After Providing Hope, Cubs Fading Again (Originally published August 10, 2009)

Words cannot describe how much I love the Cubs.  I was Mark Grace for Halloween when I was eight.  I sat with rapt attention after school watching the end of Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game in 1998.  I watched/listened to/had constant Internet updates during every single game of the 2004 season.  For six months of the year, North side baseball is all I think about.  That’s why this year has been particularly tough.

I can handle the playoff losses.  In 2007, they weren’t really any good; winning 85 games should mean you’re finishing in third place, not heading to October.  Last year, while probably the most disappointed I have ever been in any aspect of life, I understood that it is possible to have a few bad games against a team that got hot at the right time.  What I never understood was taking a wrecking ball to 1/3 of a team that steamrolled the National League last year because of those three bad games.  Out the door were key contributors Mark DeRosa and Wood, as well as the entire 2008 Opening Day bullpen besides Carlos Marmol.  The only major addition was that of right fielder Milton Bradley.

Spring training went fine.  They looked good, with the only worries being the lack of work catcher Geovany Soto and Marmol received playing in the World Baseball Classic—an astronomically stupid idea, but that’s a story for another day—but otherwise they were golden.  A division three-peat was guaranteed.  Then the season actually began.

Everyone was healthy on Opening Day.  After that, though, the wheels fell off.  First to go down was Soto.  Then Aramis Ramirez’s calf started hurting.  Then Carlos Zambrano got hurt, and Ramirez separated his shoulder, and so on and so on.  The team has had 17 players on the DL, but that really isn’t the reason they’re only in second place.  The team is clueless on the road.  Absolutely miserable.  They can get the engines started on the offense but then kill every rally by swinging at terrible pitches with men in scoring position.  I have never, in 20 years, seen a team that looks like it’s on the verge of winning the World Series when playing at home then play like a last place team on the road.  The problems were highlighted during an eight-game losing streak in late May that may very well end up being what ruins this team’s chances of playing in October again this year.

A possible explanation for all this is poor chemistry.  Nobody ever seems to be on the same page, as highlighted by the high number of shake-offs I’ve seen the pitchers give to the catchers.  It is also fairly obvious Milton Bradley is living up to his “clubhouse cancer” reputation, with childish outbursts and whining about how the media and umpires are out to get him.  Even when he’s playing well, as he is now, I don’t like him.  Beyond that, nobody was getting the job done.  Derrek Lee, while he’s been the team’s MVP, batted below .200 in April.  Alfonso Soriano was so bad out of the leadoff spot that the stubborn Lou Piniella finally moved him to sixth in the lineup.  Soto, after it was revealed he reported to spring training out of shape and then tested positive for marijuana at the WBC, played like a career backup instead of the Rookie of the Year he was last year.

After the All-Star Game, it looked like the Cubs were finally on their way to playing the way they are capable of playing.  Ramirez had returned from his separated shoulder, Soriano decided he was going to start playing baseball again, and the team had a 6-1 homestand recently.  They were even in first place for a week or so.  However, over the past week, they’ve fallen apart on the road again.  As I write this, they are losing 9-1 to the Rockies, a team that will have beaten them three out of four games this weekend.  And the Cardinals are on the verge of taking a three game lead in the division.

I go to school in Missouri, right in the middle of Cardinals country, and it’s not very fun listening to them gloat about how their team is in first place.  It’s frustrating because I know damn well the Cardinals are not a good team.  They have one very good pitcher (Chris Carpenter) and one great position player (Albert Pujols) and the rest of the team is simply playing far above its abilities, and has been for the majority of the year.  They are in the position they’re in simply because the Cubs can’t get their heads in the game long enough to put together a substantial winning streak.  My hope/optimistic prediction is that they fall into the late August/early September swoon they’ve had the previous three years (and yes, they fell apart in September of their World Series year before getting hot in the playoffs).  If they don’t, they may have just enough left in the tank to win the division, and it will be nobody’s fault but the Cubs’.


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