The 2006 Cubs: Suicide is painless. But we're not.
by Scott Long
I was working recently with a very funny comedian from Chicago named Ken Schultz. When we first met he said, "are you the Scott Long who writes thejuiceblog.com?" This either spoke well for my blog fandom or poorly for my comedy career, but after talking to Ken for a bit longer, I realized he is just what most of us that frequent the Toaster are: baseball addicts. After reading one of his blog entries at his myspace page, I thought it would fit well on our site, as it mixes baseball and music. (By the way, join my friend list at myspace.)
Let me note that I consider the Cubs' the Grateful Dead of baseball. Both show some promise, but generally are underachieving and overrated. The biggest similarity that the Cubs and the Dead share is that they have a passionate fanbase, with the majority enjoying the elements surrounding them more than the actual playing. At least Deadheads have psychedelics to get them through their 20 minute space jams, while the Cubs fans have to rely on cold Buds to blur their scary reality. Now on to Ken Schultz breaking down the 2006 Cubs.
Last year, I wrote that the 2005 Cubs season played out like something from the Depeche Mode songbook. The Cubs organization took notice and made several bold moves to rectify that during the offseason. And now, the 2006 Cubs make the musical output of recovering heroin junkies sound like the original cast recording of Annie. To push the analogy well past its breaking point (Hey, when you've got a skill, you exploit it as much as you can, people...), if the 2006 Cubs were a piece of music, they would sound like The Cure running over Morrisey's puppy. If the 2006 Cubs were a movie character, they would be Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. And at least he got to die having sex with Elizabeth Shue. I think I speak for all of us when I say that Cubs Marketing Boss John McDonough had better plan a similar way to celebrate the death of this season. Best. Fan Appreciation Weekend. Ever.
In other words, this team really...really...really sucks. Usually the Cubs are good fodder for snarky blogging material every week during baseball season. But after watching three and a half months of this year's edition, typing the word "really" with bold and italic font is the best I can do. The 2006 Cubs have sucked so bad, they have managed to suck all the creativity I have to describe the ways in which they suck.
Naturally, Cub fans have worked up a lot of righteous anger over this. And as is to be expected, there is much debate in Chicago over the future of manager Dusty Baker. For instance, one side argues that he should be fired. Meanwhile, the other side argues loudly that he should be fired. It is hoped that eventually these two sides can reach a compromise that will be mutually beneficial to both parties. Former President Jimmy Carter is ready to be called in at a moment's notice. Not so much to mediate but to explain to Dusty that even an 81 year old former peanut farmer knows you should never ever bat Neifi Perez second.
Let me be clear: the past three years have provided more than enough grounds to terminate Dusty Baker's employment. When the act of watching this team starts at booing the 2004 chokejob and then descends to the level of A Clockwork Orange's Little Alex in a straightjacket yelling "IT'S A SIN," changes needs to be made. (And let's face it...if Alex were forced to watch this year's Cubs, he wouldn't need an injection to induce nausea.) But when Dusty is mercifully put out of our misery, that's not going to produce any real change. To get to the heart of the problem, it's time everybody started looking at General Manager Jim Hendry.
Lost in all the exciting memories of the 2003 playoff run was the fact that the Cubs' offense was maddening. Although the pitching staff from that year made certain that the Cubs were in just about every game they played, fans could never be sure if the bats were going to show up that day or not. And every year since then I have said to myself, "I'm not sure this team can get any worse offensively." Naturally, that turns out to be the one category in which the Cubs have annually risen to the occasion. They have tried every strategy possible in assembling an offensive unit from 2004's "home runs or nothing" to 2005's "utter horsesh*t" to 2006's "speedy players who can run from the batters box to the dugout after popping up faster than anyone."
The one strategy that Jim Hendry has stubbornly refused to adopt? That would be the one that the rest of baseball is recognizing as more and more valuable to building a winning team: finding players who get on base. The Cubs are routinely at the bottom of the league in on base percentage and because of this, no matter how high their batting average or home runs, their rank in runs scored ranges from "mediocre" to "draining our will to live." (I would venture to guess that the last words of several elderly Cub fans have been "Jesus Christ, TAKE a G-Damn pitch!") The Cubs are an organization that likes to say that they preach "aggressiveness" throughout their farm system. It is no coincidence that this system has not turned out a major league hitter since Mark Grace. And yet, the media brings up on-base percentage to Hendry, he dismisses it as if the idea that hitters who get on base frequently have a better chance of scoring runs was merely the product of unathletic geeks who couldn't catch a baseball to save their lives typing stats into a computer so they don't run the risk of having to talk to actual women. (OK, I'm a bad example here. But still...) The fact of the matter is that teams that surround their powerful hitters with guys who get on base are the teams that are offensive forces. Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen have David Eckstein. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez have Kevin Youkilis and Mark Loretta. The Cubs? Juan Pierre's pop-outs to shortstop don't cut it.
And that just scratches the surface of Hendry's follies--there's also the bizarre inability to recognize that when Kerry Wood goes on the Disabled List eleven times and Mark Prior follows him with seven, that (Gasp!) constitutes a pattern. Or his downright fetishistic desire to fill the bench with banjo hitting second basemen. (DUSTY: OK guys, we've got the bases loaded with one out and I need a foul pop-up to third...looks like we've got it covered!) And his ludicrous claim that 20 games under .500 at the All Star break means it's time to "start evaluating" his team. These being the Cubs, Hendry was rewarded for assembling this juggernaut with a two year contract extension five days into the season. Because apparently the Cubs' goal for this year was to win three games. And to be fair, given the way things have shaped up, that's turned out to be a pretty lofty achievement.