Gather round while I tell you a story.
Once upon a time there was a Cubs team that had been pretty bad for a couple of seasons, finishing near the bottom of its division and with little direction to its pitching staff or offense. There were a couple of young players on the club that generated a little bit of excitement, but no one felt that the team would return to contention any time soon.
Ownership decided to shake things up. They had replaced a longtime general manager with an interim guy who everyone knew wasn't the longterm solution. A new GM was put in place early in the offseason and he hired a new manager, replacing the previous one who was generally regarded as clueless, and then set about shaking up the roster.
He traded away several longtime popular players -- one of the deals being quite controversial -- and some of the incoming players were guys most fans hadn't heard of. One of them was quite injury-prone; a couple of others were seen as stop-gaps, not fulltime regulars, and yet another was a young pitcher taken in the Rule 5 draft.
This sounds quite a bit like this past offseason, doesn't it? Obviously, it's not, or you wouldn't be seeing the photo at the top of this post, nor would I be writing this story in the first place.
I'm talking about a Cubs team from 35 years ago that gave many of us some brief excitement in the summer of 1977.
Bill Buckner had been an exciting young player for the Dodgers, but after a couple of serious ankle injuries, he could no longer play the outfield and the Cubs hoped he'd be healthy enough to play first base. Popular center fielder Rick Monday, who had led the team with 32 home runs in 1976, was sent to the Dodgers in the deal. The trade was ripped by many Cubs fans at the time, even though the Cubs also needed a shortstop and got a highly regarded prospect, Ivan DeJesus, in addition to Buckner.
Bill Madlock, coming off two consecutive NL batting titles, had made contract demands that P.K. Wrigley didn't like; he was shipped to the Giants for Bobby Murcer and Steve Ontiveros. The Cubs then gave Murcer more money than Madlock had been asking for. Some felt there was racism involved.
The Cubs picked up journeymen Gene Clines and Greg Gross to man various outfield and bench positions, and plucked lefthander Willie Hernandez from the Phillies in the Rule 5 draft. Hernandez, just 22 years old at the time, had posted a 4.53 ERA as a starter in Triple-A in 1976 and no one expected much from him.
No one expected much at all from the 1977 Cubs.
No one, that is, except for new manager Herman Franks. Franks, no longer a young man at age 63, had managed the Giants to four straight second-place finishes a decade earlier, never winning fewer than 88 games but also never quite getting over the hump to a pennant (finishing just two games out of first place in 1965 and 1½ games out in 1966). But he always had his teams playing hard, and the Cubs needed a change after the woeful Jim Marshall had managed the Cubs to mediocre/poor records in 1975 and 1976.
More details about the 1977 season are in this long piece I wrote three years ago; I wanted to point this out in particular:
But despite losing their last two games of June to finish the month at 47-24, that meant that the Cubs had gone 40-15 for the months of May and June. That still stands as the best 55-game stretch any Cubs team has had since 1945, when they had a 43-12 stretch at one point. Even during the great regular season the Cubs had in 2008, their best 55-game stretch was 37-18 (April 5-June 3).
That team wasn't really that good; as I pointed out in the other post, they went on a slow slide which eventually had them finish exactly at .500. Last year's Cleveland Indians took a similar path.
The 2012 Cubs aren't that good, either. I know this. You know this. Optimistic as I always want to be, I know this team isn't going to the playoffs, barring some sort of miracle.
The parallels between the 1977 team and the 2012 team aren't exact, either; this year's team has a manager in his first full-time job, while in '77 they had a manager with significant experience. They had new players in many spots in '77, but several new faces (Murcer, Buckner) were veterans; this year's team is relying on Bryan LaHair and Ian Stewart to be productive, to which the answer is "Who knows?"
But Dale Sveum has this team playing hard. They are, even in spring training, much better at fundamental baseball than last year's edition. They take chances on the basepaths, but smart ones -- you won't see many TOOTBLANs this year. They have five competent starting pitchers.
Looking at this team dispassionately, their upside is probably .500. They might not even get there. But it would not surprise me to see them in first place in May or June. And that leads me to one more difference between the Cubs in 1977 and the Cubs in 2012.
What if this team does get off to a start like that? In 1977, the Cubs had neither the cash nor the spare parts to make any sort of significant midseason acquisition (instead, they went dumpster-diving for guys like Bobby Darwin and Dave Giusti). This year, if the Cubs do somehow find themselves in contention in midseason, they should have the payroll flexibility to make a July deadline deal.
I could be way off base here. But I do see some parallels between the two clubs. I'm ready for the season to start. How about you?