So, Cubs fans, here's where it has come to. The 2011 season, boiled down to its "simplest" form in one play. Of course, nothing is simple, not when it involves 25 players, a front office, 162 games, 3 million attendees and many more millions of fans throughout the world, and 103 years since the last World's Championship.
The play occurred yesterday, in an otherwise meaningless 7-1 win over the Brewers, in the last home game of the year.
- In the eighth inning, with one out and a man on first base, Matt Garza was allowed to hit for himself. And why not? In a season where he has been by far the best Cubs pitcher, without the results to show for it, finally he has a chance to complete his own game, because the offensive support has shown up, and because the defense, including his own, has held together long enough for once. Garza, a brutal fielder, is possibly even a worse hitter. He is most likely not going to do much good up there, nor does he really have to with a 7-1 lead. In the meantime, the man in the on-deck circle, Starlin Castro, is sitting on 199 hits for the season. Mike Quade would like Castro to hit in this eighth inning, because barring a catastrophic collapse (of which we have had one already this year, the loss of a six-run lead in the ninth), the Cubs will not hit in the ninth. Quade tells Garza NOT TO SWING at any pitches, either walk or strike out, so Castro will have the chance to go for his 200th hit in front of the home fans.
- Garza takes a couple of pitches, then decides to swing, hitting into the double play Quade wished to avoid. Inning over.
- After the game, Quade remarks that "maybe he didn't make it clear to Matt, usually you have to explain things a couple of times to him".
- After that, Garza comments that well, hey, he himself would like 20 wins, 200 innings, 200 strikeouts. Castro will get his 200 hits. He is there to hit, and that's what he tried to do.
These are the facts in the case. Now, let's analyze further, shall we?
- Quade is paid to win ballgames, period. He has some latitude on how he is to accomplish this task, and most Cubs fans would agree that with the players he was provided in 2011, it proved to be an impossible task. Knowledgeable fans should not blame Quade in entirety for the 90 losses we will certainly end up with this year.
- That having been said, there have been dozens of red flags that have been raised this year that suggest that Quade has no respect from his players, and that the 2011 Cubs have been led by their veterans, not in a good way. From certified wack jobs like Carlos Zambrano to pillars of the community like Ryan Dempster, we have learned that the 2011 Cub clubhouse is a comfortable place to be, where accountability is not present. Certainly Garza showed him no respect yesterday.
- Then again, Quade's assertion that Garza didn't understand his directive is incorrect. Garza knew damn well what he was being asked; that he was asked to lie down and die so that Castro would have a chance to achieve an arbitrary offensive milestone in front of a fanbase more concerned with whether Old Style will continue to be sold in Wrigley in 2012 than with the won-loss record. Furthermore, Garza is every bit the ballplayer Castro is: great at primary stats (AVG, ERA), terrible in the field. You could almost see him thinking: why is HE being asked to lay down for Castro?
- Some like myself wondered why the Rays would trade Garza last winter. Some described him as Zambrano Jr., insinuating that he is boorish, selfish, and destructive. He certainly at first glace seems hyperactive. There have been a couple of times this year where he made it clear that the person that knows what's best for Matt Garza and the Cubs is Matt Garza. He has great stuff, but like Zambrano, he gambles in the field, but doesn't have the ability to recover that Z seemed to have. He is by no means a Staff Ace, because he is no leader; he will never have the ability to instruct others in the art of pitching, partly because he is still getting by in his career on sheer throwing talent, and because nobody will ever take him seriously.
So, why is this incident a microcosm of the entire 2011 season?
- Public opinion at this point is leaning towards Garza on this one, for no other reason than the fact that Quade has lost his team, therefore everything he asks for is wrong. People are justifying Garza's insubordination, for it was insubordinate, because they feel it is stupid to tell players to engage in artificial acts to achieve stats goals. True fans know the emphasis the whole Cubs organization has placed on the Castro 200 hits thing is weak in an awful team year, a ploy to make us forget that we have the worst fielding team in baseball.
- Quade should be smart enough and dignified enough to not make the request. Quade should have the respect of his players. Garza should be humble enough to do what is asked of him. None of the above are true.
But, most of all, and the one thing that appears to be missing in this story:
- Why is THIS even a story at all?
It's a story because here it is, the end of 2011, and we are no closer to a World Series title than we were at the end of 1909. When things are this wrong, for this long, people tend to overanalyze everything. Every little incident is examined for clues on why this team, above all others, cannot seem to win. It seems like my whole life, fans and media have gone on and on about changing the Culture of the Cubs. There is the mismanagement, bad luck, and 50 other factors that have been considered when looking at each individual season, to judge why that season was not the season that ended the drought.
It is wrong, in my opinion, to assume that the Cubs as an organization can operate in a bubble and not let any of this affect them. Every manager and GM that has ever been here came here proclaiming that "The past means nothing, there is no such thing as a curse, we are not affected with the same concerns the fans have". And, every last one left here stating that "there IS something to the notion". Not that there is a curse, at least not a supernatural one. The curse, if there is one, is everyone's need to overanalyze every last thing that goes on in conjuction with the Cubs, from their aborted efforts to get government money to update Wrigley Field, to Garza's disobedience in the bottom of the 8th inning of a rare Cubs blowout win.
I'm just as guilty as everyone else. But real progress may not happen until the whole Cubs sphere of reality can get past this culture of obsession over every minute detail. And this may never happen until they win it all. It's a vicious circle, but you knew that.