Cubs return to scene of the 'cho-llapse'
The last time we saw the Cubs at Wrigley Field, they were curled up in the corner of their dugout asking mommy to make the bad men from Los Angeles go away. You didn't know whether to boo, feel sorry for them or send each player a Tom Emanski instructional baseball video.
One minute, the Cubs had the best record in the National League; the next minute, they were three-and-done in the playoffs, all courtesy of the underdog Dodgers. The Cubs were officially eliminated from the 2008 postseason in Los Angeles, but I'll always remember Game 2 at Wrigley -- the place where Octobers go to die.
In an excruciating three hours and 10 minutes, the Cubs gave up 10 runs, committed four errors and pretty much undid all the good of those 97 regular-season victories. It was like having filet mignon for your entrée and phlegm sorbet for dessert.
At 1:20 p.m., Wrigley Standard Time, the Cubs return to the scene of their playoff I've-Fallen-And-I-Can't-Get-Up collapse. They take the field Monday against the Rockies with a chance, perhaps one of their best chances, to erase the memories of last fall and, who knows, maybe the past 100 years.
You know the Cubs' math by heart: they last won a World Series in 1908, last played in a World Series in 1945. They lead the big leagues in hearts broken and dreams pureed.
"After we got knocked out, what were all the pictures and highlights?" pitcher Ryan Dempster asked. "It was people holding their hands to their faces like this [covering his face], or people walking with their heads down. We weren't like that. We were upset. You're darn right we were upset because we knew we had the best team during the regular season in the National League and we didn't play like it -- for whatever reason.
"It was disappointing to us. It was more disappointing to us than anybody else because we knew what we had in there. But what better way to show what character we have than to go out there and play well and try to win our division this year?"
The Cubs can't forget what happened at Wrigley six months ago because no one will let them. Nor should they forget. It can be another in a long line of Cubs cho-llapses (choke + collapse) or it can be a defining moment, a baseball life lesson.
"We played so good all season," second baseman Mike Fontenot said. "We didn't have three games the whole season where we didn't play well [three] in a row. We picked the worst possible time to do it -- in the first round of the playoffs. It's something you have to move past. First things first: you've got to win enough games to get back there. But when that happens, you got to figure out a way to get over that hump and concentrate enough to play real good baseball then."
This a good thing. The first step to World Series recovery is admitting you have a problem. The Cubs had a problem, so management pulled out its money clip and purchased switch-hitter Milton Bradley, his .999 OPS of a year ago and his temperament (think high setting on the microwave).
Bradley is in right field, mostly because Kosuke Fukudome suffered memory loss last June -- he forgot how to hit. After batting .327 in April and .293 in May, Fukudome's monthly average dropped 29 points in June, 28 points in July, 43 points in August and 15 more points in September.
It's obvious manager Lou Piniella isn't a big Fukudome guy. But the Cubs are on the hook for another $39 million, so Fukudome will platoon with Reed Johnson in center. The Piniella of 10 years ago would have needed restraining belts when watching Fukudome struggle, but now he offers measured encouragement. Progress, I guess.
The official Cubs stance is they stunk it up against the Dodgers and that's that. It happens. But it also happened the year before when they got swept by the Arizona Diamondbacks. So Piniella has talked about tinkering with his postseason philosophy. He's also reading motivational books and wants to enlist Michael Jordan as a guest speaker.
That's nice, but Piniella can do only so much. He first needs to get the Cubs back to the postseason and then solve the mystery of a best-of-five format. Or as Dodgers manager Joe Torre put it: "Those short series are murder."
They were for the Cubs and their followers. There will be fans in the Wrigley bleachers Monday who will look onto the field, flash back to October and mumble, "I see dead people."
Mark DeRosa, Kerry Wood, Felix Pie, Henry Blanco, Jim Edmonds, Jason Marquis, Bob Howry, Michael Wuertz and Daryle Ward are among the dearly departed from the Cubs' 2008 roster. But Piniella has more flexibility and options with the '09 roster. And unless the right shoulders of Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden fall off (and Harden's might), the Cubs' starting rotation will be good enough.
The starter Monday -- for the first pitch -- is former Cub Rick Sutcliffe. Wayne Messmer will belt out the "National Anthem." America's biggest beer garden will come to life on what is expected to be a blustery, rain-chilled afternoon. Bring your Gore-Tex.
The Cubs will try to remember and forget all at the same time. Remember why they ralphed in the playoffs the past two years ... forget the negative thoughts if they return to the postseason six months from now.
"I think we definitely learned some lessons," first baseman Derrek Lee said. "I think last year we had such a great season and tried to go into the playoffs trying to do too much. We wanted it so bad that we tried to do too much and it ended up backfiring on us."
This year less is more. Less meltdowns. More October.
Gene Wojciechowski is a senior national columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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