Random Thoughts on 1998 Wild Card, Plus Former Cub Justin Grimm Finds New Home

I spent some time with Raekwon’s autobiography last night, prior to which I ended up flipping to Marquee rather than watching the Miami Dolphins read a Book. I love finding unexpected connections, so you can imagine how excited I was to find that the legendary rapper played youth baseball for the Park Hill Cubs during his early teenage years in Staten Island.

Having just finished a re-watch of the 1998 play-in game, I was already feeling the warm fuzzies from being steeped in nostalgia and connections to ghosts of Cubs past, present, and future. I’ll get into more of that in a moment, but I first want to touch on a more recent former North Side star in Justin Grimm.

The lanky righty had a sparkle-and-fade tenure with the Cubs, peaking in 2014 when he racked up big strikeout numbers with a 1.99 ERA. Grimm was never very consistent after that, walking too many batters and allowing far too much hard contact, and his decision to take the Cubs to the arbitration table in 2018 proved to be his undoing.

Grimm was guaranteed to lose his case because he was coming off of a poor performance in 2017 and, since salaries awarded via arbitration are not fully guaranteed, he set himself up to be released. He said later that he and the team were “butting heads,” so maybe getting released to pursue free agency was his plan all along. Things haven’t worked out in the time since, as his ERA and walk numbers have skyrocketed in stints for three different teams.

Still just 33, Grimm will have a chance to recapture some of his former success with the A’s. According to Tim Hayes of Bristol Herald Courier, Grimm’s hometown paper, the righty has signed a minor league deal with Oakland. I’m not sure whether pitching in the dry desert air of Las Vegas will be great for his numbers, but here’s to hoping he can rebound.

Either way, his brother probably won’t be name-searching him and leaving mean comments on the CI Twitter page.

Now back to the 1998 Wild Card game, which was fun to watch again for a number of reasons. You had Gary “The Rat” Gaetti as a 40-year-old who was the last player allowed to wear the flapless nacho helmet because it was grandfathered in. Sammy Sosa had just hit 66 homers and endeared himself to the entire nation, igniting a craze that would propel Cubs ticket prices to the highest in the league.

It’s pretty amazing that you can tie the meteoric rise in the cost to attend games at Wrigley directly to Sosa’s ascendance into superstardom. Plenty of folks are still big mad about how he left and/or the fact that he almost certainly used PEDs, but Tom Ricketts should be the former slugger’s biggest supporter at this point.

Anyway, that Giants roster had former Cubs Shawon Dunston and Rey Sanchez, along with future Cub Bill Mueller. In addition to playing third base in 2001 and ’02, Mueller served as the Cubs’ hitting coach during that ill-fated 2014 season under manager Ricky Renteria. He went on to coach for a few seasons with the Cardinals and is now the hitting coach at Arizona State University.

If memory served, he also had a stretch during which he recorded a hit in like eight straight at-bats against the Cubs. I might just be making that up

That Cubs roster from 1998 was replete with the kind of names that would help you win a name-that-random-player contest. Along with standouts like Sosa, Gaetti, and Mark Grace, they had Tyler Houston behind the plate and Matt Mieske and Orlando Merced off the bench. Former White Sox great Lance “One Dog” Johson led off, followed by Mickey “The Dandy Little Glove Man” Morandini.

Steve Trachsel started the game before giving way to Matt Karchner, then Felix Heredia was followed by Kevin Tapani and Terry Mulholland. When skipper Jim Riggleman needed to close out a game that had gotten way too close after the Giants rallied in the 9th, he put in a call to the ‘pen and brought Rod “Shooter” Beck and his dead arm to the mound.

Beck threw exactly one pitch harder than 80 mph and managed to get weak contact from Jeff Kent and 1993 World Series hero Joe Carter to earn the save. It’s wild given today’s era of hard throwers to look back and see the Cubs eeking out a win behind a pair of dudes who lived in the mid-’80s, but things were different way back then and ol’ Rigs was throwing the kitchen sink at the Giants.

Oh yeah, perhaps the biggest connection of all was that Johnnie B. Baker was chewing his toothpicks in the opposing dugout. He would be on the other side of things from 2003-06, during which time he encountered his share of “Cubbie occurrences” while leading the Cubs to the brink of then-unknown success.

And since I know someone is probably shaking their fist in anger because I referred to 1998 as “way back then,” it really does look like an entirely different era when you watch the broadcast. Not only is it in standard definition, but the ballpark has none of those modern accouterments we’ve grown used to, plus the bullpens were still on the field and the rooftops weren’t nearly as commercialized.

Then you have the fans, who aren’t decked out in jerseys or even Cubs hats to the degree we’re used to seeing now. Some of that can perhaps be chalked up to the more corporate, hoity-toity crowd you get for big games at high prices, but it’s obvious the fashion has changed over the last two decades.

More than anything else, it was just incredibly satisfying to watch that game again knowing the outcome and being able to simply enjoy it. It didn’t hurt that we’re stuck in this lockout, hence me spitting out nearly 1,000 words on a former player and an old game. And hell, I didn’t even mention Barry Bonds or Jeff Kent or the fact that every Giants player looked like a cop because they all had mustaches.

Did anyone else watch the replay on Marquee or do you have some other memories from this one you’d like to share? Lord knows we’ve got little else to talk about at this point.

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