The current edition of the Cubs is awful. They’ve won six of their first 18, which is awful. But the Cubs know awful better than anybody else.
And so, here’s the start of a short series titled: Terrible Cubs of a Recent Vintage, a (fake) oral history of some of the shittiest Cubs teams in recent memory.
No list of such teams would be complete without the infamous 1997 Cubs. The team that started the season winless in their first 14 games. Really, there’s nothing better than being mathematically eliminated before Tax Day.
JIM RIGGLEMAN, Manager
On paper coming out of Spring Training we looked pretty good. We had an infield of Mark Grace, Ryne Sandberg and Shawon Dunston, and our top prospect, Kevin Orie had won the third base job in the spring. Scotty Servais was our tough as nails catcher, and our outfield was Sammy Sosa, Brian McRae and hot shot rookie Doug Glanville.
DOUG GLANVILLE, OF
I’d played 49 games in 1996 for Riggleman. I don’t think he noticed.
No, that wasn’t Glanville, that was Scott Bullett.
I’m pretty sure it was me…because it was me.
Our pitching. Yeah, I was worried about that a little bit. Phil Regan was our pitching coach, and he wasn’t too confident in our rotation of Steve Trachsel, Terry Mulholland, Kevin Foster, Frank Castillo and Geremi Gonzalez. But our bullpen was pretty strong with Mel Rojas…
PHIL REGAN, Pitching Coach
We’d signed Kevin Tapani in the offseason and he got hurt and couldn’t pitch until the end of July. Mulholland was our best pitcher. Think about that. Terry Mulholland was our best pitcher. There isn’t enough Scotch in the world to make that seem like a good idea.
We drew a tough schedule early. The Marlins had picked up a lot of great players like Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla and Kevin Brown. . The Braves had just won the World Series two years before and gone back the year before. We had five games with each of them the first two weeks. I thought maybe we could split those first ten games and be in good shape.
MARK GRACE, 1B
We were fucking horrible. Orie didn’t hit the ball out of the infield all spring. We signed Mel Fucking Rojas to replace Randy Myers as our closer. Mel Rojas. He looked like Admiral Akbar from the Star Wars movies.
And, we turned Dave Kaplan into a homeless guy.
DAVE KAPLAN, WGN Radio**
When the Cubs were 0-6 I talked to some guys at the station about what we were doing with the WGN Fan Van. One of my buddies’ dad’s worked with McDonald’s and they let us park the van at the McDonald’s across the street from Wrigley. I was going to stay there until the Cubs won. I figured it was going to be a day or two. Little did I know.
GREG MADDUX, SP Atlanta Braves
I didn’t think they were really all that bad. I had a start against them in April (April 6, 1997) and they really made me work. Took me and Mark Wohlers an hour and 47 minutes and 91 pitches to shut them out.
A couple of those guys almost took a walk. (Maddux faced 27 batters and had two three ball counts, one to Brian McRae to lead off the game, one to Scott Servais in the fifth.)
SAMMY SOSA, OF
I thought that was really great, buddy. We had lots of great players on it, you know. I hit 50 homers that year and that was great, man. We lost how many in a row? I can’t say I ever noticed that, man.
The low point? I can’t narrow it down to just one. We got shut out by some guy on the Rockies named Roger Bailey. He threw a five hitter and didn’t strike out anybody. We started six guys that day hitting less than .200. The guy with the highest average in the lineup for us? Brooks Kieschnick. So that was a golden day in Cubs history. But there a lot more where that came from.
When we lost that game to the Rockies, I knew it was going to be a while. One morning at like 8:30 somebody is banging on the door of the van. I figured it was security. We had to have a security guard hang around at night because drunk guys would try to tip the van over. But it was Jim Riggleman. He stopped by to visit.
I wanted to give Kap a little pep talk. And a warning.
He apologized and said, “We’re not really very good. You might be here for a while.” That didn’t bode well.
I had another buddy who lived in one of the buildings with a rooftop, and I could go over there during the day and take a shower. There wasn’t much to do. I’d jog around the outside of the park, eat and shower. Fun times.
ED LYNCH, General Manager
People don’t remember this, but in the offseason before 1996, Craig Biggio was a free agent and wanted to sign with us. We had talked to his agent and it was going to get done. And then Ryne Sandberg decided he wanted to make a comeback and it all went to hell. Biggio got 1955 hits over the next 11 years. Sandberg got 254.
RYNE SANDBERG, 2B
I had retired in 1994 and then there was the strike. The 1995 team was in the playoff race at the end of the season and I realized how much I missed it. The Cubs didn’t have to let me come back. But I’m sure glad they did.
