Monday, October 24, 2016

Confessions of a Cubs Bandwagon Jumper

``YOU ARE A WAGON-JUMPING FRAUD," my wife told me on Sunday.

She's right. I am. Guilty as charged. Wearing a blue Chicago Cubs t-shirt on the day after they'd won their first National League pennant since 1945, what right have I -- a life-long Mets fan -- to cheer for a team I avoided supporting for almost a decade while living just blocks from Wrigley Field?

Last place Mets beat
the 5th place Cubs, 2-0.
None really.

Bandwagon jumper. Hypocrite. Front-runner. Fraud. "You're honor, the defendant would like to enter a plea of `Nolo contendre.'" Still, I can't help but cheer for the team I expressly rejected in favor of their less-popular intra-city rivals, the White Sox, while there.

My meager, pathetic justification is this:

I was born in an NL New York household, a son of Brooklynites abandoned by the Dodgers and morally unwilling and unable to embrace the Yankees, an act my father said was tantamount to cheering for the First National City Bank.

So, it was root for the Mets and whoever was against the Yankees, a pretty easy edict, even after I left home in 1983 for college in Boston, where the enemy of my enemy was the Red Sox. That all changed of course in 1986, when the formerly-down-trodden Mets -- who were a last place team in '83, 82, 79, 78 and 77 -- collided with the still-hexed Sox in the 1986 World Series.

There comes a time in every fan's life where his loyalty is tested, where the ties that bind one, heart and soul, to the old home team are strained by circumstance, by peer pressure, by the urge to try a new relationship. And so it was that I had blended with Red Sox nation. I wore the clothes, I bought $3 bleacher seats. I munched Sports Bars, drank beer and imbibed the lore... about the heartaches wrought by Series losses in '46 and '67 and '75, Pesky's hesitation, Gibson's dominance, Armbrister's interference. I already knew about the karmic wound inflicted by Bucky "Bleeping" Dent.

Dykstra led off with a homer.
The Mets never trailed.
Still, I was in Boston and the Mets I'd left behind had inflicted their own karmic wounds. I'd seen Neil Allen hang too many curveballs swatted into oblivion by the likes of the Cubs' Dave Kingman and the Philadelphia Phillies' Bo Diaz.

How much worse could it be to root for the Red Sox? Dumb question, right? For feckless me, it wasn't really one I had to answer. Red Sox history was something I learned in college. The Mets were my religion. When forced to choose, my faith won out.

And so it would be, 20 years later, when I found myself moving to Chicago while the White Sox were the champs and the Mets seemed to be a rising NL East power.

Why adopt the Cubs? Why absorb their lore: the Billy Goat curse, Leon Durham's error, the Steve Bartman incident? Why should I -- by then a long-suffering Mets, Jets and Islanders fan -- take on their burden when I had better options? Besides, rooting for another NL team was a conflict of interest (a rule I still observe to this day).

Cynical, middle-aged me.

For a time, it worked, especially for one golden inning on an ungodly hot Summer Sunday at Wrigley Field when the Mets pummeled a succession of Cubs pitchers for 11 runs, including three homers, two of which were grand slams.

The rising power Mets were soon humiliated by an Adam Wainwright curveball in the Autumn of '06, then bedeviled by late-season collapses in '07 and '08, failures that coincided with back-to-back NL Central titles for the Cubs and another playoff appearance for the White Sox.

Struggling Mets 7,
Struggling Cubs 4
Still, having left New York, more or less for good, I clung more tenaciously to my roots, my Mets, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. But the Cubs, their fans and their city made a deep impression, one that remains to this day.

Truth is I had a sneaking admiration for the Cubs' aesthetic, the classic uniforms, the bullseye logo largely unchanged since I was a kid, the ballpark, the neighborhood, the absurdly optimistic fight song sung there with conviction. "Go Cubs! Go!"

Chicagoans care passionately about their city. It may seem to those who don't live there that it's one big free-fire zone, but it's not, and everyone wants it to be a better place. The people who live there have a civic pride the likes of which I've never known. The Cubs evoke an even deeper passion. Despite 108 years of failure, their fans endure. Their enthusiasm never wanes. Even with ample justification. Their hope never dies. They've suffered and suffered and suffered some more.

They've paid their dues in spades.

Meanwhile the Mets are done until next Spring. Unlike last season, there are no operable conflicts of interest. With all due respect to fans of the Cleveland Indians -- waiting since 1948 for a World Series winner to call their own -- the Cubs and their fans have waited 40 years more. I want this for them.

Go Cubs, Go!

