The theater of the absurd plays itself out before you. Shocked? No -- been there, done that.
For the 20-somethings that populate Cubs fandom and the cyber-world, the Cubs' hitting meltdown -- a darn good one at that -- seems the end of the world, the worst thing that ever happened to their heroes this side of the Hunt for October Playoff Victories in 2008.
Ah, kids, you should learn baseball history. Past is prologue in this game. The mega-slumps and collapses that hang around Cubs annals like ghosts were caused by hitters just as prominent as the present somnolent bunch.
The greatest in-season collapse caused by lack of hitting was in 1973. That's when the Cubs took a 7 1/2-game lead in the old NL East into late June. They were 46-31 and soon 50-35. With the Pirates emotionally crippled by Roberto Clemente's death the previous winter and the loss of ace Steve Blass' control, the division seemed ripe for the picking.
Ah, but the old Durocher gang got...old, all at once. Ron Santo, hitting well over .300 in the spring, slumped, slumped, slump into the .260's range. Billy Williams, three homers and three RBI away from the Triple Crown in 1972, was drained of his typical power all season. Rick Monday, who had 20 homers as a leadoff man by July 6, stopped reaching the fences. Glenn Beckert, who had a 26-game hitting streak in May, was sidelined by a bad heel. Randy Hundley was by now a sore-kneed, .240-hitting catcher. Joe Pepitone wore out his welcome at first base, was traded, and was relaced by a revolving door of non-productive players, including the immortal former Holy Cross linebacker Pat Bourque. Bourque slugged six homers his first time around the league in June; his second time around they found the big guy's holes.
The Cubs lost, and lost, and lost with their laggard lineup. The screwed up a West Coast road trip on which the players' families were allowed to tag along -- a radical departure from the norm at the time. The pundits blamed it on the wives' and kids. Then they lost 11 in a row, including one fearsome bombing when Fergie Jenkins heaved a bunch of bats out of the dugout. Rick Reuschel lost a heartbreaker 1-0 in Cincinnati on a Joe Morgan homer.
By mid-August, the Cubs had dropped to 56-64 in fourth place. They never recovered. To complete the absurdity quotient, the Mets, an afterthought in the NL East race, finished 22-9 to win the division at a record-low 82-79. The Cubs could have played 10 under .500 from their high points in mid-season and won the NL East -- but couldn't even do that. Incapable Cubs GM John Holland cleaned house after '73 -- without ready-made prospects from the farm system to back up his broom. The Cubs were condemned for a decade of futility until Dallas Green's quick-fix 1984 team finished first.
Slumping sluggards in their twilight can be half-forgiven. How 'bout Santo and Williams in their prime helming a lineup that went 48 innings without scoring in June, 1968? Some of the blanking can be excused -- the Cubs faced Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton smack dab in the middle of the Year of the Pitcher. But the scoreless streak plunged a promising season to non-recoverable status, the Cubs going from 30-29 to 31-41. They made a speedy recovery to 64-55 by mid-August, but were too far behind the first-place Cardinals to get back into legitimate contention.
There were so many other weak-hitting teams amid the seeming bandbox of Wrigley Field -- baseball's most misleading ballpark. The 1980 bunch, shorn of injured Dave Kingman's awesome power, with Jerry Martin the leading slugger with 23 homers. The '81 expansion-team-level team stripped down even further by Bill Wrigley. And 1997 was no walk in the park, the Cubs starting out 0-14 with Sammy Sosa their only long-ball threat.
Amazingly, a Cubs team that hit only 95 homers was one of the most productive in the last third of the 20th Century. The '75 Cubs were tied with the Lumber Company Pirates for third in NL runs scored, thanks to a team record number of walks (650). Add in Bill Madlock's first batting title at .354 and Jose Cardenal's .317, and tons of baserunners scored. Jerry Morales drove in 92 runs with just 32 extra-base hits (12 homers, 20 doubles). But that team gets little credit for its feat because the Cubs pitchers had a horrid (for the time) 4.52 ERA, condemning the club to a 75-87 record.
That last fact is in keeping with the discombobulated nature of Cubs history. Of course, this year's Cubs had 52 quality starts through Saturday -- ranking third in all of baseball and more than enough for contender-level performance, even while having to put 15 runners on base before any runs scored on Saturday, and setting a club record for a nine-inning game by leaving 17 men stranded in all. It's simply an endless loop that will finally be broken when the Cubs produce five or six starting position players in the same manner as the Braves and Twins.