2003 was a magical year. Under the tutelage of new manager Dusty Baker, who had taken the San Francisco Giants and slugger Barry Bonds to within one win of a World Series title the year before, the Cubs were reborn.
After finishing with a ghastly 67-95 record in 2002, the North Siders remarkably turned it all around in 2003. With studs Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano leading the way, pitching staff manhandled opposing batters. They compiled 1,404 strikeouts, 113 more than any other team in baseball. A flurry of trade deadline deals with the Pirates brought in Kenny Lofton, Aramis Ramirez and Randall Simon, each of whom would become integral parts of the successful run to a division title.
And there was Sammy. Though clearly beyond his peak, beloved right fielder Sammy Sosa was still the heart and soul of the team. For the ninth straight year, he hit at least 35 home runs and 100 RBIs. And now, he finally had a complete team around him to help him fill the one hole in his resume: a World Series.
All of this went on amidst the backdrop of failure. Ninety-four years of failure to be exact. It has been chronicled more than any other string of failure in sports history that the Cubs have not won a championship since the second of their back-to-back titles in 1908, a year that now causes anguish rather than joy among the Cubbie faithful.
Interspersed between years of losing, and losing ugly at that, were years that gave loyalists tremendous hope, hope that was destined to be dashed by year’s end. 1945. 1969. 1984. 1989. 1998. By the numbers, these are some of the greatest years in Cubs history, when they had victory within their grasp. But each time, they were denied in heart-crushing fashion and are now recited by Cubs fans with the same sorrowful tone as Greek tragedies.
But this year was different. This was the year it couldn’t go wrong. As I attended games at Wrigley Field throughout the year, I noticed more and more elderly people carrying signs with the same message: “I’ve waited 90 years and now I’m going to see the Cubs win the World Series.” Yes, this felt different. We were going to witness history.
In the National League Division Series, the Cubs defeated the Atlanta Braves, 3-2, behind two masterful pitching performances in Atlanta from Kerry Wood. The Braves had won 101 regular season games, tied with the eventual American League champion New York Yankees for most in baseball. Cubs fans felt invincible. This was our time.
Next up, the National League Championship Series and the upstart Florida Marlins, the National League wild card. After an 11-inning Game 1 loss at Wrigley, the Cubs jumped all over the Marlins in the next three games, winning by a 25-10 margin to go up 3-1 in the series. They subsequently dropped Game 5 in Florida, 4-0.
But we all scoffed. So what? Game 6 and Game 7, if necessary, would take place at the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field with two of the best pitchers in baseball on the hill. How do you like that, Florida? Bam, Mark Prior on Tuesday and if you somehow survive, Kerry Wood on Wednesday. May God have mercy on you.
I watched Game 6 on that Tuesday night from my living room in Chicago with my mom and dad. At 13-years-old, short of Christmas morning, I don’t think I ever had been this excited. And never mind Christmas. It comes around every year. But I kept myself measured, knowing that in sports, anything is possible.
Through seven innings, the Cubs led 3-0. Mark Prior pitched like he was ready to take over the throne as the best pitcher in the world. Heading into the eighth, he had shutout the Marlins and only allowed three hits in the biggest game of his life. We were now six outs away from the World Series. Any restrained joy and excitement from the pregame was now bursting at the seams. This was going to be it!
Prior continued to blaze through the eighth, looking stronger than ever, putting down the first batter. We were now five outs away. This was finally our year. It was not even a dream anymore. It was a predestined reality.
The next hitter doubled to left, but it didn’t faze me. I got even closer to the television. My family was with me. This is finally our year. We are still five outs away. No amount of Billy Goats, errant ground balls or curse the baseball gods could come up with could get in our way.
As visions ran through my head about what it would be like to watch the Cubs play in October at either Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park, second baseman Luis Castillo hit a lazy fly ball to left, just into foul territory. Moises Alou headed towards the wall just past the bullpen, bent his knees and jumped to make the play. Four outs away.
But then it didn’t happen. Out of a sea of hands, one fan’s hands collided with Alou’s mitt and altered the trajectory of history.
