They say it takes one to know one, but while I’ve been a Chicago Cubs’ fans for, lo, these last 70 years, I’m having a hard time recognizing my fellow fans these days. They are smiling and their eyes are uncharacteristically bright. They’re pleasantly sated from the champagne they consumed after their favorites put away the archrival Cardinals in the QFs of the late World Series tournament. When they look ahead they see nothin’ but blue skies.
It makes me very uneasy.
I know, I’m a killjoy, as I’ve been told repeatedly, but I can’t shake my innate skepticism or the lessons I’ve learned in my seven decades of fruitless baseball rooting. Further, while I don’t believe in curses, jinxes, hexes or any other otherworldly influences in human affairs, I do believe in psychology, and I’ve concluded that Cubs’ fans’ fecklessness has contributed to the team’s record of futility (no “world” championships since 1908 or league pennants since 1945) that is unmatched in sporting annals. Unless we shape up we’ll only get more of the same.
I understand fully the reasons for the current giddiness. In the just-concluded regular season the Cubs upped their victory total over the year before by 24 games (to 97), got through a playoff round (1 ½ if you include the one-game wild-card win over Pittsburgh) and gathered a growing list of individual awards, all with an eight-man lineup that often included five sterling rookies or near-rookies (Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez), none of whom are older than 23. As we were constantly reminded by our journalistic mentors, they “became relevant” and “exceeded expectations.” Who could ask for more, right?
Truth is, though, they haven’t won anything yet, baseball awarding no bronze medals, and in the round in which they might have made a mark were brushed aside, four games to zip, by a New York Mets team that outplayed them thoroughly. That series revealed weaknesses not only in short-term hitting but also in the lack of pitching and defense that have plagued the Cubs since time immemorial. Need I remind that since World War II Cubs’ management has been transfixed by the days when the wind blows out at Beautiful Wrigley Field and put its money on sluggers (Sauer, Banks, Williams, Santo, Kingman, Dawson, Sosa) while neglecting baseball’s other facets? During my fandom the team has had only two truly first-rate pitchers -- Fergie Jenkins and Greg Maddux-- and let both slip away while still possessing considerable tread. Theo Epstein has yet to successfully address this issue.
The Cubs’ dismissal by the Mets recalled their two most-recent playoff ventures, when they were swept by the Dodgers (in 2008) and the Diamondbacks (in ’07). Moreover, in their fourth trip to the semis since MLB instituted playoffs in 1969, they fared worse than in the other three, when they fell to the Padres in five games in 1984 after taking a two-games-to-none lead, to the Giants 4-1 in 1989 and to the Marlins in seven in 2003 after leading 3-1. That’s nobody’s definition of progress.
Nonetheless, by most Cubs’ fans’ measurements, 2015 will go down as a “great” year, along with 1984 and 2003, but no team exemplifies their collective psyche better than the 1969 edition. That was the gang that, with four future Hall of Famers on its roster (Banks, Williams, Santo and Jenkins), sprinted to an eight-game mid-August lead in the newly formed National League East only to hit a September wall and finish eight games behind the Mets. A season that would have been judged a colossal bust in most precincts went down in Cubs’ lore as glorious. No stalwart of that crew ever again had to buy himself a drink in Chicago.
Cubs’ fans’ love for their losers contrasts with the attitudes exhibited by the adherents of the team’s recurring tormentors, the Mets. Yes, New Yorkers came to be fond of Casey Stengel’s comically inept “Amazins” in the years immediately following the team’s expansion birth in 1962, but that didn’t last long. Since then, the Mets have had to please their adherents in the usual way—by at least occasionally rewarding them with victories. Their log includes two World Series championships (in 1969 and ’86) and two more pennants (in 2000 and this year). That’s two and four more, respectively, than the Cubs have won in that span.
Both the Cubs and Mets endured losing-season dry spells from 2010 until their resurgences this season, and it’s instructive to compare their fans’ reactions. While the Mets were losing many of their supporters withheld patronage, with annual season attendance at their new (2009) Citi Field home barely exceeding two million for those five annums. Cubs’ fans, despite their team’s worse records than the Mets’ and in a half-as-big metro area, continued to drink the Kool Aid, topping the 2.5 million figure annually and three million in 2010. It’s no stretch to conclude that Cubs’ fans high tolerance for failure is one reason the team has done so poorly for so long. Why should management strive to serve steak when people will pay equally for bologna?
Cubs’ fans are saying this year’s team is different because of the promise of its gifted young players. They’ll be champs for years, they proclaim. Chicagoans said the same thing after the 1985 Bears dominated the NFL with a young lineup, but fell short thereafter because of injuries and a clash of locker-room egos, not the least of which belonged to their coach, Mike Ditka. The same thing could happen to the Cubs.
As the 1990s basketball Bulls and the current hockey Blackhawks have shown, Chicago is not a losers’ town, but it takes more than talent to win sports’ biggest prizes. The Bulls won their six NBA titles because of Michael Jordan’s superlative skills but also because he kicked his teammates’ butts when they didn’t perform to his expectations. Jonathan Toews seems to perform the same function for the Hawks in a quieter way. The Cubs will need a similar leader to succeed.
And meantime, it wouldn’t hurt to let them buy their own drinks until they’ve made some additions to the city’s trophy case.