With raindrops falling and the ballpark half-filled Wednesday, the 2005 Cubs bid adieu to Wrigley Field in their own inimitable style.
A Nomar Garciaparra throw to second base bounced off a Pittsburgh runner's helmet and led to two unearned runs off Mark Prior. They went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position. To cap things off, the Cubs failed to score the tying run in the ninth, despite loading the bases with no outs. Corey Patterson and Ben Grieve struck out before Jose Macias ended the game by popping out.
The lifeless Cubs ended their streak of two consecutive winning seasons with a 3-2 loss to the Pirates, finishing with a 38-43 record at Wrigley despite drawing more than 3 million fans for the second straight season.
"It's odd to me," first baseman Derrek Lee said. "With so much fan support and excitement here, it seems like you would play well here. But we didn't, so it's something we need to get better at."
With a 77-81 record, the best the Cubs can finish is .500. The Cubs have not had three straight winning seasons since a six-year streak from 1967-72, and manager Dusty Baker saw a personal eight-year streak of winning seasons snapped as well.
"They've been supporting us big-time," Baker said of the fans. "We had a hard time holding up our end of the bargain."
Do the Cubs need more mentally tough players to handle the rigors of playing a predominantly day-game schedule at Wrigley?
"I don't know about mentally tougher, but they have to be more disciplined," Baker said. "I think it's more conducive to clean-living guys with families than it is for single guys who like to hang out.
"It's a lot more challenging here than anywhere. I thought about that this morningthe most challenging places to play for a young player are probably New York, Miami and Chicago because they stay open so late.
"You have other places that close at 1 o'clock or quarter to two, and if you were playing night games, then you could sleep in and get your rest in. But here, there would be some guys still herenot to mention any namesif we played more night games and they were more disciplined."
That would seem to suggest free-agent shortstop Rafael Furcal, with two drunken driving arrests, is a poor fit for Wrigley. Furcal has batted .238 in day games this year and .305 at night.
Statistically speaking, the Cubs have hit better at night in '05 but have pitched better during the day. Going into Wednesday's home finale, the Cubs ranked sixth in National League batting average in day games (.266) and first in night games (.275). Their pitchers were eighth in NL earned-run average in day games (4.19) and 11th in night games (4.29).
Asked about the biggest obstacles he has faced at Wrigley that he may not have considered when he was hired, Baker mentioned the unpredictable wind. The wind blew out more often in 2004 (39-35) but blew in more often this season (45-28).
"One of the primary obstacles is probably the element of the wind and which direction [it's blowing]," Baker said. "It can change the outcome of a game. Some days the ballpark giveth, and sometimes the ballpark taketh away.
"I've noticed it tends to take away more than it [gives]. This wind here can blow two or three different ways in the same day. That's the one element you really can't prepare for."
The Cubs finished with a 15-13 record this season when the wind blew out and 19-26 when it blew in. Last year they were 26-13 with the wind blowing out and 16-19 with the wind blowing in.
Although several elements are usually involved in losing a ballgame, the Cubs' inability to manufacture runs, obviously, has been a hindrance over the last two seasons.
Waiting for the three-run homer is a philosophy that may be ditched if the Cubs can get some speed this winter. But no matter what happens in '06, there was no way of masking the disappointment over a season of wasted opportunities.
"It has been tough," Lee said. "We didn't fulfill our expectations, so that will make it a longer winter. Hopefully, we come back hungrier and find a way to get it done."