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  • The Phantom Game on Mothers Day 2003 Was Bonkers

    Jonathan Bohall

    One of the quirky things about baseball is that, while every game counts, some partial games really and truly don't count. In fact, they can be completely wiped away--relegated to the phantom realm, at the bottom of the MLB memory pit. This is the story of one such game.

    Image courtesy of © RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

    Cubs Video

    On Mother's Day 2003, the Cardinals and Cubs were set to play the rubber match of a three-game series. Chicago had won the previous day on a walkoff to go up 1.5 games on St. Louis, in what would prove to be a pivotal matchup. The day before, Sammy Sosa was placed on the disabled list after getting the nail removed from his right big toe, allowing backup outfielder Troy O'Leary some playing time.

    In first place at 20-16, the Cubs were potentially looking to trade for a third baseman to help solidify their infield. One potential trade partner was the Florida Marlins, who had just fired their manager Jeff Torborg. Jack McKeon took over a 16-22 team with (seemingly) little hope in 2003, and were thought to be in position to part with their star third baseman, Mike Lowell. The fit made sense, especially after the Cubs had recently worked out a deal to receive pitchers Matt Clement and Antonio Alfonseca in exchange for (among others) Dontrelle Willis. Willis had made his MLB debut just two days before our contest.

    Immediately, it was clear that this Sunday day game at Wrigley would not be a normal one. Howling winds and sometimes-horizontal rain plagued the participants, and assured what was certainly a smaller crowd than would normally be at a Cardinals vs. Cubs home game. WGN broadcasters Chip Caray and Steve Stone openly predicted that we would see both teams score 20 runs.
    The Cubs opened the scoring in the bottom of the first, with a two-run homer by Moises Alou off of Cardinals starter Bret Tomko. St. Louis answered in the second with five runs, capped by an Albert Pujols grand slam against Clement. Cubs center fielder Corey Patterson drew the Cubs closer in the bottom half with a homer of his own. The Cardinals kept on the attack in the third, though, when Tino Martinez hit the first of two homers. Eventually, St. Louis built an 11-5 lead by the bottom of the fourth. The inning was prolonged when a short fly ball to left eluded the reach of a diving Alou, who couldn't keep up with the wind. That knocked out Clement, who saw his ERA rise in this one game from 3.95 to 5.74, with 11 earned runs charged against him. The Cubs continued to mount a comeback, when an Alex Gonzalez homer in the bottom of the fourth drew them within 11-9. The elements became a bit too much in the top of the fifth for crew chief Bruce Froemming. He called for a delay, which eventually turned into a postponement, removing from history about two hours of play.
    By a quirk of the MLB rules of the time, a game was not deemed official until the bottom half of the 5th inning with the home team ahead, or through five innings with the road team leading. This game, which had a few games' worth of offense packed into about four innings, just missed the mark. There's no entry for this game on Baseball Reference. The 11 earned runs that Clement surrendered that day did not affect Sunday fantasy totals, and the homers hit have been completely lost to history. Clement was quoted after the game. 

    "When the game got called for rain, I told everybody I'd donate to the guys that hit home runs on our team for a no-decision,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “I've got to pick up a lot of guys because a lot of guys had a good day." This quirk of the baseball rules has always struck me as a bit strange. How many notable homer totals have been altered by this rule? How would history remember Albert Pujols if he never got the elusive homer 700 in 2022, and was instead stuck on 699 because his grand slam never counted? (He finished with 703.)

    One player who felt the very real effects of this fake game was Cardinals' substitute right fielder Eli Marrero. In the Cubs’ four-run fourth inning, relief pitcher Juan Cruz hit a short fly to right center. Both Jim Edmonds and Marrero started for the ball. Marrero attempted to slide away from Edmonds, but instead got his foot caught underneath him on the wet grass and severely sprained his right ankle. The game was delayed while Cubs and Cardinals personnel checked on Marrero and eventually put him on a stretcher, while one trainer stabilized his ankle. He would be out until September, requiring surgery for a torn ligament. Pujols, for his part, didn't seem to care about losing the grand slam. He was quoted in the next day's St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 

    "I don't know why we started in the first place. It was a big mistake to start,” Pujols said. “The only guy who loses is Eli. We don't care about the game."
    The rule change in 2020 was put in place as a safety measure, essentially to avoid replaying games during the pandemic. It has proved to serve another purpose, which is to avoid trying to make a game "official" by any means necessary, whether that means rushing to complete five innings or playing in conditions that would otherwise be deemed unsafe.

    "I don't think I've ever played in worse conditions,” Edmonds said that day, “The park, the wind, the rain, the cold, the wet–the grass was soaked, the batter's box was slippery, the pitcher's mound was slippery, the basepaths were sticky." 

    Perhaps Marrero's injury made it clear to the umpires that this game should be called off, in order to avoid another injury. Perhaps both teams had seen enough to conclude that it was impossible to play a normal game of baseball and would rather cut their losses. Either way, the umpires finally had the good sense to put a stop to it all.
    The non-game would not be made up until September 2, as the first game of a doubleheader in the middle of a five game series against the Cardinals. This would prove to be a pivotal series for both clubs, with the Cardinals tied atop the NL Central, one and a half games above the Cubs entering September. The replay of the Mother's Day rainout would prove to be beneficial to the Cubs. With Sosa back in the lineup, the Cubs outlasted the Cardinals in 15 innings, the big blow a walk off homer by Sammy. Eli Marrero pinch-hit in that game, but none of the players who homered in the non-game would duplicate the feat in this contest.
    The Cubs, you may remember, managed to pass both Houston (then in the NL Central) and St. Louis and win a weak division on the penultimate day of the season. This helped set up Kerry Wood to start Game 1 of the NLDS against Atlanta. The Cubs won all three games started by co-aces Wood and Mark Prior to vault them into the NLCS, where they faced the surprising Marlins. The aforementioned Lowell, Willis and company helped Florida outlast the Cubs in a memorable NLCS. While Mike Lowell probably would have made an excellent Cub, their trade for Aramis Ramirez in July helped solidify the third base position for many years thereafter.

    I wanted to take a moment to highlight one more non-game that I've found out about by perusing old game footage, also featuring the Cardinals. In 1982, the Braves were set to play the Cardinals in the NLCS. Game 1 was going well for the Braves, with Phil Niekro shutting out St. Louis through four innings, when rain came to Busch Stadium, completely washing out Niekro's effort. Instead of continuing the game the next day, the NLCS was completely restarted as if nothing ever happened. The Cardinals took advantage of the reprieve and swept the Braves 3-0.

    Special thanks to the YouTube channel Cardinals Baseball Classics for preserving this. Without the original broadcast, much of the play by play data would have been impossible to put together. 

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