It’s a funny thing about the 2003 season, because it ended so horribly, and was followed up by the even worse experience of 2004 we don’t just not look back fondly on the season, we hardly look back on it at all. But until games five, six and seven of the NLCS it was a great year. The Cubs roared out of nowhere to relevance. Dusty Baker brought a swagger that they’d never had before. The pitchers were young and talented. The offense all clicked together in July when Jim Hendry stole E-ramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton from Pissburgh. The team had Sweaty Joe Borowski on it!
But because Dusty tore up his pitching staff and strangled the career of Mark Prior in its crib, and because Dusty lost the will to manage after his second straight postseason collapse, nothing about 2003 lasted. But now that we know what a World Series looks like and feels like, it’s safe for us to look back on previous disasters.
So today we go back to one of the great days in Cubs history, September 27, 2003. When the Cubs swept a doubleheader at Wrigley and clinched the NL Central. The article is from that day, the footnotes are me looking back at it.
All that needed to happen for the Cubs to claim their first title of any real significance since 1989 was:
a) Cy Young contender Wes Obermueller (career record 1-5) needed to beat the Houston Astros
b) The Cubs needed to sweep their first doubleheader over the Pittsburgh Pirates since 1980.
Really, how hard could any of that be?
Old lady nature had set out her plans on Friday. She made it rain, and the Cubs had to postpone Friday’s game to Saturday. Old lady nature has a sense of humor, too. Given that the Cubs had already met their limit of regular season night games1, this meant the doubleheader today would have to be a traditional “play one game, take 20 minutes to rest, play the second game.” No time to clear one set of drunks out of the bleachers to let another one in. That meant 41,000 rain checks for 2004. Muahahahahahaha!
But her plan was brilliant. On Friday night, the man who can’t spell Jeremy correctly–Jeriome Robertson of the Astros–lasted one-third of an inning against the mighty Brewers. Before they even batted in the bottom of the second, the Astros were down 9-1.2 Is this any way to make the playoffs? Of course not.
When we woke up this morning, or this afternoon, or whenever we woke up, the Cubs had a half game lead in the NL Central. Even the most mathematically challenged among us knew that an Astros loss coupled with a doubleheader sweep of the Pirates meant party time, Chicago style.
Fox tried their best to accommodate us. They simulcast the Fox Sports Net coverage of the Cubs and Pirates first game on Fox affiliates in Chicago, Rockford and Peoria. They did live cut ins to Minute Maid Park in Houston to keep us up to date. Sure, it meant having to put up with Steve Lyons and Thom Brenneman, but we got over that.
The first bad omen was the presence of Dave Otto in the broadcast booth. I like Dave, a lot. But he’s an instant reminder to the horrors of the 2002 season. But with Steve Stone shaloming his way through Rosh Hoshonna 3(no way did I just spell that anywhere near correctly), it was Chip and Dave. Just like old times.
The Astros scored first and had a chance to bust the game open in the first inning. But Richard Hidalgo proved for the fourth time this week that it’s hard to swing the bat with both hands around your neck. In a scene that would repeat itself four times today, Hidalgo choked with runners on base and it was only 1-0 Houston.
Craig A. Wilson (do we still need the “A.”? He’s the only Craig Wilson left in the bigs, now.) Homered off Mark Prior and panic was the emotion of the hour in Chicago.
Then, the guy we mocked in our last tussle with the Brewers, SURE THING ROOKIE OF THE YEAR Scott Podsednik began his wrecking of the Astros season. He tripled in a run as Chip Caray boytoy Craig Biggio belly flopped in center. Bill Hall “singled” to Adam Everett who threw the ball into the stands and Podsednik scored making it 2-1 Houston.
The Brewers would never trail again.
The Cubs stormed back to take the lead back in the bottom of the fourth inning, and hope was the emotion of the hour in Chicago.
The aforementioned Wes Obermueller was mowing the Astros down in Houston and Damian Miller was homering to make it 3-1 Cubs.
Drunken screaming was the emotion of the hour in Chicago.
Wes Helms homered to make it 3-1 in Houston and then Podsednik (who else) doubled with the bases loaded to make it 5-1 Brewers. It was over in Houston.
Mark Prior finally proved human and needed a visit by The Farns to get out of the seventh inning with a 4-2 lead.
It was going to be The Farns and Regular Joe the rest of the way for the Cubs.4
The Wrigley Field scoreboard operator turned the Brewers-Astros score into a final and pandelirium erupted in Chicago, forcing Rob Mackowiak to stand stunned at home plate.
Farns mowed them down in the eighth.
In the ninth, Regular Joe got two quick outs and then the third eluded him on an infield chopper, just after Chip said something brilliant like “only 28 outs to go!”5
With two on and two out, creepy looking Jason Kendall popped one to short right field. Mark Grudzielanek made sure the Cubs didn’t pull another Puerto Rico and gave it a squeeze (copyright 1998, Pat Hughes) for the final out. The Cubs had clinched a tie for the NL Central title and mass hysteria was the emotion of the hour in Chicago.
Somewhere, the cosmic tumblers were one click away from aligning perfectly for the Cubs. This never happens for the Cubs.
Disbelief was the emotion of the hour in Chicago.
Game two started with everyone staring at the groin of Matt Clement. He got through the first inning OK and we were all hopeful.