What the fuck were we supposed to do? Our idiot fans loved the guy, even though he’d quit on them two years before. If Ernie Banks had asked to come back, we’d have had a 70 year shortstop. Shit, the way Dunston played that year, it might have been an improvement.
I don’t really want to get into why I retired the first time. It was a combination of physical and personal stuff.
RAFAEL PALMEIRO and DAVE MARTINEZ, Former Cubs
No comment. (Both laugh hysterically.)
YOSH KAWANO, Clubhouse Attendant
They were shitty.
Won our first game in the second half of a doubleheader at Shea against the Mets. It felt like we won the World Series.
BOBBY VALENTINE, Mets Manager
What would Riggleman know about winning a World Series? This year, I just had a team blow a 9-0 lead against the Yankees by giving up 14 runs in two innings, and losing to the Cubs in that game in April 1997 is still the most humiliating thing that’s ever happened to me. You know, though, after the game, I went back to the diner my family owned in Jersey, and we didn’t have much food left, but I took what we had and I’m pretty sure that I invented the Hot Pocket.
JIM GAFFIGAN, Comedian
I’ve never eaten a Hot Pocket and then afterwards been like, I’m glad I ate that. I’m always like, I’m gonna die! I paid for that? Did I eat it, or rub it on my face? My back hurts! Oww!
When they lost the first game of the doubleheader, a crowd started forming around the van. Fans were taunting me. They had an off day the next day. I had a lot riding on that second game. Thank God they won. I was free.
I remember that game, man! I hit a home run, right? No? Oh, then I don’t remember it, buddy. Maybe I stole some bases? No?
TURK WENDELL, RP
Do I remember that day? Of course I do. That morning I killed a deer on the Long Island Expressway. Actually it might not have been a deer. It might have been a homeless guy. Regardless, I shot it, dressed it, and ate the heart in the bullpen while Rojas was fucking things up in the eighth. I came in for the ninth, jumped over some foul lines, brushed some teeth, plowed down a few pathetic Mets hitters and dominated! Can you hold? Ted Nugent is calling on the other line.
MEL ROJAS, RP
I loved my time with the Cubs. I loved when I signed that big contract for $14 million dollars. Then I loved when they traded me to the Mets eight months later.
RAMON TATIS, RP
That year Riggleman pulled me out of a game against the Cardinals for hitting Gary Gaetti on purpose. He said “We don’t do that here.” The other thing they didn’t do there was win.
I remember that. Ray Lankford hit a three run homer off of Tatis. Gaetti was up next and Ramon tried to hit him with the first pitch and missed and then got him with the second one. So I took him out. I got a lot of crap for that from the fans and the talk show hosts. But you can’t go around hitting guys on other teams every time you give up a homer.
We gave up 135 homers that year, second most in the league. We’d have led the league in suspensions. But taking Tatis out because of it sent two messages. Both of them bad.
Yeah, it sent a message. That we were pussies. You know how you prove you’re not a pussy? You beat Frank DiPino up.
FRANK DiPINO, Former Cubs and Cardinals RP
What’s this about? 1997? I was retired by then. Grace? Oh, shit. Yeah he “beat me up” alright. That was 1989 at Busch. I’d been a Cub the two years before and little hotshit Grace was running around town like he was John Travolta. We got into it that year when I was with the Cardinals. He “beat me up” so bad he separated his shoulder. I went 9-0 that year.
You know what? Tell, Grace how much I love Ray Liotta movies.
So what, buddy? You hit the guy after the guy hits the homer? Makes no difference to me. I’m the one hitting the homers, you know, buddy? I remember that game. I hit a homer in it, right? No? Then I don’t remember it. You sure I didn’t hit a couple that day? I hit 50 that year, buddy.
ED HARTIG, Noted Baseball Historian
Sammy didn’t hit 50 homers that year. He hit 36. He drove in 119 runs, but his strikeout to walk was 174/45, and his on base average was only .300. It’s pretty hard to hit that many homers and drive in that many runs and be considered a below average player, but his OPS+ was only 99, because he just never got on base. He ranked 19th in MVP voting, and nobody knows why.
BRIAN MCRAE, OF
Cubs fans suck.
ANDY MACPHAIL, Team President
We had an unfortunate incident that year when fans were booing our team, and Brian McRae said that Cubs fans didn’t understand baseball and that they just want to go to games and get drunk and boo. He was struggling and the team was struggling, and we tried to make some moves before the trade deadline, but nothing quite worked out. After the trade deadline we made a fairly big deal with the Mets.
We traded some of our expensive shit for their expensive shit. Our expensive shit finished with 20 more wins than theirs.
