The 2003 World Series
By Chris Oakley
When the Chicago Cubs took the field for the start of the 2003 National League Championship Series, their fans anticipated the showdown between the Cubbies and the Florida Marlins with a mix of hope and dread. Hope that this might be the year the Cubs finally ended a World Series drought dating back to 1908; dread that there would be a mishap which would cause Chicago to lose the NLCS and so extend the drought for another year. The last time the Cubs had been National League champions was 1945, when they lost to the Detroit Tigers and were supposedly placed under the supposed "Billy Goat" curse invoked by a disgruntled fan after management at Wrigley Field refused to let him bring his pet goat into the stands.
After that there’d been two-plus decades of finishes on the lower rung of the National League ladder; the heartbreak of 1969, when the Cubs took a first half lead in the National League East only to suffer a humiliating second half collapse and surrender the division title to the upstart New York Mets; another thirteen-year string of lackluster finishes; an agonizing playoff loss defeat by the San Diego Padres in the 1984 NLCS; and a demolition courtesy of the San Francisco Giants in the 1989 NLCS. The institution of a "wild card" berth in baseball’s playoff system in the mid-1990s offered some glimmer of hope to Cubs fans, but not much-- in fact, the more pessimistic among them viewed the wild card as just one more pitfall for the Cubbies to trip over.
But this time things truly would be different for Chicago...
At game time on October 7th, 2003 the Florida Marlins were only six years removed from their first World Series appearance; that playoff run had ended with the Fish prevailing over the Cleveland Indians in seven games for Florida’s first-ever Series title. After having triumphantly dispatched the 2003 NL West division champion San Francisco Giants in the divisional playoffs, Florida had every reason to believe they would make short work of Chicago and advance to the 2003 World Series to face the winner of the 2003 ALCS between Boston and New York.
For that matter, some of the more pessimistic members of the Cubs fandom feared the Marlins might be right. Hadn’t fate always stuck it to the Cubs one way or another? But a funny thing happened on the way to the Cubbies’ inevitable downfall: on his second pitch of Game 1, Florida starting pitcher Josh Beckett-- usually one of the National League’s most effective hurlers and later to play a starring role in the Boston Red Sox’s successful 2007 Series run --surrendered a wicked double to Chicago centerfielder Kenny Lofton. Three pitches later, Cubs second baseman Mark Grudzielanek homered into Wrigley Field’s upper deck to give Chicago a 2-0 lead. Up in his luxury box Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria couldn’t believe his eyes or his bad luck; he’d known Chicago was going to be a tough opponent in the NLCS, but he had never even in his worst nightmares expected Florida to be in the hole so quickly.
That hole would get even deeper before the first inning was over. Sammy Sosa, the home run machine whose career would later be overtaken by allegations of steroid abuse, doubled on a 1-2 fastball; Cubs left fielder Moises Alou them hammered a rocket single to center field that scored Sosa and put Chicago ahead 3-0. An error by Marlins first baseman Derrek Lee allowed Alou to advance to second base, setting the table for an RBI double by Chicago first baseman Randall Simon; when Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez tripled to score Simon and Chicago third baseman Aramis Ramirez, Josh Beckett’s night was effectively over. He made way for reliever Chad Fox, who would now have the unenviable job of trying to rescue the Marlins from a 6-0 deficit.
Unfortunately for Marlins fans, it was a job that would prove beyond Fox’s capabilities. Gonzalez scored on a wild pitch to stretch the Cubbies’ edge to 7-0, and after Cubs catcher Paul Bako doubled to center on a 2-2 fastball Fox was quickly yanked from the game; by the time Cubs starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano was retired on a grounder to third to finally give Florida its first out, it was abundantly clear the Fish were in deep trouble. The Cubs went on to win the NLCS opener 11-2 and the entire baseball world was left to ponder just what had gone wrong with the Marlins.
