Monday, January 14, 2008

1989. The start, finish, and execution of the modern day Chicago Cub fan.

Going through my cluttered sun room yesterday I came upon a rusty stack of old record books I kept as a child. The overwhelming majority of these books had been marked by countless highlighted facts, created personal statistics, and imaginary resolutions to games that never occurred. Scourging through these documents emitted the usual melancholic nostalgia for yesteryear. Melancholic, I say, because the heap in my hands was filled with years of lost hope.

Thought emerges; I used to care a lot more.

I used to care so much that I went to my local mall during the winter of 1989/90 and purchased a book from The Sporting News called “1989 National League Averages and Box Scores”. It was one of the few things my father bought for me not on my birthday or Christmas Day.

I never got what made him say ‘yes’ to the purchase. My father was relatively cheap in those days, and was busting his ass to make ends meet. But, for some reason, on some boring evening in the Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills, Illinois, he decided to purchase this beacon of statistical goodness.

Before the purchase, to tell you the truth, I had never looked at the book. I thought I was looking at a 1989 book with 1988 stats. Driving home, I noticed that the stats in The Book gave out all of the box scores of the 1989 season.

1989. Oh dear, Jesus! Yahtzee! While communism was beginning to fall all around eastern Europe, my own coup had been scored with the purchase of This Record Book.

I wouldn’t need “Boys of Zimmer” on VHS. That video only recounted a couple of games during the championship campaign. This Box Score Book contained every moment of every game. Every Domingo Ramos at-bat. The result of every Mitch Williams inning.

And why did the fact The Book had 1989 results, and not 1987 or 1988 results really matter? Was it just because the Cubs had gone 93-69, and had won the division?

I thought that was the reason.

Looking back, I think the main reason for my love of that particular book had to do with what it represented for Cubdom.

1989 suckered me.
And, if you are reading this, it probably suckered you.

Like many of you, I knew when Rafael Palmeiro went to Texas for Wilkerson, Kilgus, and Williams, it was a mistake. It was a terrible mistake.

When the Cubs only won a couple of pre-season matches, I knew the Cubs didn’t have the talent to compete.

When management didn’t go out to get anybody to complement Dawson or Sandberg by opening day, the Cubs were done.

When the Cubs banked on Rick Sutcliffe’s health, I knew we were finished.

When the Cubs tried to convince us that a rookie by the name of Jerome Walton could patrol Center Field on opening day, my father laughed.

When Jim Frey told us that he was doing whatever he could for the team to win, we knew he was full of shit.

When I came home from school on Opening Day 1989 with the bases loaded and nobody out, with Mike Schmidt at the plate, the season had ended.

I sat there with my back pack dragging from my leg. I had run all the way home from the bus stop to catch the last stages of the Cubs in action. And I got this.

My father, wrecked by too many Cub losses, folded his clothes in a calming manner. He had watched Schmidt destroy the Cubs singled handedly with a four homer game in ’76. Schmidt owned the Cubs in Wrigley. We all figured this would be the end of it. Schmidt hits the homer, Mitch Williams gets booed off the field, and Don Zimmer gets fired. Jim Frey gets canned. It was going to happen. My father and I had already made the plan for both to get out of town.

Then those rancid sons of bitches suckered me.
Suckered me good.

Like an ex-girlfriend from college coming home just to ‘check-in’ with her ole sweetheart.

The Cubs, Mitch Williams, the ivy, Old Style, all of that sentimental bullshit suckered me in 1989. Suckered me in about 15 pitches.

And if it didn’t happen to you, you are a lying sack of shit. It was impossible not to believe. Nothing can stop you from CubDumb. Once it takes you, it’s like a magnetic beam.

Mitch Williams blew past Mike Schmidt, Mark Ryal, and Chris James as if they were Gary Scott, Jeff Kunkel, and Willie Greene.

The thing about Mitch in ’89? Mitch just didn’t give a fuck.

Mitch could’ve walked three straight batters, and had been facing Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio, it wouldn’t have mattered. The son of a bitch just didn’t care in ’89.

And none of us questioned it. We all just got sucked in by this wave of CubDumb that threatened to end the future of the Cubs, as we knew it.

The Cubs got off to a torrid 8-2 start, then tapered off to 17-18. The hot start permitted the Cubs to falter quite a bit. The Cubs went through a multitude of injuries.

They once started an outfield of Doug Dascenzo, Gary Varsho, and Mitch Webster. Dear Jesus. How did we get through that one?

Then, the shit really took off.

All sorts of weird shit happened in games: Rick Wrona made a squeeze bunt to beat the Mets on national TV. Mitch Williams hit a fucking home run. They pulled off a double steal in Cincinnati that was a factor in winning the game. They came back from a 9-0 deficit to beat Houston. Andre Dawson with ½ of a good knee ran all the way from first base to score on a double to beat the Cardinals.

It goes on:

A pitcher hit a double in the 11th to win a game! Les Lancaster, that’s right, Les Lancaster hit a double to beat the Giants on national TV. The Cubs had come back from being down 3-0 in the bottom of the 9th with two outs.

