You ever get the feeling that our past exists just to mock what we think is so great about the here-and-now?
The 2018 Chicago Cubs were a somewhat star-crossed club who suffered through injuries, sub-par performances, and off-field issues from big names like Yu Darvish , Kris Bryant, and Addison Russell, yet also get clutch production from guys like Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, and Cole Hamels.
After struggling to find their mojo in the first half of the season, the Cubs seized first place in the National League Central on Friday, July 13, and never let go.
Well, almost …
After building their lead to a season-high five games on September 2, Chicago played at a mediocre 14-12 clip the rest of the way. Probably good enough most seasons to hold serve, but the Milwaukee Brewers were busy going 18-6.
The teams were tied after 162 games, in other words.
That set up a one-game playoff for the Central title, to be played at Wrigley Field on October 1 — the Brewers won, 3-1.
And that set up the Cubs to play the Colorado Rockies in the NL Wild Card game, again at Wrigley Field. On October 2, the Rox beat the Cubs 2-1 in 13 innings.
If you include the Cubs last loss of the 162-game schedule, a 2-1 clinker at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday, September 29, Chicago dropped three of four home games at home to seal their fate.
And in each of those losses, they managed just one run. Yuck.
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You might feel sorry for these Cubs if they were the Cubbies of old, the ones who scrapped together a decent team once every 15 years or so only to implode when things got real. It’s tough, though, to find real sympathy for what is now a huge payroll team that was — and still may be — expected by many to run off a string of championships when they copped the World Series title in 2016.
But just because the lovable losers are now the bombastic bombs, that doesn’t mean we can’t look back at the gory glory of Chicago’s painful past.
And what better way to do that than with some hideous cardboard.
If we step back through Cubs’ records over the years, we see that the losingest Chicago teams took the field in 1962, 1966, and 2012. Those first two teams were immortalized on 1963 and 1967 Topps cards, respectively, and those are two stellar sets.
That 2012 team was a “Suck for Luck” special that was designed to tank in order to build the supposed juggernaut we see today.
So I’m going a bit deeper in the stack, to the 1980 Chicago Cubs, who finished at 64-98 and in last place in the old NL East.
Not only that, but the Cubs finished last in the National League in OPS+ (83) and fielding (.974), while somehow hitting the league average for ERA+ (101).
Given all that, if you were looking for a poster boy to represent those light-hitting 1980 Cubs, you couldn’t do much better (worse?) than second baseman Mick Kelleher.
Now, Kelleher wasn’t the Cubbies full-time second-sacker in 1980. That honor belonged to Mike Tyson, who started 104 games and batted a robust .238 in 363 plate appearances, good for an OPS+ of 65.
Kelleher made 15 starts at second and five at shortstop, amassing 107 plate appearances in 105 total game appearances.
He slashed .146/.217/.177 with no home runs, one double, one triple, four runs batted in, 12 runs scored, one stolen base, and three times caught stealing. It was an amazing display that netted him a 9 OPS+ and a whopping -1.1 WAR.
That 1980 season was Kelleher’s ninth Major League campaign, and while he had never done much with the bat before, he had established himself as a veteran.
That status, and the need to fill in their Cubs’ cardboard rosters, enticed Topps and Donruss to include Kelleher in their 1981 sets. Fleer somehow abstained, and you have to give them props for that.
The 1981 Topps Mick Kelleher card is pretty decent, stats on the back notwithstanding. It features Mick in a posed throwing shot, showing the Cubs pinstripes and Cubbie logo to good effect in front of a gorgeous blue sky.
You want to be there, on that day, even if the Cubs stink.
The 1981 Donruss Kelleher?
It’s an embodiment of his — and the Cubs’ — 1980 season.
A smiling Kelleher kneels in the on-deck circle at one of the cookie-cutter 1970s sports bowls — Fulton County, Veteran’s Stadium, Riverfront Stadium? — in his powder blue road pajamas.
And he’s leaning on a bat that looks too big for any man to swing, let alone one with a .215 lifetime batting average.
That would all be enough to make the card front mostly preposterous, but add in the typical blurry, grainy lens work thatamrred most 1981 Donruss pasteboard, and you have a classically terrible baseball card.
At least the back is relatively uncluttered by 1981 Donruss standards, thanks to Mick’s limited career highlights …
1979 – Hit .571 against San Francisco pitching.
The irony of all this is that 1980 Mick Kelleher couldn’t have sniffed the 2018 Chicago Cubs starting lineup if he’d had Ernie Lombardi‘s nose, yet they essentially fielded a one-to-nine of Kellehers to round out their season.
And it only cost them a couple hundred million dollars to do it.
No wonder Kelleher is smiling at us from that awful, and suddenly wonderful, 1981 Donruss card of his.
(Check out the rest of our 2018 playoffs posts here.)
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