April 9, 2000
Reds 8, Cubs 7
April of 2000 was a momentous and nerve-wracking time for me. In one month, I’d be graduating from my beloved alma mater, Kenyon College, and leaving behind the most sublimely beautiful and intellectually fulfilling environment I’d ever encountered for the great unknown of life on my own.
But first, I decided to celebrate by driving two and a half hours to see the 2000 Cubs in Cincinnati. Because there was no more appropriate way to mark my entrance into the real world than by making my worst decision of the entire year.
The thing is I was excited for the 2000 Cubs. Sure, they’d lost 95 games the year before and their biggest offseason addition was Ismael Valdez’s blisters. But I was 21 years old at the time and everybody has a story about doing something incredibly stupid at that age. For some, it was chugging Old Milwaukee and running the naked mile. For others, it was shotgunning Four Loko and karaokeing “I Touch Myself” during commencement.
For me, I was completely sober and convinced that Don Baylor would be a good manager. After a thorough study of the Cubs roster that offseason, I’d apparently concluded that the main reason they’d lost 95 games the year before was a lack of sacrifice bunts in the first inning.
So even though the Cubs had already suffered a four-game losing streak in the first week and just got swept in St. Louis by a combined score of 30-8, I was undaunted. I still decided to make the 160 mile trek to Cincinnati to see if Baylor’s proven leadership could help them improve on their 2-5 record.
It was the rubber match of a three-game series at Riverfront Stadium and, as I tend to be whenever I watch the Cubs on the road, I was extra nervous. Something about rooting for the visitors puts me on edge and makes me cheer louder, as if I want to try and make up for the poor taste of the majority of the crowd.
And for the first two-thirds of this Sunday afternoon game, I was exultant. It was the kind of start that would make Thom Brennaman say “Enough already.” Which meant that either the Cubs were scoring a bunch of runs or a gay couple was existing in public.
Things were going well from the very top of the 1st inning. Normally, Sammy Sosa and Mark Grace went together like Flintstone Vitamins and Marlboros. But on this day, for one brief moment, they treated Denny Neagle’s ERA even worse than their own bodies, taking the Reds lefty deep for back-to-back home runs. The Cubs were up 2-0, the game was less than a half-inning old, and I was pumped up.
Nothing that happened in the next five and a half innings led me to believe this was going to be a day of anything but baseball joy. Scott Downs was dealing in his major league debut, allowing only two hits in the first half of the game. Then Glenallen Hill homered to lead off the 6th. And since this was a Glenallen jack and there’s no video evidence to contradict it, I’m going say that he annihilated the ball completely out of Riverfront Stadium and it landed on a rooftop in Kentucky. Because Glenallen Hill rules.
The Cubs were inspired to pile on Neagle with three more runs to take a 6-0 lead into the bottom of the 6th and I was feeling pretty good about both my baseball team and life in general. “What could go wrong?” I asked myself as I basked in the feeling of an impending blowout. “What indeed could go wrong with a roster constructed around Shane Andrews, Jose Nieves, and Felix Heredia?”
The 2000 Cubs were to hope what Crane Kenney is to a soul.
Even when Ken Griffey Jr. unloaded a two-run blast to start the bottom of the 6th for his first home run in a Reds uniform, I was still feeling pretty good. “Oh nice,” I thought, “The Cubs are going to win and I saw a bit of history.” Then Alex Ochoa took Downs deep to make it 6-3 and, looking back, it still astounds me how everything instantly turned for the worse in that one swing. A near-unanimous Hall of Famer taking you deep is one thing. But Ochoa unloading one of his 46 career homers? One week of 2000 Cubs baseball was enough for me to realize that holding this lead for another three innings was going to take nothing short of a miracle.
Here are the pitchers Baylor selected to try to accomplish this miracle: Brian Williams. Daniel Garibay, and the remains of Rick Aguilera. The first two sound like the Cubs bullpen didn’t get the licensing rights to use actual player names. Aguilera, meanwhile, was the latest example of this era’s Law of Conservation of Cubs Closers: Suck cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change form. (AKA the Rojawkinsaguileralfonseca Principle.)
During the 2000 season, these three pitchers combined for -2.0 WAR, and they were Baylor’s top three choices to hold an 8th-inning lead. So it’s not surprising that two sac flies, a Ricky Gutierrez error, and a Barry Larkin RBI single later, the score was 6-6. In less than three innings, my mindset had gone from the warm glow of a comfortable Cubs win to the cold grim realization that this day would end in disaster. The only question was how long they would prolong the agony.
Even then, the 2000 Cubs found a way to shiv me one more time. In the top of the 11th, my cautious optimism was briefly rekindled when Grace reached on a leadoff error and an RBI single gave the Cubs a 7-6 lead. I don’t know how many times I’ve said it: You just don’t want to face Damon Buford with the game on the line. (Once. I’ve said it precisely once.) All they had to do was get three outs and my day trip would be salvaged. So who was the pitcher charged with getting those three outs?
I think we all know where this is going. Leadoff walk to Griffey. Shane Andrews threw a bunt into right field to tie it right back up. Walk-off single by Ochoa. Good God, man, have some dignity. Right then and there, the Cubs should’ve sent their entire bullpen down to their new Triple-A team in The Hague.
The Reds roster joined in a frenzied bouncing celebration around first base as fireworks exploded overhead. Meanwhile, I was gutted as I slunk out of the upper deck and prepared for a drive back to campus that consisted of two and a half hours of muttering “What was that?!” over a terrible Matchbox 20 soundtrack. Somewhere along the way, the realization hit that this was only the eighth game of the year. When I got back, I googled the phrase “Is it possible to mercy rule a season?”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This, by the way, is the first of three blown six-run leads on this list. And its ranking reflects that it is far and away the least painful of those three. Consider this your Lemony Snicket warning to turn back now before it’s too late.
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