Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field

Revisiting Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS

Oh dear God, what am I doing? Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS is probably the most heartbreaking sporting event I’ve ever had to endure.

(I’m a Green Bay Packers fan and the 2014 NFC Championship game is close. Two things come to mind with that, however. 1. This is a baseball history blog and while I do have a passive interest in NFL history, I don’t know nearly as much about the sport, and 2. It’s a little silly that’s known as the 2014 NFC Championship game as the game took place in 2015. I get it as the NFL season always goes into the next year but it gets confusing when trying to remember past events. The MLB season always neatly fits into a calendar year and thus another reason why baseball is the best sport.)

Exterior of Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs
Wrigley Field, Credit: Canva

Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS

If you don’t know, this is the Steve Bartman incident. The one where the man with the dark turtleneck and blue Cubs hat and headphones accidentally knocked a potential catch away from a leaping Moises Alou. I’m going to try not to harp on this too much; however, I do think the psychology of this moment did play a factor in what happened.

I’ve rewatched this game somewhat recently and I’m going to try to relay the feel of the game and whatnot. With that said this isn’t hard, it was the Chicago Cubs trying to end a long drought and they were deeper in the playoffs than they had been in almost 60 years.

For most of this night, the atmosphere was celebratory. There are pictures beyond Wrigley Field of more and more fans beyond the walls on both Waveland and Sheffield. (I feel this was lessened in 2016? Maybe I’m remembering incorrectly. I had attended a potential clincher in the NLDS of that round (game 4 vs. the Braves), and there were riot police all over just in case (this would have been the Cubs first series win since 1908.)

There was a lot of belief in this team, and most of it came from the young starting pitching. Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and Matt Clement were strong starters for this team and they had already bested the Atlanta Braves, a powerhouse National League team for over a decade. The Cubs had led this series 3-1, and the only loss in the series came on a crippling extra-inning game in game 1.

The Florida Marlins were considered an upstart team and the Wild Card had upset the 100-win San Francisco Giants the series before. I remember that at game 4 of the NLCS, the crowd erupted when it was announced that the Marlins had defeated the Giants and I remember thinking….that’s not good karma in this sport. Everyone can beat everyone in baseball and looking back on the 2003 Florida Marlins…they were a 91-win team who got hot in the second half of the season.

When manager Jack McKeon took over for Jeff Torborg he had a record of 75-49, which is a .600 win percentage. The lineup for this Marlins team featured Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez, future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera, multiple-time all-star Derrek Lee, multiple-time all-star Luis Castillo, and the same with Mike Lowell. They had solid players in Juan Pierre, Juan Encarnacion, Alex Gonzalez (the Marlins version, the Cubs had one too), and Jeff Conine. They had a pitching staff that wasn’t too shabby either with upstarts like Dontrelle Willis, who won Rookie of the Year, and Josh Beckett. They also had solid pitchers like Brad Penny, Carl Pavano, and Mike Redmond.

My overall point with this is the Florida Marlins were way better than their record coming into this, and they were probably better than the Cubs on paper. (The Cubs only won 88 games that year) and, while yes, there’s reason to be confident when you lead a game by 3 in the 8th inning with only five outs to go and no one on base, in a series you lead 3-2, I do feel so much emphasis is placed on the fact that the Cubs choked this game away and not on the fact that the Marlins were a darn good ball club. In fact, I’m going to examine the 8th inning of this game.

After retiring, Mike Mordecai, Mark Prior, and Juan Pierre battle in having a 6-pitch at-bat leading to a double. No big deal, it’s still 3-0. Luis Castillo battles to a nine-pitch at-bat (this is the AB where the Bartman play occurs, and I’ll talk about this later), but in a vacuum, it’s just a great battle by a pesky hitter, and even with the Bartman play, it was a foul ball, and there was still an opportunity for Prior to strike him out. He just didn’t. He ends up walking, and a wild pitch also puts a guy on third.

Now I think the chaos of the situation did lead to the illusion (and maybe the reality) of a young pitcher falling apart. Bartman was getting threatened by fans. Alou slammed his glove to the ground when the play occurred, and overall there was a nervous energy to the crowd. A wild pitch by Prior leading to a walk (which was probably a guy who overthrew a pitch in frustration to a guy he couldn’t seem to retire) led to more of that chaotic feeling, and yes, Castillo and Pierre were very fast runners who I’m sure created a presence when they were on base, but the reality of the situation was even after the Bartman play you are looking at 1st and 3rd with one out and the score still 3-0.

The next hitter, Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez, gets a hit. This makes it 3-1 with a guy on second and first. Yes, there’s an opportunity for this to get out of control, but there’s still time for this to calm down too, and Prior does his job. He gets Miguel Cabrera to ground to short.

