Decade later, Game 6 still hard to forget
Wood recalls Cubs' bid for 2003 pennant, how close they came to World Series
CHICAGO -- Monday marks the 10th anniversary of the one game Cubs fans would prefer to forget, yet it's part of a magical 2003 season that Kerry Wood says was his favorite of his 12 years with the team.
On Oct. 14, 2003, at Wrigley Field, the Cubs played the Marlins in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. The Cubs began the day with a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series, and they were five outs away from getting to the World Series for the first time since 1945.
First, a little refresher course. The 2003 season was Dusty Baker's first as the Cubs manager after leading the Giants to the World Series in '02. General manager Jim Hendry had added pitchers Mike Remlinger and Mark Guthrie, catcher Damian Miller and Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek. It was Sammy Sosa's 12th season in Chicago, and he slugged 40 home runs and drove in 103 runs that year.
The Cubs were 5 1/2 games back on July 23 when Hendry made his big move, acquiring third baseman Aramis Ramirez and outfielder Kenny Lofton from the Pirates in a five-player deal. On Aug. 17, the Cubs and Pirates made one more swap as Randall Simon joined Chicago in exchange for outfielder Ray Sadler.
"From Spring Training on, you had that feeling and the confidence that we were going to be a good team," Wood said, sitting in the home dugout at Wrigley Field in late September, reflecting on the '03 season. "As the year went on, we picked up certain guys in trades and got more and more confident.
"The trades really pieced us together," Wood said. "We were a good team, but the guys we picked up -- Randall Simon and Kenny Lofton -- they were huge pieces to the puzzle and helped us get over the hump. It was a fun time."
Lofton gave the Cubs the leadoff man and speed they were missing after Corey Patterson was sidelined with a season-ending knee injury in early July. Mark Bellhorn was the Opening Day third baseman, batting .223 on July 23. Ramirez provided power and clutch hitting, adding 15 home runs in 25 games. Simon also delivered, hitting .317 with runners in scoring position. They blended seamlessly into the mix.
"They could see where we were going and what was going on in Chicago," Wood said of the new additions. "In the situations they were in, they were probably really excited to get out of there and come here and have a chance to play.
"I remember Jim came to me two days before we got Aramis, and he said, 'What do you think about Aramis Ramirez?'" Wood said. "I said, 'I don't know him personally, but I know he's a tough out.' [Hendry] said, 'Do you think we should get him?' and I said, 'Yesterday.'"
At the time of the trade, Ramirez was batting .280 with 12 home runs, 25 doubles and 67 RBIs in 96 games with the Pirates, who were en route to a fourth-place finish in the Central. The Cubs would win the National League Central with an 88-74 record.
The '03 playoffs
It was the Cubs' first time in the postseason since 1998, when Atlanta swept Chicago in the NL Division Series. The two teams were matched up again in the '03 NLDS. The best-of-five series included an 11-strikeout game by Wood in Game 1 at Turner Field and a two-hitter by Mark Prior in Game 3 at Wrigley. Wood was back on the mound for Game 5, and he fanned seven over eight innings. Alex Gonzalez hit a solo home run and Ramirez added a two-run shot in the sixth for a 5-1 win.
It marked the first time the Cubs won a postseason series since 1908, which was the last time they won the World Series. The only downer was that Ron Santo, the Cubs' legendary third baseman and radio broadcaster, missed the series because he was ill. Wood hung Santo's No. 10 jersey in the dugout during the games, and Santo was the first person Wood called from Atlanta after winning Game 5.
Next up were the Marlins, who spoiled Game 1 of the NL Championship Series at Wrigley Field with a 9-8, 11-inning win, fueled by Mike Lowell's solo homer in the 11th. Chicago rebounded with a 12-3 win in Game 2 as Gonzalez hit two home runs, and Ramirez and Sosa also went deep.
The series shifted to Miami for Game 3 at Pro Player Stadium, and the Cubs took a 2-1 series lead with a 5-4, 11-inning victory in front of 65,115. Ramirez smacked a first-inning grand slam in Game 4 to spark an 8-3 win. Up 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, the Cubs needed one more win to get to the World Series.
"I'm thinking we have a chance to clinch at home and celebrate at home, and nothing more than that," Wood said about how he felt with the lead. "It seemed like it would be really difficult for us to not win that series. I remember [Games] 6 and 7 for the most part."
Game 5 was a turning point as Josh Beckett held the Cubs to two hits in a 4-0 win. It was back to Wrigley Field, and the nightmarish Game 6. Chicago led, 3-0, entering the eighth inning, and Prior was in control. With one out, Juan Pierre doubled, and Luis Castillo then lofted a ball along the left-field line. You've seen the replay a zillion times. Fans and Moises Alou reached for the ball, and it was deflected away from the left fielder. An angry Alou slammed his glove to the ground.
"You can't blame the entire game on that play," Prior said. "Ninety-nine percent of the people in that situation would do the same thing."
Wood was in the dugout and couldn't see what happened.
"People talk about [the fan] and the foul ball, but from our vantage point, we stood up and could see it a little bit, but we didn't know someone was getting escorted out and they're throwing stuff at him," Wood said. "It happens all the time -- foul ball, you go and make the next pitch. I was sitting down at the end where I always sit, and we were up, Mark was cruising, getting deep in the game.
"I went inside to get a drink and saw they were putting the plastic up [in the clubhouse for the post-game celebration]," Wood said. "Karros had his camera set up, Juan Cruz had his camera set up. I walked back out to the dugout and [the play] happened, and I was sitting there going over the lineup for the Yankees, and thinking, 'I'm going to pitch Game 1 of the World Series.' I was going over the Yankee lineup."
But Castillo drew a walk, Ivan Rodriguez hit a RBI single, and Miguel Cabrera reached on an error by Gonzalez, who misplayed a potential double-play ball.
"For whatever reason, I didn't catch the ball," Gonzalez said after the game. "I was trying to get an out there, but it just seemed like the spin on the ball kind of ate me up. I guess I wasn't expecting it to get to me that fast."
Prior didn't blame Gonzalez either, saying the Cubs didn't execute in the eighth. The Marlins would score eight runs that inning. Wood wasn't going to face the Yankees in Game 1.
"We came off the field and the game was over, and all of a sudden, 15 minutes later, I realized, 'Oh, crap, I'm pitching tomorrow,'" Wood said. "I'm sitting there thinking, 'Did that really just happen?'"
It did, and they had to play Game 7.
The Marlins struck first in the series finale when Cabrera hit a three-run homer in the first. Wood helped himself with a two-run shot, and Alou made it 5-3 Cubs with a two-run homer in the third. But the Marlins rallied in the fifth as Wood walked two, and both scored. Derrek Lee delivered a tie-breaking RBI single en route to a 9-6 final.
After the game, an emotional Wood faced the media.
"You guys have to understand -- about 30 minutes ago, I choked," Wood said then. "That's the bottom line. I choked. That's about all I've got right now."
And then he disappeared into the clubhouse.
"The bottom line is without him, we wouldn't be where we're at," said pitcher Matt Clement of Wood. "Of all the teammates that I've had in my life, I'd want Mark Prior and Kerry Wood out there pitching."
'You could hear a pin drop'
Ten years later, Wood said he felt good about the Cubs' chances in Game 7.
"I still felt confident going into the [seventh] game," he said. "After I hit the home run to tie it, the little confidence that was lost or the air that was let out of the stadium the night before was gone. They came out swinging and put up a couple runs early. I think the home run [I hit] energized us, and I thought we were back in it -- here we go, starting over, and we were going to win it."
When Wood homered, the Wrigley Field crowd of 39,574 roared.
"It's the loudest I've ever heard it," Wood said.
And when the Marlins rallied?
"That was the most eerie part about it," Wood said. "You could hear conversations on the field -- guys were yelling and you could hear every word they were saying to each other. In a matter of two hours, it was the loudest I've ever heard it and the quietest I ever heard it."
On Tuesday, Comcast SportsNet will premiere "5 Outs ...", an original 90-minute documentary about the 2003 Cubs season. Tigers slugger Cabrera, who was then on the Marlins, was among those interviewed.
"Everybody talks about [the fan]," Cabrera said. "Everybody says [Castillo] was going to be out. But I would say the key play was the ground ball I hit to shortstop. If they make that play, I don't think they got any more problems. ... That play caused a lot of runs. You know when everything goes backwards, everything goes wrong, anything can happen."
Pierre agreed with Wood that the noise level at Wrigley Field dramatically changed after that inning.
"You could hear a pin drop in there," Pierre said in the documentary. "They sensed it, you know. ... We definitely took the wind out of them in that Game 6."
More than one fan grabbed for Castillo's ball, but only one, Steve Bartman, had to be escorted from his seat by security because of the crowd reaction. Since then, he has stayed out of the public eye despite others attempts to cash in. In September 2011, ESPN did a documentary called "Catching Hell," which Bartman refused to participate in. Bartman's family and friends have protected his privacy. He'll have a hard time avoiding replays of that fateful popup this week.
When the NLCS ended, Baker headed home to California. His next assignment was driving his son, Darren, to school.
"Nobody expected us to be here in the first place," said Baker, who left the Cubs when his four-year deal ended in 2006. "Nobody expected us to win the Central. Nobody expected us to beat the Braves. I really don't care what people say about us. We know how we feel about ourselves. We didn't lose the pennant -- the Marlins won it. They won it, and they won it fair and square. So that's all you can say."
It's been 10 years. The Cubs have been to the playoffs twice since then -- 2007 and '08 -- but were swept both times in the Division Series.
"The 2003 season will always be my best memories here as a Cub," Wood said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.