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Sunday, October 16, 2016

1981 Coda: Les Expos Nous Souviens

A PERPETUAL FIRE SALEAnyone who came of age after the wrecked season of 1994 can be forgiven for thinking the Montreal Expos were never anything but that. To all appearances they were a forlorn franchise in a foreign outpost whose destiny it was to develop top-flight players and then part with them.

The roster of the departed is as dazzling is it is dispiriting.
  • Pedro Martinez, 2015 Hall of Fame inductee, traded after winning the 1997 National League Cy Young to the Boston Red Sox for the oft-injured Carl Pavano;
  • Five-tool right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, who arrived in 1996, quickly became a perennial MVP candidate and finally won the award in 2005, his first season with the then-Anaheim Angels;
  • Oufielder Larry Walker graduated to the club in 1989, batted .322 in 1994, then left for a 10-year stint with the Colorado Rockies, where he won three batting titles and the 1997 MVP award;
  • Closer John Wetteland left after '94, then saved 74 games for the New York Yankees over the next two years, the second of which was a championship season;
  • plus '94 All-Star pitcher Ken Hill and All-Star outfielder Marquis Grissom and, later, All-Star outfielder Moises Alou
  • and after the 2004 season, the entire franchise, removed to Washington as the Nationals.
La serie soulement.
It wasn't always that way. There was a time when the Expos were a rising force in the National League with a roster that included ratified Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson, the Hall-worthy Tim Raines and ace reliever Jeff Reardon, a/k/a "The Terminator."

Their high-water mark was the strike-torn 1981 season. A microcosm of Expos' history, it ended sadly.

Though treading water for much of the 1970s, the team was accumulating talented players, starter Steve Rogers arrived in '73, Carter in '74, rifle-armed right fielder Ellis Valentine in '75, outfielder Warren Cromartie for keeps in '76, NL Rookie of the Year Dawson in '77, versatile Tim Wallach in '80 and Raines in '81, the year they dealt Valentine to the New York Mets for Reardon.

After finishing 10 games below. 500 in 1978, they burst into the upper echelon of the NL East, winning 95 games the next year and finishing two back of the eventual World Champion Pittsburg Pirates. Attendance at their cavernous concrete saucer, Olympic Stadium, jumped too, from 1.4 million to 2.1 million. 

While winning just 90 games the next season, they edged closer, finishing a game behind the eventual World Champion Philadelphia Phillies as 2.2 million came to watch.

Finally, amid the rubble of the '81 split season, the Expos finished first in its second half and then beat the Phillies in the first and last NL East Division Series for the right to play the Los Angeles Dodgers for the flag.

Opening the best-of-five round in L.A., the more experienced Dodgers won game 1, then dropped contests 2 and 3. The Expos now had two chances to win Canada's first pennant and do it in Montreal.

Game 4 was still 1-1 in the eighth when L.A. left fielder Dusty Baker singled and Dodger ironman Steve Garvey followed with a home run. The visitors tallied four more times in the ninth to put the game away, 7-1, and even the series at two wins a piece. 

Game 5, for both sides, would be win-or-go-home.

Rookie sensation Fernando Valenzuela started for the Dodgers. His opponent was journeyman Ray Burris, who'd out pitched the phenom in game 2, shutting out L.A., 3-0. Each allowed only allowed a single run scored on a ground ball out. After eight innings, the score stood 1-1.

Expos rookie manager Jim Fanning summoned Rogers, a starter who'd gone 12-8 during the abbreviated campaign, to pitch the ninth. He retired Garvey on a first-pitch pop up, then third-sacker Ron Cey on a deep fly to left.

What happened next may have been the first domino in the long chain of events that destroyed the Expos.

Rogers fell behind Rick Monday, 3-1, then left a pitch up and out over the plate. The Dodger right fielder crushed it. Dawson chased the ball as far as the field would let him, stopping only at a fence too high for heroics, and watched it sail out of sight. A half inning later, L.A. would win 2-1.

Saison finis.

Blue Monday, they called it. To this day, it remains the closest the Expos and their lineal descendants, the Nationals, have ever gotten to the World Series.

Attendance climbed to 2.3 million in '82 and '83, but the team's performance slipped, triggering an era of rebuilding. Carter departed, as did Dawson and Raines, but eventually new heroes arrived. Another strike, in '94, ended the season at mid-year with the Expos holding a suddenly worthless 74-40 record, the best in baseball. 

