It’s July 27, 2001. Now That’s What I Call Music! CDs were fixtures in Volkswagon Jettas everywhere. A remake of Planet of the Apes was preparing to join other classics like Legally Blonde and Jurassic Park III on the box office list. Michael Jordan was a spry 38-year-old, and two months away from announcing his return to the NBA as a Washington Wizard.
And the Chicago Cubs were three games ahead of the Houston Astros with sole possession of first place in the National League Central.
2001 was a fascinating season for the Cubs. They lost 97 games in Don Baylor’s first season managing the squad in 2000. When the offseason began, general manager Andy MacPhail followed his predecessor’s blueprint to fill the team’s holes: bring in some seasoned veterans with good track records, regardless of age.
So MacPhail added Matt Stairs (33), Ron Coomer (34), Todd Hundley (32), Bill Mueller (30), Tom Gordon (33) and Jeff Fassero (38) to fix what ailed the Cubs. All-Stars that any fan who followed baseball in the late-nineties would recognize, but they were either nearing or already in their inevitable declines.
It’s not like the Cubs were spring chickens, either. Kevin Tapani and Joe Girardi were on the wrong side of 30, and the double play combination of Eric Young and Ricky Gutierrez wasn’t getting any younger. The veteran talent wasn’t necessarily added to provide wisdom for a younger crop of players; they were added for their name and reputations, with the hope they could replicate their former glories.
And, sure. If Todd Hundley could replicate his 1997 season with the Mets when he hit 30 home runs and slashed .273/.394/.549, or Ron Coomer could play like the All-Star he was in 1999, then you’re in great shape. The signings were based on hope, and chances of these new Cubs finding the Fountain of Youth were unlikely.
While adding all of this aging talent, the Cubs waved goodbye to another aging star and decade-long fan favorite: Mark Grace.
Grace, entering his age-37 season, put together another impressive offensive season for the Cubs, hitting .280/.394/.429 with 11 home runs and continued to affirm his reputation as one of the game’s most pure hitters, despite his age. He manned first base at Wrigley Field for 13 years, and became an icon for the organization.
But the relationship between Grace and the Cubs front office became strained over time, notably due to regular arguments with their newest golden boy, Sammy Sosa. When free agency began after the 2000 season, MacPhail made no effort to bring Grace back into the fold. He was soon taken in by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
For the first time since 1987, the Cubs had a vacancy at first base. And they filled it with long-time Oakland A’s slugger Matt Stairs.
Andy MacPhail successfully built a 1997 all-star team to field as the 2001 Cubs. While expectations should have been low after losing 97 games the previous year, the Chicago Cubs fanbase is nothing without a little optimism.
And they won. A lot.
The 2001 Cubs began the season 15-9 in April, far and away their best start to a season since the strike-shortened 1995, when they were 20-11 by the end of May. With the best record in the National League entering May, the Cubs continued to roll when an interesting circumstance arose.
Slugging third baseman Vinny Castilla, withering away in the basement of the American League East with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, was being shopped around. The Cubs were quite good at third base with Bill Mueller, who was hitting an impressive .339/.422/.532 on May 7, but with power sources Hundley and Stairs struggling to get off the ground, Castilla became an attractive option.
Castilla was having a miserable year in Tampa Bay, but it’s easy to imagine he was simply distressed in his environment. He was yet another aging slugger on decline, but also a league ahead of many who wore a Cubs uniform in 2001. Between 1995 and 1999 with the Colorado Rockies, he slashed .302/.348/.545 and averaged 38 home runs a year. While those power numbers were greatly inflated by the Denver air, he carried the reputation of a Cub killer who performed well at Wrigley Field.
Another incentive for the Cubs to make a push for Castilla? The division rival Houston Astros were surging and looking for an X-factor, so the Cubs could have added by subtracting. And they wouldn’t have had to give up anything other than some cash; the Devil Rays simply released Castilla on May 10.
