Just looking at baseball-reference’s 1997 Cubs team page, you’d never think that team could lose 14 straight. Sammy Sosa, Mark Grace, Ryne Sandberg, Shawon Dunston... guys who played for the Cubs in multiple postseasons.
Of course, Sandberg was in his final season and Sosa wasn’t yet the 60-homer guy he became the following year. And the pitching staff was atrocious, especially closer Mel Rojas, who had six blown saves by the end of July. The miracle was that the Cubs actually found someone to take him off their hands in a trade that proved important for the 1998 Cubs wild-card team.
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. With the Cubs possibly losing their 13th straight game tonight in Cincinnati, I thought I’d take a look game-by-game at their franchise-record 14-game losing streak that began the 1997 season, since Wednesday’s game is an early one (11:35 a.m. CT) and I wouldn’t have time to squeeze this article in before game time Wednesday. (Plus, the Cubs do have a chance to win tonight with Kyle Hendricks on the mound.)
Prelude: In late 1996, the Cubs had defeated the Phillies 4-2 September 11. That gave them a 74-72 record and with 16 games remaining, they were five games out of first place. That’s not an easy deficit to overcome, but not impossible, either. The 1996 Cubs made it impossible by losing 14 of their 16 remaining games and finishing 12 games out of first place. GM Ed Lynch didn’t do much to help the club in the offseason. He signed Mel Rojas and Kevin Tapani as free agents and brought in Dave Hansen and Dave Clark as bench help.
And then the Cubs were scheduled to begin the 1997 season with four straight series against two of the better teams in the league, the Marlins and Braves, two sets against each, home and road.
Here’s a short summary of the 14 losses that began the 1997 season.
The Cubs had only one hit through eight innings, a fifth-inning single by Kevin Orie, his first MLB hit. They trailed 4-0 in the ninth when they put together a two-run rally off Marlins closer Robb Nen, and had the tying run in scoring position when Scott Servais struck out to end it.
The Cubs trailed 4-0 heading to the sixth, when Mark Grace doubled in two runs. Grace homered in the eighth to make it 4-3, but Nen set the Cubs down 1-2-3 in the ninth.
A five-run first off Frank Castillo pretty much ended this one. (Is this sounding familiar?) The Cubs did not lead at any point in any of these three games in Miami.
The Cubs took a 4-2 lead in the top of the seventh, their first lead of the season. They gave one of those runs back in the bottom of the inning and in the eighth, an error by Shawon Dunston helped Atlanta score two runs and win the game.
The Cubs scored three in the second and led for about an inning in this game that had multiple delays, one by rain, one by a bank of lights going out in then-new Turner Field, and a third when sprinklers went on after the 92-minute rain delay. The game was eventually suspended when more rain hit after midnight — the rules of the time allowed suspended games for weather after 12:45 a.m. — and finished the next day. A five-run fifth gave Atlanta a lead they did not relinquish.
After the suspended game was completed, Greg Maddux allowed the Cubs three hits over eight shutout innings in the scheduled game that day and the Cubs made four errors, though only one of the Atlanta runs was unearned.
35,393 attended the home opener on a brutally cold day — 29 degrees, still considered the coldest game-time temperature in Wrigley Field history. The wind chill, with a 22 mile per hour wind blowing in, was 1 degree. I remember this day well, you just could not get warm. Neither were the Cubs bats, though they briefly had leads of 2-1 and 3-2 before Steve Trachsel and Turk Wendell coughed up those leads.
I wrote about this game in the Day in Wrigley Field History series here in 2014. Quick summary: Alex Fernandez took a no-hitter into the ninth, the most recent pitcher to do so during the Cubs’ record 7,920-game streak of not being no-hit between 1965 and 2015. Dave Hansen broke it up with one out and the Cubs loaded the bases on two errors, but could not score in part due to a baserunning mistake by Jose Hernandez (the phrase TOOTBLAN had not yet been invented!). Ryne Sandberg struck out to end it. It was another miserable, cold day and this game broke the franchise record for most losses at the start of a season, previously seven, set in 1962.
The game April 11 was snowed out and rescheduled as part of a doubleheader July 22. In this April game, again played in frigid 37-degree conditions, it went to the ninth tied 1-1 when Bob Patterson allowed a single and after a failed sacrifice, Mel Rojas was summoned. Ryan Klesko stole second and scored on a single. The Cubs got the tying run to third with two out in the bottom of the ninth but Brian McRae grounded out to end it.
The game was tied heading to the eighth when an error by Brant Brown helped lead to two unearned Atlanta runs. The Cubs again had the tying run in scoring position in the ninth when Brooks Kieschnick struck out to end it.
The wind was blowing out, and seven home runs were hit, four by the Rockies (two by Larry Walker). The Cubs never led, though, despite homers by Brooks Kieschnick, Brian McRae and Shawon Dunston. The photo at the top of this post is from this game.
Roger Bailey threw two complete-game shutouts in a three-year career from 1995-97. This was one of them. The Cubs had five hits, made three more errors, and had just two runners get past first base.
The game April 18 was rained out and rescheduled as part of a doubleheader Sunday, April 20. The Cubs tied the game 3-3 in the top of the seventh on an RBI single by Rey Sanchez and a two-run pinch-hit homer by Dave Clark off his future teammate Mark Clark. But the Mets scored one off Turk Wendell in the seventh and two off Bob Patterson in the eighth to win it.
The Mets scored five off Steve Trachsel in the third, four of them on a grand slam by Carl Everett, and this one was over early, the 14th straight loss.
The streak finally ended in the second game of that April 20 doubleheader. The Mets took a 1-0 lead in the fifth, but the Cubs had a pair of two-run innings in the sixth and seventh and took a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth — and nearly blew it. A two-run double by another future Cub, Lance Johnson, made it 4-3 with two out, but Manny Alexander grounded out to end the game and the streak.
Later in 1997, the Cubs made a trade that brought over key players for 1998. On August 8 — these players must all have cleared waivers — the Cubs sent Brian McRae, Mel Rojas and Turk Wendell to the Mets for Lance Johnson and a PTBNL, who, three days later, turned out to be Mark Clark. Johnson did well in ‘98, though missing a couple months due to injury, and Clark posted a 1.9 bWAR season as a starter. The ‘97 Cubs were less awful after the streak and were 13-12 in September, though they lost 94 games overall.
Let’s hope this streak isn’t matched tomorrow. And let’s hope the 2022 Cubs follow their 1998 predecessors and make the postseason.