So I was thinking the other day about the 1998 Cubs. Does anyone remember that team? What a story.
In 1997, the Cubs had lost 94 games. My first memory of watching baseball on TV comes from that season: The Cubs had just won their first game of the season, and as they got into what seemed to me a strangely self-congratulatory handshake line, I recall the endearingly hoarse, thick voice of Harry Caray, saying, ” Folks, you will never see a happier 1-14 team than this one.”
The following year, though, magic happened. In February, Caray died, and although it was sad to lose even a relatively decrepit legend, the team immediately rallied around his memory. By May 6, it was obvious that season would be special. In just his fifth big-league start, a ruddy-faced Texan named Kerry Wood struck out 20 batters in one game.
In June, a once stringy and perpetually raw outfielder named Sammy Sosa became a superstar. He hit 20 home runs in 30 days. For the first time, his almost limitless raw skills began to actualize in the batter’s box. The team began a serious push toward the playoffs.
In the end, of course, that team lost in three games of an NLDS matchup with Atlanta. But along the way, they won 90 games. Wood took home the NL Rookie of the Year, and Sosa nabbed the MVP. Rod Beck saved 47 games and Kevin Tapani, one of seemingly four or five mid-rotation starters the team used to wend its way through the dog days of summer, won 19 games. They eventually secured the Wild Card in a thrilling tie-breaker.
Flash forward. Since then, the Cubs have won three division titles. Sosa is long gone, and Wood is a goatee-sporting veteran set-up man. They won just 75 games last season, but in certain ways, they now resemble that ’98 Cubs team.
You know who was a quiet hero for that old Cubs team? Brant Brown. He hit .291/.348/.501 in 380 plate appearances that year. But of course, Cubs fans best remember Brant Brown for a fly ball that cost the Cubs a game that September. Ron Santo‘s agonized reaction to Brown dropping that fly will forever define Brown’s career.
Now Santo is gone. He died last December, at age 70. a legend among Cubs fans and the most beloved Cub who ever lived. And you know what? I don’t know why this Cubs team ought not to rally around his memory, too.
No one on this team is going to hit 66 home runs. Andrew Cashner will be a fine pitcher but not one in league with the phenom that was Wood in 1998. The Cubs of 2011 are a balanced bunch but they, like those 1998 Cubs, lack a true ace. Their first baseman plays great defense and really knows how to get on base. Their bullpen has electric arms aplenty.
Is this team as good as that one? No, probably not. But they are deeper. And as much as Harry Caray could really command a room, Ron Santo meant more to the Cubs than Caray ever could have done. There is plenty of motivation for this team. There is plenty of inspiration. They just need hunger. And if this song, coupled with the memory of Ron Santo, who so wanted this vision to become reality, does not stir a deep and aching hunger in these guys, then I give up.
Kerry Wood loved Santo. He loves Eddie Vedder too. Put Kerry Wood in front of this team in the clubhouse before Opening Day’s showdown with Pittsburgh. And then just watch.
Go Cubs go.