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Bako: Give Marlins credit for Cubs collapse in 2003
By Bruce Miles | Daily Herald Staff

Veteran catcher Paul Bako, here rounding the bases after hitting a home run in 2004, is back with the Cubs this season.

 

John Starks | Staff Photographer, 2004

Geovany Soto scores as his Cincinnati catcher Paul Bako awaits a throw last season. This season Bako will compete with Koyie Hill for the backup role to Soto.

 

Mary Beth Nolan | Staff Photographer

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Published: 2/16/2009 4:16 PM

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MESA, Ariz. - Quick, who was the Cubs catcher on that infamous night in 2003, when the Florida Marlins rallied to win Game 6 of the National League championship series at Wrigley Field?

If you answered "Paul Bako," you'd be correct.

After four years away from the Cubs, Bako is back. The 36-year-old veteran signed a free-agent contract Jan. 30, and he'll compete with Koyie Hill to back up Geovany Soto.

Bako was with the Cubs for two interesting and sometimes tumultuous seasons. He backed up Damian Miller in 2003 and won a big share of playing time down the stretch as the Cubs went to the postseason.

In '04, he backed up Michael Barrett. Along the way, he caught Greg Maddux' 300th career victory in San Francisco and suffered through the team's epic collapse in the final week of the season, when it frittered away a seemingly safe lead in the wild-card race.

Bako's perspective on Game 6 of the NLCS is an interesting one. You know what happened. The Marlins scored 8 runs in the eighth inning to come from behind to tie the series. They clinched the series the next night.

A key play in the eighth came when a fan got in the way of left fielder Moises Alou, who reached into the stands to try to catch a foul fly. Alou couldn't make the catch, and all heck broke loose after that.

Instead of blaming the fan, as Alou did in the heat of the moment, Bako has another message: Give the Marlins credit.

"It was a such a high and such a close - we were so close we could taste it," Bako said Monday. "Things didn't work out.

"I don't think it was the curse. Personally, I don't think we blew that. I think the Marlins showed that they were the better team, and they rolled through the next round (beating the Yankees in the World Series). They beat us fair and square."

The Cubs and pitcher Mark Prior were up 3-0 in the eighth when Alou couldn't come up with Luis Castillo's foul ball with Juan Pierre on second. Although it's been almost five and a half years, Bako said he found the whole thing almost too much to take at the time.

"I did for a while, sure," he said. "The night of that and going into Game 7, I couldn't go to sleep. Obviously, Game 7, I could't sleep for a while after that. But time heals everything, generally. And I've been on quite a few different teams.

"Now, if I were still here with the Cubs the whole time through, I would still be having a harder time than I am. Fortunately, I was able to move on and play. When you're with other teams, you can't concentrate on that aspect. You've got to concentrate on your team and the guys you're with. I was able to get over it a little bit that way.

"I'm sure the replays show that Mo was going to have a really good chance at catching that ball. The bottom line, I don't think anybody gives the Marlins enough credit for doing what they had to do. They honestly showed that they were better team. They rolled through New York. They deserved it. But nobody gives them credit. It's always blame and stuff."

Fast-forwarding to 2009, Bako brings a resume of 745 big-league games back to the Cubs. He has played for the Tigers, Astros, Marlins, Braves, Brewers, Dodgers, Royals, Orioles and Reds.

Last season with Cincinnati, he batted .217 with 6 homers. For his career, Bako is a .231 hitter with 21 homers, an on-base percentage of .305 and a slugging percentage of .317. Although he's a left-handed batter, Bako has stayed around the majors since 1998 because of his defense and ability to handle pitchers.

"I'm really excited," he said. "It's a good opportunity coming in here. The pitching staff we have, the guys Jim (GM Hendry) has assembled here, the position players and the pitchers and even the back end of the bullpen, all speaks for itself. It's a matter of going out there and taking care of business, hopefully, and staying healthy, and we should have a good shot at the end."

As far as competing for a job, Bako understands the reality. He also remains confident of his ability behind the plate.

"Yes, personally I've been in baseball long enough to realize that at some point, it is a competition," he said. "In my opinion, that's up to the front office. If we're both good enough to play in the big leagues, we're going to play in the big leagues somewhere. Those decisions are out of my hands and out of Koyie's."

The Cubs let Bako go after '04 to bring in Henry Blanco. Hendry thought highly enough of Bako to bring him back.

"It was really exciting," Bako said. "I look forward to it."

"Personally, I don't think we blew that. I think the Marlins showed that they were the better team, and they rolled through the next round (beating the Yankees in the World Series). They beat us fair and square."

Cubs catcher Paul Bako on the 2003 NLCS