[Editor's Note: For our 25th anniversary, we are occasionally publishing classic stories from the past. This one from April 1997 celebrates the year the Cubs set a record for baseball futility.]
For the first time in the 122-year history of the National Baseball League, a member team has started the season with 12 straight losses.
Guess who? The Chicago Cubs.
It has not been easy. It has required 21 errors, a team batting average of .177 and a pitching staff capable of giving up an average of five runs a game. The Cubs have been losing them at home and losing them on the road. They’ve kicked ‘em away in balmy climes and gone down swinging in the coldest arctic snows. They have even become a danger to themselves.
Last Sunday, while going for loss #10, free-swinging first baseman Brant Brown (a .143 hitter) stepped to the plate and smashed a line drive into the Cubs dugout sending all-star Ryne Sandberg to the hospital with 14 stitches in the head.
It has been going this way since before Opening Day. During spring training, Kevin Tapani, the Cub’s $8 million free agent pitcher, broke his arm and went on injured reserve for four months. Three weeks later, the Cubs opened the season in Miami on April Fool’s Day, losing a 4-2 stinker to the Marlins on four errors, five walks and a three-hit offensive performance. In the third game of the series, Cubs Golden Glove first baseman Mark Grace went out for two weeks with a pulled hamstring, and the Cubs added their third goose egg to the win column.
Admittedly, the Cubs first six games were on the road, against the Marlins and National League champion Atlanta Braves, but the team breezed through them, 0-6, accumulating along the way a hat trick of team records for worst hitting, worst fielding and worst pitching in the league.
On Opening Day in Chicago –– the day the team went to 0-7, tying their modern day record for frustrating starts set in 1962 –– 35,393 fans turned out in 29 degree weather (and a wind chill of one degree above zero) to see them boot another one to the Marlins. Jerry Holtzman, who covered the game for the Chicago Tribune, noted that the Cubs were actually ahead, 3-2, in the fifth after Sammy Sosa walked with the bases loaded.
“Had they had a more potent attack, they could have broken the game open and possibly knocked out Al Leiter,” he wrote. “Leiter was having control problems, and it an opportune moment for Shawon Dunston to take a few pitches, but Dunston couldn’t resist. He swung at Leiter’s first delivery and bounced into an inning-ending force play.”
It was all downhill from there. “The Cubs had nothing going thereafter and sent the minimum 12 batters to the plate in the last four innings,” Holtzman reported. “Included in this stretch was Dave Hansen’s seventh-inning pinch single. Making his Chicago bow, Hansen immediately was picked off by Charles Johnson, the Marlins’ Gold Glove catcher.”
Game #8 turned out to be a real yawner. The Marlin’s Alex Fernandez had a no-hitter going through 8 1/3 innings, only to see it spoiled by a dink single up the middle, the only hit the Cubs got in the 1-0 loss.
In the newspapers the next day, the jokes started coming. What do Michael Jackson and the Cubs have in common? They all wear a glove for no apparent reason. Knock-knock. Who’s there? Owen. Owen who? O-and-ten.
Even the new prelate of Chicago, Archbishop Francis E. George, was asked to comment on his favorite team. “I’m a Cubs fan by birth. It’s an act of faith, isn’t it?” he responded.
After Atlanta swept ‘em for losses #9 and #10 –– The Cubs actually had a shot in game #9. They went into the ninth inning tied 1-1, only to bring in their $4.5 million closer, Mel Rojas, who promptly coughed up a game-winning single –– it fell to the Colorado Rockies to put the Cubs into the record books.
The Rockies came into Wrigley Field with a batting order that already boasted 29 home runs. (The Cubs, by contrast, have only 31 total runs from any source.) The only National League team ever to drop 11 straight games at the start of a season was the 1884 Detroit Wolverines. The Cubs skimmed by that mark Tuesday when The Rockies clobbered them, 10-7, on five home runs, ten hits and seven walks.
Yesterday, the Cubs grabbed sole possession of the record (0-12) in a 4-0 loss that Cubs manager Jim Riggleman called “as poorly played a ballgame as you can play at this level.”
There’s talk among the boo-birds of a boycott of the Cubs, Wrigley Field, WGN and the Chicago Tribune, all of which are owned by The Tribune Company. Even on the Cubs chat line on the Trib website, the watchword is “Boycott.”
Jay Mariotti, in the rival Sun-Times, put it this way: “Boycott. It’s the only way you make Jim Dowdle and Andy McPhail ache, the only way you affect a haughty conglomerate . . . Make the Tribune reinvest profits into the baseball product – newspaper profits, entertainment division profits, profits that go to Allison Payne’s wardrobe and Tom Skilling’s weather do-dads on the ‘Nine O’Clock News.””
Now money may, indeed, be a part of the problem. What do you expect when you only spend $39 million a year on players? The White Sox will spend that just to keep Albert Belle’s bats corked. But the Cubs aren’t the Sox, and money isn’t the answer.
The Cubs have tradition on their side. It’s a losing tradition. A tradition of dumb trades, dumber management decisions, errant base-running, ignominious hitting and pitchers who go from the bullpen to the showers with barely a stop at the mound to rub dirt on their hands.
But it’s the kind of tradition that fortifies the soul and makes you believe, if we can sustain this momentum, This Year, The Cellar Is Ours!