The 2004 Chicago Cubs season was a peculiar thing. The surprise and excitement of 2003 gave way to the … things that happened in the playoffs, but the formerly woeful and downtrodden Cubs came into 2004 a sudden favorite.
And why not? Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and Carlos Zambrano were on the rise. The Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Moises Alou offensive core was solid. And Greg freaking Maddux had just returned, for crying out loud. There was little reason to believe that the Cubs wouldn’t be competitive after the 2003 surge, and 2004 was looking great.
Oh, and there was Sammy Sosa.
Sure, Sosa was 35 and coming off back-to-back years of significant offensive decline, but the mashers mashed until they were 40 in those days, and that was never going to change. (Remember?)
Of course, that 2004 season didn’t go as expected—for Sammy or for the Cubs—and the final two weeks are remembered almost as bitterly as any stretch in recent memory. The declining arc of Sosa’s time with the Cubs came to a completion that year, he infamously left the ballpark early on the final day of the season, and was summarily traded to the Orioles in January. His relationship with the Cubs organization has remained strained, to say the least, ever since.
But before the disappointment of the final two weeks of the season, and before the break up, Sosa was doing something that no Cubs player has done again since his days in Chicago. Something he was born to do. Something that has, for me, always underscored the silly joy that is supposed to be at the heart of baseball.
Sosa was participating in the 2004 Home Run Derby.
With this week’s announcement that both Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant would be taking part in this year’s Home Run Derby in Cincinnati on Monday, I was curious about the last time the Cubs had an entrant in the showcase. I suspected that it was Sosa, because I couldn’t remember anyone else recently, but I incorrectly remembered that it was Sosa’s prodigious and oh-so-Sammy-like display in Milwaukee in 2002 that was the last Cubs derby moment. I guess I’d wiped some of that 2004 season from my memory after all.
Then again, maybe I didn’t remember Sosa in the derby in 2004 because he wasn’t in it for long. Sosa, who would hit as many homers in 2004 (35, 19th most in baseball that year) as he would hit for the rest of his career combined, bowed out in the first round. For a man whose career was so intimately associated with the long-ball—the hop, the kisses—it’s hard now not to look back on that derby as the tidily-packaged story version of “the end.”
It’s been a long time, then, since fans had an opportunity to form some new Cubs-related memories in the Home Run Derby. At 25 and 23, it’s reasonable to hope that this year’s iteration won’t mark any kind of ending for Rizzo and Bryant.
Me? I’m really looking forward to the spectacle. It’s silly and simple and meaningless in the standings. But it’s fun.
Lead photo courtesy of Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports