took it. Sometimes one needs to back away, gain a little perspective, and come at it fresh. I think it's clear from some of my previous posts that some perspective would do me good.
Of course, there's nothing so healthy to the mind of a suffering Cub fan than a big blowout win, and that's what our boys managed to deliver yesterday, scoring in every inning but the seventh en route to an 11-4 rout of St. Louis.
Really, it was a game that we all knew deep down had to come eventually, where the frustration and angst that had built up over more than a week of pathetic play came out in a beautiful explosion of run-scoring prowess, led as one would hope such things would be, by a suddenly re-energized Derrek Lee, taking his recent slump and breaking it over his knee like a balsa wood bat.
That the breakout happened to come against the Cardinals made it extra nice, especially since, even though I'd made a vow to myself before game time to focus as much as possible on the positives for the rest of the season, to cease the constant wallowing in the maudlin details of failure, I could still envision a losing streak that stretched out to twelve games by the end of the weekend.
It looked just like it would after the top of the first, as Greg Maddux struggled early once again and gave up a two-run bomb to Prince Albert. However, getting down early, looking like things were going to be the same old way, it seems like that's the most satisfying way to exorcise some demons.
It's what the Red Sox did in falling behind 3-0 in last year's ALCS, and while what the Cubs did yesterday was on a far smaller scale, the fact that they didn't fold after getting a strong sign that they could be in for another long day was a testament to their fortitude.
That doesn't mean that there's a month and a half long streak of stunning baseball on the way that will lead us to an Astro-esque promised land. What Houston did last year, and what they did for a couple of months this year, is extremely rare, and truth be told, I don't know that the Cubs have the personnel to achieve such a feat anyway.
What they do have is a chance to set a tone for next year. To say to the league, and to their fans, "Look, we blew our shot this year, but we are capable of more, and what you see now is a glimpse into the deadly machine you have to look forward to in 2006."
That's what I want to see. Derrek Lee finishing the year strong. Aramis Ramirez re-establishing his power. Nomar Garciaparra as "Nomar!" Matt Murton earning a starting spot. Corey Patterson proving that he belongs in the Majors. Carlos Zambrano harnessing his passion. Mark Prior dominating again. Kerry Wood showing he's valuable whether he starts or relieves.
This is what the final weeks are about. Establishing what this team will be in the year and years to come, whetting our appetite for the success that these men are capable of. But this time, instead of showing us what we could have and dropping it into a puddle of dung at the last possible moment, they will give it to us, finally give it to us from April to October.
This season, and in particular this stretch, is doing things to me. Things I don't understand and want to go away.
It's important to note, in order to bring home the full import, that I hate sports talk radio. Simply can't stomach the stuff. If the utter lack of discernable substance and spectacular displays of intellectual laziness didn't stick in my craw, the tone would.
Granted, that's painting with a broad brush as there are some smart, savvy folks on the airwaves who are worthy of my time (our own Mr. Carroll comes to mind), but as a general rule, the genre is one I can do without.
Yet there I was, after listening to the radio broadcast of the latest Cub defeat, craving sports talk radio. I wasn't after analysis. I wasn't interested in an intelligent breakdown of the day's proceedings. I wanted rage.
I wanted to commiserate, if from a distance, with others who felt my pain. To share the sense of betrayal and misery that has become my near constant companion of late. To wallow in this aggression that's burning in my chest.
But that isn't me. It's not what I'm like. I never want to do that. Never. This season is doing things to me.
I wasn't like that all day. There was a moment in the bottom of the sixth that lent me some hope, not just for the impact on the game itself, but for its symbolic significance.
Nomar Garciaparra, tragic hero, injured warrior, came to the plate after a solo homer from the Reds had tied the game, and grabbed the lead back with a bomb of his own.
It seemed like one of those moments of destiny where the spark you've been waiting for, that singular event that changes the direction of an entire season, finally reveals itself. It's happened. And you know it's happened.
Except it hadn't.
The top of the seventh began with a homer from Ken Griffey Jr. The top of the eighth with a shot by Jason LaRue. Then the top of the ninth saw a four run meltdown that sealed the deal.
