He’s headed into another critical postseason game Thursday night, but Miguel Cabrera might not ever be able to match the drama he witnessed in 2003.
The reigning American League MVP and his Detroit Tigers teammates face the Oakland A’s in a winner-take-all Game 5 on Thursday. But as boisterous as the sellout crowd in Oakland should be, it probably won’t compare to what Cabrera, now an 11-year veteran, observed as a rookie at Wrigley Field in the final two games of the 2003 National League Championship Series.
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Cabrera and former Cubs and White Sox outfielder Juan Pierre both recall the roles they played for the upstart 2003 Florida Marlins in “5 Outs…,” a documentary airing Tuesday night on Comcast SportsNet that examines the end of a nearly magical Cubs campaign erased by the heroics of Cabrera and Pierre, among others, and perhaps the most infamous sports moment in Chicago history.
“For sure (that was the most memorable series),” Cabrera said. “We were down to an excellent team like the Cubs because they had superstars. I remember Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou, (Aramis) Ramirez. The starting pitching, bullpen, it was, like, phenomenal. To come back, like three games out, it was amazing to us.”
The scene in Chicago for the final two games of the series was almost surreal, Pierre remembers. Even though the Cubs were 4-0 losers in Game 5, confidence the Curse of the Billy Goat would soon end was high among the team’s rabid fan base. With Mark Prior and Kerry Wood set to pitch the final two games, it was almost a Michael Jordan-slam dunk the Cubs would play in their first World Series since 1945. The hysteria even spilled over into the Cubs clubhouse, according to Pierre.
“A couple of Cubs players, I won’t say who, or I heard, but they said ‘Why are you even bringing your suitcases? This series is over with,’” Pierre said. “We weren’t even thinking about the World Series because at that time Wrigley Field was bananas. You couldn’t even leave our hotel room because it was Cubs everything around the whole city.”
The air of invincibility only grew with each out recorded by Prior and reached ravenous levels as the Cubs carried a 3-0 advantage into the eighth inning. Then it happened, though Pierre recalls thinking the Steve Bartman play wasn’t that big of a deal.
“I see it,” Pierre said. “And I’m like, ‘All right.’ I see (Alou) reacting a little bit, but guys do that throughout the season. But I mean, it was heightened so much.”
[WATCH: '5 Outs..." trailer]
Despite how enormous the moment has been made in the years since, neither Pierre nor Cabrera believes it was the catalyst. Pierre had doubled with one out and Luis Castillo, who was given a second chance when Alou couldn’t corral his foul ball, walked. Ivan Rodriguez’s RBI single then put runners on first and second and made it 3-1.
But Prior and the Cubs could have escaped without further damage when Cabrera hit a chopper just to the right of shortstop Alex Gonzalez, an excellent defender. Instead of starting an inning-ending double play, however, Gonzalez bobbled the grounder to load the bases.
“Everybody talks about (Bartman),” Cabrera said. “Everybody says he’s going to be out. But I would say the key play was the ground ball I hit to shortstop. If they make that play, I don’t think they got any more problems.…That play caused a lot of runs. You know when everything goes backwards, everything goes wrong, anything can happen.”
The Marlins rallied to score eight runs and won 8-3. Pierre remembers how decidedly different the atmosphere was after the rally.
“You could hear a pin drop in there,” Pierre said. “They sensed it, you know.…We definitely took the wind out of them in that Game 6.”
[Complete '5 Outs...' coverage]
Enough so that the next day, the Marlins twice rallied from multi-run deficits and overcame a game-tying two-run homer by Wood and a go-ahead two-run homer by Alou before they pulled away for a 9-6 victory.
Cabrera has played in two World Series and three championship series with another ALCS just a victory away. Even so, Cabrera knows he might never top Chicago in 2003.
“It was a bunch of young players,” Cabrera said. “No players had been there. We believed what we had…I think Pudge, I think all the great young players had a lot confidence and believed we can win.”