Friday, May 1, 2009

Cubs No. 31: Right Number, Wrong Call

Here are Pitcher X's numbers:

++10 seasons.

++Average of 13 victories per year with .543 winning percentage.

++3.61 ERA.

++One Cy Young Award, 2 All-Star Game appearances.

++One 20-win season.

++Zero seasons of 200 or more strikeouts.

++Zero seasons of 270 of more innings pitched.

++One postseason appearance, going 0-1 with a 13.50 ERA in two starts as his team lost series.

If one is in a generous mood, one would call those results "good." Nothing more, possibly less.

And certainly not worthy of having one's number retired!

Well, congratulations to Pitcher X, a.k.a. Greg Maddux

He is going to be celebrated Sunday at Wrigley Field because ... um ... why?

Because the only categories in which he ranked in the Cubs' top 10 all-time were losses, home runs allowed, games started and strikeouts?

No, because he happened to have worn No. 31, that's why.

It's the same No. 31 that was worn by Fergie Jenkins, a true Cubs great whose number should have been retired before Maddux ever threw his first big-league pitch.

What Jenkins did in a Chicago uniform was so superior, Maddux almost should be embarrassed to share the spotlight Sunday. (But really, he has nothing to be embarrassed about because this was the Cubs' call and not his.)

Here are Fergie's facts and figures:

++10 seasons.

++Average of 17 victories per year with .559 winning percentage.

++3.20 ERA.

++One Cy Young Award (and 3 other top-three finishes), 3 All-Star Game appearances.

++Six straight 20-win seasons.

++Four straight seasons of 260 or more strikeouts.

++Seven straight seasons of 271 or more innings pitched, including four straight of 308 or more.


And don't forget that while Jenkins was sent packing by the Cubs in 1974, Maddux left on his own accord after the 1992 season. Yes, the Cubs were cheap and stupid. No, I don't blame Maddux for bolting. But it was his decision to go to Atlanta and become an ex-Cub.

Then, when Maddux returned to the North Side in 2004 to join The Greatest Rotation Ever Assembled By Man Or Beast, he proceeded to go 38-37 over the next three seasons with a 4.26 ERA while never helping the Cubs reach the postseason.

Please, the point here isn't to denigrate Maddux. It's to wonder why the Cubs feel the need to include him in the long-overdue ceremony to retire Jenkins' number.

A cynic might suggest that there are racial overtones to the whole thing, given that Maddux is a popular white guy and Jenkins is a black man who was busted for cocaine possession in 1980.

Sorry, but even I'm not that cynical. I choose to give the Cubs the benefit of the doubt and say race wasn't part of the equation. I simply am convinced that the Cubs want to please as many people as possible. I also believe the Cubs still feel guilty about letting Maddux get away to spend the best part of his career in Atlanta.

There's nothing wrong with those reasons from a marketing standpoint, I suppose, but they're hardly reasons to honor a pitcher who ranks 13th on the team's all-time wins list. In their long, inglorious history, the Cubs have honored only four players by retiring their numbers, and now they're going to do so for a pitcher who ranks 30th on their all-time ERA list?

On his Hall of Fame bust, Jenkins' Cubs hat is proudly displayed. Maddux? His Cooperstown bust will be topped by Atlanta's "A." Let the Braves retire No. 31. (In fact, they will in July.)

Yes, a lot of Cubbie fans think Maddux is "classy." OK, so should the team retire the number of every good guy who also was a good ballplayer? Come on down, Shawon Dunston!

Yes, a lot of Cubbie fans from the Harry Caray Era - when the team became a phenomenon and when going to Wrigley became an event - adored Maddux. OK, so should the team retire the number of every fan favorite? Hello, Mickey Morandini!

Frankly, there are a few players not named Maddux that the Cubs could honor with number-retirement ceremonies. 

One could make a darned good argument for Mark Grace, who ranks in the team's all-time top 10 in games, at-bats, runs, hits, total bases, doubles, extra-base hits, RBIs and walks. He also was very popular with fans for more than a decade. It's borderline criminal that the list of those who have gone on to wear Grace's No. 17 includes Bobby Hill, Calvin Murray, Adam Greenberg, John Mabry and Felix Pie. I mean, compared to those nobodies, the latest No. 17, Mike Fontenot, is Hall of Fame material.

(Hey, maybe the Cubs are waiting to retire No. 17 until they can honor both Grace and Fontenot!)

Based on statistics and impact alone, Sammy Sosa is a no-brainer. The stains of steroids, bat-corking, selfishness and petulance make retiring his number tough to justify. Somehow, he deserves having No. 21 worn by wacky Milton Bradley.

How about Kerry Wood? Classy. Charitable. A leader. Loyal. One of the most exciting pitchers of his time. A guy who repeatedly overcame adversity and almost singlehandedly carried the team to its only postseason-series victory of the last century. His proponents could point to his strikeouts and his successful shift to closer - not to mention his four postseason appearances, a figure unheard of in modern-day Cubbieland.

Still, given his history of injuries and his unimpressive victory total, retiring Wood's No. 34 would be a stretch, right?

Well, sure. But he still is every bit as deserving as Greg Maddux.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. god i wish i would proof read before posting..what i meant to say was that the whole number retirement thing seems the time my grand baby starts playing first base it will be as # 1031 if it will fit on the uniform..the honor lasts much longer if you chisel it in stone...ask the egyptians

  3. I have the utmost respect for Greg Maddux but I agree with you that his numbers aren't worthy of this honor. Fergie's recognition is long overdue. I only wish he could bask in the glory all by himself.