by John Ring
When a nice lady from the office of Major League Baseball gave us a call asking if we would like to have press passes to cover the League Championship series at Wrigley Field, our answer was pretty much a no-brainer.
Many of the games that were played in Chicago came on the worst possible days for us. Tuesday and Wednesday night games would be "old news" for a weekly newspaper that goes to print on Wednesday. So we had to retool our thoughts and how we would present articles that would still generate interest days later regardless of how the series turned out.
It was worth it. Wrigley Field had an element of electricity that has been lacking at the venerable old park for many years. While the ultimate outcome deflated virtually every living Cub fan and Steve Bartman became a household name, Wrigleyville shook as it never has for a few weeks.
Heres the last of our notes on the Cubs 2003 run in the post season from both Wrigley Field and Pro Player Stadium in Miami.
Far be it from us to disagree with the selection of an MVP for the Florida-Cubs series but our votes would have went to pitcher Josh Beckett. Not only did he have a dominating pitching performance in Game 5 (complete game two-hit shutout, 11 strikeouts) but his four-inning relief stint in Game 7 turned out to be crucial. It also showed how Florida Manager Jack McKeon showed no reluctance at all in using starters out of the bullpen in virtually any situation, a tactic Dusty Baker never once tried.
Sue Miller, a Cubs fan from Sacramento, California made the long trip east to watch the Cubs. She brought with her a poster that shes had Cub players sign for the last 20 years. Millers acquired over 100 autographs including Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Andrew Dawson. While Miller added to her collection this year, her main goal was to get Duster Bakers signature which she failed to get. "My favorite autograph is from Billy Williams," said Sue. "The hardest one to get was Sammy Sosa. I got his autograph when I spotted him sitting alone in the lobby of a San Francisco hotel. He was very kind, I got his autograph and I took a photo, too."
Of the 16 player and three manager interviews I did over the course of four games, two individuals stood out and both were Cubs. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez and first baseman Eric Karros were genuinely interesting to talk to. Karros was very spontaneous and didnt use canned answers. Gonzalez showed a true appreciation of Cub fans and the long history of the team. He also was quick to stand up and take accountability of his bad batting average for the season (.222) and any critical errors that he made.
Cub fans turned out en masse again on the road, this time to Miami instead of Atlanta. Tickets were easily available at Pro Player Stadium, just as they were at Turner Field.
Lost amid all the hoopla over Prior and Wood was the huge acquisition made by the Cubs for the trio of Pittsburgh Pirates during the season. Kenny Lofton, Bill Simon and Aramis Rodriguez all made contributions that propelled the Cubs past Atlanta and into a deciding 7th game against the Marlins.
Illinois politicians were even involved in the Cub Collapse. Senator Peter Fitzgerald lamented how his 11-year old son went to bed and cried after the Cubs lost Game 7. Senator Dick Durbin read a poem on the floor of the U.S. Senate on another historic Cub loss. And Governor Rod Blagojevich said in a statement on the controversy over Cub fan Steve Bartman that "Cub fans should not blame this fan for his stupid mistake."
While leaning up against the batting cage at Wrigley Field during batting practice, Tony Perez came by and worked with Juan Encarnarcion. Perez, who has been with the Marlin organization for 11 years, still harbors some ill feeling towards the Reds because of then boy-wonder GM Jim Bowden firing him as the Cincinnati manager in 1992. But Perez quickly broke into a smile when asked about his game-winning walk-off home run in the 1967 All-Star game. "Oh yeah, yeah. I got Catfish [Hunter] good on that one."
Cubs 2003 World Series T-shirts were being sold at the discounted rate of $5 per shirt after the Game 7 loss to Florida. Sales were not going very well.
What went wrong? Who was to blame? How did the Cubs blow a 3-1 lead to the Marlins? No one asked, but heres our take on it:
1. The Cubs bullpen wasnt ready when Prior tired in Game 6. Dusty Baker had 10 pitchers to get five outs and they either werent ready or unable to get the job done. Just five outs. And forget about the one that Bartman cost them.
2. Josh Becketts Game 5 gem was huge.
3. Becketts four-inning relief appearance in Game 7. It shut a potential slugfest down.
4. Confidence. After Prior lost, the Cubs didnt have it for Game 7. It just wasnt there.
Our Bartman take. He didnt cost the Cubs the pennant. But in that situation, with your team needing just five outs to get to the World Series and sitting in the first row by the foul line, you better get out of the way. Stay out of the way and forget that damn $10 baseball.