Tuesday, September 05, 2006

the abandonment

one of the more vivid memories of this cub fan is, strangely enough, april 1997.

the cubs had been tepid at best for years at that point, with the last whiff of competitiveness some eight seasons distant. zimmer and dallas green had long since been canned, lefebvre came and went, the well-intentioned tom trebelhorn laughed out of town, and the beat of mediocrity kept pounding out under the strangely effeminate "tough guy" manager, jim riggleman. the cubs had resolved the bullpen-by-bad-committee of 1996 by obtaining montreal closer mel rojas, looked forward to another great year from developing 26-year-old steve trachsel to back horse jaime navarro, had young superprospect kevin orie coming in to take third and one-time superprospect shawon dunston coming back to man short. that passed for promise around here in 1997.

so it was perhaps not a surprise to everyone when the cubs started losing out of the gate -- but being swept on the road and outscored 36-16 in both of the first two series was a bit of a shock, even if those two teams were among the class of the national league. the cubs limped home 0-6 for the opener in chicago -- only to face the marlins and braves again -- and shiny new closer rojas had already coughed up four runs in two appearances. their response to this adversity was to score eight runs in the next four, running their record to 0-10 with colorado coming into town for two before they were to head to new york.

by this time, harry caray's downtown was serving taps of budweiser for 45 cents or something -- in honor of the last pennant year, if beclouded memory serves -- and this writer and his good friends ccd and vehere were partaking with gusto. it wasn't even tax day yet, and the season was already over. isn't that reason enough to drink? it seemed so then, anyway.

we had gone to the home opener, as was then our tradition, only to see the marlins score two in the seventh and another in the ninth (which none of us remeber, to be sure) to ice it. it's always hard to get a read on cubdom at the opener -- even then, scads of people showed up just to get hammered. and we went to some more april games after that, including the 12th straight loss, when real rational hope for a win rested on someone named roger bailey, the rockies unspectacular starter. but the rational does not account for the humour of the gods, and bailey ended up tossing a complete-game five-hitter without a strikeout.

but the game -- the one that stuck in this writer's head -- was april 24. the cubs had run it out to 0-14 before netting two wins in new york to salvage a road split and ending the cheap beer, then traveled to montreal for the honor of losing two more. at 2-16, the cubs came home to try to stem the bleeding in a six-game homestand, starting with pittsburgh and francisco cordova.

scenes from that frigid night, for whatever reason, have stuck in this writer's head as though captured in photographs. trachsel pitched brilliantly for one of the last times that year, and the cubs touched up the pirate bullpen for a couple to take a 3-2 lead into the ninth. rojas had come on to end the eighth, and re-emerged from the dugout to seal the win.

except that he didn't, of course -- taking instead another large step in the direction of new york, to whom he would be traded in disgrace later that season. a leadoff single and passed ball put a man in scoring position, which didn't seem so bad when rojas got two outs. but jason kendall then doubled to tie the game and the inexorable weight of losing that always presses down on a bad team, ready to lever any momentary weakness to crush hope instantaneously, found a trigger in a jose guillen single.

but what is remembered best is the frighteningly sparse crowd. it was a cold april night, and the cubs were godawful losers -- and, it must be remembered, this was 1997. this was before the sammy steroid show, before the kerry wood 20-strikeout game, before the mark prior hype machine, before 1998, before 2003. the cubs were still ryne sandberg's team in 1997, despite his declining skills, trapped in a sport recovering from a devastating strike in 1994. the marketing engine that soon turned wrigley into chicago's win-or-lose beer garden of choice was still in first gear. the announced crowd was about twenty thousand -- but if there were a quarter of that number in the park, this writer would be surprised. you could've sat anywhere in the park and had the section virtually to yourself, it seemed. such were the wages of constant and painful futility.

fast forward to tonight, a clear and pleasant september evening of the tuesday following labor day, and again old wrigley reminds this writer of that distant april -- pittsburgh in the field against them as they battle the relentless negative momentum that is part and parcel to being a bona fide loser in front of such a scarcity of people that it seems no one is in the stands at all. huge expanses of empty seats stretch out behind the plate and even in the bleachers, which probably haven't been so uncrowded for any game since 1997. who knows what the announced attendance will be, but if there are much more than ten thousand people at wrigley tonight this writer would be surprised.

it's the tuesday after labor day, the kids are back in school, the pirates are horrid -- a number of mitigating excuses can be found. but this writer for one thinks that the tribune company should take a closer look at what the golden goose could look like if allowed to be strangled by andy macfail and jim hendry for much longer. the cubs aren't likely going to be any good at all in 2007 either, and just across town a younger and impressionable generation is learning to love winning baseball.

consider it a warning, tribco. for the long-term good of the franchise, something needs to be done.

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