Alou made a scene worthy of The Jerry Springer Show, screaming and pointing. Prior and the rest of the Cubs pointed at the fan as well, demanding interference. However, it was all in vain and there were still five outs to go.
The unknown fan, who was later discovered to be the now-infamous Steve Bartman, replaced Prior as the star of the game. The Fox cameras became glued to him, as did the disdainful eyes of the thousands of Cubs fans in attendance. Within minutes, security escorted him out of the stadium due to fear for his safety. Play resumed, with five outs still to go.
But something felt different now. These were not the same five outs to go as before. It was as if every bit of oxygen was simultaneously sucked out of my living room, Wrigley Field and Chicago, all with one fly ball. Suddenly, anticipation turned to nervousness. It didn’t feel right anymore. Why did that happen? That wasn’t normal. It didn’t feel like another fly ball.
What followed was devastation and horror unlike anything I could have possibly anticipated. My psyche and the Chicago Cubs concurrently unraveled. Prior was no longer the greatest. He walked Castillo and Pierre advanced to third on a wild pitch.
I began to talk to Dusty Baker through the television. “Take him out. He’s tired.” But Dusty stuck with him.
Next, a single to left, Pierre scored. The lead was down to two. And now I was screaming to Dusty. “Take him out! He’s tired,” I yelled as my parents watched me nervously pace the room. Again, to no avail.
Then suddenly, a glimmer of hope shined through. The next batter smacked a ground ball to shortstop Alex Gonzalez. This was it. The perfect double play ball had been gift wrapped against all odds to deliver us from this developing nightmare.
But we were not meant to wake from this nightmare. Gonzalez booted the ball and everybody was safe. On the next at bat, Derrek Lee doubled to tie the game.
By now, I was in a full-blown hysteria. Excitement had turned to angst, which had turned to anger. Now, the anger to sadness, a sadness that overwhelmed me. Tears poured down my face because I already knew the outcome. There were five outs to go, but these were five outs that would never come. Prior was being removed from the game but it was too late. The floodgates were open.
When all the damage was finally done, the Marlins had scored eight runs in the eighth. That was the final, 8-3. I didn’t see the end. I had already run to my room, shut off the lights and sobbed until I finally fell asleep. I didn’t go to school the next day. It was if the loss caused a sickness had taken over and I needed a day to recover.
The following night was Game 7 with Kerry Wood on the mound. In reality, we still had a chance. But I knew it was over. As crazy as it is to admit, I didn’t even watch Game 7 because I already knew the outcome.
When the Cubs finally did lose Game 7, there were no more tears. I had submitted to their fate. The season and the dreams of so many were over.
Prior and Wood ended up with arm injuries and were never the same players again. Many fans blamed Baker for Prior’s and Wood’s injuries, saying he worked them too hard. When the team struggled in the following years, he was shown the door. And Sosa never got his World Series ring. Once considered by fans as one of the all-time great Cubs, he left the team in disgrace after the 2004 season and has been mired in steroid allegations ever since.
Most of the blame and media attention went to Steve Bartman. He had become the 21st century Billy Goat. All of the anger and frustration at the players and coaches for the loss was, and to a large degree still is, directed towards the man who only wanted the same thing as me: to see his beloved Cubs in the World Series. Instead of his dream coming true, he was forced to flee the city, humiliated and despised.
Admittedly, I still harbor anger at Bartman, as wrong as I know it is. Was Bartman responsible for allowing eight runs in the eighth? No. But at the same time, his name will forever be connected with one of the most traumatic events of my childhood. For that, I don’t think I’ll be able to forgive him until the Cubs finally lift a World Series trophy.
In 1969, my dad was 15-years-old and was forced to bear witness to the Cubs’ historic late-season collapse, when their nine and a half game lead over the New York Mets in August ended as an eight-game deficit. This was my 1969. It was my rite of passage.
When it was all over, my dad summed up the entire ordeal in one sentence that will live with me as long as the pain of that night.
“Well Danny,” he said calmly, “you now know what it means to be a Cubs fan.”