Tag Archives: Chicago Cubs

Recalling the Cubs last NLCS Game Six 

Saturday could be a historic night in Chicago – to put it mildly. Last night the Chicago Cubs defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers 8-4 to take a 3-2 lead in the best of seven National League Championship Series. The series moves to Wrigley Field on Saturday with the Cubs needing one win to do the unthinkable – reach the World Series for the first time since 1945 (the franchise has not won the World Series since 1908 – which must be a world record barren spell never mind a record in US sport.) The atmosphere at Wrigley will be incredible the tension unbelievable. But the Cubs and their fans will know that recent history is against them…

October 2003 was a strange time. Italian Serie A men’s team Perugia were trying to sign a woman (no seriously), WWE chairman Mr McMahon fought his own daughter Stephanie in a father v daughter “I Quit” match (no seriously), and UK Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith was overthrown by his party before he could lead it in a General Election (a first in post war UK politics). The Cubs meanwhile were 3-2 up in the 2003 National League Championship Series against the Florida – now Miami – Marlins needing one win to get to the World Series – the same position as they are in right now. What happened next has gone into infamy. 

For seven innings all went well. The Cubs were 2-0 up in the middle of the seventh with Mark Prior showing why he had been the Cubs best pitcher all year. During the seventh-inning stretch Chicago celebrity – and ironically a Chicago White Sox fan – Bernie Mac sung “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” but instead of singing “Let’s Root for the Cubbies” he sung “Let’s Root for the Champs”. Some Cubs fans feared that he was tempting fate but an insurance run in the bottom of the seventh and an out at the start of the eighth left the Cubs five outs away from the World Series. Juan Pierre then hit a double for the Marlins but still no trouble right…

There wasn’t no trouble. In fact there was a lot of trouble. And it started with one of the most infamous plays in baseball. Batter Luis Castillo hit a foul ball to the left field wall. Cubs fielder Moises Alou went for the ball…but unfortunately Cubs fan Steve Bartman stuck out his hand and deflected the ball away from Alou. This meant it counted as a foul not an out and Castillo continued his at bat. Still no problem. Well they wouldn’t have been if Alou didn’t show his frustration at not getting the catch.

And after that play came one of the most spectacular implosions in all of sport never mind baseball. Prior’s next pitch to Castillo was a wild pitch that walked Castillo and let Pierre go to third. Ivan Rodriguez then hit an RBI single to put the Marlins first run on the board. Still no problem. Future MVP Miguel Cabrera then ground the ball to short stop Alex Gonzalez which shouldould have produced at least one out and probably an inning ending double play. Instead he fumbled it and everyone was safe leaving the bases loaded.

Now the wheels really came off. Here is how the rest of the horror show of an inning unfolded: 

Derrek Lee hit a two RBI double tying the game and chasing Prior from the mound.

New pitcher Kyle Farnsworth issues an intentional walk.

A sacrifice fly that gave the Marlins the lead and put Prior in line for the loss. 

Another intentional walk which loaded the bases yet again. 

A three RBI double from Mike Mordecai that cleared the bases and blew the game open putting the Marlins 7-3 up and ending Farnsworth’s night. 

Pierre gets his second hit of the inning off new pitcher Mike Remlinger to score Mordecai and make it 8-3.

And finally Castillo who could have been the second out of the inning in his first at bat pops out to end the inning from hell. The score went from 3-0 Cubs to 8-3 Marlins.

And the series was to all practical purposes over. The shell shocked Cubs still had six outs left but couldn’t score. The series was tied 3-3 and there was a seventh game at Wrigley with Cubs second best pitcher Kerry Wood pitching but I never thought the Cubs would win. And although they went 5-3 up after being 0-3 down – including a two run homer from pitcher Wood – they still lost not to my surprise 9-6. The dream was over. Again. 

