Jon Lieber of the Chicago Cubs winds up to pitch the ball during the game against the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois on April 10, 2000. The Cubs defeated the Braves 4-3. (Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
This is the first in a series of six profiles that will replace the six players dropped from the original 2006 Top 100 Cubs list; they'll appear occasionally during the offseason and will also replace the "TBA" numbers on the left sidebar.
Most of you are quite familiar with Jon Lieber, as he pitched for the Cubs from 1999-2002 and then again in 2008. So I don't need to tell you much about his career; he was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa on April 2, 1970 and was the second-round pick of the Kansas City Royals in 1992 after he played his college ball at South Alabama. He went to the Pirates at the July 31 trading deadline in 1993 for Stan Belinda as the Pirates began two decades' worth of salary dumps. Five years later, he became a Cub on December 14, 1998 in exchange for Brant Brown.
Here's an untold story about the 2006 Top 100 list -- Lieber was my last cut. I was debating between him and Ivan DeJesus. I think I made the wrong choice then, so I'm making it right now. While Lieber had two middling seasons in 1999 and 2000 -- in part, because both those clubs were awful behind him -- it's his 2001 season that puts him on this list. He's the last Cubs pitcher to win 20 games in a season, and while starting pitcher wins aren't nearly as important as they used to be, there have been only 10 20-win seasons in the NL since 2001, by nine pitchers (Roy Oswalt did it twice). Lieber finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting in 2001 (behind Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and Matt Morris) and made the All-Star team for the only time in his career.
So this profile isn't as much a history of Lieber's life and career as it is a story about one specific game he pitched.
Lieber was the Opening Day starter for the Cubs in 2000 against the Mets in Japan -- largely by default after Steve Trachsel departed via free agency -- and got the nod over Kerry Wood in 2001, also. And he got off to just an okay start that year, going into the game on Thursday, May 24 at Wrigley Field against the Reds, he was a pedestrian 3-3 with a 3.71 ERA.
That day started out rainy and cool; there was a 55-minute rain delay before the game started. It started raining again during the bottom of the fourth inning right after Todd Hundley struck out; the game was delayed another 92 minutes with the Cubs leading 2-0. When the rain stopped, the sun came out and the game resumed. The Reds then yanked Osvaldo Fernandez for Scott Winchester (right there, you have two very good reasons the 2001 Reds lost 96 games) and one inning later, Gary Matthews Jr. hit a home run to make it 3-0.
And Lieber, who had returned to the game after the rain delay, kept mowing down hitters. He had a perfect game with one out in the sixth when Juan Castro hit a little flare to right field for the Reds' first hit. Castro was immediately erased when Winchester tried to bunt him to second and instead, bunted into an inning-ending double play.
That was it for the Reds. Their only other baserunner came in the ninth when Castro walked, and pinch-hitter Ruben Rivera hit into a game-ending double play. The one-hitter was the best game of Lieber's career and the time of the game was just one hour, 48 minutes, the fastest game time in Wrigley Field in at least the last 20 years... but with the rain delays that totalled two hours and 27 minutes, the game, which had been scheduled for a 1:20 p.m. start, didn't end until after 5:30. The game also ended a NL-record streak for the Reds; they had not been shut out for 208 straight games. That record still stands.
There was another notable event that fizzled that day. For some inexplicable reason, the Cubs had invited He Who Shall Not Be Named to sing the seventh-inning stretch that day. Those of us who can't stand his screeching were appalled. Fortunately, the rain delays had sent many of the 26,227 who paid that day home early; by the time the seventh-inning stretch arrived around 4:45, only a small fraction -- I would say maybe 4,000 -- were left in Wrigley Field. Thankfully, that particular seventh-inning scene has never been repeated.
The win made the Cubs' record 26-20; Kerry Wood one-hit the Brewers the next day and three days later the Cubs went into first place. They would not relinquish that spot for good until August 18, and Lieber went 16-3 for the rest of the season, although the Cubs wound up five games short of the wild card.
Lieber got hurt in 2002 and didn't pitch after August 1. He became a free agent after the season; knowing that he would be having Tommy John surgery, the Cubs, who wanted him to stay, wouldn't offer him a guaranteed contract. The Yankees did, giving him a two-year deal, so he signed there and helped lead them to the playoffs in 2004.
Lieber returned to the Cubs in 2008 after a stint with the Phillies. He had hoped to be a long reliever and spot starter, but it never worked out that way, partly because of Lou Piniella's refusal to use any reliever for more than two innings. After Lieber gave up four home runs to the Reds in a 9-0 loss in Cincinnati on May 9, his only start of the year, Lou didn't trust him any more -- he never pitched again except in blowouts or long extra inning games. He wound up on the DL in July and appeared in one September game (another blowout to the Reds), his final major league appearance.
But that one-hitter in May 2001 was one of the most memorable games in recent Cubs history. Lieber's 50 wins as a Cub rank him just below the top 50 (two fewer than Ryan Dempster) in team history, and deserving of a spot on this list.