Caught short by the resulting new economics of baseball, they never recovered.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Upstart Brewers Take the Yankees to the Brink - Remembering the First A.L. East Division Series

THEY RODE IN FROM THE MIDLANDS, unshaven, unkempt and unproven. Upstarts who'd never before appeared in the post season, the Milwaukee Brewers came to challenge the coiffed, corporate, pinstriped enterprise known as the New York Yankees.

One hundred Octobers after Ike Clanton's cowboys faced off against Marshal Wyatt Earp, his brothers and Doc Holliday at Tombstone, AZ's OK Corral, a new gang of have-nots arose to challenge an established order. The setting for this showdown was Yankee Stadium, a place hallowed not by tombstones, but monuments.

The once-in-a-lifetime intra-division playoff
Each faction had pushed the other to the edge.

It was the fifth and deciding game of the American League Eastern Division Series, a one-of-a-kind play-off round necessitated by a work stoppage that gutted the middle of the 1981 Major League Baseball season.

The strike had forced the Powers That Be to conjure a plan to rekindle pennant races in a season with too few games left to allow most teams to make up necessary ground.

It would be a split season. Those in first when play stopped -- including the defending division champ Yankees -- would be credited with winning half of that title. Whomever sat atop the same pile in October, got the other half.

Possession of the divisional crowns would be decided in best-of-five series played out across the quadrants of baseball.

Oct. 11, 1981
The Yankees had won the AL East four times in the previous five years, but knocking at the penthouse door since '78, the Brewers were poised to barge in and evict their overlords. The Bombers won the' first two games, in Milwaukee. The Brewers fought back, winning the next pair in New York.

Their leader, fireman Rollie Fingers, would win the '81 Cy Young award as the AL's best pitcher plus its Most Valuable Player award and -- ultimately -- election to baseball's Hall of Fame. Behind him, unkempt 6'4" starter Pete Vuckovich won 14 games to lead the league. Behind them: scruffy, slugging centerfielder Gorman Thomas, future two-time MVP Robin Yount, plus hit-machine Paul Molitor -- both of them future 3,000-hit-club members and Hall inductees -- and perennial .300 hitter Cecil Cooper.

The Yankees boasted several stars of their own. Outfielders Reggie Jackson, a/k/a "Mr. October" and Dave Winfield were Hall-bound, as was reliever Rich "Goose" Gossage. Bolstering them: three-time 20-game winner Tommy John, eventual '81 Rookie of the Year Dave Righetti and that night's starter, '78 Cy Young winner Ron Guidry, a/k/a "Louisiana Lightening," a/a/k/a "Gator."

Moose Haas, a/k/a "Moose Haas" took the mound for Milwaukee.

From that night's program, a look at the man
behind baseball's most famous mustache..
Before a crowd of 47,505, Thomas opened the scoring with a homer off Guidry in the second. Cooper drove home a run in the third. Clantons 2, Earps 0.

The lawmen retaliated in the bottom of the fourth. Yankee shortstop Larry Milbourne singled. Haas then retired Winfield on a fly ball to right. It was the last out he'd get. Jackson homered to tie the score. Designated hitter Oscar Gamble did too, giving New York the lead.

The Moose was cooked. For the second time in the series, he'd not escape the fourth inning. Mike Caldwell, ordinarily a starter, came on in relief, but the man known as The Yankee Killer for his success against the Bronx Bombers, had none, yielding two more hits and a run before being lifted too.

Establishment 4, Upstarts 2.

Guidry gave way to Righetti in the fifth. He held the Brewers scoreless until the seventh when, with two outs, Yount tripled. Cooper's single drove him home. 4-3. Catcher Rick Cerone's homer in the bottom half restored the Yankees' cushion, 5-3.

Milwaukee threatened in the eighth, coaxing two walks from Gossage but could not plate a run. It was their last rally of the season.

In the bottom of the frame, Milbourne -- the Yankees' least famous starter -- led off with his third hit of the game, a single. Winfield, who team owner George Steinbrenner would later deride as "Mr. May", flied to center completing an 0-4 night. Mr. October singled, then pinch hitter Lou Piniella's double cleared the bases. New York 7, Milwaukee 3.

The game as scored.
Molitor and Yount who collectively amassed 6,461 hits during their careers, could not muster one against Gossage in the ninth. Then Cooper, who'd driven in two of the three Brewer runs, popped out to Yankee third-baseman Graig Nettles.

Game over. Series over.

The Yankees would dispose of the Oakland A's, led by their once-and-future skipper Billy Martin, in the AL Championship Series, and then lose to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.

Era over.

The Bombers had a losing record in 1982 and didn't return to the post-season until 1995.

