JULY 20, 2004
CARDINALS 11, CUBS 8
By the time mid-July rolled around, it was clear something about the 2004 Cubs was…off.
Before the season, Sports Illustrated’s Baseball Preview predicted the Cubs would win the World Series with the cover headline: “Hell Freezes Over.” But as soon as the games began, we discovered an important caveat: frozen Hell is still Hell. I desperately wanted to believe in them — as did we all — but when I watched the team that summer, I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling of “Isn’t a World Series contender supposed to be fun?”
On the afternoon of July 20, the Cubs were sitting at a maddeningly meh 49-43 and a full nine games behind the upstart Cardinals, who were in the process of running away with a division title we were convinced would belong in Chicago for the next several years. They’d begun a crucial series with St. Louis the previous night by losing 5-4 when Carlos Zambrano gave up a two-out, two-run homer to Scott Rolen in the 8th inning.
Big Z then responded by treating his archnemesis Jim Edmonds like a Gatorade dispenser as he fired a fastball into Edmonds’ posterior and began walking off the mound before the umpire even started to signal his ejection. It was a baseball first: a pitcher pimping a hit batsman. And while the fact that it happened to Edmonds meant Zambrano was playing the role of Karma, I’d have preferred a win. The Cubs were losing in awful ways and looking the fool while doing so.
All of this is to say that this game felt crucial if we wanted to even pretend the Cubs could climb back into the race. Making things worse, Mark Prior had to skip his start that afternoon with soreness and Dusty Baker called on Glendon Rusch to fill in. There was a real uneasy feeling in the ballpark and it was amplified by all the Cardinal fans in the stands acting like they had the moral high ground thanks to the previous night’s histrionics. Things didn’t start off well either, as the Cards opened the scoring with an Albert Pujols RBI double in the top of the 1st.
You might want to put a pin in that name as he’s going to come up again a time or two later…
With his team leading 1-0, it felt like things were setting up just right for Tony La Russa to channel his inner Neanderthal and exact revenge for Zambrano plunking Edmonds. Sure enough, in the bottom of the inning, LaRussa ordered starter Matt Morris to throw behind…Corey Patterson.
The Cardinals were responding to Zambrano hitting a borderline Hall of Famer by going after a guy who put up precisely one above-average OPS+ in his career because…they played the same position? Apparently, La Russa grasped the concept of logic about as well as he did the alphabet. If he wanted to avenge Edmonds, it would’ve made just as much sense to throw at Greg Louganis — and even then it would’ve been a stretch because all of Louganis’s dives were necessary.
Regardless, La Russa’s drunken Hammurabi impression appeared to pull off the impossible: It made the 2004 Cubs focus. In the bottom of the 2nd inning, they cried havoc and let slip the dogs of war against Morris with one of the most beautifully sustained offensive attacks of the year. Derrek Lee and Michael Barrett hit consecutive two-run homers which really woke the crowd up and everyone could finally sense a little vulnerability in the Cardinals. A few batters later, La Russa had to watch Patterson exact sweet retribution with a two-run double. The only thing that would’ve made it chef’s kiss perfect was if it was on a 3-0 pitch.
After Moises Alou drove in Patterson with an RBI single to make it 7-1, La Russa had to make a slow walk to the mound to yank Morris from the game. With each step he took, the Wrigley crowd rose to its feet and crescendoed louder and louder to give a mock standing ovation to two of the biggest villains to ever don red hats at that point in history. (Holy cow, was that a simpler time.) For one glorious moment, it didn’t matter how much the Cubs were underachieving. We were there to preside over the ritual humiliation of the most dour and humorless manager in baseball history and his mewling pack of self-important minions.
It appeared that on this day, we could step away from the ceaseless pressures of 2004, just chill, and enjoy ourselves on a beautiful afternoon at Wrigley Field. What could possibly go wrong? I’m sure if there were any examples of unjustified hubris coming back to haunt the Cubs in the past, some sportswriter would’ve probably mentioned it.
Even when Pujols unloaded a mammoth solo homer halfway up the right-centerfield bleachers in the top of the 3rd, the Cubs answered back immediately with an Aramis Ramirez leadoff bomb in the bottom half to keep it a comfortable 8-2. Unlike so many other parts of the “vaunted” 2004 lineup, you could count on A-Ram just about every day and he remains one of the most underappreciated great Cubs of the past 20 years.
Rusch, meanwhile, was getting the job done with no-drama innings in the 4th and 5th — part of a quietly productive year where he was one of the few pitchers exceeding his potential. But then came the top of the 6th and one of the most horrific sequences in one of the dumbest seasons on record. Rusch was going through the heart of the Cardinals order for the third time and nearing 100 pitches. We didn’t know about the third time through penalty back then, but we’d sure as hell learned about pitch counts the hard way the previous October. A tiring Rusch should’ve come out of this game—especially after his spot came up with a runner in scoring position in the previous inning.
Instead, Baker left him in to face Pujols. Single. Now was as good a time as any to pull the starter, but he was still on the mound for Rolen. Single. Okay, someone had to be proactive and get Rusch out of there posthaste…or they could let him face Edmonds with nothing left in the tank. RBI single. Now it was 8-3 with two on and none out, and Dusty Baker finally stepped out of the dugout to execute his trademark 2004 strategical maneuver: making the obvious move three batters too late.