Ultimately, the Cubs passed, even despite losing Bill Mueller to a long-term injury on May 13. Castilla signed with the Astros on May 15, and the Cubs went with Coomer at third base instead.
The Cubs weren’t losing sleep over the missed opportunity; they continued to play great baseball, embarking on a 12-game winning streak beginning May 19. They ended the first half of the season 51-35, with a three-game stronghold on the division lead over the Astros. The 2001 Cubs had all the makings of a contender.
Something was missing, though. The Cubs had great difficulty scoring two or more runs per game and needed their own X-factor to separate themselves from the Astros and run away with the division title. A big splash was imminent.
Cubs fans weren’t entirely thrilled with Matt Stairs as the everyday first baseman, despite his impressive .379 on-base percentage and .480 slugging percentage. He wasn’t the replacement for the beloved Mark Grace the team had hoped for. So the Cubs front office would enter July looking for a power-hitting first baseman, and set their sights on another Tampa Bay Devil Ray: Fred McGriff.
McGriff, affectionately known as “Crime Dog” throughout his long career, was 37 years old, but he brought a Hall of Fame pedigree with his name. He entered 2001 with 416 home runs, and showed no signs of slowing down with the Devil Rays; he entered July with 14 home runs, 47 RBI and a .336/.403/.553 slash.
In the eyes of Cubs fans, Fred McGriff was the ideal protection for Sammy Sosa in the lineup, and the proven run producer the Cubs needed to snap their woes at the plate and incite fear into any team that dared face them.
The Cubs and Devil Rays struck a deal to send McGriff to Chicago on July 12, but then he pulled the plug with his no-trade clause. He cited a desire to stay close to his family and home, both of which were based in Tampa. A noble, human desire. And at 37 and having won a World Series with the Atlanta Braves in 1995, Fred McGriff didn’t need the Chicago Cubs.
“It was just family and friends, being at home. It’s tough, it’s tempting, but sometimes you have to think about people other than just yourself,” McGriff told the Associated Press following his veto on July 17. He did leave the door open to a deal, however. “You can’t ever say never. Nobody knows what’s going to happen.”
The front office was far from done with McGriff; they wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, thus beginning of a month-long battle to sway the left-handed slugger to Wrigley Field. Fans feverishly sat on pins and needles for most of July, counting every day closer to the July 31 trade deadline. Never mind the fact that he didn’t seem to ever want to be a Cub. They wanted him. That was all that mattered.
Fred McGriff was an absurd obsession for Cubs fans and the team itself, but that’s what 92 years without a championship will do to a group of people. “We couldn’t let it die,” said Don Baylor. Indeed, moving on with the unbelievable 2001 Cubs season without the Crime Dog was no longer an option.
On July 27, the Cubs and their fans got their wish: McGriff was coming to Wrigley Field. On the day of the deal’s completion, the Cubs entered play 59-42, still latching on to that three-game lead over the Astros. Never mind McGriff’s clear reluctance to leave Tampa. He’s a Cub now, damn it!
“Just enjoy it,” wrote Rick Morrissey in the Chicago Tribune. “Enjoy another big bat in the lineup. Wrigley Field figures to be a beautiful place in October, with Sosa batting third and swinging from his ankles, and McGriff batting fourth and keeping opponents honest.”
“He going to fit in here really perfect. He’s going to help this ballclub,” said a jubilant Sammy Sosa. With the addition of McGriff, the house of cards was fully stacked on the dining room table, and the Cubs were poised to appear in their first postseason since 1998. It couldn’t be going more perfectly.
And then, as quickly as that house of cards was built, was it ultimately destroyed. The 2001 Chicago Cubs spiraled rapidly in the franchise’s greatest regular season collapse since 1969.
Following McGriff’s debut in a Cubs jersey on July 29, the wheels completely fell off. The Cubs went 6-5 in his first 11 games at first base, but the Astros had gone 8-3 in that same stretch, narrowing the Cubs’ division lead to a game-and-a-half. It wasn’t exactly the impact the Cubs were hoping for; instead of running away with the division, they were now hanging on to the lead for dear life.
