Kerry Wood Is a Yankee

The Yankees adding Kerry Wood to their bullpen greatly increases his chances of getting a World Series ring, though I don’t know that it does much to increase the Yankees’ already solid chances of doing so this year. Best of luck, Kerry. I wish this was your attempt at a 2nd ring, but . . . yeah.

I believed then. I believe now, he’ll finally be a champion, though no more responsible for it than Joe Girardi.

Maybe We’re the Problem

Hey, don’t blame me. That’s Pogo talkin’.

I haven’t performed a psychiatric evaluation on baseball fans across the country, but if I did I’d expect the results to show that Washington Nationals fans are among the happiest in all the land. Yes, the Nationals are in last place (despite being 2.5 games ahead of the 3rd place Cubs . . . divisions are stupid). But fans of the Nats are excited to have the most electric pitching prospect to reach the majors since . . . well, you know.

Cubs fans know what it’s like to be excited about a rookie pitcher (or two) with all-ever stuff and intergalactic potential and to be buoyed by the hope their rocket arms bring. We’re also looking at those hopes in the rear-view mirror. The team we’re looking at now inspires all the hope of a neoplastic skin lesion.

Looking back to the era of Prior and Wood leaves us with nothing but what if’s and if only’s, which aren’t in the least bit comforting, and the mourner’s favorite question: Why? We look for people to blame. Dusty Baker. Lou Piniella. Jim Hendry. Wood and Prior themselves. Steve Stone. Bartman, the goat, God, or anyone who believes in any of that. But what if we’re to blame?

Maybe fan expectations caused Wood to falter and Prior to deteriorate. Maybe large attendance turns good teams into bad ones. Maybe it’s bad luck to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” when Jim Belushi tells you to. It’s quite possible that latent racism lowers outfielder slugging percentage. Reading anything Pepin le Bref writes in the Chicago Tribune may induce fail-wreaking karma upon your favorite baseball team. Buying that Cubs’ jersey has been known to cause groin injuries . . . or it could be.

I don’t know. All I know is, the Cubs seemed doomed to fail no matter who trots out onto the field. The only constant I can see across the years is . . . us. So over the course of this week, I’ll be exploring all the different ways that being a Cubs fan hurts the team’s chances. Should be fun.

Day-Off Reflections: Retroactive Perfection

The perfect reaction to a terrible call.

I didn’t even know who Armando Galarraga was until last night. From the 15 seconds of video I’ve seen of him (80,000 times in the last 12 hours) he seems like the greatest pitcher and finest human being ever to grace the city of Detroit. He’s being lauded as the first pitcher ever to record a 28-out perfect game, because Jim Joyce blew the call on the would-be final out.

Of course, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to deprive Detroit of celebrating its first ever perfecto, the 21st in Major League history, and the third in less than a month if it hadn’t been for Austin Jackson’s convincing Willie Mays impersonation. And, yes, those last two links are to the same video. Jackson saved perfection a mere two plays before Joyce spread his arms outward and flew Galaragga’s dream into oblivion.

Baseball parlance holds that a pitcher throws a perfect game, but a lot of things—maybe an infinite assortment of things involving every person in attendance—have to align in impeccable harmony to bring a perfect game to fruition. There is usually some amazing defensive spectacle, such as Jackson’s back-to-the-infield basket grab or Dwayne Wise’s walls-be-damned miracle (MLB packaged both catches into one clip, conveniently enough). But the burden of perfection extends to the easiest tasks as well, such as an umpire’s routine semi-close out call at first or a third baseman’s ability to range to his left.

For those of you who remember Kerry Wood’s dominating tour de force, you know that what may have been the best pitched game in baseball history was two plays shy of perfect and one away from a no-hitter. A stray Kerry Wood fastball struck Craig Biggio in the 6th inning, but that’s not what broke up the perfect game. No, in truly undramatic fashion, Ricky Gutierrez singled to left on a ground ball just past Kevin Orie; in fact, it seemed like he got a glove on it. But the official scorer, the White-Sox-loving Bob Rosenberg, deemed the play exceeded the reasonable expectations of out-making and called it a hit rather than an error. To this day, I wonder what would have happened if that play was ruled an error. But I just can’t know.