Then Sammy Sosa jacked one halfway to Champaign to make it 1-0 Cubs.6
In the bottom of the third the Cubs strung together five straight singles, scored five times and made it 6-0.
There were 21 outs to go, and strangely, everybody knew it was over. The game would turn into two hours of “hey, hasn’t this been a great season?”
Confidence was the emotion of the hour in Chicago.
Clement cruised until the eighth when he coughed up two runs, and the Pirates made it 6-2. Mike Remlinger came in and ended the threat.
Moises Alou proved his wrist didn’t hurt that much, as he sent a bomb onto Waveland to make it 7-2.
Dave Veres came out of the bullpen to nail it down.
Confusion, fear and dread were the emotions of the hour.7
With one out and one on, Jose Jerkoff 8strode to the plate. Traded in July for our newest favorite Cubs, Kenny Lofton and E-ramis Ramirez, Jose had already done us a huge favor. He’d do us one more.
He hit a solid grounder right to Ramon Martinez at short, Gruddy made the turn at second and the throw was easily in time to get Jerkoff.
Ron Santo emitted a gutteral, primal scream of ecstacy and euphoria was the emotion of the hour in Chicago.9
The Anti-Cubs 10had proven it in a big way on this day. When given the path of least resistance to the playoffs, they took it.
Left in their wake were the Astros and Cardinals. Left to drool in their malt liquor were entire trailer parks full of White Sox fans.
The Cubs, five and a half games out of first place as recently as August 1, had gone 19-7 in September to grab the NL Central by the throat.
Dusty Baker paused for a moment and watched his new team start an impressive dogpile near the pitcher’s mound. This is Dusty’s doing.11
He led the way, and a team that went 67-95 a year ago was the one who stood up when the NL Central Division requested the toughest team stand up.
Jim Hendry jumped for joy in a luxury suite. The man who believed in his team more than anybody, the man who added players when all seemed lost, had put together a champion in less than 365 days.12
Sammy Sosa sprinted in from right field. It’s been a season from Hell for Sammy. Some of it self-inflicted, most of it not. As recently as Tuesday, morons were calling for him to be dropped in the lineup or benched. He hit four homers in four games and led the way on the field.13
The Franchise 14had proven himself again. His mere presence on the mound in game one was enough to calm 41,000 exposed nerves.
In the dugout, Carlos Zambrano smiled. His clutch pitching all year long had done wonders, but it may have been his one quote that turned the season. During the emotional five-game series with the Cardinals at the beginning of the month, Carlos had angered the Evil Satanic Fowl when he said, “We have to go out there and kill the Cardinals.”15
Finally, we have a Cub who gets us! Thank you, Carlos. We love you, too!
And from now, until we buckle it up in prime time on Tuesday night against Russ Ortiz and the hated Braves…ecstacy is the emotion of the hour in Chicago.16
Go Cubs! 17
Here are those annoying footnotes.
- Jesus, this has always been a thing, hasn’t it?
- Nine runs in two innings? Is Jeriome Robertson Mike Montgomery’s illegitimate father?
- I guess the Interwebs had no way of looking up how to spell things in 2003
- And that seemed like a good thing?
- I have no doubt that stupid shit said something just like that.
- Sammy was good. People forget this.
- DK57! Ugh. We hated that guy even before the playoffs.
- I don’t remember the origin of Jose Hernandez’s nickname, but I’m sure it was classy.
- If you weren’t there, it’s hard to explain how much we all wanted the Cubs to win so we’d see it, but also so Ron Santo would. He was a terrible announcer, but we loved him. Neither of those things ever changed.
- Oh, how little did I know what was coming.
- It really was. As disappointing as the rest of his run was, the 2003 regular season was Dusty’s masterpiece. He completely changed the attitude for good. He stood on the top step of the dugout in a Cardinals series and told Tony LaRussa he was going to kick his ass. He gave the Cubs a swagger they hadn’t had since Leo Durocher. Just like Leo he wore out his welcome, and just like Leo he checked out along the way, but for those few months in 2003, Dusty was the man. Then, he wasn’t.
- The Cubs were barely in the race when Hendry traded for E-ramis and Lofton, and it all turned around.
- Sammy was still productive, but he was leaking oil–or testosterone, by 2003. But he played well in the NLCS and until the current bunch started tearing ass through the league, his game one homer off Ugueth Urbina is the loudest Wrigley had ever been.
- It’s also hard to explain just how good Mark Prior was. He just turned 37. He should still be pitching in the big leagues. As much as Dusty deserved credit for the 2003 season, it came at a horrible cost. He ruined a guy who should have been an all-time great pitcher. For that, Dusty can fuck himself for eternity.
- And you wonder why I love Carlos so much. The Cubs had a five game series against the Cardinals wrapped around Labor Day that year. One of the games was the makeup of a rain delay. Carlos declared that the Cubs had to kill the Cardinals. The Cardinals got all huffy, especially Matt Morris who actually said he hoped the Astros would win the division because they were classier than the Cubs. The best part? The Cubs did kill the Cardinals. They won four of the five games, were a bad foul ball call away from winning all five (and the call managed to get Antonio Alfonseca and his 24 fingers and toes kicked out of the game while in the bullpen). For good measure, the Cubs even won one of the games after trailing 6-0. We’ve seen a lot of fun things the last three years, but those four days in September 2003 rank up there as an all-timer.
- Why was Russ Ortiz starting the opener on a staff with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine still in the rotation?
- They went…until they didn’t.