The Brewers would bounce back with aplomb. Sparked by Yount's MVP season, a Cy Young-award-winning year from Vuckovich, and an inspiring one-legged manager, Harvey Kuenn, the team nicknamed "Harvey's Wallbangers" won the '82 AL flag, but lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in a 7-game World Series.

To date, it's the only pennant they've won.

The Brewers moved to the National League in 1998.

Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Year Baseball Screwed the Cincinnati Reds

IF YOU GOOGLE the phrase "best record in baseball 1981," then click the "images" tab, the first picture you're likely see is this one:

Still housed on the Cincinnati Reds' website, it depicts a dour, sour grapes celebration, and like all pictures it tells a story. It goes like this:

Major League Baseball doesn't recognize regular season champions in the manner of, say, the National Hockey League. There's no official trophy and no flag. So this one is atypical. The best-record reward is, rather, home field advantage for the league playoffs.  Once having secured said best record, said team is ordinarily permitted to participate in said playoffs.

The 19-%$#@!-81 Reds Yearbook
And there was the rub for the '81 Reds.

Their prize for compiling baseball's best record 35 years ago was the knowledge of a job well done and and that disconsolate D.I.Y. pennant. They got to watch the playoffs -- all three rounds of them that year -- at home.

All of this because of the Baseball Strike of 1981, a labor/management dispute over compensation for teams losing players to other teams through free agency. What in retrospect seems little more than an asterisk in the history of MLB/MLBPA relations was casus belli that summer and -- spanning June 12 to July 31 -- it wiped out more a third of the MLB schedule.

The Reds played just 108 games that year, 54 less than in a standard season, and won 66, compiling a .611 winning percentage. The next-best NL record belonged to the St. Louis Cardinals, who played just 102 games and won 59, good for a .578 winning percentage. There would be no playoffs for them either.

When play resumed, the lords of baseball decreed the season would be split in two, giving even those teams near or at the bottom of the standings when play stopped a chance at the playoffs.

It was not a decision worthy of Solomon.

The four teams first place when the strike began were declared first-half "winners." Won/lost records were re-set to 0-0, and the races started anew. Second-half "winners" would play their first-half counterparts in big league baseball's first-ever division series.

George Foster, 1977 NL MVP, 1982 Reds Alumn
When play paused in June, the defending World Champion Philadelphia Phillies led the NL East, while the Los Angeles Dodgers perched atop the NL West. 

When the second half ended, they'd been supplanted by the Montreal Expos and Houston Astros. Guaranteed entry to the playoffs, the Phillies had slipped to third, 25-27, while the Dodgers, at 27-26, fell to fourth.

The consistent and unlucky Cardinals and Reds finished second in each half and -- in this pre-Wild Card era -- out of the dance. Uninvited. Montreal toppled Philly in the division series for their first and last NL East title. The Dodgers out dueled the Astros in the West, then extinguished the Expos, capturing the flag on foreign soil.

Fate proved more kind in the American League where the Milwaukee Brewers and Oakland A's, who had the best combined AL records, each managed a first-place finish too. The Brewers fell to the first-half winner Yankees in the east while the A's deposed the Royals out west. The defending AL champs had earned their berth by winning the second half despite of an overall losing record, 50-53.

Los Angeles beat New York in the series, four games to two.

The Cardinals rebounded from their strike-year disappointment to win the 1982 World Series, beating the then AL champ Brewers in seven en route to becoming an NL power. St. Louis would return to the series again in 1985 and 87.

But for Cincinnati's mighty Big Red Machine, this was the end. The team that had finished first six times in the 70s, won four pennants and two world championships, vanished from the post-season for an entire decade.

Ken Griffey Sr. left the Reds for New York after 1981.
In 1988, he came back.
That winter their starting outfield left for New York: George Foster via trade to the Mets, while Ken Griffey Sr. and Dave Collins were acquired by the Yankees.

In 1982, the Reds finished last for the first time since 1937. They finished last again in '83.

The strike year also marked a turning point for Reds ace Tom Seaver, who posted a 14-2 record. Though his .875 winning percentage was baseball's best, the NL Cy Young Award went to Dodgers rookie phenom Fernando Valenzuela, who finished 13-7.

It was Seaver's last year as an elite pitcher. After slumping to 5-13 in '82, he was dealt to the Mets for whom he'd once starred. After just a single season there, in which he went 9-14, the man known to New York fans as "The Franchise" was left unprotected from the free-agent compensation pool fought over in 1981 and was claimed by the Chicago White Sox, who'd lost a pitcher to the Blue Jays.

After 1985, the use of Major League players as free agent compensation was scrapped in favor of amateur draft picks, the system still in use today.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive