For a brief shining moment in June 2001, I was the official hotdog of the Chicago Cubs

On Being a Cubs Fan from the ’80s

Here is our history in brief yearly rundowns of the Cubs teams we saw, until we saw the best of all.

There are two types of Chicago Cubs fans among children of the eighties:

  1. those who, as children, thought the 1984 team was the best team of all time; and
  2. those who, as children, thought the 1989 team was the best team of all time.

It comes down to which year you were born. That is, were you old enough in 1984 to understand what was happening, or was 1989 the first Cubs winner you really saw? Either way, Ryne Sandberg was — in our small minds — the greatest player who ever lived.

I was born late in 1977. It wasn’t until I was a 7-year-old in the summer of ’85 that I started revolving my schedule around watching Harry Caray and Steve Stone call Cubs games on WGN. Thus, I have no memory of 1984 and its fateful NLCS. But 1985 was long enough ago. In fact, when it is the beginning of your baseball memory, it is a lifetime ago. Here is our history, based on my warped memory:

The Dallas Green — Jim Frey — Don Zimmer Era

1985: Throwing out basically the same team as the previous year, but adding in a 40-year-old Davey Lopes, who no one could throw out stealing, the Cubs had the best record in the National League after play on June 11. Then came a 13-game losing streak, mostly against NL East rivals the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Mets, that destroyed hopes of a repeat division championship. Still, 1985 Thad Bosley is the best pinch hitter we’ll ever see.

1986: Wait. Putting the 1984 team out there doesn’t work anymore? Maybe just replace Jim Frey with Gene Michael? No?

1987: It’s possible that there has never been a more popular player in a single season than Andre Dawson was to Wrigley Field patrons in 1987, elevated by his showing up as a free agent to the Cubs’ spring training facility and offering to sign a contract for whatever amount the Cubs filled in, and by a .688 slugging percentage at his home park. Also, Bill Murray filled in for Harry Caray to broadcast a game against the Montreal Expos and it was awesome:

Other than that, tough year, especially from the pitching staff. I’m not sure how long that 24-year-old Jamie Moyer will last. Nice knowing you, Mr. Michael.

1988: In his second full season, at age 22, Greg Maddux became Greg Maddux, future Hall of Famer.

1989: The Boys of Zimmer. Sandberg-Grace-Dawson. Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith finished one-two in the Rookie of the Year voting. Everything worked, even — somehow, for one year at least — trading Rafeal Palmeiro for Mitch Williams. This was the best team ever, so we thought until Will Clark destroyed all our dreams.

1990: Ryne Sandberg went bonkers with the home runs, Harry Caray got to try to say Héctor Villanueva’s name backward, Doug Dascenzo — using a glove as big as he was — played in his third season without making an error, and Wrigley Field hosted the All-Star Game. So those were the good things.

1991: Year One of the Gary Scott destroys Spring Training pitching, gets destroyed once the season starts phenomenon. Dave Smith, after a nice career closing games for the Houston Astros, came to the Cubs and became the worst closer in baseball. And Ty Griffin (’88 Olympian; 9th pick in ’89 draft) really isn’t going to make it out of double-A, is he?

The Larry Times Era

1992: Gary Scott spends a second season teaching us that we must stop paying attention to spring training stats. This was the year that convinced Greg Maddux he had to get out of Chicago if he ever wanted to win.

1993: Why would we worry about the loss of Greg Maddux? General Manager Larry Himes went out and got us Juan Guzman, Greg Hibbard, and Randy Myers! Ryne Sandberg stopped being the team’s best position player.

1994: Two of the most shocking things happened in 1994. First Tuffy Rhodes hit 3 home runs on opening day, against Dwight Gooden no less (Gooden seemingly always beat the Cubs — of course, he did on this day, too):

Second, Ryne Sandberg, with the second highest salary in the game, abruptly retired midseason. After those two things, the players’ strike that ended the season and resulted in no World Series wasn’t nearly as surprising.

The Ed Lynch Era

1995: Baseball is back and Greg Maddux won a World Series with the wrong team!

1996: Ryne Sandberg is back! He seems … older. And now instead of Randy Myers we have Rodney Myers. But, seriously, I played some of the computer version of Strat-O-Matic with this team and the bullpen was pretty good, what with Turk Wendell, Terry Adams, Kent Bottenfield, and Bob Patterson. Yeah, I don’t know how that happened either. The starting pitching — outside of Steve Trachsel having one of his every-other-year good years — was atrocious, though.