Now, this was a situation fast approaching a crisis point in a practically must-win game the Cubs thought they had in hand. It screamed for a top-end reliever to put out the fire so they could get things back under control. It was at this point that Dusty went with…
He of the 1.400 WHIP and 5.7 BB/9.
Ye gods. Until this moment, I never thought I’d be able to answer the question: “What’s the sound of one man making 39,371 people vomit in their mouth?” Beltran did exactly what you’d expect him to do based on those numbers. He walked the bases loaded. Then he walked in a run. Then he gave up another on an RBI single. And I repeat: There was still nobody out. What we thought was a welcome respite from the 2004 death march lasted all of three innings and now this was in danger of transforming into the most humiliating meltdown yet. After we’d prematurely taunted La Russa, no less.
Beltran was replaced by Kent Mercker, who miraculously got out of the jam with only one more run scoring and even more miraculously did so without calling the press box demanding to speak to Steve Stone’s manager. Still, the lead had shrunk to 8-6 and the Cubs would have to figure out some way to hold it against the hellacious Cardinal offense as this was still only the 6th inning. It appeared that the only realistic plan to do so involved staging a coup to appoint Rob Manfred commissioner and then convincing him that this was a doubleheader. But we’d already spent two hours watching the 2004 Cubs and there was only so much cruelty we could be expected to take.
In the top of the 7th, Pujols stepped in to face Kyle Farnsworth, already 3-for-3 and a triple shy of the cycle. What I remember most about facing Pujols in his prime was the air of menace and sense of dread that descended over the ballpark for his every at-bat. Farnsworth’s straight-as-hell fastball vs. prime Pujols was as unfair a fight as Farnsworth’s leg vs. an electric fan. Sure enough, Pujols launched a ballistic missile to the bleachers in left and it was a one-run game.
That’s when I could feel the ballpark turn. At that point, everyone knew the Cubs were going to blow the whole damn thing. It was just a matter of which Cardinals All-Star would do the damage, as if Gozer La Russa was making them choose the form of the destructor. Would it be Edmonds? Rolen? Reggie Sanders? All made sense. So who did Farnsworth end up picking to launch the game tying home run?
So “Replacement Level” Taguchi.
Jesus Christ on a bicycle. At that point, FanGraphs’ win probability calculated a 98% chance of the Cubs giving up the go-ahead homer to the Get a Brain Morans guy. The Cardinals fans at Wrigley were losing their minds while every Cubs fan cycled through a mixture of rage, despair, and hopelessness. It felt like this day couldn’t possibly get any worse. Which is why I need you to take a deep cleansing breath and find your happy place before you read this next sentence…
LaTroy Hawkins came in to pitch the 9th.
And my laptop’s autocorrect just changed that to “The Cubs forfeited.”
Pujols was due up second. I think we all know where this is going. This time, he launched a line shot that bounced in and out of the basket in right-center for the game-winning two-run homer. We would have to wait another 12 years for the basket to make it up to us. On a day that began with such promise, Pujols annihilated the Cubs’ division hopes for good by going 5-for-5 with three home runs, five RBI, and 15 total bases. But he never did get that cycle. So really when you think about it, his day was the most massive failure of all.
After giving up another solo shot to Sanders for good measure, Hawkins finally ended this Eli Roth film of an inning by striking out pinch hitter Yadier Molina. Because one of the rules of Cardinals Devil Magic is that anytime a game reaches a certain threshold of loathsomeness, Yadi magically appears. Despite the K, though, every Cardinals fan still named him the game’s MVP. As for the Cub fans, some began booing. Most were in shock. But we all felt the day had reached its nadir and at least it couldn’t sink any lower.
Suddenly and inexplicably, Hawkins began jawing at home plate umpire Tim Tschida as he walked off the mound. Baker came out of the dugout to try and steer him away from an ejection, which was when Hawkins erupted into what would happen if someone edited the George Brett pine tar incident into a Tool video. It took four coaches to restrain him and even then, it still felt like at any moment all hell could break loose.
When a Cubs player goes off on an umpire, the crowd typically rises to the occasion in full-throated support. But in this instance, Wrigley was stunned. As if everyone in the park was thinking, “You just gave up homers to a Hall of Famer and All-Star to blow this game and you think the problem was the strike zone? So if you got a pitch on the corner, those bombs would’ve only gone a combined 780 feet instead of 800?”
Usually when a team blows a six run lead to their biggest rival, that’s the most pathetic part of the game. For the 2004 Cubs, though, that was merely the warmup act. Hawkins’s tantrum was so repulsive, it felt like something broke inside all of us. A silence descended over the ballpark as the game continued. However, it wasn’t the typical mourner’s pall that accompanies a blown lead in a big game. This felt like every fan was stewing in what they’d just beheld and thinking, “Fuck these guys.” But for perhaps the first time ever in a Cubs-Cardinals series, they weren’t thinking it about St. Louis.
Fittingly, the Cubs left the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th. My dad and I exited the ballpark in a daze. When we got to the car, I tried to slam my cap against the passenger seat in frustration but ended up clipping my hand against the door and winced in pain the whole ride home. And it was still at worst only the forty-third dumbest thing anybody had done in the past three hours. Maybe I should’ve thrown the hat at Patterson instead.
The Cubs had blown a six-run lead, fallen hopelessly out of the division race against their biggest rivals, and utterly clowned themselves along the way. This game was the 2004 Cubs in a nutshell, to the point where I’m surprised the box score doesn’t have a section where it curses out the broadcasters.