Obviously the press and fans in Chicago were not happy. So who do you blame? The logical thing would be to blame the whole team since they were 3-1 up but collapsed. You could blame Prior for the wild pitch, Gonzalez for the error, Farnsworth for not getting any outs apart from the sac fly that was a still a RBI. The whole team lost their bottle. 

Of course they blamed none of those. They blamed Bartman. Even though the ESPN programme “Catching Hell”showed plenty of other fans were sticking their hands out too. Even though the Cubs subsequently had chances to get out of the inning poor Bartman copped the flack. Once the fans found out who had caught the ball – he was lucky Wrigley did not have a Jumbotron otherwise it would have happened much quicker than it did – the fans at Wrigley chanted “Asshole” at him and pointed him out. He had to be escorted from the park along with his two friends and he was pelted with debris and had beer over him. It was ugly and it was shameful. Florida Governer Jeb Bush – brother of future US President George W Bush – offered him asylum while Illinois Governer Rob Blagojevic said if Barman ever committed a crime he would not get a pardon from this Governer (ironically Blagojevic was inpeached on corruption charges and forced to resign – poetic justice). It was not good. The only people who defended Bartman were the 13-14 year old boys in the Little League team the Renegades that he coached. 

Apart from the Renegades the only man who came out of this mess with any credit was Bartman himself. He declined interviews rewards from Marlins fans and offers of $25000 for an autograph and $100000 to appear in a Super Bowl commercial. He apologised (though he shouldn’t have) didn’t make any money out of his “error” and conducted himself with dignity. Sadly but understandably he has never been to Wrigley Field since. But he responded far more better than the fans who should have blamed the players since it was their job to win the game and it was them who lost their bottle so spectacularly. 

So can the 2016 Cubs succeed where the 2003 team failed? It’s likely but not a certainty. The two Dodger starting pitchers that they will face – the world’s best pitcher Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill – both helped to shut out the Cubs in Games two and three. And then they have the curse of 1908 to deal with. But this is a far better team than 2003.They had the best record in the Majors this year. I suspect they will hold their nerve but it will be fun to find out (unless you’re a Cubs fan).

I have one wish. If the Cubs beat the Dodgers then go on to beat the Cleveland Indians – who themselves have not won the World Series since 1948 – to win the World Series I hope Steve Bartman will turn up at Wrigley at the start of next year just like the Red Sox 1986 scapegoat Bill Buckner turned up at Fenway Park at the start of the 2008 season. The Cubs 2003 collapse was not Steve Bartman’s fault. He does not owe Chicago anything. Instead Chicago owes him. Maybe if the Cubs succeed where they failed in 2003 – or even better win the World Series – the rapprochement between Bartman and the city of Chicago can begin. I certainly hope so.

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Test cricket finally joins the 21st century

History will be made at the Adelaide Oval on Friday when the third cricket Test between Australia and New Zealand begins. The match will be played under floodlights with a pink ball instead of the traditional red ball. It will be the first day/night Test match in the history of Test cricket and the only question for most people is: Why has it taken so long?

It will not surprise people to learn that cricket lags behind other sports. The first floodlit baseball match took place on May 24 1935 when the Cincinnati Reds played the Philadelphia Phillies at Crosley Field. Floodlit baseball is now so common it is taken for granted. The last All Star game not played under floodlights was 1969 – and that was only because of rain on the previous evening – while the last World Series game not played under floodlights was Game Six of the 1986 series. The Cubs were the last non expansion franchise to play a home game under floodlights – in 1988. (Even to this day the Cubs are the only franchise to play home games on Friday afternoons rather than Friday evenings).

British sport of course lagged behind. Arsenal’s progressive manager Herbert Chapman installed floodlights in the West Stand at Highbury in the 1930s but the dinosaurs of the English Football League refused to sanction their use for competitive games. It was not until the 1950s that the League relented and the first floodlit Football League game took place on February 22 1956 when Portsmouth hosted Newcastle United. Again like baseball it is hard to imagine football not being played under floodlights.

Cricket was even later. The first day/night cricket match was literally an accident. In 1977 Kerry Packer signed 35 of the world’s best players for his World Series Cricket (WSC).The Australian authorities banned him from using their grounds so he had to use Australian Rules Football grounds which had floodlights. As WSC was struggling to attract crowds and because it would offer Packer – who owned the Channel Nine Network in Australia – a prime time TV audience on December 14 1977 the world’s first day/night cricket match took place. But if the establishment had let Packer use their grounds it could not have happened. Ironically it was day/night cricket that led to WSC becoming a success and forced the Australian authorities to capitulate to Packer. The first official day/night cricket match in Australia took place on 27 November 1979 when Australia played West Indies. Day/night matches gradually spread round the world but needless to say it took ages to reach England – until July 6 2000 to be exact.

And now it is Test cricket’s turn. But why has it taken so long? Fear basically. People fear it would be harder to see the ball in the dark. They have not been able to find a white ball that can last 80 overs (unlike the 50 overs needed for a one day international) which is why they are using a pink ball. Also it is the fear of change that affects cricket generally. Even a progressive player like Kevin Pietersen has come out against the idea saying that it risks “messing with the greatness” of Test cricket and that “Wickets change at night”.

Apart from the fact that his views show that current and former players should not be allowed to run a sport as they are far too conservative and stuck in the past there is a contradiction in Pietersen’s argument. Because in Test cricket the wicket is meant to change and one of the complaints about modern Test cricket is that the wickets do not change over the five days. Remember that this is a sport that until 1980 in the UK was played on uncovered pitches   which were exposed to rain and when that happened batting became a lottery (the “sticky dog”). Even today in the UK batting conditions vary depending on the weather. It is easier to bat in sunshine rather than cloud because the latter is reckoned to help the ball move about. Cricket is also the only sport where the toss of a coin can decide a result. If a pitch starts easy to bat on and gets worse it is a big advantage to win the toss and bat first. England captains from Len Hutton (1954) to Mike Denness (1975) and more recently Nasser Hussain (2002) have all been criticised heavily for making the wrong decision on winning the toss. This would not happen in football or rugby.

The point being of course that even if wickets do change at night as Pietersen suggests using fairness is a dodgy argument in a game so dependant on varying pitch and weather conditions. Besides in a five day/night match it is highly likely that both teams will bat at night which would even the game up.

But there is one fundamental reason why the day/night experiment is worth trying. Everywhere outside England attendences at Test cricket are going through the floor. Hardly surprising when most Test cricket takes place during the day and on weekdays when people are at work. Other countries also don’t seem to have the culture of “taking a day off work to watch the cricket and have a drink” that we in the UK have.

The fundamental truth is that sport needs to be staged when people are available to watch it – either live at the ground or on TV. It is not rocket science. As Rob Steen put it (in the article “And Lord’s said “Let There Be Lights””…in “Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack 1998, page 31) “Nothing can match the cultural significance of the pylon. Here is sport freed from the tyrannies of the working day”.

And football, rugby, baseball – even tennis in some countries – have freed themselves from the tyranny of the working day. Steen wrote that “the advent of Tests with supper intervals cannot be far away”. It shows how conservative Test cricket is that it has taken seventeen years for Steen’s prediction to come true. Now whether day/night Test cricket boosts attendences we will have to wait and see. But surely putting it on when people can see it at least gives it a chance. Despite what the likes of Pietersen thinks it is a case of “adapt or die”. Day/night Test cricket may not save the sport. But at least it gives it a chance….

It is no certainly that the Cubs’ misery will end

There was no baseball played yesterday which is unusual. This is because on Wednesday night the New York Mets completed a four game sweep of the Chicago Cubs to book a berth in their first World Series since losing to the Yankees back in 2000. The result meant the continuation of what must be the longest sporting drought not just in US sport but in world sport. The fact is that the Chicago Cubs have still not won the World Series since 1908 – that is a staggering 39,089 days ago. They have not even reached the World Series since losing to the Tigers in 1945. The “Cubbies” are still the laughing stock of US sport.

But – unlike their disastrous collapse against the Marlins in 2003 in their last appearance in the NLCS – there is no gloom and doom on the North side of Chicago. No scapegoats like poor Steve Bartman who was blamed for their 2003 implosion. Instead there is excitement among the fans at Wrigley that the future will bring victories in the NLCS and perhaps even the elusive World Series win that would shut up all of the US – especially St Louis Cardinals fans who have seen their franchise win eleven World Series since the Cubs last won one. But is the Cubs’ fans optimism justified?

At first glance yes. The Cubs have an exciting crop of young position players like Javier Baez, NL rookie of the year favourite Kris Bryant, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler. Not one of these seven position players will be older than 26 when the new season starts next April. The Cubs were widely considered to have reached this postseason ahead of schedule. If they can add another experienced pitcher to back up Jon Lester and possible Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and the young guns continue to mature the Cubs could go at least one better in 2016.

But it is not a sinecure. First of all history is against them. The 2015 Cubs are the eighth team to be swept in either an AL or NLCS since the Championship Series became a best of seven in 1985. The others being the 2014 Orioles, the 2012 Yankees, the 2007 Diamondbacks, the 2006 Athletics,  the 1995 Reds, and the 1990 and 1988 Red Sox. Of those franchises none made the postseason the next year and only the Red Sox have won the World Series since and that took them until 2004. In fact none of the other teams have even reached the Championship Series since they were swept.

Of course history is no guide but the Cubs have no guarantee of future success. They reached the postseason despite being third in their division this year and since neither the Cardinals or the Pirates are going anywhere in the immediate future there is no guarantee that they won’t at best have to go through the one game play off again and at worst not make the postseason. Also the new NL champions the Mets (it feels strange writing this) will still have the dominant pitching staff that stymied the Cubs in this year’s NLCS. The Dodgers flopped in the postseason again and yesterday parted company with manager Don Mattingly but “The Best Team Money Can Buy” (to quote the title of an excellent book about the Dodgers by Molly Knight) will be contenders again. Nor should we forget that 2016 will be an even numbered year and we all know that the Giants win the National League – and indeed the World Series – in even numbered years!

But the biggest pressure on the Cubs could come from within. This year the Cubs fans were not expecting to do so well. They had finished last in the NL Central and despite the signing of Lester in the off season the Cubs fans were hoping for signs of progress rather than a play off run.

That will not be the case in 2016. The fans at Wrigley will expect at least a repeat of this year’s run or even better – especially if they acquire one of the elite free agent pitchers like David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmerman or Zack Greinke if he opts for free agency. If they did acquire one of those names the hype will increase. It will start during spring training and increase until the season starts.

My point is this year the Cubs youngsters were able to play without fear as the fans were just happy that they were competing (Cubs fans on Twitter were using the hashtag  “We are Good” almost as if they were trying to convince themselves that they were). But now they know – and the rest of baseball knows. Cubs fans will expect this team to break the longest sequence of failure in sport. But sport has a history of “Golden Generations” that do not deliver trophies as any England football fan will tell you. The pressure on this young team will be huge. Just because the Cubs have a talented generation of players is no guarantee that they will end over a hundred years of misery next year – or even at all.

Change post season rules to stop injustice

I spotted an article on Fox Sports.com saying that the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates Neal Huntingdon is not as big a fan of the second wild card rule in Major league Baseball (MLB) as he was when it was introduced back in 2012. Hardly surprising as if the MLB season ended today his franchise would be playing in the single elimination wild card game for the third year in a row. Whereas in 2013 and if this season ended now his franchise would be straight into a best of five Division Series (last year they were tied with the Giants so under the old rules they would have had a one game play off for the wild card which happened anyway) instead they will face a winner take all game – what Fox Sports called “a crap shoot” – which if the season ended now would be at home to the Chicago Cubs.

Now you might expect a guy whose team – the Texas Rangers –  was a victim of the one game play off to have sympathy with Huntingdon but I don’t. This is partly because in 2012 we were tied with the Orioles in the wild card race so we would have had to play them in a one off game for the wild card under the old rules anyway. Secondly any team who only had to win one of its last three games to win the division and can’t even do that does not deserve much sympathy. While I would tweak the system so that the wild card game becomes a best two out of three series – second wild card hosts game 1 first wild card hosts game 2 and 3 – the second wild card is a great idea that makes winning the division more important. For example my team have the second wild card but we are only 2 games behind the Astros in the AL West race and I would far rather win that than take my chances in a wild card game – even though after being the worst team in the AL last year any post season action would be a fantastic achievement – especially with our ace Yu Darvish having not thrown a pitch all season.

But there could be an injustice in the MLB post season this year – and the victims would not be the Pirates but the NL Central leaders – with the best record in MLB – the St Louis Cardinals. If the season ended today the three NL Division winners would be the Cardinals (won 87 lost 50) the Los Angeles Dodgers (79-58) and the New York Mets (76-61). The wild card game as mentioned above would be the Pirates (81-55) v the Cubs (79-57).

So far so straightforward. It is what happens next that in my opinion is the injustice. If the post season started today the NL Division series would be the Cardinals v the Pirates/Cubs and the Dodgers v the Mets. This is because the team with the best record gets the wild card. But here is the anomaly. As – if the season ended now –  whoever won the wild card would have the second best record in the League. The Cardinals reward for having the best record in the League would be to play the team with the second best record in the League. How is that fair?

Pre 2012 this would not have happened because the team with the best record did not play the wild card if the latter came from the same division. If that was still the case if the season ended now the NL Division series would be Cardinals v Mets and Dodgers v Pirates/Cubs – which to my mind is far fairer on the Cardinals who get the post season qualifier with the fewest wins  – which is surely what the team with the best record in the League deserves. If the current system applied pre 2012 the classic Yankees-Red Sox American League Division Series of 2003-4 would not have happened as they would have met in the Division Series instead as the Red Sox were the wild card.

But that system was also unfair because  – again – it sometimes meant the team with the best record did not meet the team with the worst in the Division Series. An example was in 2004 when the Cardinals were victims again. The wild card team – the Astros – were the fourth ranked of the post season teams and the Cardinals has the best record. But because the Astros were in the same division the two did not meet in the Division series and the Cardinals played the Dodgers instead. They went on to meet – and beat – the Astros in the NLCS which by the way is a classic series which in my opinion is underrated in baseball history because of the Red Sox comeback from 0-3 down to beat the Yankees in the same year.

So if I were making up the post season rules this is what I would do. The wild card team would not automatically be ranked fourth. It should be ranked according to its win-loss record. If it has the second best record in the league it should play the third ranked team not the first. Same if it is the third ranked. It should only play the top ranked team if it has the worst record.

Some might argue I’m being unfair to the third ranked division winner but they would still have the advantage of going straight into the Division Series. Even if a second placed team has the second  best record in the League it still has to go through the wild card play in game and burn its ace pitcher. Also – even if the wild card was the second best team – I would still give the division winner home field advantage – games 1,2 and 5 of a Division Series at home. So in my NLDS draw – which would as written above be Cardinals v Mets and Dodgers v Pirates/Cubs – the wild card team would still have to go through the play in game and still start the Division Series with two road games – two disadvantages. Plus the Cardinals would be rewarded for having the best record in the League by playing the play off team with the worst record – which is only fair.

I should also mention another anomaly I think is unfair. In the Division Series and Championship Series the wild card team cannot get home field advantage. Yet in the World Series the wild card can get home field advantage. To my mind that is unfair. If the World Series is between a division winner and a wild card the former should get home field regardless of the result of the All Star Game. This time I will admit bias in that if that had been the rule the Rangers would have had home field advantage in the 2011 World Series instead of the wild card Cardinals but come on I’m entitled to one moan. Aren’t I?