Revisiting one of the greatest trades in Cubs history
Let’s flash back to July 22, 2003.
The Cubs had just wrapped up a quick 2-game series in Atlanta and their record stood at 50-49 on the season. They were in 3rd place, 4.5 games behind the Houston Astros (who were still in the National League Central at the time).
Looking to make a splash and add reinforcements to a contending team, Chicago GM Jim Hendry swung a deal that will live in Cubs lore forever.
Hendry dealt veteran infielder José Hernández, pitching prospect Matt Bruback and a player to be named later (Bobby Hill) to the Pittsburgh Pirates for a 25-year-old third baseman in the midst of a decent season and an aging center fielder whose career was winding down.
As most Cubs fans know, those players were Aramis Ramírez and Kenny Lofton and they proved to be just the spark the team needed to make a deep run in October.
At the time of the deal, Lofton was 36 and in his 13th big league season. With the Pirates, he was having a solid — but unspectacular — year, batting .277 with a .770 OPS.
But in Chicago, Lofton took his game to the next level and became one of the better rentals in franchise history with a .327 AVG, .381 on-base percentage and 39 runs scored in 56 games while holding down the leadoff spot for the Cubs.
Ramírez already had a really good 2001 season under his belt but regressed quite a bit in 2002 and the Pirates ultimately got to a point where they felt like it was best to trade him.
Not only did Ramírez help the Cubs in 2003 but he went on to provide stability to the hot corner in Chicago for the first time since Ron Santo, enjoying a stellar 9-year career at third base with the Cubs.
For his efforts, Ramírez was voted into the Cubs Hall of Fame earlier this month at Cubs Convention. He ranks 7th all-time in franchise history in home runs (239), 12th in RBI (806) and 4th in OPS (.887) behind only Hack Wilson, Sammy Sosa and Derrek Lee.
“It’s an honor to play at Wrigley Field,” Ramírez said on a recent episode of the Cubs Weekly Podcast. “As a visitor coming to Wrigley Field, 30,000-plus people every single day, day games — I was a big fan of day games.
“When I got traded here, it was a dream come true. Not only because we had a really good team but it’s a great city and a great place to play baseball games — Wrigley Field.”
Meanwhile, Bruback never made it to the major leagues and all three players the Cubs traded (Bruback, Hernández and Hill) were out of affiliated baseball by 2007.
The 2003 Cubs wound up going 38-25 after the trade and famously came just 5 outs from the World Series.
For his part, Ramírez loved being traded to a contender.
“That was the fun part,” he said. “I was in Pittsburgh since ’98, never got close to being in the pennant race. When I got traded to Chicago, we were in the middle of the pennant race with great players around — Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou. A lot of good players around me. Good pitching — [Kerry Wood], [Mark] Prior. So I said to myself: I gotta take my game to the next level. I gotta contribute. That’s what I did — I contributed and we made the playoffs.”
With Ramírez and Lofton in tow, the Cubs — and the city — felt a renewed sense of hope that 2003 could be the season the World Series drought ended.
Of course, that fall was known for the Steve Bartman incident during Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS against the Marlins and while Ramírez didn’t want to put blame on Bartman, he acknowledged that was a turning point.
“I was [surprised at how the NLCS ended],” Ramírez said. “We were the better team. I think the Marlins got hot but we were the better team. We had the better pitching; we had better offense.
“… That shocked me. That Game 6, after that play, it turned everything around. I don’t want to blame it on that guy, but it did turn everything around.”
When the Cubs finally won it all in 2016, Ramírez was at home in the Dominican Republic watching with friends.
“I was the happiest man in the world when they won the World Series in 2016,” he said. “I got chills watching [Game 7]. And I never had that when I was playing. So as a fan, I got more excited.”
Ramírez had several other cracks at a World Series ring in a Cubs uniform, as he was a central part of the 2007-08 teams that made the playoffs in back-to-back years (but were swept both times).
Even though he wasn’t able to be a part of the Cubs team that ended the championship drought, he didn’t feel a sense of disappointment in 2016 when the franchise brought home the trophy.
“No, not really,” he said. “I was happy for the guys that were on the team and I was happy for the fans ’cause they deserved it. They waited a long time to celebrate.”