Official scorers, though, don’t figure into perfect games because there can be no errors (hence the term perfect). This is what makes the not-so-instant replay discussions a tad silly. If video replay had been in effect and the replay booth could have informed Jim Joyce of his wrongness mere seconds after he breathed the word safe, he could have inhaled it right back in, changed the call, and allowed the celebrations to ensue straightaway. That would have been perfect.

Much to the ire of fans of Tigers, amazing feats, and general statistical justice, baseball’s officiating policy is far from perfect. Armando Galarraga needed it to be, but it failed him. That can’t be undone. Galarraga himself and all his fans can convince themselves that they really did see a perfect game, but they would have to overlook the glaring imperfection known as the human element. Instead of the 21st perfect game in MLB history, it’s the 237,992nd game to be marred by the flaws of everyone involved. Instead of Call your sons, call your daughters, it was Call the $*&*# batter OUT, *&@!-$^%&$#!!!


Even if Bud Selig overturns the call and rules the game technically perfect, the moment, the unforgettable calls, the leg-breaking celebrations and the unstained memories of how it all went down so perfectly, can never be brought back from the imaginary land of Should-have. You want to throw a perfect game, you need everyone to be perfect. You have to make perfect pitches. Your teammates have to make perfect plays (and score at least one run). The other team needs to be perfectly inept against your efforts. And an incredible amount of luck has to run perfectly in your favor as well.

And last, and in last night’s case least, the arbiters of the game need to fairly and accurately call every batter out. The errors of the umpires and administrators of the sport itself stubbornly remain major players in a game where they’re not welcome. I feel for Jim Joyce and the suffering he and his family have encountered because of one mistake, but he’s part of an umpiring union that refuses to progress in a sporting organization with no detectable interest in improving. That’s not a moment of weakness. That’s full-on commitment to imperfection.

Just imagine if Armando Galarraga played a sport in which everyone was dedicated (or at least moderately agreeable) to getting absolutely everything right. That (and a 1908 reprise) would be perfect.

Great Expectations

Aerosmith is a great band, but I’ve always felt that they peaked with their first hit, “Dream On.” Now, that’s a fine zenith, one that most bands would kill to reach, and a lot of my Aerosmith-loving friends would disagree with my assertion to begin with. But I know I’m not the only person to rank “Dream On” as Steven Tyler & Co.’s best song and one of the greatest in rock & roll history. You could argue they recorded a song or songs that were as good as “Dream On,” but I can’t be convinced that they’ve done anything that was better. (It was also the featured song of the above highlight reel ESPN played to close out 1999, which was, for me, the best of the uber-emotional musical sports montage genre . . . still gets me verklempt.)

Notice the price in the upper right of the ticket: $6.00

I bring this up now because of May 6 and May 7. You may recall a game that took place on May 6, 1998. Cubs. Astros. Ring a bell? You probably remember where you were when it happened. I do. I remember the telephone of my Chicago apartment ringing shortly after the game ended. It was my mom.

“Did you see the game?” she asked in a near shriek.

“Yeah,” I said calmly, followed by a pause for dramatic effect. “From the BLEACHERS!!!


I was supposed to have been at work. But for the third day in a row, I had been swinging a sledge hammer all day long, knocking down brick-plaster walls, picking up the scraps, and hauling away the wreckage. I was exhausted. So at about 11:30 I asked for the afternoon off. It just sounded like a good idea to catch a game. I thought Kerry Wood was pitching, and I really wanted to get to see him in person. One short El ride later, and I was at the Wrigley Field Box Office hoping, but skeptically, that there were still bleacher seats left. The attendant laughed off my skepticism.


“Oh yeah, we got plenty. We definitely have one.”


Score.


I took a seat in the left-center bleachers where there was plenty of room to stretch out. I was a bit worried by the clouds sweeping across the sky, some of them spilling a few drops here and there. It was one of those weird days when some of the ballpark was in sunshine while other seats were getting rained on. All in all, though, it was a beautiful day for me and 15,757 of my friends to enjoy.

Soon, a married couple of Astros fans (in town from Houston, they had seen the Astros win the night before) in Biggio jerseys sat in front of me. I felt a sting of anxiety when they smirked at Kerry’s first fastball, which sailed directly into Jerry Meals. But from that point on, the smirks were all mine.