McGriff — acquired as the power bat who, combined with Sammy Sosa, would make opposing pitchers quiver mightily in fear — only mustered two home runs and a .397 slugging percentage in his first 16 games batting cleanup for the Cubs.
The Cubs defeated the Astros on August 15 to maintain their game-and-a-half division lead, but that would be the final day the Cubs owned sole possession of first place in the Central. By August 31, the Cubs were a full four games out. On September 24, they had fallen a full nine games out of first.
Trading for McGriff seemed to have the exact opposite effect the organization was hoping for. He eventually found his stroke, hitting .265/.354/.662 with eight home runs in September, but it was too late. The 2001 Chicago Cubs had run out of gas.
The 2001 Chicago Cubs, who as late as August 1 held a four-and-a-half game lead over the Houston Astros in the NL Central, finished third in the division (behind the Astros and a late-surging Cardinals team) with an overall record of 88-74.
Sammy Sosa had the season of his life, slashing .328/.437/.737 and hitting 64 home runs. Jon Lieber went 20-6 with a 3.80 ERA in 232 innings. Kerry Wood evolved into the pitcher everyone thought he would be, going 12-6 with a 3.36 ERA and 217 strikeouts in 174 innings. Despite these tremendous performances, another year of World Series hopes went into the books without even a sniff of October.
It’s almost as if, in some bizarre, only-the-Cubs way that the month it took the Cubs to obsessively sway McGriff to Chicago completely sucked the life and momentum out of an overachieving team that desperately needed it.
A common buzzword in the sports world, which is nonsense most of the time it’s used, is “distraction,” but I think calling McGriff Watch a distraction is incredibly fair. The Cubs were playing amazing baseball in the first half, despite their clear inability to score runs effectively. The baseball gods were on the Cubs’ side.
Fred McGriff was an attractive option, but he probably wasn’t the only route the Cubs could go to bolster the lineup. Instead of getting creative and searching for other options, the Cubs spent a full month of the season chasing after a guy who already vetoed a deal once before. It was more than the Cubs “getting their guy;” Andy MacPhail’s modus operandi with the Cubs, for whatever reason, was that everyone wanted to be a Chicago Cub. If someone said no, that someone just didn’t understand.
It was a funny brand of organizational arrogance. The Cubs hadn’t won a World Series in 92 years, but because they were an old franchise in an old stadium that honored their losing history, people were supposed to want to play there? It was laughable.
Thing is, Fred McGriff never wanted to be a Chicago Cub. He went with great reluctance and sleepwalked his way through the rest of 2001 and the entire 2002 season in Chicago, drawing the ire of many Cubs fans.
He was more well-liked by Cubs fans before actually putting on the uniform than any other moment he spent as a member of the Chicago Cubs.
McGriff Watch made him bigger than the team on the field. The obsessive pursuit of one of baseball’s great sluggers told the players on the field they couldn’t do it on their own. That they needed McGriff to advance to the next level. When they finally got him, he never lived up to his colossal expectations and that completely knocked the wind out of the 2001 Cubs’ sails.
Fred McGriff, by the organization’s doing, was a distraction. And the pursuit followed by the subpar return from McGriff will forever be the symbol of the Cubs’ 2001 collapse.
New general manager Jim Hendry washed his hands clean of McGriff entering the 2003 season, opting instead for a platoon at first base between Choi and longtime Los Angeles Dodger Eric Karros. This platoon — with the late-season addition of Randall Simon — played a role in leading the Cubs to the National League Central title.
Fred McGriff, hilariously enough, ended up going to Los Angeles in 2003 to play for the Dodgers, and you don’t need to be a geography master to know that’s much farther from Tampa than Chicago is. They’re on different coasts!
Did McGriff really want to be close to his family, or did he just not want to play for the Cubs? You may not be wrong if you guess the latter.