OCTOBER 14, 2003
MARLINS 8, CUBS 3
Yes, I was there. Whenever I play “What’s the worst game you ever been to?” with another Cub fan, all I have to say is “I was at Game 6” and watch the instantaneous look of horror erupt across their face. The usual response is “Oh my god, I’m so sorry!” as if a close relative just died. If Hallmark really wanted to make a killing, they’d come out with a line of “Our deepest condolences that they hit it to Alex Gonzalez” sympathy cards.
But before diving into the gory details, gaze in terror at this cursed parchment…
The Necronomicon of baseball scorecards. Also a prime example of how advertising in places it shouldn’t be can backfire.
SONY STYLE: The sound of all hope leaving my body has never been so CLEAR!
I’d never been so excited to go to Wrigley Field in all my life. It was only the second Cubs playoff game I’d ever been to in person and when I got through the Virtual Waiting Room to grab a pair of tickets, I was euphoric. As my dad and I drove into the city that night, we felt the sense of importance in the air with the tantalizing possibility that we’d witness a Cubs pennant clincher right in front of us. The potential for a life-altering victory put us both in a reflective mood and I remember Dad telling me about asking his grandfather if he got to see Three Finger Brown play.
In the years that followed, I often wondered what the Marlins equivalent of that conversation was. Were there kids in teal pinstripes on the way to Pro Player Stadium asking, “Father, what was it like during the Orestes Destrade era?” Were there nine-year-old Marlins diehards regaling the younger generation about the exploits of Chuck Carr? Did Marlins fans meet in Miami bars to commiserate about The Curse of Not Giving a Shit About a World Series Champion So Your Owner Trades All the Players Away?
The answer, of course, is no. Because the Marlins don’t have fans.
After arriving, we took a pregame walk around Wrigleyville and that only added to the night’s gravitas. Local businesses were reflecting the importance of the moment in the most Chicago way possible: charging triple digits for parking. Street vendors hawked “Muck the Farlins” t-shirts. We walked past the guy who dresses up as Ivy Man on Waveland Avenue and people treated him like the Apostle Paul just showed up to Sunday mass. Through it all, there was an unmistakable sense of purpose in the air. Everybody knew that this had the potential to be the most historic night of our baseball lives and we were all just the slightest bit on edge waiting to see if it would happen.
We got to our seats well before the game started and tried to soak everything in. The view was glorious—about 20 rows up in the field boxes directly in line with third base. Wrigley’s ivy was changing into a brilliant autumnal shade of red as if to say “So this is what it looks like to play this month.” Ryne Sandberg threw out the first pitch and Lou Rawls sang the national anthem so it felt like all the best parts of Chicago were converging on Clark and Addison for a night to remember. I’d seen Sammy Sosa do his famous charge out of the dugout dozens of times but for this particular game, it felt like he was sending the message: “OK, it’s go time.”
What gets lost in the tragedy of this night is that for the first seven innings, the Cubs played exactly the way you’d expect a team that’s about to punch its ticket to the World Series would. They jumped Florida starter Carl Pavano right away with a Kenny Lofton single, Mark Grudzielanek sac bunt, and Sosa double in the first. Mark Prior made a 1-0 lead look insurmountable, allowing only three measly singles in the first seven innings.
Then the Cubs took advantage of some lead-off base runners, tacking on insurance runs on a Dontrelle Willis wild pitch and a Grudzielanek RBI single to take that fateful 3-0 lead into the top of the 8th. I cannot stress this enough: this felt like what winning teams do in the postseason.
Through it all, Wrigley was more alive than I can ever remember. As the game went on, I expected to be a bundle of nerves but it was almost eerie (and definitely foreshadowing) how much everything was playing out exactly as I’d hoped. Every run was greeted like it was V-J Day. When Prior got two strikes, the entire ballpark rose to its feet with a forceful “LET’S GO PRIOR” chant that seemed to inevitably lead to yet another strikeout, more hosannas, and high fives all around.
And here’s the thing: As the game went along, the volume kept getting turned up. It feels weird to admit this but there were times during the first seven innings where I wondered, “Am I cheering enough?” It felt like I needed to step up my game to match the wall of sound engulfing the seats around me. I even let my mind wander, thinking ahead to “What am I going to do when they get the final out?”
So many images from the seventh inning onward linger in my mind as if they happened yesterday. There was a weird overconfidence that permeated the ballpark, as if hubris were a drug and we were all taking hits thinking, “There’s no way this will come back to bite us.” Bernie Mac had the 7th inning stretch and sang, “Root, root, root for THE CHAMPS.” Which was exactly what a South Sider cosplaying as a Cub fan to plug his Fox TV show would do. This was the worst stretch of all time. It made Ditka, Ozzy, and Jeff Gordon sound like The Three Tenors and still makes me cringe to this day.
As the Cubs increased their lead later that inning, a fan seated behind us couldn’t contain himself and bellowed, “I can smell the World Series!” To this day, I have no idea what that means. If Wrigley Field starts smelling like The Bronx, it’s time to replace the troughs. Even though we were all cheering like mad, I still wanted to turn around and yell, “NO! Have you watched ONE INNING of Cubs baseball in your life?!”
In the top of the 8th, when Mike Mordecai began the inning by flying out to left, everybody held up five fingers. I was one of them. Even when Juan Pierre dropped a double down the left field line, it still felt like things were under control. In that moment, Prior was the closest we’d ever come to knowing what it felt like to hand the ball to Sandy Koufax in the biggest game of the year. He had this.
Look at my scorecard again. You’ll see there’s absolutely no mention of a foul ball during the Luis Castillo at-bat. That’s because thanks to the angle of where we were seated in the third base boxes, I never saw it. What I witnessed was Castillo lofted a high pop foul to left. Moises Alou charged after it and eventually disappeared from my line of vision. I watched as the ball descended toward the stands.
