The 1989 Cubs and the Disease of Hope

The 1989 Cubs and the Disease of Hope

Somewhere in a Chicago area convenience store, a 30-something Cubs fan is thumbing through the pages of his baseball preview.

The prospects for next year look bleak.  A cast of has-beens and could've-beens and probably-wont's fill the roster page.  The projection shows 4th in the NL Central.  For all intents and purposes, it's going to be a long season.

Unfortunately, this writer carries a life-threatening disease. 

It's called 'The Disease of '89'; an improbable case of hope that plagues every Cubs fan over the age of 30.  The thought that a group of rookies, cast-offs, and injury-prone players came together for a 93 win season keeps that sliver of hope alive.  It's this sliver of hope that has diseased every Cubs fan from ages 30-100.

No matter what the projection shows, no matter where the players came from, no matter what little ray of hope exists, this group of hopeless Cubs fans clings on to hope of '89.

The 1989 Cubs came off a 78-83 season.  Greg Maddux was the only pitcher of notice, the bullpen was atrocious, and the depth offensively was of major concern.  They did have some shine, however: Mark Grace had come up to hit .296, Vance Law had unexpectedly hit .293, and some new kid by the name of Rafael Palmeiro hit .307.  Dunston, Sandberg, and Dawson all made the All-Star Game.  However, without starting pitching or a bullpen, the Cubs were in trouble.

In typical Cubs fashion, general manager Jim Frey reacted to his bullpen woes by trading future Hall of Famer Rafael Palmeiro for the star trio of Curtis Wilkerson, Paul Kilgus, and some little-known reliever named Mitch Williams.

The Cubs were projected to finish last in every major publication.  The Mets, who had won 100 games the previous year, were heavy favorites. 

Then, something crazy happened.  The 1989 Cubs needed about 10 different unrealistic things to happen to compete in the N.L. East.  It was the only way they could compete against the Mets, Expos, and Cards. 

And it all happened.

Greg Maddux needed to duplicate his 18 win performance from '88.  He'd win 19 in '89.  Rick Sutcliffe, who had rarely been healthy since '84, posted a 16-11 record.  Mike Bielecki, a cast-off from Pittsburgh, won 18 games.  Scott Sanderson would have to come in and fill the fourth spot.  The bullpen would need somebody to step up.  Steve Wilson and Les Lancaster decided to have their best seasons.  Mitch Williams, the wild lefty from Texas, would get 36 saves.  Ryne Sandberg developed some power for the first time in his career; cracking 30 home runs.  The Cubs would need rookies Jerome Walton, Dwight Smith, and Lloyd McClendon to play like veterans.  All Walton did was hit .293 and have a 30 game hitting streak.  Smith hit .324.  McClendon hit 12 home runs and hit .286 while playing multiple positions.  Grace would top his '88 campaign by hitting .314.

The Cubs would need new acquisitions Luis Salazar and Paul Assenmacher to provide a boost.  Salazar hit .325 while Assenmacher gave the bullpen a solid veteran lefty.

The Cubs would win games with suicide squeezes by backup catchers and extra-base hits in extra-innings by relievers.  They would erase a 9-0 deficit.  Mitch Williams would strike out three straight batters on opening day with the bases loaded and nobody out in a one run ballgame.

They needed every inch to win 93 games.

It was improbable, ridiculous, mind-numbing.  It defied common sense...and it would kill Cubdom for years.

After 1989, Cubs fans were never the same.  When a team featured an outfield with a 97 year-old Willie Wilson and Candy Maldonado, Cubs fans could convince themselves that maybe they'd have career years.  Maybe Willie Greene could fill the hole at 3rd.  Maybe Rick Aguilera has another year left in him.  Maybe Ismael Valdez is for real.  Maybe, maybe, maybe.

It is definitely a disease.  1989 taught us that anything can happen.  What nobody told us is that it rarely ever happens again.

It was lightning in a bottle.  Walton would disintegrate, McClendon was a bum, Dwight Smith became a glorified pinch-hitter, Williams would have a mental block, Salazar would show his age, Bielecki had nothing in the tank, and Sutcliffe would continue to get hurt.

It all ended quicker than it began.

Cubs fans could care less.  What 1989 meant to my generation will warp our minds for years to come.

When we look at this year's preview we think quietly..."What if LaHair is the answer?  I hear DeJesus' swing looks good in Arizona...Wood and Maholm are due for solid seasons...I think this is the year Castro goes from 'good' to 'great'...Darwin Barney came to camp in great shape...maybe...just maybe it will happen..."

Just like that, I'm sucked in. 

Hope is one terrible drug.


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  • Good point. The same "what if" mentality also was inspired by the '84 (career year from Sutcliffe, rookie sensation Sandberg, cast-offs Dernier, Matthews turning in solid years), '98 (rookie sensation Wood, steroid-fueled Sosa), and '03 (rookie sensations Prior and Zambrano, castoff Clement, surprise closer Borowski) teams. Indeed, of the six playoff teams since '45, all but the 2008 club finished in 4th place or worse the year before. The basic organizational problem, aided and abetted by the fans, has been looking for that spare-parts-hope-and-a-dream quick fix. One hopes Epstein will take a different approach.

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