Griffey's swing tied it.
LaRue's swing won it.
The rest was just piling on.
In other news, I'm channeling Bill Plaschke.
And I just can't stop.
That's what I've become: a second-rate writer morphing into a third-rate hack while covering a second-rate team devolving into the Washington Generals. That it's come to this doesn't meet my definition of a personal hell, but all things considered, I'd rather be on a picnic.
I wanted this season to be something else, something more. But then, I suppose I'm not alone in that desire. Not only did every Cub fan want more, but so did every Pirate fan, every Royals fan, every Devil Rays fan.
Okay, that last one was ridiculous, but you get my point. Twenty-nine out of thirty teams are disappointed every year, the only difference between them is the day they know. Today is my day, friends.
It doesn't mean I'll stop watching, and it doesn't mean I'll stop hoping - I'm well hopeless that way - but it does mean that even in those happy moments, even in those moments that I want to believe, there will be a part of me that knows better and isn't afraid to say, "I told you so," when things revert to form.
This season is doing things to me. I want it to stop. Too bad it just won't.
More Of The Same
It was another rotten night for the Cubs, in what's seemed like an endless evening of horror. Still, for those of you willing to see silver linings, I think the solid ninth inning rally, and the fact that, for the most part, the severe beating the Cubs took last night wasn't self-inflicted are reasons to delay the cliff-jumping for another day.
Not that I'm entertaining post-season dreams at this point - decent play, a sense of respectability, and something to build on for next year are what I'm really after from here on out.
Mark Prior's on the hill today, and I'd like to think that's a good thing, but his recent outings have been questionable at best. My pessimism is compounded by Aaron Harang taking the bump for the Reds, who last time he faced them made the Cubs look like...well...like how they've looked for at least a week. Cross your fingers, folks. Every little bit helps.
I went to the Friday and Saturday Cubs games this past weekend at Shea, and had a great time at both games despite the product on the field. I'm beginning to get a bit concerned about my presence at Cubs games, however: since watching the Cubs pull out a nifty 2-1 victory last September 24th against the Mets, the Cubs have lost five straight games that I've attended. And, in general, they've been five absolutely miserable losses.
There was nothing fun about Friday's game. I'd been excited to watch Rich Hill live, and he actually didn't pitch nearly as badly as his line would indicate, but the endless second inning fiasco had me moping for the rest of the night. It would have been one thing if Hill was getting rocked by line drives, but the inning was a series of dinkers here and there, bizarre misjudgements, and horrible infield defense.
The non-Lee sector of the Cubs infield is a misery to watch on-field. I'm as pumped as the next guy that Nomar is back, but watching him just miss grounder after grounder isn't easy to stomach. And Aramis and Walker weren't exactly strutting their stuff in the series, either.
Saturday's game was more pleasant, but only because it was a day game, allowing me to work on my hint of a tan.
I hope I'm wrong, but the Cubs look dead in the water. There are many advantages to watching games on TV, but I think you get a better feel for the energy of a team when watching them live. And on that energy front, the Cubbies are sorely lacking. Going through the motions at the plate, losing concentration in the field--for the second year in a row, I feel that the Cubs' visit to Shea signaled a death knell for the team.
On a non-baseball note, I'm a bit mushy today.
Five years ago, I was hired by my current company in large part to work on a specific TV show--a show that ended its run last night. I've had a relatively minor role to play in the show's lifespan--I work on the website--but my work has become a defining part of my professional life. There will be plenty of new projects on my plate in the future, but finishing up this one provides a marker of sorts for me, a moment of reflection.
When I took this job five years ago, I was in my mid-twenties, and my life was a bit all over the place. I was desperately in debt, having clung to a job at a dot-com that was woefully past its expiration date. I was enjoying New York but was looking to leave the city and move abroad again, only I didn't have the means to get to where I wanted.
I was single, and while I've always had tremendous friends in my life, I'm not sure I really appreciated them. I was even living a relatively sexless existence in a city where you can practically walk out onto your stoop and pick up a one-night stand. I think, perhaps, I was a bit of a sad clown.
