36 Days to Opening Day and, as we approach five weeks to go, it’s interesting that the number 36 in Cubs lore has best been worn on the mound. In fact, you could actually make a pretty nice starting rotation with nothing else.
You have to stretch a little bit, but stretching never hurt any of us.
At the top of the rotation you have Mike Morgan. He was never necessarily an “ace” by any stretch of the imagination. However, let’s be honest, using our imagination is what we’re doing here – so play along. Morgan had a career that spanned 22 years – only three of those with the Cubs. But it was 1992, in his first year with the team, that he had the best season of his career: 16-8, 2.55 in 240 innings, including six complete games. For a year, that sounds like an “ace”.
Next up, Mike Bielecki. Again, not exactly a guy headed to Cooperstown. He won all of 70 games in his 14-year major league career. He won 52 of those 70 in a 4-year span from 1989-1992 with the Cubbies – going 18-8 in the NL East division-winning season of 1989. Yeah, at one time, it was Maddux…then Bielecki. Wrap your heads around that.
When the Cubs acquired Kevin Tapani going into the 1997 season, I was one of the few that was extremely happy about it. A veteran who knew how to win. It was exactly what the Cubs needed at the time. He didn’t pitch much in 1997 – only 13 starts. But, he made his mark in 1998 going 19-9 to help lead the Cubs to that improbable playoff berth. Unfortunately, he maxed himself out in 1998 and was never the same after that, retiring three years later without ever having another winning season. Tapani maxed out in 1998…that means he fit in awfully well. I believe Rod Beck and his 51 saves would agree. That entire team maxed out.
Randy Wells debuted in number 36 for the Cubs in 2009 and was sixth in Rookie of the Year voting after a 12-10 season. If you had told me that would be it for the 26-year old in the majors, as far as any success goes, I would have thought you were nuts. I think it surprised management, too. For a short time, and it wasn’t that long ago, Cub fans thought Wells would be a part of the rotation for at least a few more successful years. Never happened. But in 2009, he wore 36 pretty well.
Finally, to close out the rotation you need a leader. Someone who can be the glue that holds it all together. My final number 36 isn’t a pitcher (remember we are using our imagination here), he’s a leader in every sense of the word. Gary Matthews, Sr. “The Sarge”. Not sure much else needs to be said, but if you were around in 1984 and saw the way he led that team, his salutes to the fans in the left-field bleachers on a daily basis – and more importantly, their return salutes – you’d know that Ryne Sandberg was the National League MVP that year, but Matthews may have been the MVP in Chicago. They get nowhere near Game Five failure in San Diego without him.