Lloyd McClendon hit a home run in his first Cub at bat.

Shawon Dunston ended a game with a double play off of a POP UP.

Did I mention Mitch Williams hit a fucking home run?

The whole damn thing never made sense.

Didn’t have to. I was 9. These things could happen, right?

The player performances defied any rational explanation.

The 1989 Cubs may have been the first team to make Bill James contemplate suicide.

They over performed every single prediction made on any level.

Rick Sutcliffe stayed healthy for a full season in only the second time since 1984. Mike Bielecki won 18 games, his highest total ever. Greg Maddux won a career high (at the time) 19 games. Les Lancaster’s ERA was, what, 2.35? Mitch Williams made 36 saves in his first year as a closer. Steve Wilson won his first five decisions.

Jerome Walton, a rookie, decided to go on some random-ass 30 game hit streak. Damon Berryhill, the Cubs projected catcher, was injured most of the year. The Cubs succeeded with Rick Wrona and Joe Girardi, two rookies, behind the plate. Ryne Sandberg decided he was a power hitter, and hit 30 home runs. Mark Grace hit a then career high .314. Vance Law’s average dropped dramatically. SO, Lloyd McClendon decided to come up from the minors and hit .286 with 12 home runs in his place.

Dwight Smith came up from the minors and hit .324.

Gary Varsho won a 1-0 game with an RBI triple.

Luis Salazar showed up one day, and hit .325 the rest of the year.

Curtis Wilkerson and Domingo Ramos played baseball on a team that won games.

Mitch Webster was there! Maybe Toto, too. We can’t verify.

Dawson was supposed to carry the offense with Sandberg, and hit only .252 with 21 home runs. So, how could they win? See above.

It all happened, at the same time. A whirlwind.

The team that had no answer for any criticism in spring training now had an answer for any situation.

Before the playoffs, we were all so damn sure those Giants from San Francisco would have no answer for our ‘Full O’ Answer Cubs’.

I fell in love too early

Will Clark looked like what baseball players should look like. Come to think of it, the entire ’89 Giants team just looked so damn mature in this series. Kevin Mitchell just seemed to squeeze the life out of us. Robby Thompson always had an answer. Les Lancaster didn’t.

The cruelest joke may have been Game 5. Down 3-1, in the ninth inning, the Cubs made a furious rally. Single, single, single. It was 3-2. Oh, dear! Sandberg is at the plate. Bedrosian looks tired. Groundball. Game over. I hate Columbus Day to this day.

Scribbled pages

As I reach the end of The Book, it comes to mind all of the marks that have been made in the directory of 1989 baseball. I must have looked This Thing over in 90, 91, 92, hell, ’98, ’99. After all, it was proof.

It was proof that one day, far, far away in our existence, the perfect conditions of time and space created something that will never be experienced again. Never again.

I am thoroughly convinced to THIS DAY that there is no team in professional sports history that rivals the oddity that was the 1989 Chicago National League Ballclub.

The book is a sham.

So, was the team. So, was the ivy. Wrigley Field. Harry Caray, Steve Stone, Chuck Cottier, Al Michaels on ABC’s Thursday Night Game of the Week, Marvell Wynne, Pat Perry, the whole damn thing was a lie.

For years after, my buddies and I would be suckered in by TribCo, Ed Lynch, Larry Himes, Andy McPhail, and other contemporary associates of the Chicago Cubs.

We were told it could be just like 1989.

“Just envision it!” they said. “Derrick May could hit .324 just like Dwight Smith. And what if, what if, what if this trade for Jody Gerut turns out like getting Salazar in ’89? What if Jaime Navarro does what Bielecki did in ’89, and pulls together an 18-7 season?
Couldn’t you imagine if Gary Scott just gets his game together?! This offense will be unstoppable. If Lieber and Wood make 30 starts, it’ll be just like Maddux and Sutcliffe in ’89.

During the games, it’s worse:

“I know we are down 3-0 with two outs, but hot damn, if I didn’t remember that crazy game against the Giants in ’89, anything is possible!”

“So, we’re down 9-0! C’mon, it’ll be just like the Astros comeback, it will be great.”

“I know we lost this 3 game lead over St. Louis, but remember in ’89. They thought they caught us, and then, SALAZAR!’

It never ends

After that season, you didn’t have to get better if you were Chicago Cubs management.

You just needed to sell that 1989 is just around the corner.

“Just you wait, kids! Just you wait, and see! Look how it will all come together. It will be memorable. Bring your kids! Bring your parents, bring the neighbors. It’s going to be one fucking unforgettable ride!”

To this day, 1989 created a group of Cub fans that think showing up is chance enough at a World Series crown.

All 1989 really proved is that shit happens.

That’s too big of a concept to get at 9 years of age, but it’s much easier at 27.

I took the book, smiled, and put it back at the bottom of my history books.

It deserves to be buried next to my ole copies of Hunter S. Thompson and Henry Miller. The 1989 team can live with the freaks of nature, where they belong.

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