While the last decade was unquestionably one of the best in the entire history of the Chicago Cubs, the one that preceded it was far from the worst.
In 2003, the team won the division and looked set to end their World Series drought before the Curse of the Billy Goat reared its ugly head in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series.
The now infamous Steve Bartman incident robbed the Cubs of that opportunity, breaking fans’ hearts and plunging a team that had looked set to be a force in Major League Baseball for years to come back into mediocrity.
Over the next three years, they got progressively worse and were just a 66-win team by the end of the 2006 season. With money to spend, the franchise made several big offseason splashes that summer, signing Mark DeRosa to a three-year, $13 million contract, Ted Lilly to a four-year, $40 million deal and Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year contract worth a whopping $136 million. They also replaced head coach Dusty Baker with Lou Piniella, who was instrumental in turning the tide.
Behind the arm of the mercurial Carlos Zambrano and the bats of Soriano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, the Cubs won 85 games, going from “worst to first”, as the slogan went, before losing to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League Division Series. While it was an unforgettable series, the lone bright spot was 24-year-old Geovany Soto, who was the only Cub to homer in it whilst serving as backup to the Cubs’ starting catcher, veteran Jason Kendall.
Soto had had a couple of prior stints in the Majors after getting drafted by the Cubs in the 11th round 2001, making a single appearance in the 2005 season and 11 in 2006. 2007 saw him hit .353 with 26 home runs and 109 RBI for the Iowa Cubs, earning him the Pacific Coast League’s MVP award and a call up to the bigs when rosters were expanded. Once there, the young catcher maintained the momentum, slashing .389/.433/1.100 with three home runs and 8 RBI, which ultimately led to him becoming a part of the core the following year.
At the age of 25, Soto became the Cubs’ starting catcher and got off to a hot start in the role, recording perhaps the best offensive performance of his career in late April, hitting two three-run homers in an impressive 19-5 win over the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field. The performance capped a huge month for the rookie, as he hit .341 with five home runs, eight doubles, and 20 RBI with an OPS of 1.059, good enough for National League Rookie of the Month honours.
In May, Soto mustered up more long-ball heroics, hitting an inside-the-park homer against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. Despite his size, he rounded the bases in just 16 seconds, helping the Cubs snag a 7-2 win over their division rivals.
His first-half .288/.369/.522 slash line resulted in a first career All-Star appearance, making him the first rookie catcher to start for the National League in the All-Star Game and the first Cubs All-Star rookie to play in the game with at least 14 home runs since Rafael Palmeiro did it in 1987.
Soto continued to perform well at the plate late into the season, recording a memorable game-tying, three-run home run in the ninth inning against the second-placed Brewers at Wrigley Field. The Cubs went on to win that game in extras, shrinking their magic number and increasing their chances of winning the division. The rookie catcher also worked well with the team’s veteran pitching staff and played his part in a historic achievement a few days prior to that huge home run, catching Zambrano’s no-hitter in a game that had to be played in neutral Milwaukee due to the perceived threat of Hurricane Ike, which was approaching the Texas panhandle at the time. It was the first no-hitter in major league history pitched at a neutral site, as well as the first of Zambrano’s career and the first for a Cubs pitcher since Milt Pappas’ in September 1972.
The Cubs finished the regular season with a 97-64 while Soto was named National League Rookie of the Year thanks to his .285 batting average, 23 home runs and 86 RBI. Sadly he couldn’t carry that form over to the postseason as his slash line slumped to .182/.250/.273 with a .523 OPS as the Cubs lost 3-1 to the Dodgers in the 2008 National League Division Series.
His career then continued to go downhill from there, although he did recover from a disastrous 2009 season that saw him hit just .218/.321/.381 with 11 home runs and 47 RBIs to slash .280/.393/.497 with 17 home runs and 53 RBI in 2010 (the year I coincidentally started following the Cubs). Interestingly, the 4.1 WAR he recorded that year is the tenth-highest recorded by a Cubs catcher in a single season since 1876 – no mean feat given the other names on that list.
The following season Theo Epstein was appointed President and began overhauling the Cubs’ ageing roster, shipping out bloated contracts left and right. Soto survived until the 2012 trade deadline when he was sent to the Texas Rangers in exchange for pitching prospect Jacob Brigham just hours before the Cubs acquired Christian Villanueva and Kyle Hendricks in the now-infamous Ryan Dempster trade.
While his time at Wrigley Field came to an unceremonious end, that 2008 season will live long in the memory of Cubs fans of a certain age. Here’s hoping he can rediscover some of that form on Saturday and lead the Cubs to victory at the inaugural Home Run Derby X.
Photo by Ed Szczepanski / Stringer /Getty Images
Sean is one of the Bat Flips & Nerds’ Chicago Cubs correspondents for the 2022 season. You can follow him on Twitter @SW_Guest