After the demise of ’84, one would assume that fans would wise up, get a grip, and begin to understand the Cubs’ place in the Great Order of Things. However, hope springs eternal and there is no vaccination for stupidity. I was soon back in the stands with my old man cheering for the Cubs and, in the process, I was becoming more and more like him. He had seen the collapse of ’69, a season that reached its zenith with southpaw Kenny Holtzman’s no-hitter in late August when Chicago held an 8 1/2 games over the second place St. Louis Cardinals. The Cubs peaked too early, and a west coast road trip spelled disaster for their lead over the surging New York Mets. There is even talk among the curse-conspiracy theorists about a “Black Cat” incident at Shea Stadium.
So, despite the tragedies of ’69 and ’84, we were back in the stands in ’88. Things were going to change. Wrigley Field was finally going to install lights. After years of watching Bozo’s Circus on WGN at noon and then watching the Cubs play day baseball, the Chicago National League Ball Club was finally entering the twentieth century. The first game of the Modern Era was set for August 8th, 1988, and the Cubs were slated to play the Mets. We couldn’t get tickets for Opening Night, but we had seats in Section 242 for the game the following evening. Night baseball arrived in Chicago on the 8, but the game was rained out after three innings. In effect, my dad and I were in the stands at the first official game played under the lights in Wrigley.
By ’89, the team also looked pretty solid. Don Zimmer had put together a group of veterans, like Sandberg, Sutcliffe and Andre Dawson, to guide a new generation of youngsters like first baseman Mark Grace, shortstop Shawon Dunston, pitcher Greg Maddux, and outfielders Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith. Under the guidance of Popeye Zimmer, the Cubs took the Eastern Division Title and met up with the Giants in the playoffs. Mark Grace went on the rampage and hit .647 for the series, but the Cubs couldn’t get past the hitting of Giants first baseman Will “The Thrill” Clark, who took a Greg Maddux fastball downtown with the bases loaded. It was a hard game to watch. It was even harder to see the Cubs lose Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux in the off season.
It wouldn’t be until ’98 that I started feeling the lure of the Cubs once again, the lure of losing, I call it. Maybe it was the death of Harry Caray that brought me back into it. I am not sure, but like other Roman Catholics, I found myself praying to St. Harry for divine intervention. Others took to holding Mass near his statue before the game. The ’98 team had been remodeled by upper management. After a nasty divorce Ryne Sandberg retired, shortstop Shawn Dunston was traded, and one of the newcomers included outfielder Henry Rodriguez, who brought a left handed bat into the lineup to keep opposing pitchers from working around Sammy “Corky” Sosa. The bullpen also got some much needed help when Rod Beck came over from the Giants.
Once again, Mark Grace had a great season and the bullpen did a solid job. There were two other attractions that brought Cub fans to the ball park: Kerry Wood and Sammy Sosa. Rookie pitcher Wood brought stuff that was electric that people speculated that he’d never really have to develop control or finesse. His biggest game came early in the season when he pitched a one hitter and struck out twenty Houston Astros. Wood easily won the National League’s Rookie of the Year award, but by the end of the season, he had a tired arm.
This was also the “Year Baseball Got Big:” players from both leagues were juicing up their bodies with performance enhancing steroids. Although the country didn’t want to believe it, steroids were the rage and it showed. These ball players didn’t look anything like their predecessors: their bodies were monstrosities. Nonetheless, we were all in awe (and denial) as Sosa and McGwire knocked out homerun after homerun all summer long. By the end of the season, the St. Louis slugger had knocked out 70, and Sosa 66. The Cubs right fielder also walked away with the National League Most Valuable Player award for hitting over .300 and the Cubs took the Wild Card in a one-game playoff against Dusty Baker’s San Francisco Giants. With that win, the season effectively came to an end because the team was out of gas when they took on the Atlanta Braves. For the next couple of years, Sosa kept knocking out homeruns but the Cubs were finishing at the bottom of their division.
To be continued…
Cross-posted at My Ongoing Struggel with Misanthropy: http://jimmygabacho.com/?p=853