And then I heard 39,577 people scream “OHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”
Actually, there’s no word that properly conveys that sound. Hearing it would’ve made the souls trapped in the Sixth Circle of Hell look up and ask, “Everything OK up there?” But I had no idea what happened. Never saw Bartman. Never saw Alou flip out. Based on what I’d just heard, I could guess it was fan interference. Either that or as Alou was about to catch the ball, he looked at the Arc of the Covenant.
The atmosphere in Wrigley definitely changed. But here’s the thing: The Cubs were faced with a runner on second with one out in the 8th inning of a game they were winning by three runs. I haven’t fully researched this but I’m willing to bet that at least once or twice before, another team has faced this very predicament and somehow…some way…through some miraculous confluence of events…still won the game. Big if true.
But this situation proved to be too much for the 2003 Cubs. After Prior simultaneously walked Castillo and wild pitched Pierre over to third, the fans started chanting “ASSHOLE! ASSHOLE! ASSHOLE!” like this was WrestleMania and Vince McMahon had just informed the crowd “I guess they call Chicago the Windy City because it blows.” A minute ago, we were counting outs and now everyone was yelling obscenities. The entire game had made a heel turn, which was only confirmed when Prior hung an 0-2 curve to Pudge Rodríguez for an RBI single.
What happened next with Miguel Cabrera’s at-bat is where I believe the game actually turned and you’ll never convince me that a missed foul ball was more important. Simply put, this recap should be called The Alex Gonzalez Game. There is no foul ball on my scorecard but there is a very prominent E6. When the bouncing ball left Cabrera’s bat, everybody could see the double play developing and knew Prior had gotten out of the inning.
But what’s frozen in my mind is Gonzalez taking a step back, letting the ball play him, and watching it clank out of his glove and fall helplessly to the ground. I don’t believe in curses or any of the supernatural bullshit that causes grownup journalism school graduates to ask things like “Aren’t you scared of the goat?!!!” But once that ball fell to the earth, I turned to my dad and I said, “It’s happening.” I knew what I was about to see and I never felt more powerless in my life.
Derrek Lee had been comatose the entire series but woke up just in time to deliver the dagger of daggers with a game-tying two-run double. It probably says something bad about me as a fan but even with his considerable heroics during his time in Chicago, I never fully accepted Lee as a Cub. It’s not fair to him, I know, but this emotional massacre was the very definition of “not fair.”
In came Kyle Farnsworth, bizarrely just in time to intentionally walk Mike Lowell and then give up the go-ahead sacrifice fly to “Mr. Marlin” Jeff Conine. (The fact that a grand total of 19.5 career WAR is enough to earn the moniker “Mr. Marlin” says all that needs to be said. A better nickname for Conine would be “Mr. Argument For Contraction.”) In a futile attempt to stop the awfulness, Sosa overthrew the cutoff man and the runners advanced, which meant another intentional walk to Todd Hollandsworth loaded the bases with Florida on top 4-3.
Then the coup de grace: I remember the image of the ball leaving Mordecai’s bat deep into the night. As it hung there, all I could think was, “Really? Mike Fucking Mordecai?! REALLY?!” I didn’t even need to see it land or watch the bases clear to know the game was over. The only sound you could hear throughout the entire ballpark was the Marlins dugout erupting. It was also the loudest cheers the Marlins heard all year.
I have no idea why I continued keeping score after that. As baseball fans, we always assume that the worst losses are the ones where your team blows a crucial game in the ninth. But there’s also a special place in hell reserved for choking away the most important eighth inning lead in Cubs history and then getting pummeled to the point where you just have to sit there and take it for another thirty minutes before the nightmare ends.
For that last inning and a half, the ballpark was dead silent. Underlying that icy quiet was a toxic mixture of depression and simmering rage at what we’d all just been denied. Even the Wrigley PA guy sounded despondent, though if you had to announce “Now batting: Paul Bako,” you would be too.
When Lofton fouled out to third to finally end it, I didn’t know what to do. All at once, I was hit with wave after wave of every negative emotion you could think of: sadness, bitterness, rage, grief, anguish, embarrassment, hatred, and, above all, heartbreak. Something had to give but I had no idea what I could do. Finally, I thought to myself, “I should cry.”
So I did. As soon as I thought those words, the torrent of pent-up emotions unleashed and I dissolved into a convulsing weeping mess. As everyone around us was leaving, all I could do was sob away on my dad’s shoulder, repeating “It’s never gonna happen” over and over like some kind of sick mantra. Thank god this was in the era before smartphones and twitter or else the worst moment of my life could’ve easily been turned into a meme.
After a few minutes, I was all cried out and we walked into a Wrigleyville that felt spectral and haunted. There were masses of people everywhere but it was as everyone was walking around with their souls detached. On top of everything else, it was easily the eeriest experience I’ve ever had outside my favorite place in the world. With our car stashed in remote parking, we declined to ride the shuttle bus of the damned and instead walked the 1.5 miles to the lot in silence. After everything we had just seen, there were no words.
Over the years, Dad and I would relive Game 6 a lot, as if we became even more bonded by our shared trauma. One time in an attempt to find some bizarre bright side to the experience, Dad mused, “Well, at least we can say we were there to witness history.” To which I responded, “We also could’ve said that if they won the pennant.”
No. 2—Ryne Sandberg Day
No. 3—9th Inning Hell in STL
No. 4—The Most 2004 Cubs Meltdown of Them All
No. 5—Crosstown Classic Commences With Thud
No. 6—Wrigley Field’s 100th Anniversary
No. 7—The 2000 Cubs Make a 6-0 Lead Vanish in 3 Innings
No. 8—2017 NLCS Game 3