Carlos Pena will play for the Chicago Cubs in 2011, and his arrival will be as if a UFO alighted at first base in Wrigley Field. Is it indeed real?
Pena is a rare, rare breed -- a left-handed, power-hitting Cubs first baseman. You can count the archetype easily on one hand in all of team annals.
The seeming image of a lefty-swinging Cubs first baseman is Mark Grace, conditioned with six-ounce curls and topping out at 17 homers but never over 100 RBIs. Somewhat similar to Gracie was Bill Buckner, who won a batting title in 1980 and had more than 100 RBIs two years later, yet struggled to get to 15 homers in any season. An earlier model was the 1950s' Dee Fondy, with a high average and lower power. Go further back and you have Phil Cavarretta, winning the 1945 MVP with all of six homers at first (albeit with a .355) average. And Phillibuck kind of succeeded Jolly Charlie Grimm, known more for his glove and banjo than long balls, at first.
How many true lefty power hitters played first for the Cubs? Try two, one more than the lonely number: Leon "Bull" Durham and Fred "Crime Dog" McGriff. Durham had the promise of doing so much more. He actually amassed four consecutive 20-homer seasons at first from 1984-87. His peak power actually was the most ineffectual 27-homer campaign in Cubs history in 1987. The Bull drove in just 63 runs. At least he never claimed Andre Dawson's 137 RBI amid his MVP season cleaned off the bases of all runners ahead of him.
One of the most reluctant Cubs in history, McGriff had equally misleading numbers in his one full Chicago season in 2002. He had 30 homers and 103 RBIs, numbers inflated by interim manager Bruce Kimm's insistence on playing him in September over prospect Hee Seop Choi. McGriff's stats were quiet and hollow in '02, and his indifference toward being a Cubs mainstay caused folks to wish him farewell, never to return, after the season. Choi was supposed to be the home-grown southpaw-swinging power boy, with the Cubs dumping Grace and employing the well-traveled Matt Stairs as a seat-warmer in the 2001 season while the Korean developed. Choi put up gaudy Triple-A numbers, but he turned out to be the proverbial 4-A player with a slider-speed bat, and was never quite the same after that frightening collision with Kerry Wood in June of '03.
Other Cubs lefty-swinging first sackers: Joe Pepitone, first player to bring a hair dryer into the clubhouse; Pat Bourque, ex-Holy Cross linebacker and masher his first time through the league in 1973; when he became whiffer the second time around he was quickly dispatched out of the organization; Billy Williams at various times from 1972-74; Pete LaCock, free spirit, semi-hippie and son of television host Peter Marshall of "Hollywood Squares"; Larry Biittner, better known for losing a ball in his hat in right field; and Randall Simon, rehabilitated from attacking a racing sausage in Milwaukee as a Pittsburgh Pirate.
Pena actually has the greatest power pedigree of any of the above. He's had Adam Dunn-like numbers. Even at his worst, he won't likely repeat the Grace/Buckner/Fondy home-run totals. And he won't be dead money after 2011 if he flops. If Pena thrives, then the UFO has landed and everyone is a witness. Great balls of fire!