I don’t think I was ever as excited for a season of Cubs baseball to begin as I was for the 2008 season. The team was coming off an National League Central title the previous year, and though they made a quick exit from the playoffs, there was a lot of reason for optimism heading into the next season. With veterans such as Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, and Alfonso Soriano all returning, plus young stars Geovany Soto, Mike Fontenot, and Ryan Theriot on the rise – along with the addition of Japanese star Kosuke Fukudome – there were high expectations as the season began.
Things also seemed to be aligning properly for the Cubs to win the World Series, as it was the 100th anniversary of their last title. The team didn’t make a big deal about it – which was probably smart – but there was a lot of pressure on now second-year manager Lou Piniella and his squad to get the job done in 2008. They got off to a hot start and took over first place on May 11, staying there for the rest of the year. There were lots of crazy wins: One of my favorites was on May 30 at Wrigley Field, when the Cubs came back from a 9-1 deficit to beat the Rockies, 10-9, despite Lou Piniella pulling some of his regulars from the game to give them rest.
In July, the team traded for Oakland Athletics pitcher Rich Harden, a sign that they were going all-in on this season. (That was the trade in which the Cubs gave up future American League MVP Josh Donaldson.) The signature series of the year took place at the end of July. On July 12, the Cubs’ lead in the division was 5.5 games, but just two weeks later on July 26, thanks to a cold streak along with a Brewers hot streak, the lead was gone. The next day, the Cubs won and the Brewers lost, giving the Cubs a one game lead as the two teams were set to play a four game series in Milwaukee.
In the series opener, the Brewers sent their prize midseason acquisition, CC Sabathia, to the mound to oppose Ted Lilly. Both were ok but not great, as the teams were tied 4-4 going into the ninth before the Cubs rallied for two to win. The Cubs also took game two as Carlos Zambrano defeated Ben Sheets. Losing the first two games with their two aces on the mound was a big blow to the Brewers, and the Cubs easily won the next two games to complete the four-game sweep. The visitors left town with their lead back up to five games after they were tied with Milwaukee less than a week ago.
The Cubs had little trouble putting the division away. One big moment took place in Milwaukee on September 14, when a series against the Astros was moved there from Houston due to Hurricane Ike. Carlos Zambrano, who had been struggling, threw the team’s first no-hitter since Milt Pappas did it in 1972. Another signature moment took place on September 18, when the Cubs and Brewers played a late-season game at Wrigley Field. If the Brewers won, they would maintain a flicker of hope of catching the Cubs for the division. The Brewers went into the bottom of the ninth leading 6-2 and got the first two outs with little incident before the Cubs rallied for four to tie it, capped by a three-run home run from the eventual NL Rookie of the Year, Geovany Soto. The Cubs would go on to win in 12 innings.
The Cubs’ division clincher came against the Cardinals at Wrigley Field and they finished the season 7.5 games ahead of the Brewers, who would go on to win the Wild Card. At 97-64, the Cubs finished with the National League’s best record and earned a first round match-up with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who won the NL West with a record of 84-78. The Cubs were the superior team, but fans were understandably nervous. This was perhaps as good of an opportunity as this team ever had to end their championship drought. As I watched Game 1 of the Division Series from home, I could feel the tension in the crowd at Wrigley Field, as if they expected something bad to happen, like it had in 1945, 1969, 1984, or 2003. And I believe this negative energy had an effect on the players, like I also believe it did after the Steve Bartman play in 2003.
Game 1 got off to a decent start, with a home run by Mark DeRosa giving the Cubs an early 2-0 while Ryan Dempster, despite struggling with command, held the Dodgers scoreless through four. In the fifth, however, his inability to throw strikes caught up with him, as he walked the bases loaded before facing James Loney with two outs. Dempster was one strike away from getting out of the inning before Loney launched a grand slam to center field. The Dodgers would add on more runs late and cruise to a 7-2 win.
Game 2 didn’t go any better. Helped by errors from Mark DeRosa and Derrek Lee, the Dodgers scored five runs in the second to put the game away early. When Russell Martin cleared the bases with a double off Carlos Zambrano to complete the rally, I turned the game off. I couldn’t bear to watch anymore. I was in grad school at the time and had a big test coming up, and I felt the time would be better spent studying than watching my great memories of the past six months be crushed in a matter of minutes.
Game 3 was over early too, as the Dodgers scored twice off Rich Harden in the first to cruise to a 3-1 series-clinching win. Just as frustrating as the Cubs handing runs to the Dodgers was their inability to get anything going offensively in the postseason for the second straight year. Despite having the league’s best offense in the regular season, in the Cubs scored just six runs in the three games – that was a total of 12 in six games over the past two seasons. Much like the current version of the Cubs roster, the offense was criticized for their ability to put up big numbers against weak opponents but then disappearing in big moments.
Lou Piniella also received criticism for not starting Ted Lilly in this series, even though he was tied for the team lead in wins with 17. I didn’t have a problem with that, as Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, and Rich Harden all had lower regular season ERAs than Lilly did. When you lose, especially in dominant fashion to a team you’re supposed to beat, there’s always plenty of second guessing.
The season started with such promise, but no season ever left me feeling more empty at the end than this one did. The Cubs were by far the National League’s best team in 2008, but they didn’t show up when it mattered most. The ending to the 2003 season may have been more heartbreaking, but that team wasn’t expected to do much and still had a great run. To see this team play so well for six months, only for it to all be over within about 72 hours, was a tough one to swallow. I didn’t even feel like getting out of bed the morning after losing Game 3. I vowed I’d never believe in the Cubs again after that, but by the time the 2009 season started, I was ready to go again, just like always.
A lot of changes would soon be coming after the season. Despite losing to the Dodgers, the Cubs still had a great team, and in what was perhaps an overreaction, the team traded Mark DeRosa, one of their best hitters from the past two years, to the Indians in a deal in which they got Chris Archer. Archer would go on to be an All-Star pitcher, but not with the Cubs – they traded him to Tampa Bay before he reached the majors. They also signed Milton Bradley to help their offense – and as we remember, that was one of the biggest disasters in team history. The Cubs finished over .500 in 2009 but missed the playoffs and wouldn’t return until 2015.
I wish I could look back fondly at the 2008 Cubs season. But when I think about that year, I don’t remember all the crazy wins and all the fun that took place over the six months of the regular season. All I remember is the playoff loss. It was a loss that still stings to this day, though not as badly now that we got to see the Cubs win a championship in 2016. But it was still a missed opportunity. Maybe someday, I’ll think about that year differently.
Brian Johnston is the author of the book The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, his story of following the 2015 Chicago Cubs, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Joseph, Michigan with his wife and two children.