Should've Swallowed the Blue Pill

Were Cub fans living in <I>The Matrix</I> for the first 152 games of the season? An artificial world where we were programmed to think everything was proceeding as planned towards a Wild Card berth?

Steve Stone, playing the role of Morpheus, tried to warn us that all was not well, but Agent Smith (played by Dusty Baker, Moises Alou and Kent Mercker) quickly unplugged him. It was too late.

Once fans caught a glimpse of what the real Cubs looked like, it was impossible to turn back. For the last ten games of the season, Cub fans collectively swallowed a bitter red pill, obliterating the fragile Wrigley Field façade to reveal an ugly, crumbling reality: a team with serious flaws that not even Mark Prior, who did his best "Neo" impersonation in a heroic final start, could mask.

If the fans voted for a team MVP right now, Stone would win by a landslide. That tells you everything you need to know about the 2004 Chicago Cubs.

They say it is better to have loved and lost then to never have loved at all. This year, fans were prepared to love the Cubs like never before. More than three million pushed their way through the Wrigley turnstiles for the first time in history, and tens of thousands trekked to ballparks around the country with fanatical devotion.

But while the fans loved, the Cubs lost. Not just the games, but their chemistry, their sanity and whatever it was that that propelled the team on their September run of last year.

Too often, a handful of players acted as if the names on the back of their jerseys should be on the front, placing personal gripes and emotions ahead of the collective good of the team. It is one thing to wear your heart on your sleeve, as Carlos Zambrano often does so well, but quite another to sew your ego there as well.

Beneath the fans' blind love was a simmering disgust, partly born out of high expectations, but mostly due to breakdowns in conduct and chemistry.

Throughout the season, especially at the bitter end, Prior insisted the team was having fun. I had to wonder which dugout he was sitting in.

Was there a more appropriate snapshot of the season then having the Cubs GM and Manager spend the eve of playoff elimination scolding scapegoat du jour Stone? Fans expected no less in a season flush with more conspiracy theories than, well, an Oliver Stone film.

Back when 70-win seasons were an accomplishment, fans would sit in the bleachers during batting practice proclaiming that even though it was August, and the Cubs were 17 games out of first place, it was still mathematically possible to win the division. And even when the pennant failed to materialize, year after year, most fans went home relatively placated.

Those days of minimalist expectations are long gone, and it wasn't just the players and coaching staff that struggled to adjust. Fans unaccustomed to supporting a pre-season World Series favorite booed often and loudly. At the beginning of the year, they booed new additions Derrek Lee and Greg Maddux. Then, when those two players got back on track, they booed it was Corey Patterson. When Patterson got hot, they went after Kyle Farnsworth, then Sammy Sosa, LaTroy Hawkins, etc., etc., etc.

While the players and coaches have earned the majority of scorn for this season's shortcomings, the fans will enter next season wiser when it comes to separating performance from expectations.

As far as reaching the 2004 playoffs, the Cubs, often buried, kept one foot out of the grave for much of the season. But on Tuesday, those fans watched helplessly as the coffin was lowered. On Wednesday, the Cubs piled on the dirt, and finally on Thursday, the proverbial nail was hammered down during a 12-inning affair in which every team weakness was exposed for the entire world to see.

During Thursday's loss to the Reds, the wave in its cruelest form was on display at Wrigley as fans rose from their seats at critical moments, only to fall again a minute later when stranded runners, inevitably, tossed helmets aside and waited for their gloves.

Do not mistake the final week of one-run losses for competitive baseball. Keep in mind, the Mets and Reds were playing out the schedule, while the Braves' lone goal was to avoid injuries.

The season did have its share of bright spots, of course.

Zambrano and Aramis Ramirez arrived as two of the premier players in the league. Lee and Maddux overcame shaky starts to deliver consistent production and of course stellar defense. Jim Hendry displayed his acumen by bringing over a catcher left for dead in Montreal that came to life like a kid in a candy store from the minute he walked into Wrigley Field. And Glendon Rusch emerged as this year's Joe Borowski, a savior with mediocre talent that somehow found a way to get the job done time and time again.

Alou's numbers were great, but his accomplishments were often undone by what happened after he left the batter's box. Others showed flashes of brilliance that were lost within longer streaks of ineptness.

Speaking on the final week's one-run losses, Baker had this to say:

"We were due to win one of these. Geez, man. I can't explain it."

None of the players, at least on the record, can either. How truly does one explain a complete offensive meltdown from top to bottom?

This is a question that Hendry will have to examine closely in the coming weeks. The offense is fundamentally flawed as a unit, but should still have been good enough to ride the final week into the post-season.

Was it just a really bad week that needs to be forgotten, or a product of a manager who failed to maximize the talent on his lineup card? Hendry's answer will dictate whether or not he will orchestrate Extreme Makeover: Cubs Edition during the off-season, or if team's ride will merely be "pimped."

Hendry's task is complicated by measuring 2004 against a perception that things were much worse than they really were. How is it that a Cubs team besting its 2003 win total seemed inferior in so many respects? Why is it that even though the team won 89 games, I can only recall three of them? (No wait, they lost that one, so I guess only two of them.)

Perhaps it was all the excruciating one-run losses, the lack of dramatic comebacks, the suspensions, the coaching blunders, the running foibles, the fact that Prior and Kerry Wood finished a combined one game over .500, and of course, the injuries.

The most painful part to the conclusion of the 2004 season, however, is that there is no black cat streaking by the on-deck circle, no goat sneaking through the turnstile, or a well-intended fan lost in the play-by-play on his retro walkman.

No, it was a 120-win team on paper that won 89 games because it executed like a 60-win team.

The failure this season is a failure in execution. It is a failure in leadership; a failure to use the God-given and superior ability these players had to its fullest potential; a failure to earn the respect of fans, the league office, the umpires, and the television crew. I could go on and on.

It is a season that cannot be excused. It is a season when playoff tickets were printed but never used. 2003 will be remembered as the season that almost was. 2004 will go down as the season that never was, and hopefully never will be again.

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