I’m sitting in the Wrigley Field pressbox, fortunate to have the windows closed on a cool afternoon. Right before me, Derrek Lee has just struck out leading off the bottom of the eighth against the Pittsburgh Pirates as the Cubs try to make up a one-run deficit.
Life is tough these days if you follow the Cubs. The whole atmosphere has the scent of a 90-loss season, or worse, in the making. Heads should roll, but whose? Lou Piniella’s managerial contract runs out after this season. Other contracts, like Carlos Zambrano’s and Alfonso Soriano’s, have years to go. Everything just doesn’t feel right.
Especially the interminable slumps of Lee and Aramis Ramirez. Through all the typical chaos and nonsense associated with the Cubs, they’ve been as close to steady as possible. Yet the abject failure of the lineup to produce is traced back to them, and the typical streakiness of Alfonso Soriano. And you can only conclude that their tenure as a run-producing unit has come to an end.
That’s not unusual. It’s the cycle of baseball, like the four seasons. Groups of hitters are acquired and placed in the batting order. They produce for awhile, depending on circumstances. And then their “freshness” date expires, much like old food. The combination of Lee, Ramirez and Soriano are now stale.
The Cubs actually are fortunate they got enough out of them. Ramirez, one of the best clutch hitters in modern Cubs times, and Lee have been middle-of-the-lineup Chicago staples together since 2004. Soriano joined them as leadoff man in 2007 before being dropped down in the order two years later. The majority of such combos probably don’t enjoy such a long run.
Going back, the famed Sixties threesome of Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Ernie Banks had the longest run in franchise annals — basically 1961 to 1970 before Banks’ bad knees and old age finally claimed him. But Santo and Williams only had two more effective seasons as Cubs hitters before they went bad. Nothing can be forever in baseball.
The most powerful top-to-bottom Cubs lineup in memory was the 1984 NL East champions. Six players had 80 or more RBIs. Remember the Daily Double of Bobby Dernier and Ryne Sandberg, followed by Gary Matthews, Keith Moreland, Leon “Bull” Durham, Ron Cey and Jody Davis? They proved to be one-year wonders who led the NL in runs scored, but couldn’t put the Padres away in three playoff games in San Diego. That order was largely injured and/or less effective in 1985. They were a year older and not productive in 1986 and then they broke apart.
The Cubs won the NL East in 1989 with a lot of home-grown kids. Sandberg was the only holdover from ‘84. Andre Dawson had come aboard two years earlier, winning the NL’s MVP award after signing a blank contract during the collusion era. But Dawson had a sub-par year due to knee surgery in ‘89. His dip in production was made up for partially by rookie of the year Jerome Walton, runner-up Dwight Smith, golden-boy Mark Grace and Shawon Dunston, all products of the Dallas Green’s temporarily-revived farm system. Joe Girardi and Rick Wrona were rookie catchers also home-grown, but they did not hit much.
Young and enthusiastic, and productive. The ‘89 Cubs also led the NL in runs scored. But by 1991, Walton’s great break-in season was just a blip on a mediocre career, Smith was on the bench, Grace had settled in as a high-average hitter with only a hint of power and Dunston advanced no further in his abilities. That lineup spoiled quickly.
Nine years later, the Cubs tried to capture lightning in a bottle two years in a row by re-signing 40-year-old Gary Gaetti to play third base after he gave the Cubs a late-season boost to the 1998 NL wild card. But the Gaetti deal was symbolic of yet another lineup that had a one-year shelf life. That productive ‘98 batting order devolved into two successive years of 95 or more losses. Gaetti was retired by the time a new century rolled around.
Lee-Ramirez-Soriano was constructed to win quickly in 2007-08. They got the job half done, winning the NL Central, but also getting swept six in a row in two Division Series against the Diamondbacks and Dodgers. Once a veteran lineup fails that miserably in the playoffs, the chances of a future breakthrough are not great.
It’s an hour or so later after I penned the first word here. The Cubs have lost 4-3, stranding the tying run on third with just one out in the ninth. Ramirez has said the players have to get it done between the white lines. They’ve always said that. But often it’s just not possible. You know how hard it is to bite into stale bread? That’s how hard it is to win with a lineup that just doesn’t work anymore.
The cryin’ shame is young, invigorating blood from the farm system, so long deferred in its arrival, is knocking on the door. But the Cubs can’t clear out the pantry to re-stock fast enough. The first couple of years of the Ricketts family ownership will indeed be challenging.