Flashback: 2004 Cubs Caravan at Illinois State University

After attending the Cubs Caravan event in Peoria last week, I thought back to my first Cubs Caravan. It was held at Illinois State University in Normal and I covered the event for the newspaper I was working for at the time, the Streator Times-Press. I searched for my story on the newspaper’s website today and discovered that, coincidentally, it was published eight years ago today. It is interesting in that it captures a moment in time in Cubs history, just months after a very good Cubs team got knocked out of the National League Championship Series by the upstart Marlins. The Cubs were confident their pitching-strong team would get another shot at the World Series — but recurring injuries to pitchers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood would dash that dream.

Notable Cubs in attendance were manager Dusty Baker, pitcher Mark Prior (18-6, 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts the previous season) and Hall-of-Famer Billy Williams, who hit .304 for the Burlington Bees in 1958, when the now-Midwest League team was part of the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa (Three-I) League.

Coincidentally, 2004 was the year Paul Molitor, another former Burlington Bees player, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. My story about Molitor’s appearance at the Bees winter banquet Friday will be posted later tonight.

Until then, (hopefully) enjoy reading this old story from yours truly. It’s not my best work, but I’m pretty proud of having asked the question about bench diversity that caused Baker to bristle.

* * *

NORMAL — The 2004 Chicago Cubs Caravan rolled into the Bloomington-Normal area Thursday, with manager Dusty Baker, pitcher Mark Prior and Hall-of-Famer Billy Williams headlining what one organizer said was “among the best lineups we’ve had in the 20 years we’ve been doing it.”

The crowd of about 1,200 Cubs fans seemed to agree as they amply showered their favorite team with applause and cheers throughout the evening event at Illinois State University. Held in the ballroom of the Bone Student Center, the final Caravan stop before this weekend’s Cubs Convention turned out to be a mutual lovefest.

“We came down here for a lot of years when there weren’t as many people in the stands,” said Williams, recalling the Caravan’s early days. “Now that we’ve got plenty of people in the stands, we came down to spread good will to all of you and to say thank you.”

Michael Barrett, the newly-acquired catcher who previously played for the Montreal Expos – a team notorious for its lack of fan support – seemed astonished at the number of people who attended the Caravan.

“I’m really a little bit overwhelmed,” Barrett said. “I normally don’t see this many fans at a game.”

Also appearing at the event were hitting coach Gary “Sarge” Matthews, WGN Radio play-by-play announcer Pat Hughes, and relief pitcher Todd Wellemeyer, a last-minute replacement for pitcher Carlos Zambrano, who was stuck outside the country.

The Cubs signed autographs and took questions from the audience, fielding queries ranging from the status of negotiations with free-agent Greg Maddux to whether Prior wears boxers or briefs.

While nobody knew how close – or far – the team is from signing Maddux, the Cubs had plenty of good things to say about the veteran righty who began his major-league career in Chicago.

“I think he’d help us out a lot just with his overall experience,” Prior said. “He’s a winner.”

Baker elaborated, noting the influence Maddux would bring to a pitching rotation whose most experienced member is Matt Clement, who at age 28 has pitched for six seasons.

“He brings victories and he brings knowledge to the younger pitchers who are already here,” said Baker, adding that Maddux raised the performance bar for pitchers like John Burkett and Jason Schmidt when they were teammates.

Baker also was happy to hear that closer Joe Borowski inked a new two-year deal with the Cubs earlier in the day.

Maddux wasn’t the only free agent fans asked about. One fan asked when the Cubs would sign catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, setting up Barrett to get the biggest laugh of the night.

“Pudge? Who needs Pudge?” Barrett said in a joking manner. “I’m going to be better than Pudge, just you watch.”

While not going so far as to compare Barrett favorably to Rodriguez, director of player development Oneri Fleita said Cubs fans won’t be disappointed with Barrett’s performance.

“Our scouts have a lot of faith in this young man, and that’s why we got him,” Fleita said. “This guy’s going to be a great player.”

The Cubs also are high on other off-season acquisitions made by general manager Jim Hendry.

“We made some very solid additions,” said Baker, referring to Barrett, first baseman Derrek Lee, infielder Todd Walker, outfielder Todd Hollandsworth, and relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Kent Mercker.

Without saying so outright, Baker seems to be leaning toward employing a platoon of lefty Walker and righty Mark Grudzielanek at second base.

“Mark Grudzielanek did a good job for us. He hit .314 and Todd Walker did good, too (for Boston),” Baker said. “Neither guy deserves to sit.”

Baker also was asked about the diversity of the Cubs bench with so many more right-handed batters than left-handed swingers.

“I don’t know if you noticed, but we didn’t go out and get Todd Walker for nothing. We didn’t get Todd Hollandsworth for nothing,” said Baker, who seemed a little annoyed at the question. “We’ve got Paul Bako and Tom Goodwin. With guys like that we try to get as much of a balance as we can.”

Matthews said Lee should fit right into the lineup with fellow power hitters Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou and Aramis Ramirez. But the key to the lineup’s success, he said, will be how well Barrett, Alex Gonzalez and Corey Patterson perform at the plate. Barrett and Gonzalez both have a lot of upshot potential but are coming off subpar years, and Patterson will be returning to the club after sustaining a serious injury last year.

As for the retooled pitching rotation of the Houston Astros, which now includes 21-game winner Andy Pettitte and future Hall-of-Famer Roger Clemens, Baker knows the Cubs are in for a long battle for first place in the National League Central Division.

“I think the Central’s going to be the toughest division in baseball,” said Baker, adding that the St. Louis Cardinals probably will contend for the division title as well.

So does that mean Baker is feeling more pressure to win in his second year as Cubs manager? If so, he won’t acknowledge it.

“I don’t feel pressure,” Baker said. “I’m just doing my job. Pressure is actually fun for me. I’m usually pretty good under pressure because I enjoy being there.

“I would rather be expected to win,” he continued. “That means you have a good team.”

The Cubs’ season begins April 5 in Cincinnati, with their home opener scheduled for April 12 against Pittsburgh.

As for the boxers or briefs question, Prior said he prefers boxers.

This entry was posted in Baseball Hall of Fame, Burlington Bees, Midwest League. Bookmark the permalink.

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