On the surface, my life doesn't seem all that different five years later. I'm still at the same job, even if my responsibilities are changing. I'm still no good with money. I'm still single, though my dating life has picked up considerably. But once I get past the easy identifiers, I realize how much I've changed. I love New York, with no plans to leave. No longer uneasy with the world, I'm a pretty happy guy, and the people in my life--new friends and old--are more appreciated than ever.
It's a good day. I'm a bit melancholy that my five-year professional project has come to an end, but it's nice to know that new experiences are just around the bend, the best is still to come. And isn't that, after all, one of the defining qualities of us Cubs fans?
Weekend Game Notes: If You Can't Say Anything Nice...*
*Longtime readers will know I'm stealing from myself, as I posted the same thing on May 29 of last year when I was at The Big Red C. My sincere apologies for the repetition, but my disgust prevents elaboration.
The Power Of Three
Since there hasn't been much on the field to celebrate of late, I'll have to take comfort in the little victories that occasionally show themselves in the form of solid roster management decisions.
Such is the case today, as the reinstatement of the Troika of Destiny has brought about the demotion of Sergio Mitre, and the DFAing of Mike Remlinger, while Ronnie Cedeno, the previous most likely target to round out the downwardly mobile class, was spared the axe by Jerry Hairston's DL trip.
A couple of things are clear here: first, that it was finally realized in the Cubs' front office just how done poor Remmy was. He hasn't been worth much of anything in his recent appearances, and even if he had been, the reluctance to use him in back-to-back games due to his relative fragility could no longer be tolerated with two more potentially breakable pen men coming aboard. Not that his presence should have been tolerated as long as it was, but I'll take late enlightenment over none at all.
The second item is a little more nebulous. That the Cubs are willing to essentially carry three shortstops and no center fielders speaks volumes about the organization's current attitude toward Corey Patterson, although just what that attitude might be is open for debate - they either have no confidence in his ability to be useful in the Majors at the moment, or are deeply committed to seeing this retooling through to the end, consequences be damned.
I tend to think it's a combination of both factors, although I couldn't hazard a guess as to the ratio. Frankly, I think they're a little too intertwined to effectively separate. He's down there to retool his swing, which needs to be done before he can come back to the Majors, because the Cubs don't think his old swing can be effective in the Bigs, which is why he was sent down to retool his swing, which needs to be done before he can come back to the Majors.......
The real question is whether the club is so committed to this idea of fixing Patterson and not playing him until he's fully ready that they'll make a waiver deal for someone's all-glove, no-bat, a la Tom Goodwin type of center fielder just to hold down the defensive fort. Of course, the other option is to use some combination of Jeromy Burnitz and Matt Lawton, which would be a defensive trade-off, but might be worth the offensive boost.
I don't know what the right moves are anymore, and this season has thrown us all a bunch of curves, but every time I open my mouth to say so, the excess saliva flies off the ball and chokes me. At least it never stops getting interesting, and if nothing else, we still get some little victories every once in a while.
Twilight Zone: Manager Edition
This past week, ESPN.com featured a totally bizarre column from contributer Scoop Jackson, who virtually accused the Chicago media en masse of racism regarding their increasingly critical view of Dusty Baker.
Early in the article, Jackson outlines the basis of his premise, which is that there aren't any black sports columnists in Chicago's major media (something I can't verify, since I have no idea what most of the writers look like--and, frankly, have never really thought or cared about their race):
The media sets the agenda for how the public responds to nonobjective matters and to how the audience often forms an opinion on certain issues. In sports, in this town, those opinions are often -- if not always -- set by columnists. Sports columnists, not sports reporters. Reporters are nonobjective in this matter, although the editors do have 'angle control' over copy. Columnists, they are the ones who shape public opinion. Now ... how many black sports columnists do we have in this city? How many are at the Sun-Times? How many at the Trib?
Later, Jackson dissects a Jay Mariotti column, implying that Mariotti's true motive for his biting words were race-related.