LANCE JOHNSON, OF, Mets and Cubs
It was me, Mark Clark and Manny Alexander to the Cubs for Brian McRae, Mel Rojas and Turk Wendell. I was glad to be back in Chicago. Manny had no clue where he was, and Mark was just happy the Cubs had a big enough hat for him. His head’s huge.
Mets fans kind of suck, too.
I played with a lot of dumb guys, but Manny Alexander was the dumbest. By far.
MANNY ALEXANDER, INF, Mets and Cubs
Manny like Cubs. Manny like Sammy.
Manny was a good dude, buddy. When we’d hang out in the lobby of the hotel, he’s a guy you could trust with a towel filled with $20,00o in it, man.
I liked our team after the trade. We finished strong and I think that was part of our momentum going into 1998 when we won the Wild Card.
They went 13-12 in September, only their second winning month. Their biggest problem was they only went 26-55 on the road. They actually played over .500 at home (42-39).
They traded me to the fucking Pirates! The Pirates! Not the Barry Bonds, Bobby Bo Pirates. They traded me to the Al Martin-Jermaine Allensworth Pirates! The Pirates? And they didn’t get anything back! I got traded for nobody.
We traded Shawon to the Pirates on what’s called a “conditional deal.” Our compensation was dependent on how well Shawon played for them.
I hit .394 for the Pirates with five homers and 16 RBI in 18 games, and the Cubs didn’t get anything for me? What’d I do, play too good?
He played too well, so we didn’t get anybody.
Shawon’s on base average was actually lower (.389) than his batting average (.394) with the Pirates. Maybe that’s why the Cubs didn’t get anything for him?
CAM BONIFAY, Pirates GM
Ed Lynch gave him to us. The only “condition” was that we didn’t give him back.
TERRY MULHOLLAND, P Cubs and Giants
Ed Lynch put me on waivers in August, and the Giants put a claim in on me and he just let them have me. It was pretty cool, actually, because the Giants were my old team, and they were still in the pennant race. And then that offseason I signed back with the Cubs. I kind of got traded for myself.
It’s more than I got traded for. The Pirates?!? The next year I went to the Indians, which was awesome because they played in the World Series the year before. But in July I got traded back to the Giants with Jose Mesa because he threatened to kill Omar Vizquel. I’m not even kidding about that.
KENT BOTTENFIELD, RP
I pitched for the Cubs in 1996 and 1997 and turned my career around in the bullpen there. I thought I was coming back in 1998 but they didn’t try to re-sign me, so I went to St. Louis. Which was kind of ironic because a couple years later the Cubs and Cardinals were both trying to trade for Jim Edmonds from the Angels, and the Angels picked St. Louis’ offer over the Cubs’ because they wanted me.
Don’t remind me.
FRANK CASTILLO, SP
1997 wasn’t all bad. I won a car.
Castillo was the worst hitter ever. I mean, worse than Kevin Orie, even. You watched him take batting practice and if a ball made it to the outfield on a fly it was an accomplishment for Frank. So Brian McRae made him a bet. If he ever hit a home run in batting practice he’d buy Frank a Mercedes.
I sad a “car” not a Mercedes.
He said a Mercedes. And sure enough, one windy day at Wrigley, I got one.
Frank Castillo sucks.
I won 12 games on a team that started 0-14 and only won 68 games for the season. That’s pretty good. So I didn’t suck.
He led the league in losses in 1996. So I stand by it. He sucks. And I hope his car explodes.
The guy I had a lot of hopes for in 1997 was Jeremi Gonzalez. He had a live arm with electric stuff. He really came on like a bolt out of the blue for us that year. He won 11 games, and got off to a nice start in 1998, too. Then he blew out his arm. Sad story.
That was when I spelled my name with a J instead of a G. And before I got struck by lightning on a beach in Venezuela. I’m dead now.
Yeah, 1997 was a tough year. But we learned a lot about our guys and our team, and it really took us to the heights we got to in 1998 when we won that Wild Card Championship. It was really gratifying to use a tough year as a springboard to a championship season, and that championship that we won that year is something I’m extremely proud of. In my book, that championship in 1998 wouldn’t have been possible without the guys from 1997. True champions, all of them.
1998 NEW YORK YANKEES
What kind of fucking “championship” is Riggleman talking about? They finished in second place and backed into a one game playoff and then got swept by the Braves, and the Braves didn’t even make it past the next round?
** – I actually interviewed Dave Kaplan for this. Actually, I e-mailed him to ask him about his van hostage crisis and he loves telling the story so much he called me back. I should try that with Dave Martinez sometime…