1997: There is no hope for the Cubs. Ryne Sandberg decided to retire again.

1998: There is hope for the Cubs! Joyous ridiculousness abounds! The Great Home Run Chase revives baseball from the adverse effects of the 1994 strike. Sammy Sosa went from a nice player to having one of the most absurdly great 5-year stretches. In his 5th big league start, Kerry Wood pitched the most dominant game in big league history against the league’s best offense. Steve Trachsel took a no-hitter into the 7th inning of Game 163 to break the Wild Card tie with the San Francisco Giants. Glenallen Hill was picked up off waivers from the Mariners and hit 351/414/573 in the 2nd half. Lacking a third baseman, Gary Gaetti (a/k/a “The Rat”) was signed in mid-August after the Cardinals released him, and he promptly slashed 320/397/594 down the stretch. (A few downsides to this season: (1) Brant Brown, who had a really nice year, dropped a flyball in leftfield late in the season, losing a game and causing Ron Santo to explode in “Oh Nooooo!”; (2) Jeff Blauser had a career 1.053 OPS against the Cubs in 78 games (under 770 against everyone else), the Cubs signed him to play for them so that he couldn’t do that to them anymore, and he posted a 639 OPS; and (3) the Cubs scored 4 runs in 3 games off Smoltz, Glavine, and Maddux en route to being swept in the playoffs.)

1999: This team was so old. Combine this year with 1997 and it’s even clearer how ridiculous 1998 was.

2000: Glenallen Hill did the most ridiculous thing to a pitched baseball we’ve ever seen: he hit it beyond the left field wall, out of the stadium, past the adjoining street, onto the roof of the next door apartment building:

Somehow that didn’t save Ed Lynch his General Manager’s job.

The Jim Hendry Era

2001: For many of us Cubs’ fans from the 80s, Mark Grace’s 13-year run as first baseman of the Chicago Cubs, from 1988–2000, was the most consistent thing we’ve seen in sports, so consistently good and durable that it was hardly discussed. I was never happier for an ex-Cub than I was for Mark Grace when he signed as a free agent with the Arizona Diamondbacks before the 2001 season, played well for them, and helped them win a World Series, including a leadoff single in the bottom of the 9th of Game 7 of the World Series. I wish it had been with the Cubs, but he was out of time with the Cubs.

2002: The 2001 team had a winning record and this team finished with just 67 wins, but there was serious cause for optimism in the pitching staff. Kerry Wood, still just 25, got through a whole season; 27-year-old Matt Clement, acquired from Florida, figured out his control problems; Mark Prior, 21, made his debut after being the 2nd pick in the 2001 amateur draft, and Carlos Zambrano, also just 21, put up a 111 ERA+ in 108.1 innings. The Jim Hendry era began mid-season; now it was just time to find a manager.

2003: The Dusty Baker era began with a bang, despite lots of consternation over his preference for veterans over the young guys. In retrospect, the mid-season acquisition of Aramis Ramirez had great long-term benefits. But it was the young starting rotation that drove this team, and at a time before we had heard about towel drills, Mark Prior was the most confident pitcher, and we were the most confident fans when he was on the mound. Until Game 6 of the of NLCS. Kerry Wood’s homer in Game 7 brought renewed euphoria, but it didn’t last long.

2004: Chicago had a three decade string of megastars, one in each of the major sports — Walter Payton, Michael Jordan, and Sammy Sosa. This is the year that ended the streak, and in such a way that we all act like the more recent of those stars never happened. Before the inglorious end of this season, though, the trade deadline deal for Nomar Garciaparra (giving up nothing of significance in return) was the most exciting transaction ever. Unfortunately, the Red Sox were prescient (or lucky) in seeing that Nomar’s days as a healthy and elite player were over. This was the most disappointing team of my lifetime. It was nice having Greg Maddux back in the twilight of his career, though.

2005: In Dusty we no longer trusty. Wood and Prior broke. Garciaparra was injured, which means saw a lot of Neifi Perez, inexplicably batting first or second in the order in more than half the games. The Corey Patterson dream died. Derrek Lee, at least, did something Fred McGriff, Eric Karros, and Hee Seop-Choi couldn’t quite do: make us no longer miss Mark Grace at first base.

2006: The Dusty era was over at the end of 2004. It took a 66–96 record in 2006 for the right people to realize it. This was the year the Cubs threw out every young starting pitcher they had to see what stuck. The most entertaining batter may have been Carlos Zambrano (6 homers in 73 at-bats).

2007: Out with one old-school manager, in with another in Lou Piniella. The first year of the Alfonso Soriano free agent deal turned out well, thanks in part to a down year in the NL Central, which gave the Cubs the division with 85 wins. Félix Pié made his debut. I saw him play a game in A ball in 2003 as an 18-year-old. He looked the part of a future star (and his minor league stats were impressive). There seemed no way he would fail in the way Corey Patterson had. It’s so easy to be wrong about prospects. Did you know he’ll still only be 32 in 2017? (Though after a nice season in Korea in 2014, he seems to be done with baseball.) Anyway, the Cubs went all 1998 and got swept in the division series, though it was impressive watching Geovany Soto steal the catcher’s job in September (1.206 OPS in 16 games in that final month) and finding himself as the starting catcher in the playoffs, leading into his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2008.

2008: This team was really good, despite the fact that 2007’s breakout starting pitcher, Rich Hill, lost his control early in the season and basically disappeared for seven-and-a-half seasons. The only real star season came from Ryan Dempster, who somehow went from a not very good closer in 2007 to finishing 3rd in the league in ERA+ in more than 200 innings. (The amount of value the Cubs got out of Dempster in his eight-and-a-half years with the team was really remarkable, considering how he fell apart in Cincinnati before joining the Cubs and how the Cubs were able to trade him to Texas at the end of his tenure in 2012 for Kyle Hendricks.) Kosuke Fukudome came over from Japan with performance that didn’t match expectations, but just about everyone else was good to really good. That included Ryan Theriot, notwithstanding that the Theriot inspired TOOTBLAN stat was invented. Kerry Wood found new life as a closer. Carlos Marmol excelled in the setup role. The result was a legitimate 97-win season. Alas, for the second straight year, the Cubs were swept in the division series (this time by the Dodgers), and Lou Piniella’s Cubs never threatened again.

2009: Just about everyone who played so well in 2008 played worse or was less healthy in 2009, other than Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, and Kosuke Fukudome. Super Sam Fuld started his career of making super catches in the outfield. Reed Johnson was on the team as well, and it seems possible to me that the Cubs could have been the first team to play with just two outfielders if it had been those two, as each of them could dive from one half of the outfield to the other.

2010: Lou Piniella managed some good teams in his career. This was not one of them, and it was his last managerial season. Carlos Marmol reached the height of his effective wildness, striking out 138 batters in 77.2 innings. Starlin Castro made his debut as the 20-year-old starting shortstop of the present and future.

2011: The team wasn’t good, it wasn’t young, it was paying a lot of money to free agent signees that weren’t working out, and there didn’t appear to be a plan to get better. Nine years after it began, the Jim Hendry era ended. It had its moments.

The Plan

2012: After the 2011 season, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were hired and The Plan was implemented. The most visible early part was trading for Anthony Rizzo and installing him as first baseman. Kerry Wood made his final appearance and it was everything it should have been, as he entered the game in relief, struck out one last batter on three pitches, and walked off to a standing ovation and a hug from his son. His career 10.3 K/9 mark remains the second best in baseball history, behind Randy Johnson.

2013: The Plan makes for some bad baseball and an odd collection of players, most of whom are just filling gaps until The Plan bears fruit. It’s easy to not watch. Kris Bryant was taken as the 2nd pick in the draft.

2014: The young guys started coming up and/or taking on bigger roles, among them Hendricks, Rondon, Grimm, Baez, and Soler. After 2 years and 2 months of The Plan producing bad big league baseball, the Cubs spent the last 4 months of 2014 as a 500 team, even after trading away Jeff Samardzija’s hair for Addison Russell. (Oh, how much The Plan was aided by Samardzija figuring out how to control his pitches.)

2015: The Plan hit overdrive. Jon Lester signed. Joe Maddon hired. Kris Bryant at third. We thought we had confidence with Mark Prior on the hill in 2003. We hadn’t yet seen Jake Arrieta in 2015 (and we’ll never see anything like his second half again). 97 wins. It was all so amazing and wonderful until running into the hardest throwing starting rotation in baseball history in the NLCS, just when we all were beginning to think that Back to the Future Part II really had predicted, in 1989, a 2015 Cubs World Series.

2016: If I write anything about this greatest of all seasons, I’ll reveal that I care more about this than I should. Perhaps I’ve already done that.