Commentary

Cubs' 2009 season can rest in peace

Promising team finally succumbs to "waittilnextyearitis"

Originally Published: August 28, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

The 2009 Chicago Cubs were a nice, little baseball team that almost always had a smile for fans and a nice word to say about its friends, aside from the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago White Sox.

Chicagoans said that the Cubs tried to be good neighbors, even if they did keep their lights on too long and leave garbage on the field and in the streets, and that they took pride in brightening the fortunes of other Major League Baseball teams.

The Cubs' 2009 season passed away Thursday, Aug. 27, doomed by their losing two out of three to the Washington Nationals. The Cubs had been suffering from a congenital disease known as "waittilnextyearitis" since early April. The season was only 125 games old.

The Cook County medical examiner's office said the disease simply caused the bloated team's heart to stop working. "The Cubs had been suffering for a long time," a spokeswoman told ESPNChicago.com.

Fans mourned in Wrigleyville, in the northern suburbs, and in bars, taverns and ticket brokerage companies all over the city. Reports of fireworks coming from the South Side could not be confirmed.

"Dey were a good team," self-proclaimed die-hard bleacher bum Jim Grabowski said at the Gingerman Tavern, a bar near the Cubs' house on Clark Street. "They just couldn't hang on much longer. I'll raise a shot to those SOBs. It's tough to field a team for only $135 million."

"I didn't even know they were sick," said Lincoln Park resident Trixie Collins, an Ohio native who is a "huge Cubs fan."

MLB commissioner Allan "Bud" Selig said all teams will fly Cubs flags at half-staff. Also, Cubs jerseys will be marked down 30 percent on MLB.com. Other teams expressed their sadness at the historic club's rather mundane end.

"The Los Angeles Dodgers certainly enjoyed the company of the Cubs these past two seasons," the Dodgers said in a statement.

Born in 1876 to a local businessman and a fledgling professional baseball league, the Cubs have long been known for their losing ways. But the team looked extra spry the past two years, winning division titles. However, waittilnextyearitis, a disease that causes choking, infirmity and general malaise, often activated by ivy, Old Style beer and batting cage rodents, caught up to the club the past two Octobers.

The Cubs never recovered from last October's bout, which was marked by excessive choking and bases on balls.

The 2009 Cubs just didn't have the will to live any longer, friends said.

"Even we felt bad for them at times," a Pittsburgh Pirates spokesman told ESPNChicago's obituary department. "I mean, at least we never have hope. I remember what it was like in 1992. We tried our best to help them survive this season, giving away two pitchers. But nothing could help this team."

"Cubs woo! Why'd they trade DeRosa? Woo! I can't believe no one's been fired! Woo!" a fan dressed in a full Cubs home uniform was heard to yell by the Addison train station.

Some blame the season's early end on foreign bodies such as Milton Bradley and Kevin Gregg. Others say the Cubs were suffering from a lack of Mark DeRosa, a popular homeopathic medicine that performs a variety of functions in a healthy team. Some blame the lack of fatherly guidance.

The Cubs had been a foster child for nearly three years, surviving on their wits and nine-figure payrolls. A new family wanted to take in the team, but bureaucratic red tape slowed the process. By the time the deal was nearly realized, it was too late.

Cubs manager Lou Piniella took the blame for the team's critical state before its passing, although he spent much of the last month saying things like, "What can I do?" and "What can I say?"

"Invariably, when things don't go right, it's always the manager's fault, OK?" Piniella told reporters. "You want to blame me, take your shots. It doesn't bother me one bit. … When you don't win, somebody's got to stand up and be the scapegoat. If you all want to say it's the manager, say it's the manager. Fine with me."

The Cubs came into this season with high hopes after adding Bradley in the offseason to stave off dreaded right-handed pitchers, a particularly dangerous infection that overtook them in early October, when the air cools in Chicago along with the bats.

But Bradley's presence didn't help the team at all. The mercurial free agent went into an early funk that was made more noticeable by the absence of Aramis Ramirez, and never turned into the run-producing hitter the Cubs thought they were signing.

Bradley went 2-for-23 on the Cubs' defining West Coast road trip that ended Sunday. The Cubs won just one of the seven games they played on the trip, falling further behind the Cardinals in the NL Central and the Colorado Rockies in the wild-card race. Three games later, they died. Piniella summed up that trip in one word, "Painful."

Before the season went on life support, the Cubs tried to hold out hope. Two years ago, the Rockies' plug was nearly pulled before a miraculous recovery.

"I mean, in 2007, did anybody think that Colorado could get into the playoffs?" Piniella said before a 15-6 loss to Washington put the team in a coma. "It's amazing what a nice winning streak will do for you to make up ground in a hurry. Unfortunately for us, we haven't had a good winning streak in a long, long time. We'll see what happens, but that's what I cling to. Hopefully that's what will happen."

Ramirez's long layoff and Bradley's inability to adjust to Chicago weren't the only culprits in the team's demise. Plenty of other factors came into play. The team battled injuries all season, with four of the five starters spending time on the disabled list. Regardless, the Cubs' starting pitching gave the team joy, even in its waning days.

The relief corps was anything but, and the team wound up spending more money on antacid than on batting practice baseball. Still, pitching coach Larry Rothschild keeps his job.

General manager Jim Hendry, with Piniella's blessing, shook up the roster, getting rid of DeRosa for a trio of minor league pitchers and signing Aaron Miles, a switch-hitter, to compete for time at second base with Mike Fontenot.

Miles was hitting .177 (26-for-147) at the time of the team's demise. At other points in the season, Hendry, who had a limited budget of $135 million, tried to fill holes with incompetent veterans such as Joey Gathright, who was signed in the offseason as an extra outfielder. Gathright picked up 14 at-bats before being traded to Baltimore for Ryan Freel. Freel had exactly twice as many at-bats in his short Cubs career before he too was released.

Freel's brief tenure was remarkable only in that the Cubs had five players on their roster who were shorter than 75 percent of the reporters covering the team. It was a team only Bill Veeck and Eddie Gaedel could enjoy.

Other players battled never-ending slumps, including reigning NL Rookie of the Year Geovany Soto, who was hitting .218 with nine homers and 31 RBIs in 82 games, and reliever Carlos Marmol, who battled wildness all season, forcing Piniella to stay with Gregg at closer for most of the season. Some observers think the team lost hope when Gregg served up a three-run homer in the ninth inning on Aug. 18. It was his third blown save in five chances.

"I wish I had a magic formula and magic dust," Piniella told reporters last week. "But I don't."

Starting Friday, the Cubs will hold visiting hours 21 times until Oct. 4, when the season will be cremated and spread along the outfield grass at Wrigley Field, at the team's request. Speakers that day will include Hendry, Piniella, Derrek Lee, Ryan Theriot and Alfonso Soriano. Sources close to Crane Kenney say that Kenney has asked to give the eulogy. Ron Santo will sing for the seventh-inning stretch. In lieu of flowers, prospective Cubs owner Tom Ricketts has asked fans to donate to the "Make a Triangle Building" foundation.

An Irish wake will be held at Murphy's Bleachers. Visitors are asked to buy the house whiskey.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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