July 4, 2004 was one of those special nights in Chicago baseball. While the vast majority of the metro area sat on lawn chairs and picnic blankets for fireworks displays, a tad more than 38,500 people shoehorned themselves into Wrigley Field to watch the city’s two teams square off.
It was Cubs vs White Sox on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball, with the Cubs looking for the sweep and both teams competitive in their respective divisions. It was a tight game in which two-thirds of the scoring occurred in the 9th inning. Carlos Lee tied the game by taking LaTroy Hawkins out of the yard and Shingo Takatsu loaded the bases in the bottom of the inning and forced home the winner by walking pinch-hitter Todd Walker.
It remains one of my most memorable games at Wrigley Field. As it so happens, it is also the most memorable game of that season for former Cub Glendon Rusch, that night’s starter.
Going head to head against Mark Buehrle on national TV, Rusch worked into and out of a few jams, the biggest being the top of the 7th, when he gave up back-to-back singles to Lee and Paul Konerko. After Aaron Rowand sacrificed the runners to second and third, Rusch settled in to get Joe Crede to pop up and Timo Perez to loft a dramatic yet catchable deep fly to Corey Patterson to close the inning.
From a beach in Maui, Rusch recently reminisced on that game and season, saying, “The 2004 Cubs was one of the most talented teams on, along with a great coaching staff. It was an absolute honor to get a chance to contribute alongside all those guys that year.”
That team was rife with talent, especially in its rotation. Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement were coming off of solid 2003 campaigns, and a 4-time Cy Young Award winner was making his return to the team.
“Greg Maddux gave me many pieces of great advice over the years I was with him. I would say number one was learning how to be prepared and have a game plan every time you took the mound,” Rusch said.
Unlike Maddux though, Rusch’s game plans were usually developed in a heavy cloud of rock music. “My pregame ritual involved a lot of great music from my favorite bands—Rage Against the Machine, Tool, Pearl Jam, Audioslave and Soundgarden—at a high volume,” he said. “I am really good buddies with lifelong Cubs fan Tom Morello (Rage) and also Danny Carey (Tool).”
Due to a barrage of injuries, Rusch quickly found his way into the rotation that year, and also into the hearts of Cubs fans. Although he came into greater notoriety in Chicago during that season, Rusch’s Cubs career was by no means the starting point for the lefty.
Rusch was a solid high pitcher for Shorecrest High School in the town of Shoreline, Washington, just north of Seattle, even throwing a no-hitter one game. Gaining attention from scouts, he was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 1993.
Following a minor league career that took him through Rockford, Illinois, Wilmington, Delaware and Omaha, Nebraska, he made his big league debut in 1997, blanking the Twins on just four hits over eight innings at the Metrodome.
In 1999, the Royals dealt Rusch to the New York Mets. A trade at that young an age, especially following a trying season, actually served the lefty well. In 2000, his first season with the Mets, he went 11-11 with a 4.01 ERA, a vast improvement over the 1998 campaign that resulted in a 6-15 record and a hefty 5.88 ERA.
Speaking about the one-year turnaround, Rusch says, “I think it was a change of scenery along with having a lot of veterans like Al Leiter, Johnny Franco, Dennis Cook and Mike Hampton around me to help.”
It was as a Met that Rusch also had, free of his Shorecrest no-hitter, what he calls his best-pitched game.
It was July 14, 2001 at Shea Stadium and the Red Sox were in town for a weekend series. When Glendon took the mound that day, the stage was not only that of a premier interleague matchup, he was also carrying manager Bobby Valentine’s 1000th career victory on his shoulders.
His response was one of the most dominating performances of his career, one in which the only hit he surrendered was a first-inning bunt single by Trot Nixon. The irony of the single was that Rusch did not get over in time to cover the bag. As a lefty, he fell off the mound toward third, which gave Nixon a head start down the line.
His response to the play? Setting down 23 of the next 24 batters he faced, 10 of which were strikeouts.
Following the 2001 season, the Mets sent Rusch to the Milwaukee Brewers as part of a three-team deal. He spent two seasons north of the Cheddar Curtain before signing as a free agent with the Cubs in 2004, where he remained through the 2006 season.
In 2004 and 2005, Rusch filled the open starter slot quite well. After going 6-2 with a 3.47 ERA in 2004, he followed with a respectable 9-8 and 4.52 ERA in 2005
It was 2006, though, which not only proved challenging on the mound, as he saw his record slip to 3-8 and ERA balloon to an uncharacteristic 7.46, but also presented a surprising and life-changing event.
In September, while running on the treadmill, Rusch felt a sharp pain in his chest and was short of breath. Team physician Stephen Adams, MD sent him to the Northwestern Hospital emergency room. A chest X-ray showed nothing, so as a precaution, he ordered a CT-scan. It was that doctor’s hunch that may have been the difference between life and death, as the scan revealed a blood clot in the pitcher’s right lung.
The clot was caught in time, but it forced him to miss the remainder of the season, both on the field and in the clubhouse where he was a popular teammate and positive presence. Just shy of his 32nd birthday, Rusch’s season was not only over, but he got a cage-rattling no athlete could have expected, especially one his age.
“That was the scariest thing I’ve ever been through,” Rusch said. “If it was not for Dr. Adams and the people at Northwestern Hospital, I wouldn’t be here today. I am a lucky man.”
Rusch sat out the 2007 season and in 2008 signed with the Padres. His stint there was short, as San Diego released him in May, but he signed soon thereafter with the Rockies, where he remained until his career ended in 2009.
Since retirement, Rusch has worked with young pitchers and he is currently involved with 360 Elite Performance Sports, an organization that trains athletes and manages events. He also runs a celebrity golf tournament each January that features many former Cubs, with a portion of the event’s proceeds going to the Wood Family Foundation.
Although eight years removed from the Friendly Confines, Rusch still keeps tabs on the team he called home for three seasons, especially their current rebuilding process.
“I think Theo and Jed are the best in the business, and I love what they have been doing throughout this process. For longtime Cubs fans, it’s hard, and it’s easy to grow impatient, but I see them contending very, very soon, and it will not be for a short period of time. I cannot wait to take my kids to a Cubs World Series game.”
Rusch also remains a favorite among Cubs fans, who started connecting with him on social media this year. “I love Cubs fans. I started Twitter (@GlendonRusch) and Instagram this year, and I have an absolute blast connecting and talking Cubs baseball with them.”
Above all, Rusch maintains the sense of humor that made him popular with teammates, as is evident when asked about his hardest and easiest outs.
“My hardest outs were Albert Pujols, Adam Dunn and every right-handed catcher I faced. There were no easy outs; not even pitchers. Just ask Bronson Arroyo. Len Kasper will love that.”