"We went into the season not knowing much about who was going to close," Borowski says. "It was kind of dumb luck with me. Everybody either was already in the game or had pitched several days in a row. I was the last man standing."
He started that season with just two career saves. Then he converted 33 of 37 opportunities -- 14 times he saved games he entered with Chicago leading by only one run -- and the Cubs moved into October and came within five outs of their first World Series appearance since 1945.
So what happened? The Cubs immediately signed Mike Remlinger and LaTroy Hawkins that winter, and going into '04, Borowski says, "the first questions I was hearing in spring training were, 'So are you going to be closing or LaTroy?'"
The Marlins brought him to camp last year because they were worried prospects such as Logan Kensing and Taylor Tankersley were still too young. So as Florida was shocking the entire baseball world by riding a bunch of unknown kids into contention in September, there was Borowski converting 36 of 43 save opportunities.
Meanwhile, the Indians' 24 saves were a major league low. So Shapiro scrounged around and signed Borowski, Roberto Hernandez, Foulke and Aaron Fultz this winter. He brought Cliff Politte to camp.
"Without the trauma our bullpen suffered last year, I would have felt comfortable coming in with our internal guys," Shapiro says of Fernando Cabrera, Rafael Betancourt and Thomas Mastny. "But I felt we needed veterans to change the dynamic so that the first time we blew a save, people aren't going to be looking around."
Borowski? The guy is beginning his 18th professional season, yet he has only pitched in 336 major-league games. He has been released twice, waived twice and granted free-agency four times.
"I've gone pretty much through the wringer," Borowski says. "I've had my ups and I've had my downs. Sometimes you really have to hit rock bottom in order to appreciate everything you've got.
"Everybody wants a silver lining and to hit Jump Street right from the beginning of their career."
Until he finally hit paydirt with the Cubs a few years ago, most of Borowski's silver linings came when clubs didn't use a baseball bat to chase him away.
"Mexico in 2000," he says. "The Monterrey Sultanes, when I should have been playing here. I went to Cincinnati (in the spring of 2000) with some promises, and they lied to me. They released me with a week left in the spring. I still have some not-too-good feelings toward the people who did that to me.
"Hey, it worked out in the end."
You live and learn. And in Borowski's case, you keep learning.
His fastball is ho-hum, clocking in at a decidedly uninspiring 90 mph or so. He also throws a split-fingered fastball and a slider. With his stuff, he must use intelligence as a weapon, too.
"I ain't dazzling anybody," he says. "Nobody's saying, 'Whooo hoo!' I put the ball in play. I don't care if I strike you out or not. I look to get out of there as quick as I possibly can."
Meanwhile, people continue to doubt the guy like Y2K. And undoubtedly, they'll continue to do so the rest of this spring, too. The Indians, no question, have the offense, young talent and starting pitching to become the surprise of the season in the AL. But so much depends on the bullpen. If Borowski falters, there's always one of the young kids, or Hernandez and his 326 career saves.
"Joe's hard-nosed," Wedge says. "He's a warrior-type at the back end (of games). He's the type of guy who has been proving people wrong his whole career.
"He knows how to pitch. He knows himself very well. He's as tough as anybody you can ask for in terms of that role. There are certain guys you would want in a foxhole with you, and he's definitely one of those guys."
He suffered a torn tendon in his rotator cuff a couple of years ago -- the first significant injury of his career, and -- after conferring with Dr. Lewis Yocum, one of the premier arm experts in the country -- opted against surgery because his chances of returning would have been small.
Instead, he rehabilitated the tendon -- and he spends his winters continuing to keep it where it needs to be. That's the other thing -- folks have asked for the past three years whether he's truly healthy. His career-high 36 saves in Florida last year should provide the answer.
What he'd really like one of these years is, say, a two-year contract. Three or four years would be great, but even two would be an improvement. But it never comes. It's always one year, maybe one year and an option, and go earn your keep.
And so he does.
"You go your entire career, and you never get any credit for what you do," Borowski says. "It's always other people who are supposed to do something. You play with top prospects. And then you move alone through each level but don't get any recognition.
"It's satisfying to me in the end because most of those people aren't playing anymore."