Key players reflect back on Cubs-Marlins 2003 NLCS Game 7
Oct. 15, 2003 will go down as one of the biggest inflection points in Cubs history.
The winner-take-all Game 7 between the Cubs and Marlins in the National League Championship Series has brought about many “what could have been” discussions among Cubs nation in the nearly two decades since that wild contest.
We know how the story ends — the Cubs were a single win away from the organization’s first trip to the World Series since 1945. The night before, the team was 5 outs away from punching its ticket to the Fall Classic before the infamous incident down the left field line.
On the evening of Oct. 15, the Cubs had one of their young aces on the mound in Kerry Wood.
But the Marlins jumped all over Wood in the top of the 1st inning thanks to sparkplug catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, who worked a 9-pitch battle into a walk. Miguel Cabrera followed with a 3-run homer to stake the Marlins to an early lead in the crucial series finale.
“Pudge had a really good at-bat with guys on base that kind of sealed the deal for them,” Wood said on a recent episode of “Icons of the Ivy.” “We needed to score first that game and we didn’t.”
But the story doesn’t end there. Wood turned in a big-time play of his own — one of the most dramatic and exciting moments in Cubs postseason history. After catcher Damian Miller drove in a run with a groundout, Wood stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 2nd. He took the 7th pitch from Marlins pitcher Mark Redman and deposited it into the Wrigley Field bleachers for a game-tying 2-run shot.
“That moment — hitting first base and turning, just beer flying everywhere,” Wood said. “There was probably 15-plus thousand people just on the other side of the fence down the street so not only was it going crazy inside, it was going crazy outside. I just remember trying to make sure I didn’t trip because I couldn’t feel my legs.
“They were wanting a curtain call. We’re in the [2nd] inning, I’m not locked in yet. I don’t want to be going out, waving about my offensive thing. We all know what happened. I never actually got locked in.”
The Cubs actually took the lead in the bottom of the 3rd on a Moises Alou 2-run shot. But the Marlins got to Wood again in the 5th, pushing across 3 runs on 2 hits and a pair of walks. One of the hits came off the bat of Derrek Lee, a 2-out single to right field that wound up driving home the game-winning run.
But what stood out most to Lee from that game was not that moment but Wood’s epic homer.
“I think my brain was like rattled,” Lee said. “That whole series was next level. But when Woody hit that home run, I’ve never felt anything like it. I’m getting goosebumps right now and I was on the other team [at the time]. It was just so loud you couldn’t even hear yourself think. It was impressive. You look around, you’d think the game was over. Pandemonium.”
Lee and Ryan Dempster — who are both remembered more for their contributions to some very good Cubs teams later in their careers — also had unique perspectives on that Cubs-Marlins showdown in 2003.
Lee and Dempster both broke out with the Marlins in the late 1990s but Dempster was traded to the Reds in the middle of the 2002 campaign. The Marlins went on to win the World Series in 2003, besting the powerhouse Yankees.
“It was like this heartbreak,” Dempster said. “I’m watching all my boys win the World Series at home on my couch. I actually went to New York and watched [Brad] Penny throw the game there when they beat the Yankees.”
After the difficult end to the 2003 season, the Cubs traded for Lee and signed Dempster as a free agent.
“Coming here after that, you really realize the impact,” Dempster said. “Coming off Tommy John and showing up in Chicago and seeing the superstars that these guys were and the public perception of them, they were on a huge pedestal. And rightfully so as far as sports teams go. Almost getting there [in 2003] and then we had a really good team in ’04 again. So I got to watch it from the outside looking in.”
The Cubs traded prized prospect Hee-Seop Choi for Lee about five weeks after the NLCS ended. A couple months after that, Lee showed up in Chicago in the middle of January for Cubs Convention and was blown away.
“I walk into the lobby and it was packed,” Lee said. “Fans were going crazy and I was like, ‘oh my goodness.’ In Florida, you have a Fan Fest, it’s a one-day little thing. Ten people show up and I was like, ‘wow, this is the big leagues.’ It was great.
“The fans didn’t like me that first month. They were chanting ‘Hee-Seop Choi’ every time I came up to the plate. Eventually I guess I grew on them.”
Lee certainly grew on Cubs fans, earning a pair of All-Star appearances and MVP votes in 3 of his 7 years on the North Side. Choi only played 95 games for the Marlins before he was traded again — this time to the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was out of the big leagues after the 2005 season and went on to have a solid career in Korea.
Like Lee, Dempster saw the vast difference in environments and fanbases between Miami and Chicago.
“There are very few places in any professional sport you can play and have that kind of reception and playing for the Chicago Cubs, it’s just different,” Dempster said. “You can count on one hand the amount of franchise across sports that it plays out that way and playing here in Chicago, it’s like that.”