The following is the lineup, bench, rotation, and bullpen that the 2003 Cubs brought into the postseason, followed by the same from the 2005 Cubs, in bold CAPS, as we stand right now:
C Damian Miller, MICHAEL BARRETT
1B Eric Karros, DERREK LEE
2B Mark Grudzielanek, TODD WALKER
3B Aramis Ramirez, NOMAR GARCIAPARRA
SS Alex Gonzalez, NEIFI PEREZ
LF Moises Alou, MATT MURTON
CF Kenny Lofton, COREY PATTERSON
RF Sammy Sosa, JEROMY BURNITZ
C Paul Bako, HENRY BLANCO
1B Randall Simon, INF JOSE MACIAS
INF Ramon Martinez, RONNY CEDENO
OF Tom Goodwin, JERRY HAIRSTON, JR.
OF Troy O’Leary, BEN GRIEVE
OF Doug Glanville (2003)
S1 Kerry Wood, CARLOS ZAMBRANO
S2 Mark Prior, MARK PRIOR
S3 Carlos Zambrano, GREG MADDUX
S4 Matt Clement, GLENDON RUSCH
Shawn Estes (bullpen in playoffs), JEROME WILLIAMS
Closer-Joe Borowski, RYAN DEMPSTER
Mike Remlinger, MICHAEL WUERTZ
Kyle Farnsworth, ROBERTO NOVOA
Antonio Alfonseca, TODD WELLEMEYER
Juan Cruz, WILL OHMAN
Mark Guthrie, SCOTT WILLIAMSON
Dave Veres, SERGIO MITRE
When we think about this season’s Chicago Cubs, when we talk about their chances and our eternal hope that they “turn it around,” we do so in a way that suggests that we are waiting for the fulfillment of a promise made two years ago: the promise of a championship. 2003 doesn’t seem that long ago; as fans we link everything together, going easily from the shocking end of 2003 to the excited offseason that brought D. Lee and Maddux, to the acquisition of Nomar and then the final week collapse that left us out of the postseason. From there we go right into the Sosa trade, and then this 2005 season, with fans still hoping for a return to the playoffs and a chance to make the memory of Game 6 bearable. Our lives may have changed over that time—since Game 7 of the NLCS I’ve graduated college, gotten a serious girlfriend, driven around the country, gotten professional freelance journalism work, and begun my overall transition into adulthood—and yet these changes can mostly be attributed to my age, an age at which people go through a lot of change in rapid succession. My parents’ lives have not changed dramatically, nor has my brother’s or grandmother’s.
And the timeline of the Cubs is strung together so tightly, from playoffs to offseason to season to another offseason and finally to another season, that it’s difficult to even realize the absurdity in looking at the past three seasons as a consistent continuation. With Aramis Ramirez and Kerry Wood injured right now, only Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano remain from the team that lost to the Florida Marlins in the 2003 NLCS. With the exception of Corey Patterson, who was injured then, not one single position player who will suit up for us this week was on that team. The bullpen is entirely different, as is the bench; only the starting rotation anchored by Wood, Prior, and Zambrano looks the same as it did two years ago. And yet we look at this team over the course of the past three years as if it is one singular entity, one group “on a mission,” one group looking to right the wrongs and “get back to the playoffs.”
Of course, in 2003, Nomar and Todd Walker were dealing with their own tragic losses with the Red Sox. Michael Barrett was coming of age in Montreal. Greg Maddux was pitching in yet another Atlanta Braves postseason. And Derrek Lee, God love him, was busy winning a World Series with the Marlins.
Dad always says that the one thing that made watching and following sports teams significantly better in his day than in mine is that in his day, you knew all of the players on the team. It wasn’t just about watching your team play—my dad was a Cubs fan, a Bears fan, and a Blackhawks fan—but it was about watching the guys on your team play, the guys you grew up with, the guys who grew up with you. Ernie Banks, Dick Butkus, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Gale Sayers, Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito…these weren’t just players who happened to be wearing the uniforms of the teams that my dad loved; these guys were those teams. Like Reggie Miller, Brett Favre, Cal Ripken, Jr…the guys that my dad cheered for lived and died with the ball clubs they played for; their colors and logos were just as important to them as they were to my dad.
What do we have now? Now we have change. Grand sweeping change that is so common that we hardly even notice it, just as we haven’t noticed the change in the Cubs roster the last three years. Muhsin Muhammad signs with the Bears, and because of his past credentials, and because he seems like a nice guy…and, of course, because he’s playing for us…we like him. We cheer for him. We support him no matter what. He has clearly embraced Chicago. He has fit in right away. Other guys, it’s not as easy. Thomas Jones is loved by the fans now, but his transition was a rough one because he had to supplant a guy who we loved.
