The nature of heartbreak

If I make a list of all the times my heart has been broken over the years, the one thing in common to all of them is that I really didn't have any control over the outcome, my perceptions to the contrary notwithstanding. When I control my own fate and the outcome is negative, my emotions are 3 parts anger, 1 part disappointment. It's on me, and it can be empowering. When I entrust my happiness to the actions or decisions of others, that is called hope, or faith, and that is the setup for heartbreak, a helpless sort of failure which is aggravating in its victimization.
Last night, after the final out, I went out and drove to McDonalds where I picked up a milkshake and fries combo at the drive-thru window. Against doctor's orders, I had solid food. Comfort food.
I knew going into the last part of the regular season that the Cubs weren't as good as some people were making them out to be, but when they made the playoffs, and when they made it past the Braves, and when especially when they went up 3 games to 1 on the Marlins, I gave myself freedom to dream for just a bit. Ah, we never learn, do we?
The Cubs were outplayed by the better team. They were outhit. Miguel Cabrera proved to be a fearless hitting prodigy, and Marlins in general took the best Cubs fastballs and breaking balls and turned them around. How many times with two strikes did Pudge or Castillo or Pierre or Cabrera fight of high 90's fastballs, fouling them off over and over, and then turn a hanging slider or mislocated fastball into a base hit? One piece of solace I take from this series is that I presciently signed Miguel Cabrera in my fantasy roster league this year for $3.00 and can renew him next year at $6.00. He's going to be a star the same way FRod blossomed into one in last year's World Series for the Angels.
Meanwhile, the Cubs hitters were all or nothing. The Cubs aren't fast, don't walk a lot, so they depend on the long ball. When they are mashing, as they did earlier in this series, it's exciting stuff, especially for the ball-hawkers on Waveland. But when they aren't hitting the ball out, they're grounding into double plays or striking out. With the exception of Lofton, the Cubs can't manufacture any runs. Ironically, coming back to the cold weather in Wrigley may have hurt the Cubbies. They hit plenty of long drives to center and right in game seven that seemed to die in the cold air.
The Cubs were outpitched. With all due respect to Mark Prior, my favorite Cub, the best pitcher in this series was Josh Beckett, who finally fulfilled all the hype he's received throughout his life. You could see his confidence grow, especially after Sosa took umbrance at a high tight fastball and Beckett came back to blow him away, hitting 100mph on one fastball. If Beckett's arm remains healthy, he's going to be a Cy Young contender. In a battle of bullpens, the Marlins' pen was deeper and more reliable. Dusty went back to the same four relievers every game (Veres, Remlinger, Farnsworth, Borowski), a decision I often agreed with, but they just weren't able to close the door the way World Series-winning bullpens have to (think of the insert-middle-reliever to Mariano Rivera bullpens of the Yankees).
The Cubs were outmanaged. Dusty Baker, never a great tactician, fell back to his habits of relying on veterans he was comfortable with, while Trader Jack McKeon, all of 76 years old, showed a willingness to put the best players out there regardless of age or experience, recognizing that in a short series you have to capture lightning in a bottle. Baker's roster construction was terrible--why carry Juan Cruz if he was never going to pitch? In Game 7, if Paul Bako had gotten on base, who would have hit for Joe Borowski? I guess Ramon Martinez, the last man on the bench. If Baker had carried Hee Seop Choi, he would have had a power-hitting lefty in reserve. Baker pinch-hit when he didn't need to (Goodwin for Miller, Simon for Karros) and if the game had gone into extra innings the Cubs would've run out of players anyway. Baker also left starters in too long, mismanaged his relievers, bunted with Grudzielanek in first innings of games which obviously wouldn't be decided by a single run...the litany of errors is too long to list. Some of this is second-guessing, of course, but when I yell at the TV for three straight hours during every Baker-managed game, I have to conclude that sometimes I'm right and he's wrong.
And the one thing which will haunt me this postseason is not the foul ball which the fan deflected before it hit Alou's glove but this: what if Baker had pulled Prior earlier in that 12-3 game, game two, instead of leaving him in for 116 pitches? If Prior had just that much more energy in game six, would he have had the location and stuff to retire Castillo and Pudge and Cabrera? Baker is undoubtedly a great manager of people, one who treats his players like men and confront them with his objections face-to-face, instead of in the press like, say, Don Baylor. One gets the sinking feeling, though, that as strong a leader as he is, he might be the worst possible manager for this Cubs franchise at this point in its history. He ran the Cubs pitching arms ragged, and even pitching coach Larry Rothschild admitted "I think that [Wood] and Mark [Prior] both ran out of gas there." Maybe you can give Baker that hint next time, Larry?