Now lots of people say the Cubs version of Alex Gonzalez should have started a double play here and while I guess it’s possible he definitely had a sure out. I’m going to say he gets one as it was a tough play to turn two on, but it’s definitely a boot that should have been made. I’m not sure if it was the atmosphere at this point or what but a MLB shortstop should easily make this play. If he did, it’s still 1st and 3rd with 2 outs and a struggling in-series Derrek Lee up at the plate. He didn’t, and now it’s bases loaded and 1 out. Tying run in scoring position and now all the tension of the moment is being felt.

I’m going to pause at that moment and reflect upon another moment that people criticize. Dusty Baker, the manager of the Cubs, gets criticism for leaving Prior in too long and if it was me, I’m probably taking him out after the error by Gonzalez, as I do feel there are just too many ways things going against a 22-year-old psychologically at this point, plus he’s thrown a lot of pitches however, and I’ll defend Dusty a little here. One has to remember this is one year after he was criticized for pulling Russ Ortiz too early in a World Series game that his Giants ultimately blew. The situations were a little different as Ortiz only had around 90 pitches thrown, and it was a 5-0 lead but I’m still sure that was on the forefront of his mind.

Also, while there’s evidence Prior is laboring at this point, with early examples being the ABs by Pierre and Castillo, he did just entice Cabrera to get a weak grounder that could have been a double play. You could argue he also got Castillo to fly out to Alou if the interference hadn’t occurred (though this, admittedly, puts a lot of faith into the athleticism of Moises Alou…..which seems iffy). With that said, however, this was a great moment for a guy who ultimately was a good hitter to bust out of a slump. With a tiring pitcher on the mound (not to mention potentially nervous) Derrek Lee whacks one into the gap and ties this game.

Dusty pulls Prior now for Kye Farnsworth, who was a solid reliever for the Cubs this season. He was basically known for his fastball, iffy control, and getting into a fight with Reds pitcher Paul Wilson. He comes in and walks Mike Lowell, then allows a sac fly to Jeff Conine (a guy who seemed to have hit .700 vs the Cubs). After an intentional walk to pinch hitter Todd Hollandsworth, the guy who started the inning, Mike Mordecai, clears the bags with a double and basically ends this game. The Marlins do add another, but at this point, it’s 8-3.

Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs
Credit: MLB.com

My Thoughts

So essentially, this is my take on this game and this inning. I think there was a lot that went wrong with the Cubs psychologically this inning, and it all started with a Wrigley crowd that turned into a frenzy against Steve Bartman. It was an absolute overreaction, as the result after the play was still just a guy at second with one out while the team still led 3-0.

I do think the crowd’s negativity led to an overthrow by Prior against a hitter who was probably frustrating him, and I’m guessing an overcompensation for trying not to let the Bartman play matter. I think the negative energy caused Gonzalez to rush and led to his error. I do think Dusty Baker probably should have removed Prior after the error but at the same time, Farnsworth didn’t exactly light it up either, and who knows what would have happened at that point plus, I kind of understand why he left Prior in as he was still somewhat effective and when he pulled his starter a year before it backfired.

At the end of the day, however, maybe I am giving too much credit to the psychology of postseason baseball. Maybe in a vacuum, or if the Cubs were on the road and this stuff happened, maybe it plays out the exact same. It’s possible that the Marlins were just really good and had a good lineup and were dangerous once you gave them extra outs.

The hitters that were faced in the 9th during the rally (and I know I’m rehashing a bit) were Juan Pierre, who had a .374 OBP that season. Luis Castillo, who had a .381 OBP that year. Ivan Rodriguez was a Hall of Fame catcher. Miguel Cabrera is about to be one. Derrek Lee had a .888 OPS that year. Mike Lowell had a .881 OPS that year and was an All-Star. This essentially was a great lineup that always had the potential to score three or more runs in an inning, and when you add extra outs to the mix, the risk is even higher.

Overall, this game sucks to revisit as the Cubs were so close to winning a championship, or at least a pennant, but they didn’t. Luckily, they finally got theirs in 2016, but just rewatching this inning, I did find it fascinating to examine some of the psychology of baseball but also how little credit the 2003 Florida Marlins seem to get. Their story is that they basically took advantage of a choke (vs a team they were better than) and then upset the 2003 Yankees as some impossible Cinderella, but the reality is that ignores how strong the lineup was.

It ignores how good they were for a good chunk of the year (their final record didn’t reflect how well they played for months), and while they do get credit for their exciting young pitchers (Willis and Beckett), I feel that’s where all the attention goes. No, they didn’t have a great pitching staff, but they had solid pitching. I think the Bartman incident is unfair, as that’s where all the attention goes in 2003, but I guess the Marlins will ultimately be okay. They won the World Series anyway.

About the author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share on Social Media