A year ago, Anthony Thomas was the fan favorite running back. He was an underdog, a second round draft choice, a guy who was always described as “OK…but nothing special.” But we rode him to a 13-3 season, to a division title, to a playoff game. Management tried to replace him, but he played hard, won the Rookie of the Year, and rushed for 1,000 yards twice in three seasons. We related to him. He wasn’t the best back in the game, and he wasn’t going to recall images of Payton or Sayers or Grange or even Neal Anderson, whose number 35 he shared, but in his own way he became OUR running back, the A-Train, power inside and that surprise burst of speed outside when he saw the end zone.
Then we signed Thomas Jones. Snatched him right up on the first night of free agency. Drafted with the seventh overall pick in 2000 by the Cardinals, Jones flopped in Arizona before signing with Tampa Bay in 2003 and turning his career around. Now here he was, a big free agent signee, big smiling face as he held his new helmet, OUR helmet. He was playing for us, now, for our team, and we knew that he was going to take Train’s job, and it didn’t feel right. In the second game of the season, TJ ran for 152 yards and a score against Green Bay. He broke a 54-yard run, which was exciting…but it didn’t entirely feel like ours.
On the other hand, when Brian Urlacher hit Ahman Green and forced a fumble, and Mike Brown scooped it up and went 92 yards for a score, that one was ours. Those were our guys making that play. Two Bears draftees, Urlacher in the first round of 2000, and thirty picks later, Brown in the second. Urlacher is the national favorite; Brown the fan favorite. Urlacher draws comparisons to Butkus and Singletary; Brown to Plank and Fencik. These guys were leaders of the 2001 team, guys who we love, guys who we look at and say, “That’s Bears football.” When Brown ran that fumble back, the city ran with him. When Jones took off on that 54 yard dash, we cheered, and thought to ourselves, “It’s nice to see the new guy pitching in.”
Jones had a decent season, but his injury in the Week 8 game against the 49ers opened the door for Anthony Thomas, and he did not disappoint. Over a three game stretch with Jones injured, Train went for 98 yards on 25 carries, 110 yards on 28 carries and two scores, and 72 yards on 29 carries. Most importantly, the Bears won all three games, and it was clear that Train was a big reason why. And we cheered for him. We yelled for him. We wore his jersey and called him name, and said to ourselves, “That’s Bears football. That’s Anthony Thomas, our guy, the A-Train.” But Jones returned from injury, and Train fell back out of the picture. When the offseason came, we knew that was probably the end, and then the Bears used the fourth pick in the draft to take Cedric Benson, and we folded up our THOMAS 35 jerseys and said goodbye.
But a funny thing happened: Benson held out. Missed the whole preseason over some amount of money that none of us will ever come close to having. Took up space in our newspapers and on our sports sections with articles about his contract negotiations. Meanwhile, Thomas Jones started running. He ran tough all preseason, picking up big yards and touchdowns, and pointing to the Soldier Field fans as he did it. In the win over the Colts in Indianapolis, TJ broke a big run and then saluted the Bear fans in attendance. “This is my guy,” I noticed myself thinking. Benson finally signed, but Jones was running so well that we wouldn’t have cared if Benson had held out the entire season. It is now Thomas Jones who we look to, the man whose career was dead in Arizona but who fought hard and played hard and has turned it around with us. He is ours now, and on each big run, each TD scamper, we’re right there with him. JONES 20, all the way.
Still, Jones is only a two-year Bear. My heart remains loyal to the guys who have been around, and as I look at this team I see that there are quite a few. Olin Kreutz and Patrick Mannelly have been with the team since ’98, making them the longest tenured current Bears. Jerry Azumah has been around since ’99, with Urlacher, Brown, and Michael Green holdovers from the 2000 draft. Lance Briggs, Alex Brown, Justin Gage, and Bobby Wade have the look of guys who will be Bears for a while.
The Cubs’ roster has turned over almost completely over the past three seasons. Meanwhile, the Bears are melding into a club that looks like it could be around for a while, and if you understand the difference between the two, then you understand why I’m so excited for this current Bulls team. As we speak, the Bulls are preparing for their 2005-06 season, and I am beyond excited. It’s not just the wins, or the playoffs. It’s the young nucleus, Kirk and Ben and Tyson and Duhon and Luol, guys who look good in the red and black, guys who look committed to Chicago. I’ll never have what my dad had—it’s just not realistic anymore—but if I can get just a taste, I’ll be a happy sports fan.