Jay Mariotti wrote in the Sun-Times last week (before the L.A. Times piece dropped), "Just take your toothpicks, wristbands and perpetual pout and head to a nice, safe broadcast booth somewhere. Now." And he followed it up with, "[Baker is] causing citywide debates on whether or not he's emotionally equipped for the job... "
Now, I'm not really one to defend Jay Mariotti, but Jackson's inferences to me border on lunacy. I'm guessing that Jackson might protest most to the idea that Mariotti thinks Baker isn't "emotionally equipped" for the job, but I don't see how this can be interpreted as a racial slur.
One of the biggest debates when Dusty took the Cubs' job was whether or not he would be comfortable with the often-harsh Chicago media. The question was whether or not he was too thin-skinned, not too dark-skinned.
I've never been a fan of Baker as a manager, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with his race. It's because I don't think he makes particularly deft in-game decisions, I think he abuses his pitching staffs, and I think his reluctance to break in position players and his insistence on having tried-and-true suckwads on his bench all lead to weaker Cubs teams.
I was pretty psyched to see Baseball America's Jim Callis, in a recent chat for ESPN, blast Jackson's article:
Shawn(Illinois): I was wondering what your response is to Scoop Jackson's article about the Chicago media and Dusty Baker?
Bravo, Jim, for taking someone who contributes to the same publication you do to task over an insulting article.
Yes, the Cubs have had more than their share of injuries cripple the team the past two years, but isn't this also true of, say, the Atlanta Braves? Bobby Cox has spent year after year managing a revamped roster on the fly, and this year his trust in unproven players will help lead the Braves to their 567th straight division title.
Speaking of Cox, I find it amusing that Jackson decided to close his article by comparing him with Baker:
If [the Cubs' manager] were Bobby Cox and not Dusty Baker, would I have ever had to write this column?
The answer, Scoop, is of course not. Because Cox more than likely would have found a way to turn both last year's and this year's Cubs teams into winners. And that has nothing to do with the color of his skin.
I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue
No, I'm not referring to the classic BBC Radio panel game, but rather to my current state regarding yesterday's contest, as I was unable to/spared from viewing any of last night's debacle against the Phillies.
Of course, from the bit that I've read and seen this morning, the headline is equally applicable to nearly all of the Cub team, and that if I could have specifically chosen a game to be completely unaware of before the start of the season, that this one would have been it. Gee. Lucky me.
But what do I know? Didn't you read the headline? Don't listen to me, listen to each other, and take this opportunity to inform me about the horror that was August 3, 2005. Vent, spew, comment away, folks, because if I correctly understand how badly things went, I'll bet you all have some fine vintage vitriol to share.
I'm Just Asking
Sometimes, I do requests.
Longtime reader Tom sent me an email this morning, recalling times past when, after particularly long stretches of nail-biting contests, I have offered up my considerable kingdom (watch those drips of sarcasm, they're pure acid) in exchange for a Cub blowout victory, and oddly enough, actually got what I asked for.
Tom thinks that it's time to offer up the treasure once again, and after last night's attempted boondoggle gone wonderfully awry, I can't say I have any reason not to. So here goes my best Dicky Three:
A Blowout! A Blowout! My Kingdom for a Blowout!
Alright, let me take a moment to engage in a little specificity for any of those deities willing to take me up on the offer. When I say "Blowout," I'm asking, in particular, for an easy victory for the Cubs.
I realize that merely yelling the word "Blowout" can be taken all sorts of ways (example: the Cubs get their hair cut by Jonathan), and that if you had a bit o' the mischief in ye, you might rain fiery brimstone-like offensive destruction upon the Cubs themselves, and I want to be very clear in this space that such actions would render my obligations in the exchange null and void. If you have a problem with that, speak to my lawyer.
As for "My Kingdom," to call it paltry would be insulting to all proudly paltry things the world over, so while it is not something to be treasured objectively, this is more of a subjective exercise anyway. So just know that you're getting what earthly things I've got (family and friends excluded of course), and that if some of the specific items in the collection aren't to your liking (mortgages, credit card bills, Duran Duran 12" singles purchased in the mid-eighties), the relinquishing party bears no responsibility. All items are as is, no takebacks.
