There was really no way Starlin could win. He was called up to a simply awful Cubs team, and fans needed something, anything to feel good about. Even if it was this incredibly young, incredibly raw, incredibly rushed through the system talent. Obviously, his debut game only made things worse in the end, kind of like how Kerry Wood wouldn’t ever quite live up to those 20 strikeouts.
It wasn’t just the fans, though. Jim Hendry must have sensed that his time as general manager was at least threatened, if not doomed. He needed something to point to to hang on, and Starlin was just about all he had. You wonder what Starlin’s fate would have been if Epstein and Hoyer had taken over a couple years earlier.
And it was the way we watched the games, too. Most Cubs fans had come to realize that the game had moved on from the way the Cubs were built to play. We longed for a team that accentuated on-base percentage, and walks, and worked opposing pitching staffs. Hendry didn’t really build those teams, at least not on purpose. Lou Pinella was most certainly older schooled. While Starlin had obvious talent, he didn’t fit what we began to see was the true path to what we all dreamed of.
Against all that, what chance did he have?
Did he dig his own holes? Yeah, absolutely. While they were far more highlighted than they actually were, he did have mental lapses. There were plays in the field where you wondered if he wasn’t still out from the night before. Swings at the plate that at times looked like a dog when you fake throwing the tennis ball and they still go running after it anyway. But the only reason we cared so much is because what else was there to care about? Bryan LaHair? We wanted something so badly to give us hope. That was far too much to put on Starlin.
He didn’t have much help, either. He came up when Pinella was already concentrating on drinks with umbrellas by the pool. That was followed by Dale Sveum, who had all the subtlety of a tack hammer. One year of Ricky Renteria, who basically was hired because he would smile at Rizzo and Castro instead of swearing at them. Again, stacked.
There was also the sexual assault investigation, and we could never quite look at him the same. Thankfully, unlike other teams in town that I happen to cover, the Cubs didn’t put Starlin anywhere near a microphone or front and center of every ad campaign. Everything just kept going backwards.
And then finally, when Starlin got an actual manager, an actual team around him, the big question was when he would move aside for Addison Russell. It’s like he barely got to enjoy it. But move aside he did, with barely a word.
And those last two months of 2015… finally there was joy. At second, without the pressures of shortstop or being anything near the most important player on the team, he blossomed. He hit to all fields. He hit for power. He made tons of contact. It’s what he and all of us had waited for for all those years. Not just the production, but the lack of scrutiny and actual enjoyment again. For two months, it was that debut in Cincinnati again.
There are two images I take from that time. One is his reaction to the final out of Arrieta’s first no-hitter, where he jumped and twirled and pumped his fist. He was so excited, after years of people telling us he didn’t really care about the game. The second is being in Wrigley for Game Three against St. Louis. Jason Heyward had put the Cards up 2-1 in the top of the 4th, and it was clear Arrieta didn’t quite have his stuff. And we all started to dread the normal, Cardinal demonstration of superiority after a brief, Game Two uprising. And in the bottom of the inning, Starlin–the player Cardinals Nation hated most for all his antics, his fun, his lack of attention to custom–sent a Michael Wacha pitch into orbit. It was a true act of defiance. No, not this time. This time the Cubs will not piss it away in front of the Red Menace. We will not stay down. You know the rest of that story.
Starlin’s trade was inevitable, now that I look back on it. And the Cubs were obviously a better team with Zobrist/Baez there instead of Starlin. After all we put on him and he went through, it still feels a little unfair he wasn’t here for the payoff. And maybe I shouldn’t be as forgiving with him as I haven’t been with other players in this town who have gone through similar. I can’t tell you it’s for a good reason, other than the handling of it by his team and the inside info I’m privy to.
But those two months in 2015. We’ll always have those. They’re part of the story to 2016. It isn’t much, but maybe just enough.
Lead photo courtesy David Banks—USA Today Sports