Chicago Cubs: Hell didn’t freeze over in 2004
In their 2004 baseball preview, Sports Illustrated famously declared, “Hell Freezes Over” in predicting that the Cubs would win the World Series. Indeed, there was plenty of reason to be optimistic.
In spite of the disappointing ending to 2003, falling one game short of the World Series, the Cubs were an up-and-coming team thanks largely to their still young and talented pitching staff that included Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, and Carlos Zambrano. They also made several additions prior to the 2004 season, including a veteran Greg Maddux for the pitching staff and slugging first baseman Derrek Lee.
It didn’t work out quite as well as we expected; in fact, a two-game sweep at the hands of the Cardinals in July saw the Cubs drop to just 49-44 and fall ten games out of first place to St. Louis. Still, spurred in part by a trade for Nomar Garciaparra, the team was able to get to 87-66 after beating the Mets on September 24 and held the National League Wild Card spot.
Then came one of the most devastating regular season losses perhaps in Cubs history. One strike away from victory against the lowly Mets in New York on September 25, LaTroy Hawkins gave up a game-tying three-run home run to Victor Diaz, sending the game into extras. Craig Brazell then hit a walk-off homer off Kent Mercker in the 11th; it would be the only home run of Brazell’s career.
That started a downward spiral in which the Cubs lost seven of eight while the Houston Astros passed them for the National League Wild Card spot. Of those seven losses, five were by one run and three were in extra innings, including another ninth inning blown save by Hawkins at home to the Cincinnati Reds.
Adding to the drama was the feud between the announcers and the players. Chip Caray and Steve Stone, both of whom would leave after the 2004 season, were the target of the players’ ire for their criticism of the team down the stretch; in fact, Mercker actually called the booth during one of the games. The seeming lack of focus by the players made this a pretty unlikable team.