Cubs player of the 1990s: Gary Gaetti

It’s just a bad coincidence that the Cubs are honoring the 1990s twenty years after the single worst moment in baseball history. The players strike of 1994 not only ended the careers of players like Goose Gossage and Lloyd McClendon, among others, but it deprived every baseball fan of the annual postseason event. It took years before baseball recovered from the strike of a generation ago.

If the 1990s were bad for the sport in general, they weren’t much better for the Chicago Cubs. Seven of the ten years of the 1990s saw the Cubs lose more games than they won, and unlike the 1980s and 2000s, the Cubs didn’t win a single division title. The only bright spot was the 1998 Wild Card spot, and the manner that was obtained had much to do with Gary Gaetti.

“Lightning in a bottle” is a very overworked baseball cliche, but it captures what the Cubs had with Gaetti in 1998. After a decade in Minnesota, and seveal years of bouncing around the rest of the majors, this product of Centralia High School and Lincoln Land Community College was cut by the Cardinals in the middle of August. At age 39, Gaetti appeared at the end of his big league rope. But the Cubs took a chance on the veteran third baseman, and the results were spectacular.

Gaetti settled in at third for the Cubs, who shifted Jose Hernandez to shortstop and sent the underperforming Jeff Blauser to the bench. With the Sammy Sosa home run chase in high gear, and the excitement of rookie Kerry Wood on the mound, the Cubs were the best thing in town at the end of August that year. And even when Wood was lost for the season, September still mattered, like it rarely had before or since.

Gaetti was a career .255 hitter, who had batted over .300 just once in his career, in 1988. But the 1998 stretch run reinvigorated Gaetti, to the tune of a .320 batting average and a .991 OPS. When the Cubs ended the regular season at 89-73 and tied with the San Francisco Giants for the sole wild card spot in those days, it came down to a winner-take-all game at Wrigley Field.

I was fortunate enough to be at that game, with my wife and my in uetero daughter. In fact, we had heard her heartbeat for the first time earlier in the day, at the doctor’s office. It was already a great day, before the Cubs even took the field that night.

In the bottom of the fift inning, Gaetti came to the plate with Henry Rodriguez on first base and no outs. He lifted what looked like a routine fly ball off of the Giants’ Mark Gardner, but something incredible happened. The ball landed in the basket in left center, and the Cubs had a 2-0 lead! The ballpark exploded in a way that I didn’t think possible, and as Gaetti rounded the bases, I knew it would be the Cubs’ night.

They added two more runs in the bottom of the sixth inning, and when Bill Murray gave maybe the best rendition of the seventh inning stretch that Wrigley will ever see, the Cubs had a healthy 4-run lead. They nearly gave it away in the ninth inning, but when Rod Beck got ex-Cub prospect Joe Carter to pop out–on what turned out to be his final major league at-bat–the Cubs had secured the fourth and final spot in the National League playoffs. It was as fine a moment as I have ever experienced at Wrigley, in hundreds of games over the course of a quarter-century.

It was almost as if the unexpected home run was Gaetti’s last hurrah, both with the Cubs and as a major leaguer. He hit .091 in the first-round sweep by the Braves that year, and was given a $2 million dollar contract by the Cubs for the 1999 season. But at age 40, Gaetti had nothing left in the proverbial tank. He hit .204 in limited playing time, and even pitched an inning at the end of a blowout loss against the Phillies in July. He came back for a few appearances as a DH for the Red Sox in 2000, but retired in early April, having played just over 2500 games in the majors.

His time as a Cub was brief, but Gary Gaetti gave me and the other 39,000 fans in the stands that September evening in 1998 a thrill that we won’t forget. How many other Cubs players can we say that about?

R. Lincoln Harris is a guest contributor for Wrigleyville Nation. He also writes for BlueBattingHelmet.Wordpress.com, ChicagoSideSports.com, ThroughTheFenceBaseball.com, and FiveWideSports.com. Thanks R. Lincoln for the contribution!