So let me reiterate, subject to the conditions above, that I am offering My Kingdom for a Blowout. Deliver on point two, and point one is yours, ye gods.
It's Jerome Williams against Robinson Tejeda tonight, about whom I know little more than the fact of his existence. Anyway, I said what I wanted earlier, so let's see if we can't get it done.
Sooner or later, we all knew it had to happen. Some things are unavoidable, like death, taxes, or Aunt Maimie's kisses, and like all these things, we understood that, despite the ridiculously consistent prowess and seeming invincibility, no matter how hard we might wish it otherwise, Derrek Lee would eventually go into a slump.
We are officially in the midst of it, and not surprisingly, it has coincided with a sizable dropoff in the overall productivity of the Cubs' offense. Granted, there are plenty of other folks scuffling at the moment - since July 24th the team as a whole has hit a paltry .250/.321/.373 - but up until now Lee hasn't been personally party to any extended lack of stick-wielding ineptitude displayed by his mates.
This time, however, he's leading the way, as during his last eight games The Savior has finally looked human, hitting .233/.378/.233, and looking mighty uncomfortable at the plate while doing it. But while it's bad news when your best overall hitter and best slugger has only seven singles to his name over more than a week, comfort can be taken from the fact that he's continued to walk - although since four of the seven passes were intentional, it's not nearly as comforting as I'd like.
I can't say I'm concerned yet. It's only a few games, after all, and it's not like there was any reason to believe Lee would go the entire year without looking a little ragged at some point. Still, I sure hope the day off yesterday fixed what ailed him, and the rest of the team as well, because a little regression is understandable, especially as the grind of the season begins to wear a body down, this is a team that can't afford to have its best player less than his best, understandable or not.
Know Your Enemy 2005 - Week 17
Some movement in the standings? Yes. Movement in the rosters? Very little, which makes any further shifting in the stacks beyond changes in the content of the foundation unlikely, to say the least.
So, Matt Lawton is now a Cub, filling a need the club has sported, really, since the end of the 2003 season when Kenny Lofton played his last game in blue pinstripes - the role of leadoff man.
I've had a chance to sleep on this deal some, and the more I think about it the more I like it. Not only does it put someone at the top of the lineup who will get on base enough to take true advantage of the power of men like Lee and Ramirez, but Lawton adds speed on the basepaths and above average defense.
True, he's not a prototypical corner outfielder, hitting more like a very good up the middle player than anything else, but take a look below and see how he fits in with the current roster.
As things stand, he's becomes the third best hitter on the team when looking at Equivalent Average (EQA), and if one takes in all of his on-field contributions over the season thus far via WARP1, his defense in the outfield makes him the second most valuable player in the Cubs regular lineup - worth nearly a win more than Aramis Ramirez, due mostly to The Ram's sub-standard defense at the hot corner.
Quick caveat: I use WARP1 because it's an easy way to express a player's overall contribution to his club by stating how many wins he's worth, and it works well as a comparison tool. However, I have my qualms about the defensive component, as I do about all defensive stats, so I try to take that aspect with a grain of salt. In the case of Lawton vs. Ramirez, my guess is that the defensive differences bring them closer to even, rather than making Lawton clearly superior, but that's partly my bias towards offense talking. Draw what conclusions you will.
While the player sent to the Pirates was Jody Gerut, the deal should be more accurately seen as Lawton for Jason Dubois, and considering the needs of the team, that's an excellent haul, indeed. Add in that part of the reason why Gerut was acquired was because early discussions with the Pirates about Lawton were fruitless, and one has to like it even more. I'd be curious to know if this was part of the plan all along, but whether it was or not, it's another piece of masterful dealmaking by Jim Hendry.
Still, while I think this move is very important in setting this club right, more hope rests in the return this Friday of three fallen warriors, and if you ask me, the risk-laden drama of whether Williamson is ready, Nomar is steady, or Wood is all systems go will tell the story of the rest of the 2005 season.
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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Write Derek at drksmart @ gmail.com