When Cubs icons realized they belonged in the big leagues
When does a young baseball player feel like he truly belongs in the big leagues?
Every player has his own individual experience and the panel on a recent “Icons of the Ivy” show illustrated that point perfectly.
Between Ryan Dempster, Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramírez and Kerry Wood, the quartet of analysts combined for 5,161 MLB games and 63 seasons in “The Show.” But they had a wide range of answers to the question of when it felt like they truly belonged.
Take Wood, for example.
He was 20 years old when he made his MLB debut and his first 4 starts had mixed results — a 2-2 record, 5.89 ERA.
But his 5th start? Well, everybody remembers his 5th start.
Wood struck out an MLB-record 20 batters on May 6, 1998 against the Astros, putting his name on the map not only in Chicago but all around the game.
“It was that game for sure,” Wood said. “Being able to do that, at the level, I was like, ‘OK, on the field, I feel like I belong here.’ Being 20 years old, you’re traveling, going to the hotels, trying to live the big-league lifestyle at a young age. You’re just trying not to miss the bus, be on time, make sure you’re not saying something that makes all the veteran guys upset and get fined.
“It still takes a year at least to feel like you fit in the clubhouse. But for me on the field, it was after that start.”
Ramírez had a vastly different experience. He also made his debut as a 20-year-old in 1998, but he was up and down between the big leagues and the minors with the Pirates for three seasons. It wasn’t until Pittsburgh’s sixth game of the 2001 season that Ramírez felt like he truly belonged at the highest level.
He hit 3 home runs in Houston on April 8, 2001, driving in 6 runs and leading the Pirates to victory. That was the jumping off point for a season that finished with 34 homers and 112 RBI.
“It was like, OK, I belong here now and I took off from there,” Ramírez said.
Lee had a similar experience in that he utilized a home run as a springboard to regular playing time and a stellar career.
The big first baseman got a cup of coffee with the San Diego Padres as a 21-year-old in 1997 and then played 141 games for the Marlins in ’98. But the following year (1999), he spent more than half the season in Triple-A and only played 70 games in Florida.
At the start of the 2000 season, Lee was relegated to a part-time role, making only 22 starts through the team’s first 46 games. So he decided to have a chat with Marlins manager John Boles.
“I remember were in St. Louis, it was about May,” Lee said. “I went in the office and I was like, ‘Skip, I gotta be on the field. I gotta play.’ He was like, ‘alright, show me what you can do.’ He changed the lineup that day, I hit a home run and I was a starter from that day on. The game slows down and you start taking off.”
Lee hit a home run against Rick Ankiel that afternoon in St. Louis (May 25, 2000) and made 101 starts the rest of the way over the Marlins’ final 115 games.
He finished 2000 with 28 homers, 70 RBI and an .875 OPS.
Dempster followed a similar path as Lee, as the two youngsters came up together in Florida with the Marlins at the turn of the millennium.
The right-hander made 14 appearances for the Marlins in 1998 and 25 starts in the rotation in 1999. But it wasn’t until 2000 where he truly felt like he belonged — a year in which Dempster made the All-Star team and went 14-10 with a 3.66 ERA and 209 strikeouts in 33 starts.
Part of the adjustment was being in the same division as the Atlanta Braves, who were the class of the National League at the time. They won 106 games in 1998 and 103 games in 1999 en route to a pair of trips to the NLCS (and an NL pennant).
The Marlins, meanwhile, were in their first decade as a franchise and lost 206 games between 1998-99.
“It took a little while,” Dempster said. “It was a big learning curve. We got our tails kicked quite a few times. We’d fly out to Atlanta three times a year and get a thesis in how to play baseball. You really learned a lot.
“I would say probably about 2000 — all the sudden, I had a couple years in the league. You feel like a big-leaguer now. You feel like you belong and can compete.”