Kerry’s fastball zipped so blindingly fast, there were times when I confused the smack of Sandy Martinez’s glove with the crack of a bat. Some of his pitches I genuinely could not see. But his breaking stuff? Normally I can’t tell a slider from a 2-seamer when I watch a game in person, but I could see Kerry’s slider swooping out of the strike zone like a Frisbee. I could see the fear in the Astros’ eyes, the wobble in their knees, and the swirly black thought bubble of frustration emanating from the tops of their heads.

As the game wore on, that crowd of less than 1/2 capacity exploded with ovations of glee. We were high-fiving. We were shouting. We were openly mocking the trespassers from the West who were outed by their Cardinals umbrellas when the rain got a bit too heavy for them. One guy to my left, wearing a newspaper for a rain hat, was announcing the strikeout totals with every batter. We were all grumbling slightly about Kevin Orie. We united as one in sheer joy over the crowning of baseball’s newest King of K’s.

After 2 hours and 19 minutes, we went home. Unbelievable. Unstoppable. Unequivocal.

Unrepeatable.

In the career of Kerry Lee Wood, the apex of his achievements occurred in his fifth start as a major leaguer. It was quite possibly the greatest display of pitching in the history of baseball. He could never improve upon that. Nobody could. I find it suddenly and incredibly sad to think that Kerry Wood’s finest moment, the most dramatic tear-jerking, goosebump-inducing highlight, came just a few steps into his journey as a pro.

It’s not exactly the same situation, but I’d hate for something similar to befall Starlin Castro. On May 7, 2010, he took the baseball world by storm, yet another 20-year-old Cub to set the standard for big-splash achievements. Starlin drove in 6 runs, 3 on a homer in his very first appearance at a big-league plate, and another 3 on a triple showcasing his yes-we-should-be-excited-about-this-kid speed. No player had ever begun his career with a 6-RBI game. Ever. How can Castro improve on that?

Tonight, Starlin has a chance to impress the Wrigley faithful as he debuts in a building that, according to Ozzie Guillen, he’s not even old enough to attend. The kid needs McLovin to help him buy beer, but 40,000 screaming fans are relying on him to deliver them a champion—you know, just another thing that hasn’t happened in over a century.

UPDATE: Starlin Castro went 0-2 with 2 walks and 3 errors. He got booed after the last one. Lou knew Starlin would be learning on the fly, but fans lack the patience for that. They want the prodigy but not the child. Starlin’s first lesson: Wrigley Field is infested with jerks, and the real cockroaches like to come out at night.

Worst Move of the Season Nominee: Bullpen Design & Management

I don’t know a single Cub fan who was excited about any of Jim Hendry’s offseason decisions, particularly his reconstruction of the bullpen. Kerry Wood was a (frustrating at times) fan favorite and a lifetime Cub who was allegedly willing to give the Cubs a hometown free-agent discount. Out of the kindness of his heart, Jim Hendry refused to entertain the offer. Kerry struggled with the Indians, but he, like DeRosa, may have been playing through a broken heart [cue the violins . . . and scene]. Michael Wuertz was dealt to the A’s for yet-to-be-called-upon prospects, a move I consider to be one of the worst deals of the offseason. He shined in the Oakland bullpen. Bob Howry was mercifully allowed to walk. Hendry held on to Neal Cotts.

So, in the poor economy that was the Cubs in ownership transition, Hendry traded Ronny Cedeno ($822,500) and Garrett Olson (acquired in the Pie deal) for Aaron Heilman ($1.625 million). He traded Jose Ceda ($dirt) for Kevin Gregg ($4.2 million). This was during the same offseason in which Hendry needed to trade Mark DeRosa ($5.5 million) to save money.

Still, with Marmol looking like the closer of today, I was willing to live with the new-look bullpen. I even suggested Heilman would make a better 5th starter than a reliever. But everything kind of went to pot in spring training. Not only did Heilman miss out on the starter job, so did Chad Gaudin and Jeff Samardzija . . . and they were left out of the bullpen plans too. Gaudin was released and Spellczech went to Iowa. And Marmol looked awful as a closer. He looked to be an ajar-er at best. Gregg landed the closer job and proceeded to hold onto it long enough to ruin all our lives while Marmol did his best to induce cardiac arrest in lesser innings.