For that matter, the Marlins themselves were wondering what could be done to get their team back on track for Game 2. Florida pitcher Brad Penny, who was scheduled to be the Marlins’ Game 2 starter, had a very tall order ahead of him. It turned out to be a taller order than he could fill; Penny managed to stake his team to a 3-1 lead only to see that lead evaporate thanks to a sixth inning two-run homer by Cubs Game 2 starter Mark Prior and Chicago go on to win 6-4 to take a two games-to-none series lead with them to Miami for the next round of the 2003 NLCS.
Game 3 of the 2003 NLCS was the first baseball postseason matchup to be held at Pro Player Stadium since the seventh game of the 1997 World Series. Marlins fans were hoping that some home cooking would be just the thing to turn Florida’s fortunes around and swing the momentum of the series back in favor of the Fish. And in fact Florida did win Game 3 4-2, thanks in part due to a one-out fifth inning RBI double by then-Marlins third baseman Mike Lowell. But Florida was soon brought back down to earth-- and brought down hard --with a nine-run shutout loss to the Cubs in Game 4. As playoff series go, this one was taking on a distinctive "man bites dog" quality. The Marlins, who some sports writers had expected to win the NLCS in five games or possibly even sweep the series, were staring elimination smack in the face. And to add an extra dose of cosmic irony to the mix, there was a distinct chance said elimination could happen on the very same field where they had won the World Series just six years earlier. Sports columnists all over South Florida started casting the ’03 Marlins as the Titanic and the Cubbies as the iceberg about to sink them.
For Game 5 the Cubs had decided to put the ball in the hands of Game 1 hero Carlos Zambrano; as for the Marlins, they had decided to bench Josh Beckett for former Expo and future Yankee Carl Pavano. That decision would backfire to the fifth degree on Marlins manager Jack McKeon-- and spark calls for his replacement after the playoffs were over. The Marlins started out well enough, with second baseman Luis Castillo hitting a one-out double in the first inning and catcher Ivan Rodriguez following up with a two-run homer; after that, however, the bottom fell out from under Florida. In the second inning, Pavano gave up a solo home run to Moises Alou that cut the Marlins’ lead to 2-1, and in the third a fielding error by Alex Gonzalez allowed the Cubs to load the bases for Mark Grudzielanek....who quickly capitalized on his scoring opportunity by smashing a triple to center that put Chicago ahead 4-2. By the time Grudzielanek slid into third base, Pro Player Stadium had become as silent as a mausoleum as Fish fans watched their team’s implosion in stunned horror.
In the fifth inning Paul Bako stretched the Cubbies’ lead to 6-2 with an RBI double to right field. Marlins fans yearned for a miracle to save Florida’s season, but miracles were in short supply for Jack McKeon and his players that night; McKeon himself, in fact, got tossed out of the game just after the seventh inning stretch when he bolted from the Marlins’ dugout and berated the first base umpire over what he(and plenty of Marlins fans for that matter) deemed a questionable strike call.
Carlos Zambrano stopped Florida’s bats cold for the rest of the game; by the time he was finally lifted with two outs in the eighth inning for relief pitcher Antonio Alfonseca, Chicago was leading 8-2 and all that remained for the Cubbies was for them to make the final out and start packing their gear to fly east to face the winners of the ALCS in the World Series.
The tension in both dugouts was absolutely unbearable as Alfonseca retired the first two batters he faced in the ninth inning on groundouts to short. The Marlins’ last hope for staying alive in the 2003 NLCS rested on the shoulders of rookie right fielder Miguel Cabrera...
....and it turned out those shoulders were too frail to carry the burden. Cabrera struck out swinging, provoking a wild celebration first in the Cubs’ dugout and then throughout downtown Chicago. For the first time since the end of the Second World War, the Cubs would be playing in the World Series; all that was left to be settled was who their Series opponents would be. That question was answered four nights later when Yankees pinch-hitter Aaron Boone blasted a home run into the Bronx night to give New York a 6-5 extra innings triumph over the Red Sox in the seventh and deciding game of the 2003 ALCS; with his dramatic blast into Yankee Stadium’s upper deck, Boone had set up a rematch of the Yanks’ 1932 Series clash with the Cubs. Would history repeat itself and see the Bronx Bombers demolish the Cubbies again, or would Chicago whip New York in the return bout?
To Be Continued...