By Nick Shepkowski-
(CBS) Remember the days when the Cubs were awful and the likes of Mark DeRosa, David DeJesus and Ryan Theriot received standing ovations the first time they came back to Wrigley Field not wearing Cubs jerseys?
Well, the Cubs are still awful. Sure, the potential is there for 2015 to be a huge swing in the right direction, but as of now they’re still a team that lost 89 games its last campaign. The last time the Cubs were a strong competitior in the National League, they had a premier third basemen in all of baseball. And, yes, the plan hasn’t been to win games the last few years, but the hole at third base until Kris Bryant finally steps foot in a major league batter’s box remains evident.
Just like it did for the 30 years that separated Ron Santo manning third base and Jim Hendry dealing for Aramis Ramirez (and Kenny Lofton) before the 2003 trade deadline.
Sure, Ramirez — who announced Friday that he’ll retire at season’s end — didn’t always run hard to first base. And yes, plenty of softly hit pop-ups saw him barely make an effort to leave the batter’s box. There’s no denying any of that. But Ramirez is one of the greatest hitters in Cubs history and for whatever reason, he remains underappreciated by much of the fan base.
Once acquired from the Pirates in late July 2003, Ramirez went on to hit 15 home runs before the end of the year, one every 17 at-bats. If not for Ramirez, who would go on to hit four home runs that postseason, there would never have been a magical five-game series against the Braves or the heartbreaking collapse against the Marlins. Ramirez was a fine slugger that season and was the integral part of three of the Cubs best teams of my lifetime.
Everyone remembers the 2004 Cubs for the collapse of missing the playoffs despite leading the wild-card standings with a week to play. But to have spite for Ramirez over that would simply be wrong, as he hit .318 with a .373 on-base percentage and 36 home runs, the second-most of any year in his career.
The following two seasons, 2005 and 2006, were both awful for the Cubs, as they won 79 and 66 games, respectively. But Ramirez did it and did it big those years as well, slugging a combined 69 home runs and, along with Derrek Lee, providing one of the few reasons to watch mediocre baseball on Chicago’s North Side.
By the time the Cubs were good again in 2007 and 2008, Ramirez was in his prime, hitting a combined 53 home runs in that two-year span despite missing 43 games due to injury. At a position the Cubs traditionally struggled to find someone serviceable, he was a legit star.
Ramirez would miss 80 games for the disappointing 2009 squad that didn’t make the postseason, but thinking his absence didn’t have anything to do with it would be a mistake. In limited plate appearances, he still had a slash line of .319/.389/.516 with 15 homers, 65 RBIs and an OPS of more than .900. Had he been able to play even 30 more games that year, perhaps the Cubs are a bit more of a factor in the wild-card race and make more of a move to acquire talent near the deadline. Who really knows.
After 2009, the final couple of seasons with the Cubs were a drag for Ramirez, who continued to play decently while the rest of the team was far from relevant, winning 75 and 71 games, respectively. Ramirez hit a combined .277 in those final two seasons along with 51 home runs and 176 RBIs. Not spectacular, but far from awful.
When Theo Epstein came to town, it was obvious that Ramirez’s days with the Cubs were over and understandably so. Yet, let’s not be so quick to forget what he meant to some of the best Cubs’ teams of our lifetimes. There was ultimately heartbreak, but without him, chances are none of those teams go to the postseason.
Ramirez still sits third in franchise history in slugging percentage, fifth in OPS and sixth in home runs. His defense was never great, but in terms of offense, he’s one of the greatest to ever wear the blue and white.
After seeing how Cubs fans treated Alfonso Soriano with a “meh” applause when he returned to Wrigley Field a few years ago, I should know better. But here’s to hoping in Ramirez’s final MLB campaign that Cubs fans show him the proper appreciation they’ve been so excited to show lesser players over the years.