Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I had no shortage of Cubs heroes. My earliest Cubs memories involve watching Ryne Sandberg turning double plays, Mark Grace relentlessly getting on base, Greg Maddux baffling hitters, and Andre Dawson gunning runners out at the plate. Because I was was too young in 1984 and 1989 to truly appreciate the Cubs postseason appearances, it wasn’t until 1998 that I truly fell in love with a Cubs playoff team.
While most fans remember the 1998 season for the epic home run race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, for me, it was the first time I was able to get excited about a Cubs team that actually had a shot at the World Series. Ultimately, that dream ran into the juggernaut that was the Atlanta Braves, but it was still a run I will never forget.
Before I get to the subject of this article, I should first mention that my all-time favorite Cub is Ryne Sandberg. His offensive numbers are legendary, but as an impressionable kid, it was his defense that really made me fall in love with the game. The Sandberg era came to an end when he retired (for the second time) at the end of the 1997 season. That left a gaping hole for the Cubs at second base. He was my first “favorite” player to retire in any sport, so I also felt like something was missing when he walked away.
On December 23, 1997, Ed Lynch plugged the hole at second base in a bold move, sending promising young outfielder Doug Glanville to the Phillies for veteran Mickey Morandini. Glanville was coming off his age 26 season for the Cubs, his second in the big leagues, in which he slashed .300/.333/.392 while swiping 19 bases. Morandini, on the other hand, was an established veteran and former All-Star who had played in the World Series in 1993 as a member of the Phillies. Though Glanville had shown promise for the Cubs, this trade appeared to be precisely what a team on the edge of contending needed. Morandini was coming off a 1997 season that saw him put up 2.0 WAR, a career-high at that point. His slash line in ’97 was a solid .295/.371/.380. Most importantly, he played quality defense and added something the Cubs desperately needed: a hitter that worked counts and drew walks. Outside of Grace, the lineup sorely lacked such patience.
The 1998 Season
Sosa put up video game numbers in the ’98 season. Chemically aided or not, it was a remarkable season for the eventual NL MVP. Mark Grace, the hits leader of the ‘90s, had a typical Grace year, slashing .309/.401/.471 while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense. (J.T. Snow actually won the award at first base for the NL.) Perhaps the most underrated player on that ’98 Cubs team, however, was Mickey Morandini.
It’s never easy to fill the shoes of a franchise legend, let alone one as popular as Ryne Sandberg, but Morandini was tasked with doing just that. He more than answered the call, posting one of his best seasons as a big leaguer. In 1998, Morandini appeared in 154 games, slashing .296/.380/.385. He set career highs in WAR and dWAR (defensive wins above replacement) with 3.9 and 1.3, respectively. Batting second in front of Sammy Sosa, he was charged with getting on base as much as possible. He drew 72 walks and swiped 13 bases. The double-play combination of Jeff Blauser and Morandini was working-class solid and a joy to watch.
That ’98 team won a thrilling tie-breaking game against the Giants to earn a Wild Card berth. Though the Cubs were ultimately swept by a Braves team that featured starts by the HOF trio of John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux, they gave a fan base something to cheer about in October for the first time in nearly a decade.
A Short Stay
Morandini’s final season with the Cubs in 1999 was not memorable as he saw a steep decline in just about every aspect of his production, but he was part of a team that I fell in love with. That ’98 squad left fans with plenty of memories: Sosa smashing 66 home runs, Kerry Wood striking out 20 in one game, Gary Gaetti going crazy for a few months. But Mickey Morandini stepped into the shoes of my favorite player of all time admirably. He made his brief stay at Wrigley something I will never forget.
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