You could go on. Baker gave Veres the ball in game seven to face Alex Gonzalez, pulling Farnsworth. As Rany Jazayerli in Baseball Prospectus pointed out, Veres has a severe split, dominating left-handed hitters but murdered by and right-handed hitters for a .359 clip this year. Why not Remlinger at this point, or Borowski? When you're looking death in the face, you don't pull out your pocket knife, or even your pistol. Go to what in Doom was known as your BFG, your big f***ing gun, the biggest one you have left.
In contrast, 72 year old McKeon was willing to move Miguel Cabrera, a 20 year old rookie, all over the field, and even up into the cleanup spot! He moved Derek Lee down when he was struggling, pulled Juan Encarnacion in favor of Cabrera in right, pulled Penny in favor of Pavano. McKeon didn't leave any bullets in his chamber. I think we saw just about every Marlins starting pitcher these past two games. Some of his moves worked out, some didn't, but I always found myself thinking, "Damn, that's just what I would have done, and I wish he hadn't thought of it."
He was even willing to use Beckett in Game 7 after he'd thrown a complete game 115 pitch shutout on Sunday, and it worked in his favor. I was never so unhappy as when Beckett came in out of the bullpen in game 7, fresh off of dominating us in game 5. How, you might ask, is this different from Baker's abuse of Prior and Wood? If Beckett blows his arm out next year, maybe it won't be any. But the difference in my mind was that Beckett was left out there only as long as he looked good, while Baker left Prior and Wood out there even after they'd clearly lost their command, velocity, and location. McKeon showed a quick hook with all his pitchers, willing to rely on his intuition as to the hot hand. Who says you can't teach a 72 year old dog new tricks? Regardless of who makes it from the AL, the Marlins will be the best managed team in the World Series.
And, in the end, we were also outfielded. Cabrera played right field as well as Sosa despite playing it for the first time in his life in this series. Alou dove and caught all sorts of balls which a faster left fielder would have caught much more easily. Gonzalez booted the key grounder in game six, Paul Bako let all sorts of blockable pitches between his legs, Grudzielanek showed zero range at second base, Aramis Ramirez made every throw an adventure, and the Cubs weak throwing arms in the outfield were exploited numerous times by the speedy Fish. Even Steve Bartman, the poor guy, misplayed the foul ball which has now nearly ruined his life (if he does end up having to leave the city, then shame on Chicago, and it will be another dark blight on Cubs history).
When I diagnose things this way, clinically, I feel somewhat better. And I'll still take away happy memories from this postseason. Give the Cubs this: they overachieved and fought hard, they pulled out some amazing victories this year, and they were this close (picture me holding my index finger and thumb out, an inch of space between them) to completing their fairy tale. I haven't had this much fun watching the Cubs in a long time, screaming my lungs out everytime Kerry Wood proved he was a better hitter than either of his catchers, or Bako or Miller gunned down Pierre, or some random Cubs pinch-hitter like Goodwin or Simon or O'Leary came up with a clutch hit. The Cubs didn't choke, they were just outplayed. They have nothing to be embarrassed about.
I hope the Cubs learn from this postseason and don't overestimate their own abilities. They have significant upgrades to make if they're going to be a true World Series contender. They're dangerously close to following the footsteps of recent old and overachieving Cubs playoff teams with a second year tumble back into reality. Grudzielanek, Karros, Alou, Sosa, Miller, Bako, Gonzalez, O'Leary, Goodwin...those are all players highly highly unlikely to improve, more likely to get worse. Same goes for Alfonseca, Remlinger, Veres, Estes. The starting pitching is young and solid, but the Cubs lack positional prospects. They need to go out and build around a core of Patterson, Choi, Ramirez, Prior, Wood, Zambrano, and Clement. If they recognize this and do increase their salary base next year and spend it wisely, then there's hope for a continued run of success.
There's always hope. Go Red Sox.