A Cubs vs Marlins matchup should evoke memories beyond Bartman

On Sunday morning, at 12:05 pm eastern, the Cubs will play the Marlins in a game that can be streamed on Peacock. The Marlins won only 69 games last year, and the Cubs won only 74. Neither the Fish nor the Cubbies have finished with a winning record since the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Both teams have gotten off to better starts in 2023 led by their new middle infielders: Miami’s new second baseman Luis Arraez and the Cubs’ new shortstop Dansby Swanson.

There was a time — 20 years ago — that these franchises met in the 2003 National League Championship Series. When we look back on that series, we’re reminded that one very good thing about Arraez and Swanson is that their names are different. In the 2003 NLCS, the Cubs shortstop was Alex Gonzalez. The Marlins shortstop was also named Alex Gonzalez. One of them had a 16-year career, the other one had a 13-year career. The one that batted .125 (3-24 AB) in the NLCS wasn’t the goat. The one that batted .286/.333/.679 with 3 HR, 7 RBI and a 1.012 OPS in the series was the goat.

The one name that people remember in the Cubs’ collapse in Game 6 of that NLCS didn’t play any seasons in the majors. The one name everyone remembers was Steve Bartman. But for both teams, the path to get there and the games played in the Series itself involved so much more than Bartman.

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Chicago was a charter member of the National League in 1876, when Ulysses S. Grant was the President of the United States. The Cubs hadn’t won a World Series since 1908, when Teddy Roosevelt was the President. The Cubs hadn’t even been in a World Series since 1945.

The Marlins were an expansion franchise in 1993, when the United States had a 47-year-old President named Bill Clinton. They won the World Series in 1997, the first Wild Card team to win the World Series.

In 2002, the Cubs lost 95 games and finished 30 games out of first place. It was the third time in four seasons Chicago had lost at least 95 games. Midway through the 2002 season, the team fired manager Don Baylor. Following the 2002 season, the Cubs hired one of Baylor’s close friends, Dusty Baker. Baker had just led the San Francisco Giants to the World Series. A poor relationship with the team’s managing partner, Peter Magowan, however, led to Baker’s departure. Dusty wasn’t out of work long – not even two weeks – before accepting the Chicago position.

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Baker’s Giants were so close to winning the 2002 World Series. The Giants led 3-2 in games and led Game 6 by a 5-0 score entering the bottom of the seventh. Scott Spiezio hit a 3-run homer in the seventh. The Giants — five outs away in the bottom of the eighth — couldn’t hold their lead and lost Game 6 and then Game 7 as well. Baker didn’t know it at the time, but that would be just the start of several heartbreaking finishes.

Dusty went from managing Barry Bonds to managing Sammy Sosa.

Baker took advantage of Sosa’s offense, combined with three outstanding arms (Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano) to win 88 games, enough to take the N.L. Central.

The Marlins started the 2003 season with Jeff Torborg as manager, but when the team got off to a slow start, he was replaced by 72-years old Jack McKeon.

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The Florida Marlins got a kickstart from their new manager, the old McKeon, but they also were spurred by 21-years old Dontrelle Willis, who was called up May 9. The Marlins were 10-games under .500 on May 22 (19-29) but Willis became unstoppable. He was 9-1 after his win on July 13. He would start 27 games, and the Fish won 19 of them.

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The Marlins were 75-49 under McKeon. The five starters — Carl Pavano, Brad Penny, Mark Redman, Josh Beckett, and Willis — started 143 games and combined for more than 890 innings. And the team had a catcher that made the entire pitching staff better.

Prior to the 2003 season, the Florida Marlins were one of the few teams to show interest in free-agent catcher Ivan Rodriguez. He was coming off 12 seasons as a workhorse catcher in Texas, and yet at 31 was only able to command a one-year, $10 million dollar contract with the Marlins, due to his herniated disks in his lower back and his balky knees. Was it worth it? Rodriguez made the most of his one season with the Marlins (including the postseason, he caught in 155 games and had 655 Plate Appearances).

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And he was involved in nearly every big play or rally during the postseason. The Marlins were heavy underdogs against the San Francisco Giants in the Division Series. In the Marlins’ crucial 11-inning come-from-behind win over the Giants in Game 3, it was Ivan that drove in the winning run. In Game 4, I-Rod scored the tying run on a collision at the plate, then withstood a collision to tag J.T. Snow for the final out in the game (and series) after a perfect throw from Jeff Conine and an amazing catch from I-Rod.

