My road to Damascus, my conversion from Saul-to-Paul didn’t come with a flash of light: it came in bits and pieces over two years, and it would take the 2003 and 2004 to bring me to my greater understanding. I hadn’t been paying much attention to the Cubs in ’03 until my Old Man told me about a Cub prospect that sport writers had described as “a Kerry Wood with control.” His name was Mark Prior and he started the season in the minors. Prior was part of an outstanding class of draftees. He came out at the same time as Joe Mauer and Mark Teixeira.
Prior was tearing up AA ball at the onset of the season. Although the management seemed reluctant at first to bring Prior into the Show, they quickly changed their minds and, once he was on the mound, he proved to be all that the scouting reports claimed he was: a big right hander with a late-tailing fastball in the low to mid-90s, a slurve and pin-point control. Chicago commentators were also ecstatic about Prior’s mechanics. Announcer Dave Otto claimed that his motion would have him pitching “free and easy,” without elbow and shoulder injuries for a long time.
Halfway into the season, there was something in the air. It was the first time in my recollection that we expected the Cubs to win every day. The team had put together a starting rotation that featured Prior, Wood, Carlos Zambrano, and Abe Lincoln-bearded Matt Clement, all of which won over a dozen games and were striking batters out at an astounding rate. Sports Illustrated referred to Prior and Wood as “Chicago Heat” and sportscasters were talking about “seven-inning games.” That is, the two fireballers would go for seven innings, and the relief pitchers takeover for the final two. In those days, the Cubs had Kyle Farnsworth in the bullpen: he threw even harder than Wood or Prior. If he could ever get his act together, he’d mow down batters in the eighth, and then closer Joe Borowski could finish them off in the ninth. Personally, I was never very impressed with Borowski’s stuff. His fastball was in the high eighties and low nineties, and there wasn’t much movement on it. His outpitch, however, was pretty good. It was a back-door slider that stymied National League hitters for a time.
The management also made two acquisitions at the trade deadline that brought power, speed and timely hitting to the lineup. Aramis Ramirez took over at third and Kenny Lofton held down center field. Not long after the team solidified, I fell from cynicism and became a believer once again. It happened to me during the series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Opposing managers hurled invectives, second base men and short stops were in peril when they tried to turn double plays, and pitchers were coming in high and tight to keep batters honest. The Redbirds were up by two runs, but I got caught up in the moment and felt that the momentum had shifted. It seemed like a question of time before the Chicago juggernaut of Lofton, Ramirez, Sosa, Alou, and Erick Karros overtook and rolled over Tony LaRussa’s St. Louis Cardinals. It looked as if the Cubs were unstoppable.
Throughout the rest of the season, Prior had his moment in the sun. His only setback came from a base-running injury caused him to miss three starts, but soon after he was back serving notice to the National League batters that the Cubs were in contention. Down the stretch, he compiled a 10-1 record, and fans hadn’t seen anything like him since ’84. His string of victories that was masterful. By the end of the season, he amassed an 18 and 6 win-loss record and finished third in the Cy Young Award vote. Behind him, the Cubs pitched their way into the Division Series, and both Prior and Wood threw masterpieces against the Braves.
For the National League Championship Series the Cubs were slated to take on the Florida Marlins. Chicago was up in the series and had the Marlins on the ropes. Prior was on the hill, and the Cubs were leading 3 to 0. Nonetheless, I could see he was tiring. By the seventh, his velocity was beginning to decline, and I said that Dusty Baker should get some relief pictures warmed up as soon as possible. Now, one would think that my fall from belief was the Bartman incident, but this is simply not true. It was really my salvation and it came to me right before the famous fan-interference call. At the time, the only thing that separated the Cubs from the World Series was five more outs. Right then and there, I truly came to understand the nature of being a Cub fan, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought, “If the Cubs went to the series, what will become of us, the fans? We will no longer exist. By winning, we would lose ourselves and become just like the rest of the idiots that root for the home team. We’d become the very thing that we hated: the arrogant, gloating fans that bragged of total and eternal victory.
The thought was too horrible to imagine. Fortunately, Fate intervened and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. If the fan interference wasn’t enough to prove that failure was preordained, Alex Gonzalez booted a routine ground ball that would have brought the inning to a close. Although it took some time to comprehend, the Great Balance of the Cosmic Order was restored.
To be continued…
Cross-posted at My Ongoing Struggle with Misanthropy: http://jimmygabacho.com/?p=857