The whole ordeal, all season long, was collectively one of the worst moves of the year. Was it the worst? No.

Setting aside ERAs and WHIPs, let’s look at the results. The Cubs finished 5th in the National League in save percentage. A mere 4 blown saves separate them from the Cardinal pen, who finished 2nd. The Cubs were, however, 10th in save opportunities. This, fellow Cub fans, is what made Heilman, Marmol, and Gregg look like the three Suckateers. With minimal opportunities, failures felt all the more painful.

I’m not letting Hendry or Lou off the hook here. I’m just saying, the moves that weakened this offseason were far more egregious than the bullpen fiasco. It’s also a slight reason for hope if Hendry doesn’t wind up overhauling the pen again this year. With an offensive upgrade, we just might be okay.

Other Nominees:
Firing Gerald Perry
Trading Mark DeRosa
Incessant Lineup Changes
Milton Being Milton

The 2009 Cubs: One Doodle That Can’t Be Undid

Some Cub fans would like to give the last offseason the Mark McGwire treatment and just leave the past in the past. Others would like to see every move Jim Hendry made go up in a mushroom cloud. Others are still holding out hope this year will have a happy ending.

I know we can’t turn back time. I know this season is all but mathematically over. But I still think we can at least try to learn from our mistakes. (Yes, I know we didn’t make the mistakes and that Jim Hendry needs to do the learning in this scenario, but maybe this will at least  be fodder for some good awkward questions to ask at Cubs Convention 2010.) Hendry made a whole pile of moves after the 2009 Dodger sweep, and I want to know which one has hurt the Cubs the most.

I had my opinions, but before sharing them with the world of sorrows that is Cubdom, I was curious what other people thought. I asked my #Cubs tweeps what single move they would undo if they could. Jmkobus spoke for millions who would have never signed Bradley, opting instead for Adam Dunn, the Knight of Wrigley. Pbernicchi would be the leader of the “undo the DeRosa trade” party. Ehudmh posited that if he could reverse Hendry’s initial pursuit of Milton Bradley, he could undo every other bad move the Cubs made. TheCubsInHaiku just wishes (in 17 syllables) that Hendry would have quit.

The tragic fact of the matter is that all of those arguments are better ideas than what’s played out in reality in 2009. Here’s a list of all of the moves since last October that involved signing new contracts, welcoming new players, or saying goodbye to former Cubs with a look at the amount of damage inflicted by each:

10.29.2008 3B Casey McGehee claimed off waivers by Brewers. His 13 HR and 50 RBI make this a pretty damaging move considering Aramis Ramirez’s prolonged injury this year, but somewhat unpredictable. Cubs Richter Scale: 3.5

11.13.2008 Traded RHP Jose Ceda to the Marlins for Kevin Gregg. The opposition is slugging .436 against Kevin Gregg. The Cubs only have 3 hitters with a slugging percentage that high. Even if Jose Ceda never pitches again (and he hasn’t, since the deal) this trade hurt the Cubs big time. Cubs Richter Scale: 7.5

11.18.2008 Re-signed Ryan Dempster to a 4-year, $52-million contract. Given the length of the deal, this could get worse, but I wouldn’t call Demp’s numbers in 2009 damaging. Cubs Richter Scale: 0.5

12.11.2008 Bought RHP David Patton from the Reds for cash. This is one move (let’s see if there are more) that actually helped the Cubs. David Patton has been pretty decent. Cubs Richter Scale: -0.5

12.12.2008 Signed LHP Neal Cotts, RHP Chad Gaudin, and OF Reed Johnson to 1-year contracts. Setting aside Reed, who is great to have on the team, injured or not, the Cotts and Gaudin signings didn’t really work out so good. Cotts especially had a disastrous time with the big-league club, albeit limited. Cubs Richter Scale: 3.5

12.16.2008 Signed free agent Joey Gathright to a one-year contract. He left town quicker than you can say “car-jumping,” in a later move. Cubs Richter Scale: 0.085