And that set the scene for what happened in the NLCS between the lovable loser Cubs, and the out-of-nowhere Marlins.

Game 1: The Cubs were down 8-6 in the bottom of the ninth, when Sammy Sosa tied the game with a dramatic home run. But in the top of the 11th, Mike Lowell hit a go-ahead homer and the Fish held on to win 9-8.

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The Cubs won the next three games, 12-3, 5-4 (11 innings), and 8-3. All they needed was one win in the next three games to win their first pennant since 1945.

Game 5: Josh Beckett threw a shutout in the 4-0 victory. He went nine innings, giving up two hits, 1 BB, 11 K, and needing 115 pitches. He was brilliant after getting rocked in the series opener.

Game 6: Chicago held a 3-0 lead in the 8th inning of Game 6 before the Fish plated eight runs, behind two unusual circumstances. The first being the Steve Bartman play; and the other, often overshadowed, was the error on a potential double-play ball by the slick fielding Alex Gonzalez.

In that fateful top of the 8th, the Cubs had a 95% probability of winning Game 6 and advancing to the Series. But the Curse of the Billy Goat was strong that night.

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Mark Prior (now the pitching coach of the Los Angeles Dodgers) was on the hill for the Cubs and had retired eight Marlins in a row after getting the leadoff man in the 8th. But then Juan Pierre doubled, sending Luis Castillo to the plate. Castillo hit a foul ball that Cubs outfielder Moises Alou attempted to catch near the wall, but fan Steve Bartman deflected it. There was no fan interference called. If Alou had caught the ball, it would have been the second out of the inning.

Instead, there was a meltdown of epic proportions.

Prior threw a wild pitch to walk Castillo and send Pierre to third. Ivan Rodriguez singled in a run, to cut the Chicago lead to 3-1. And then Miguel Cabrera reached on an error by Alex Gonzalez. Derrek Lee doubled in two runs to tie the game and send Prior to the showers. The Marlins would eventually score 8 runs in the inning on just 5 hits.

Dusty, in hindsight, should have replaced Prior after the Pierre double, and almost certainly after the 9-pitch walk to Castillo. Would it have mattered? Who knows?

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The Marlins won Game 6 by a score of 8-3.

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And in Game 7: The Cubs led 5-3 after 4 innings. But in the top of the fifth, Cubs ace Kerry Wood faced Ivan Rodriguez with 1-out and 2-on. Rodriguez doubled in a run. He would later score the go-ahead run in the inning on Derrek Lee’s base hit.

Josh Beckett came in the game in the bottom of the fifth, just two days after his 115-pitch shutout. He pitched four scoreless innings, giving up just one run and one hit (a homer off the bat of Troy O’Leary). The Marlins added runs in the 6th and 7th; and won the game 9-6 to advance to the World Series.

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People should remember Ivan Rodriguez and Beckett and Derrek Lee and Miguel Cabrera when they think about that series. Instead, they are reminded of Bartman, the symbol of the “bad news Bears (Cubs)”.

The fates were (eventually) kind to the Cubs and their fanbase in 2016; and to Dusty Baker in 2022.

As for the Marlins, they should be celebrating the 20th anniversary of their World Series title.

But it’s almost a whisper. Maybe it’s because the two genuine Hall of Famers on that squad (Ivan Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera) barely played for the Marlins. Ivan played 20 of his 21 seasons elsewhere; and Miggy played the last 16 of his 21 seasons in Detroit.

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Even in 2003, the fans in South Florida were not that into this team. The attendance was 1.3 million, 15th most among the 16 NL teams that season.

The Marlins and Cubs will always be connected to that October series in 2003. You can blame a fan — or a Curse — or give credit to a gutty team, the Florida Marlins.

How to watch Cubs vs Marlins on Peacock

Date

Show

Time (ET)

Platform

Sun., Apr. 30

MLB Sunday Leadoff Pregame

11:30 a.m.

Peacock

Sun., Apr. 30

Cubs vs. Marlins

12:05 p.m.

Peacock

A Cubs vs Marlins matchup should evoke memories beyond Bartman originally appeared on NBCSports.com