Expectations are a funny thing. The Cubs went from expectations of another rebuilding year in 2015, with only the possibility of contention, to expectations something near to “World Series or bust” in just one year’s time. I started planning my first trip to Wrigley Field last October, when I expected the Cubs to beat the Mets. My high expectations of the team came crashing down when the offense struggled and Jake Arrieta’s beard lost its mystical powers. Yet, last season was the best year as a Cubs fan for me since 2003. I had expected a sub-.500 team going into the season, so the surprisingly-competitive Cubs were much more enjoyable to follow than I’d thought. But now it’s the year after the breakout, expectations have mounted, and that’s, historically, been a bad place to be as a Cubs fan. Let’s look briefly at the last time expectations felt near to what they do now. It’s not predictive, of course, but it’s worth remembering where we’ve been.
In 2004, too, the Cubs were the chic championship pick after coming within five outs of reaching the World Series the previous year. Expectations soared for fans. Articles like this one from USA Today asserted that “‘Next year’ here for Cubs.” Sports Illustrated put Kerry Wood on the cover of the April 2004 edition, proclaiming “Hell Freezes Over: The Cubs Will Win the World Series.” The Cubs’ General Manger, Jim Hendry, built a contender based on a rotation of young arms: Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano, Matt Clement and some guy named Greg Maddux (a free agent acquisition before the season). The lineup was lethal, as well, anchored by Sammy Sosa, Aramis Ramirez, Moises Alou, Michael Barrett, a healthy Corey Patterson, and the recently-traded-for Derrek Lee. The team was loaded and fans believed it was finally going to happen.
However, the season started in a worrisome fashion. Prior began the season on the disabled list due to an achilles injury and wound up missing the first two months of the year. Shortly thereafter, the other Cubs ace, Kerry Wood, was shelved with a strained tricep, and he would miss about two months of the season as well. The Cubs started the season at a disappointing 27-25 before Prior returned. Yet the team was only 4.5 games back of St. Louis in the Central and in the thick of it for the Wild Card. The Cubs turned it around from here, and with Wood back, the Cubs found themselves eight games over .500 at the end of July. Then Hendry pulled off another magical trade (or so it seemed at the time), by acquiring Nomar Garciaparra from Boston to fill an obvious hole at shortstop. Even though the Cubs were 10.5 games back of the Cardinals then, with no chance at winning the division, they were well positioned to win the wild card and make the playoffs, especially with a healthy rotation and the addition of Nomar to a deep lineup.
And so the season continued. With only eight games left to play, the Cubs found themselves up two games on Houston for the Wild Card. They entered the game on September 26th vs the Mets riding a five-game winning streak and winning 13 out of their last 16. Prior pitched well, and left the game with a 3-0 lead after 7 and 2/3 innings. Ryan Dempster came in and closed out the eighth inning, and the Cubs looked poised to increase their wild card lead. Dempster, however, struggled in the ninth after getting the first out, walked two, and the Cubs turned to their closer LaTroy Hawkins to finish it out. Hawkins recorded the second out before he gave up a three-run shot to Victor Diaz to tie the game. It was only Diaz’s second home run that year, and in the bottom of the 11th, Craig Brazell hit a walk off homer to sink the Cubs.
The Hawkins blown save was just the beginning. If 2003 was a dagger to the heart, the 2004 collapse was the knife being twisted deeper and deeper. The Cubs lost six of their last eight games. Five of those games were of the 1-run variety. The infamous boom box incident occurred soon after, wherein an unknown-to-this-day player (at least publicly) destroyed Sammy Sosa’s famously loud boom box after Sosa walked out on the team, mid-game, during a meaningless finale. Like his boom box, Sosa’s image was smashed to pieces. Sosa became the scapegoat for the season and was traded to the Orioles, essentially banished from the franchise; even 12 years later, he has not been welcomed back. The following year, the Cubs won 79 games, and bottomed out with a 66 win team in 2006.
Poof. A team that looked poised to be contenders for a decade, built on the elite rotation of Prior, Wood, Zambrano, and Clement suddenly disappeared into irrelevancy. The two aces, Prior and Wood, became synonymous with the disabled list and towel throwing drills. Wood was converted into a reliever in 2005. Prior started only 36 more games over the next two seasons and never pitched another inning at the major-league level after that. Dusty Baker’s contract was not renewed despite getting the team this close to the World Series. Patterson, the elite centerfield prospect, and centerpiece of the lineup, struggled in 2005 and was dealt to Baltimore for next to nothing. The team looked destined for the basement of National League Central for years to come.
As fans, we sit here once again, in this familiar place, expecting this year to be the year; the year that the Cubs break through, the year that our tortured history is finally put behind us. The year we can forget about all the close calls, and all the years of ineptitude. We’ve felt that way before, of course. But these expectations, they seem different; grander and more terrifying. And they’re built on the backs of young hitters, not young pitchers. But the thing about baseball—more often, it seems, than in any other sport—is that the team that’s the best on paper doesn’t always, or even mostly, win a championship. Last year, many things went right for the Cubs, and it only takes a few things going wrong to submarine a season. So be careful with these lofty predictions, as right-headed as they seem, because heartbreak is all too common for us Cubs fans. As for me, I’m off to check the travel sites for plane tickets and a hotel room in Chicago for October… those sites do give refunds, right?
Lead photo courtesy Jim Brown—USA Today Sports.