Ghosts of great games past

This past weekend, the New York Yankees came to Wrigley Field for the first time since 2003. A stirring Cubs victory in Game 1 and competitive play throughout most of the subsequent two games briefly made me concerned that I’d have the singular pleasure of eating my words, but true to this year’s form the Cubs dropped the final two games of the series to continue their disappointing, uneven season true to form.

What the series did do was revive memories of one of my favorite baseball games of all time: the second game of the 2003 Cubs-Yankees series, on June 7, 2003.

It was a different time. The Cubs that were were contending, one of the best teams in the National League, and expected to make run into the playoffs behind first-year manager Dusty Baker, slugger Sammy Sosa and young pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. When the Yankees — also in the middle of a typically strong season — came to Wrigley Field, many people saw the series as a possible World Series preview.

To raise the octane further for the second game, the Yankees sent ace Roger Clemens to the mound. Clemens had won 299 games in his career, and would be trying for his 300th, a milestone of pitching success that’s often seen as a benchmark for the Hall of Fame (not that Clemens’ storied career needed it in those pre-steroid revelation days).

Opposing Clemens was the man seen as the next Roger Clemens: Wood, the fireballing Texan who was one of only two major league pitchers to strike out 20 batters in a single game. The other? Clemens, who had done it twice.

(When I sat down to write this, I had an idea in my head that Wood had been going for his 100th victory as Clemens sought his 300th. Alas, that was a figment of my imagination; Wood’s only won 84 games in his 13-year career.)

Wrigley Field was packed, with Yankees fans and the media joining Cubs fans to create an electric atmosphere. Wood struck out four of the first five Yankees he faced and allowed only a single walk through the first three innings. Clemens matched him, giving up a leadoff single and a walk through three.

It was in the fourth that the game first became truly memorable. Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi hit a towering infield pop fly. Both Wood and the Cubs’ rookie first baseman, South Korean prospect Hee-Seop Choi, converged on the ball — and collided.

Choi held on to the ball for the out, but paid a hefty price: Wood’s glove struck him in the face, knocking him out cold and silencing the roaring crowd.

To that point, Choi had been having a mediocre rookie season, with a low batting average but decent power and patience. But the collision with Wood concussed Choi and sent him to the disabled list.

After that injury, Choi was never the same, bouncing around several different major league teams and the minors before falling out of baseball. Was his concussion to blame? Hard to say, but it was a scary and pivotal moment in Choi’s then-promising career.

In any case, Choi was taken off the field in an ambulance after lying out cold for more than 10 minutes, and on to replace him came Eric Karros, a backup first baseman and pinch-hitter whose prior claim to Cubs fans’ allegiance had been being part of the trade that dumped the Cubs’ underachieving, overpaid catcher Todd Hundley on the Los Angeles Dodgers.

That would soon change.

Wood survived the collision with Choi unharmed and struck out the next three batters, but then Hideki Matsui punished a mistake into the right field bleachers to give the Yankees a 1-0 lead in the fourth. With his sights set on his 300th win, Clemens struck out the side in the fifth, made a brilliant defensive play to erase a leadoff double in the sixth, and entered the seventh having allowed just two hits and no walks with four strikeouts.

He added a fifth of Corey Patterson to start the seventh and then things got interesting.

Sammy Sosa struck a single to left field, bringing up Moises Alou, who drew a five-pitch walk. With the left-handed Karros at the plate and his starter on the ropes, Yankees manager Joe Torre played the match-ups and brought in righty reliever Juan Acevedo.

Karros for his career hit just .260 against righties with a slugging percentage of .447. None of that mattered on this Saturday in June. Karros turned on an 0-1 pitch and hit a three-run homer to the left field bleachers.

In one pitch, the Cubs’ 0-1 deficit had been turned into a 3-1 lead. Roger Clemens’ shot at his 300th win was gone. So, as it turns out, was Acevedo’s career: within days, the Yankees released him, and after a brief stint with the Blue Jays, he was out of baseball for good.

The drama was far from over. In the next inning, Wood gave up a pair of singles around a pair of outs, then walked Derek Jeter to load the bases. In came left-handed reliever Mike Remlinger to face Giambi with the game on the line. Remlinger delivered with a swinging strikeout, part of a strong 2003 season.

In the bottom of the inning, the Cubs tacked on two more runs with a series of hits, and it turned out to be useful, because lurking in the ninth was the 2003 Cubs’ closer, Joe Borowski.

“Sweaty Joe,” as I always called him during his stay with the Cubs, had been snatched out of the Mexican league the year before, and quickly became one of the 2002 Cubs’ more effective relievers. In 2003 he won the closers’ job, and he was more or less effective. But his strong record at converting saves didn’t disguise the fact that with Sweaty Joe, nothing was ever easy. It wasn’t a Joe Borowski save unless the tying run was at the plate (or, preferably, in scoring position).

Sweaty Joe was true to form this Saturday, giving up a leadoff home run to Jorge Posada, and singles to Raul Mondesi and Matsui. That gave the Yankees two chances to tie the game with Juan Rivera and pinch-hitter Todd Zeile. But Joe pulled off his usual juggling act, getting out of trouble after getting himself into it.

Kerry Wood, for those Cubs fans who remember 2003 — and particularly for those who remember 2004 and 2005 — threw 120 pitches that day.

(That, of course, was the difference between Sweaty Joe and the 2004 Cubs’ closer, LaTroy Hawkins, who would get himself into trouble and then blow the game.)

The Cubs won the third game, taking two of three from the Yankees. Both teams would go on to win their divisions, the Yankees handily over the Boston Red Sox, the Cubs narrowly, pulling ahead of the Cardinals after a pivotal five-game series in late August and edging out the Astros in the season’s final week. The less said about the playoffs that year, perhaps the better.

This year’s Yankees-Cubs series at Wrigley was not nearly so exciting, though it was one of the better Cubs series of the year as far as entertainment. The difference, of course, is that the 2003 Cubs team was a good baseball team, while the 2011 Cubs team is a bad one (mediocre, at best). No one murmured about this series being a potential World Series preview, because while the Yankees are certainly (as always) in the hunt, this year’s Cubs are certainly not.

The Cubs haven’t even given any truly memorable games — perhaps because it’s often great teams that produce great games. The last instant classic games I can recall both came in the Cubs’ powerhouse 2008: the May 30, 2008 game when the Cubs fell behind 8-0 through four and 9-1 through five, pulled their starters and somehow came back to beat the Rockies, and the Sept. 14, 2008 game when Carlos Zambrano no-hit the Astros in the third-party Miller Park.

To be sure, there have been great Cubs moments even in the disappointing years since then — walk-off wins, pitchers’ duels, slug-fests, great match-ups — but no truly great games. Not even the return of the Yankees to Wrigley could recapture that 2003 magic. But that’s not surprising, because “mystique” has far more to do with the X-Men than with the Yankees. There’s only one true recipe for baseball glory, and that’s winning. Sooner or later, it’ll happen again to the Cubs. And that’s what being a fan’s all about.