by Mike Maloney(MLB)
Posted on August 7, 2006, 8:44 PM
Being a Cubs fan isnít something I celebrate on a regular basis. Actually, sheer mention of it often causes enough ridicule for me to keep my mouth shut when it comes to the Lovable Losers. Itís gotten to a point where Iím really in no position to get angry at all the little jabs I take from my friends; I mean, really, how can you not make fun of someone whoís a fan of a team that hasnít won a World Series in 98 years? Whatís even worse, itís not like the Cubs havenít had their chances. There havenít been many in my lifetime, but if I ever feel like a good cry, I can always think back to 2003. I was in college at TCU at the time, and I remember vividly watching the Cubs choke away the six outs they needed to get in Game 6 to advance to the World Series, and then choke away Game 7 to allow the Florida Marlins to move on, while Cubs fans everywhere once again saw a season come to an end with nothing to show for it but prospects for next year.
Next year. Itís always next year, or next week, or next month. Itís never now. Even at the start of this year, the Cubs, on paper, had a team that could compete in the NL Central. The dominant Cardinals team of years past was gone, and in its place was a good but vulnerable team that would have to fight for a division title. The Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros and Milwaukee Brewers all looked to possibly contend, but again, there was no dominant team in the division. The Cubs had Carlos Zambrano, Greg Maddux, Mark Prior and Kerry Wood in the rotation. Derrek Lee was coming off a career year. Juan Pierre provided a huge upgrade both at center field and as a leadoff man. Michael Barrett was coming off another great year. Matt Murton ended the year strong in left field and looked to perform well in his first full big league season. Jacque Jones looked to fill the void left by Jeromy Burnitz. Ronny Cedeno looked to step up and fill the void at shortstop left by Nomar Garciaparra. It was a very promising team, a team that could play with just about anyone in the league if it lived up to its potential. See, thereís that damn optimism I was talking about.
Instead of getting all that, we get Mark Prior and Kerry Wood missing almost half the season before coming back to pitch for the Cubs. Then, after Kerry Wood makes 4 starts (Thatís $4.25 million per start for those of you counting at home), he goes back on the DL, and a torn rotator cuff ends his season. Mark Prior comes back and struggles, only finally returning into some semblance of the Mark Prior of old in the past week or so. In addition, we get Derrek Lee on the DL about 3 weeks into the season with a broken wrist due to a freak collision at first base. Lee came back around the All-Star break, played for a couple weeks, and is now back on the DL with inflammation in his wrist. There is no timetable for his return. Letís also mention the five rookie pitchers that have had to make starts this year due to injuries. Sean Marshall, the rookie with the most experience this year, is currently on the DL because of a strained left oblique. The Cubs have had a total of twelve pitchers make starts this year, while only four have started double digit games (Zambrano, 24, Maddux, 23, Marshall, 19, Marmol, 10). And yet, after all of this, I found myself just today thinking about how weíre still on the outskirts of wildcard contention, and how promising 2007 is looking. The optimism, it just wonít go away.
Despite a horrendous first half of baseball, the Cubs have somehow managed to regain a sense of team unity, and injuries or not, are playing like they should have been all year. A trade of Greg Maddux to the Dodgers brought Cesar Izturis to the Cubs, a trade that has completely solidified the Cubs infield in Derrek Lee (when healthy), Ronny Cedeno, Cesar Izturis, and Aramis Ramirez. The outfield of Matt Murton, Juan Pierre, and Jacque Jones has always had potential to be consistent if unspectacular, and lately theyíve all been producing, both in the field and at the plate. Michael Barrett has continued to have a stellar year, and the pitching that was once so shaky has found legs with Zambrano leading the team, and Rich Hill, Mark Prior, and Carlos Marmol following behind Carlos. The Cubs are a long shot to make any kind of run at the playoffs this year, I canít deny that. But to think that after such a horrible two months of baseball, the Cubs find themselves only ten games out of the wildcard is just absurd. If the Cubs continue their recent play for the next few weeks, they could very well find themselves in contention for the last thirty games of the season. And even if they donít, all of the things Iíve mentioned above bode very well for the Cubs come next season. Such is the curse of being a Cubs fan.
Somehow, when youíve written the Cubs off, given up hope, they find some way to show you a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, and the strands of hope are just dangling in front of you to grab hold of. And we always do. Weíre cautious about it, and accompany any kind of hope with plenty of sarcasm and criticism, so that when we are ultimately let down, at least a part of us saw it coming. But there we are, at every rise in the Cubs performance, ready to hope once again that the Cubs can finally get their act together and play good baseball, good enough to land them in the Fall Classic. And if they donít, well, thereís always next year, right?