12.31.2008 Traded Mark DeRosa to Cleveland in exchange for pitchers Jeff Stevens, Chris Archer, and John Gaub. The Cubs have struggled to find run production anywhere in the lineup. 2B has been an offensive black hole. When Ramirez was out, 3B produced similar suction. The pitching prospects might help down the road, but this season, only Stevens has helped at all. What’s worse, DeRosa has made the division-leading Cardinals that much better. This one hurts more the longer the season goes on, and nobody but nobody liked this deal at the time it was made. Cubs Richter Scale: 9

12.31.2008 Signed POC Aaron Miles to a 2-year contract. Yes, the same day the DeRosa deal went down, Hendry also signed the human out. The New Year’s Eve drinking started plenty early in the Hendry house. This has to go down as the single worst day of the offseason. Aaron Miles was sketched in as a possible everyday starter on the Cubs roster. He’s hitting .174. In the 2nd half, he’s hitting .038. The Cubs are paying him two and a half million bucks to do that. Cubs Richter Scale: 5 (but considering how tiny Aaron Miles is, that’s a tremendous shock)

1.5.2009 Signed LHP Bill White (aka Guillermo Blanco) to a minor league deal. I put this in here only for the Blanco joke. Cubs Richter Scale: NA

1.6.2009 Traded RHP Jason Marquis to the Rockies for RHP Luis Viscaino. In the baseball sense, this move helped the Rockies immensely. He has 14 wins (and has reached double-digit win totals for 6 years running) and a 3.75 ERA. From the business side, the Cubs wound up paying Luis Viscaino a few million bucks to get released by every team in baseball. Since financial restrictions were such a pressing factor in the offseason, it would have helped to gain a productive salary instead. While I don’t think the Cubs have been hurt all that much by not having him, the Rockies are leading the Wild Card race, so . . . that hurts. Cubs Richter Scale: 2.5

1.8.2009 Signed Milton Bradley to a 3-year, incentive-laden contract worth up to $30 million. I’ve said before that Cub fans put too much blame on Bradley for the 2009 debacle. It is pretty standard for newly signed veterans (Alfonso Soriano, Jacque Jones, Derrek Lee, Moises Alou) to struggle in their first half-season at Wrigley. Since then, Bradley has been productive and healthy. Some chastise him for the distraction he has been, but I don’t see how anything that distracts attention away from this team could be viewed as a bad thing. Bottom line: if a clubhouse distraction is the reason you’re losing, you suck. Yes, the Cubs did commit a lot of money to Bradley, but not so much that they couldn’t have kept DeRosa and just not traded for Kevin Gregg or signed Aaron Miles. Cubs Richter Scale: -2.0 Yes. That’s right. I’m saying he’s helped the Cubs. Deal with it.

1.18.2009 Traded Felix Pie to the Orioles for pitchers Garrett Olson and Henry Williiamson. Painful, but hardly damaging for this season. Although it did pave the way for their next move. Cubs Richter Scale: Owie

1.28.2009 Traded Garrett Olson and Ronny Cedeno to the Mariners for Aaron Heilman. I feel like Heilman has gotten some bad breaks and that he would be better as a starting pitcher than a reliever. But he hasn’t provided much relief to Cub fans. He has a WHIP of 1.5, an ERA of 4.35, and opponents are slugging .422 off of him. I view him as the replacement for Bobby Howry, and he’s been precisely that. Not good. Cubs Richter Scale: 6.5

1.30.2009 Signed Paul Bako to a 1-year contract. He didn’t make the team. Cubs Richter Scale: —

2.2.2009 Traded Rich Hill to the Orioles for PTBN and traded Michael Wuertz to the A’s for prospects Richie Robnett and Justin Sellers. Rich Hill is struggling. But Michael Wuertz has a 3.09 ERA, a 1.03 WHIP, and a .205 batting average against for the A’s. I always liked Wuertz, even though he struggled with his control (his strikeout to walk ratio is up to 4.3 now, though). Given the struggles of the Cub bullpen, this oft overlooked deal deserves more attention. Cubs Richter Scale: 7.4


Aside from minor league deals and other insignificant moves, that’s the sum total of the 2009 Cubs offseason. Now, you might be wondering about letting Henry Blanco and Kerry Wood walk away, but in my opinion A) those aren’t really moves, they’re just moves that didn’t get made; and B) neither one would have been a whole lot of help to this Cubs team. Koyie Hill is a white Hank White. Kevin Gregg has been Kerry without the blisters.

So, yeah, if I could undo one move, I have to admit it would be the DeRosa trade. If the Cubs had not acquired Kevin Gregg, Aaron Miles, and Aaron Heilman, we still could have afforded Milton Bradley.  If we’ve learned nothing else, it’s that we should take away Jim Hendry’s cell phone this New Year’s Eve.

NOTE: If you’re on Twitter, let your displeasure be heard (and read) by clicking the “tweets” box to the left.

Throw Out the Stats: Wood, DeRosa Brought Fun


Forget about any links to baseball-reference. Statistics really don’t help understand the loss we as fans have felt since Mark DeRosa and Kerry Wood were sent packing unceremoniously, Wood via free agency, DeRosa via a trade, but both to the Cleveland Indians.

I have argued against the statistical impact of both players (DeRosa is an average hitter who, for all his versatility, can play only one position at a time; Kerry is a constant injury risk whose ERA can soar faster than you can say “persisting blister problem”). But the difference both players made struck me in the 8th inning of yesterday’s come-from-behind win over the Sox (right about the time Soto was blasting a spheroid into orbit over Scotty Pods and company).
Both guys were fun.
At the moment the Cubs tied the game against the Sox, I realized that I could live with a loss because I had my fun. Losing is one thing. Losing a heartbreaker is worse. But losing without scoring more than a run or two, day after day—that’s just brutal. I’ve arrived at the point at which, with runners on 1st and 3rd and no outs, I cheer for a double play, just to see a Cub cross home plate.
But DeRosa and Wood, win or lose, provided lots of fun. The stats might not be overwhelming, but the memories of DeRosa’s clutch hits are myriad and precious. And Kerry Wood’s style, when he was on, is something I’ll tell my grandkids about. He could get lefthanders to swing at sliders that wound up hitting them in the knees. And I was among the 15,000+ who saw him K 2o Astros ($6 for a seat in the bleachers . . . don’t get me started).
Baseball games run about 3 hours. To make it through, you need to get excited a few times. I’ve yet to see a stat that can track the WOW factor, but DeRosa and Wood were among the Cub leaders in WOW. I’m glad they’re coming back to Wrigley this weekend. I just hope they leave a little bit of fun behind when they go.

My Cubs Bio

I’m pretty sure I’m not in the Cubs media guide, but if I were, here’s what I’d hope they’d say about me:

I’m not the biggest Cubs fan in the world. I don’t collect memorabilia. I’m not a season ticket holder. I’ve never been to spring training. 

But I will say that visiting Wrigley Field for the first time may have been the defining moment of my life. It feels like home. The Cubs feel like family. And every game feels like yet another family meal that I’m not allowed to miss. 

I don’t cheer for the Cubs because I want to, I do it because I believe I was born this way and I don’t know what else to do. I will never give up on the Cubs. I will never be done with them. 

I’ve had “Go Cubs Go” in my head since 1984. 

I pound on things when the Cubs lose. 

I was among the 15,000 fans at the Kerry Wood game. I sat in the bleachers, a ticket for which I paid $6. 

I still like Sammy Sosa. 

I’m not an eternal optimist, but I never get all that down on the team. I don’t like criticizing the manager or the management. I prefer to try to understand them and what they’re doing. Except for Larry Himes. He was an ass. 

At some point every year I allow myself to imagine what I would do if the Cubs won the World Series. At some point later I always wonder if that’s what jinxed them. 

Some part of me wants the Cubs to tank so we can return to the days when a spring bleacher ticket cost $6 and only 15,000 people would come to a game where the starter was some unproven gangling rookie. 

I will miss Kerry Wood, but I won’t miss people calling him “Woods.” 

I knew I could trust Tony on “24” because he drank out of a Cubs mug. 

I love white flags, blue W’s, green ivy, and crooked yellow numbers on the bottom row of the scoreboard. 

I believe guest conductors should always start the 7th inning stretch with no other words than, “Alright, let me hear ya. A one, a two, a three. . . .” 

I hate the Cardinals. Go Cubs.