A guest post by Tom Hunter:
In Back to the Future II there’s a scene where the character of Marty McFly, transported thirty years into the future world of 2015, sees a piece of sports news and exclaims:
“Wait a minute, Cubs win World Series? Against Miami?”
It’s somewhat of an inside-joke. When the movie was released in 1989 there was no baseball team in Miami and the Chicago Cubs had not won the World Series (WS) in 81 years. But the Boston Red Sox drought had then lasted for 71 years. The Cubs cross-town rivals, the White Sox, stood at 72 years. Moreover, the team was in the playoffs that year and it must have seemed reasonable odds to the scriptwriters to think that by 2015 they’d win it all. Surely no club could be such losers for that long?
It’s now 106 years.
No other major team in any sport has experienced such a drought. For 69 years they’ve not even won the National League (NL) pennant, which merely gets you into the WS. The next worst baseball team are the Cleveland Indians on 67 years.
A writer once said that there were two types of baseball losers. The first type were the Red Sox, who specialised in regularly taking their fans to the brink of winning it all – before stabbing them right through the heart. The second type were the Cubs – who never win anything. But as if to show the way, the Red Sox in 2004, and the White Sox in 2005, would prove it was possible, leaving the Cubs stranded almost alone on a desert island of dull mediocrity.
It’s a cruel reflection on their players and fans that many would take the fate of the pre-2004 Red Sox at least once in a lifetime. The famous Chicago journalist (and Cub fan), Mike Royko, would exhibit this feeling by inventing what he called “The Cubs Factor”: in any World Series one could predict the winner by counting up the number of ex-Cubs players on each team; the winner was whoever had the fewest. Fans created the Emil Verban society, celebrating a perfectly ordinary Cubs player – no Hall of Famer he – as the perfect example of the team. Verban was still alive when the club started in the 1970’s and felt it to be an insult, until he met President Reagan and discovered that he too, was a member of the society and a fan.
It did not have to be this way. Chicago always had the population and wealth to supply a team with all the cash it needed to buy good players or produce them through the so-called “farm” system, the layers of minor league teams through which young stars can rise. The Cubs were one of the founding teams in the 19th century, helping create the National League. They dominated the 1900’s, winning two World Series against the new American League, losing a couple of others, but always threatening. Fans of other teams lamented the Cubs powerful infield defence, even writing a poem about them – “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” – Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance, who regularly destroyed opponents with their fielding. This strength continued well into the 1930’s, where they appeared in several post-season series, and lost, but no differently than did other storied clubs such as the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
It was not until after the last World Series for the Cubs in 1945 that the decline truly began. For almost four decades the team would linger at or near the bottom of the tables. This was not losing, it was futility. There was a brief burst of sunshine in 1969 when they dominated the NL teams – right up until the last month of the season, when they collapsed, the NY Mets sweeping past them to top the NL and enter the World Series, which they then won. Adding heat to the ashes in the mouths of Cubs fans was the fact that the Mets had only existed since 1962. It was in this period that the story of The Curse began to spread.
The Red Sox had the Curse of the Bambino of course. The ghost of Babe Ruth, sold in 1918 after he’d pitched the Red Sox to yet another championship, because the owners thought his pitching days were done and that his batting did not fit the world of “small ball”, steadily moving runners around the bases. They were right on both counts but Ruth simply changed the game itself by hitting endless home runs, coming to dominate it as no other player had – and he would do it for their bitterest enemies, the New York Yankees, winning championship after championship. This was a curse of great power and evil, cast by the Dark Lord himself, a lightning scar stamped onto the foreheads of Red Sox players and fans for all to see and whisper about. The team that lived – while its fans suffered and died.
The Curse of the Goat does not rise to that level, yet another example of the pallid nature of Cub-world. The story goes that in 1945 the owner of the famous Billygoat Tavern strolled uptown to Wrigley Field to watch a WS game, with his pet billygoat in tow. Refused entry to the stadium on account of the animal, he laid a curse upon the Cubs, declaring that they would never again win a championship. Nobody took any notice and the spread of the apocryphal story was likely due to the fact that the tavern was the watering hole of Royko, Studs Terkel and other Chicago scribes. But it stuck. So much so that at one point when the team had lost the first sixteen games of a season – leading a radio DJ to exclaim, “Come on guys! Let’s win ………. one” – the son of the owner was tracked down by fans, who persuaded him to walk a billygoat around the field before the start of a game. The Cubs lost anyway.
Could fate be any more cruel.
It turns out that it could. If anything the 1970’s were the bottom of the barrel. The real problem was not the magical powers of farm animals but ownership and management. The team had been owned for decades by the Wrigley Family (of Wrigley chewing gum fame) and they treated the team the way an ageing English Lord might treat some shabby castle he’s inherited. There was no focus, no fight, and perhaps not even much desire to make the team winners.
Their fortunes only began to improve when the Wrigley family finally tired of their chew toy and sold out in 1981. Just three years later the Cubs made it to the playoffs. Perhaps not knowing how to cope with this, they lost against a team that seemed no better than they. The new owners were the Tribune Company. They made the team the centrepiece of their local TV station, WGN, and then linked it to other TV stations across the country to form a so-called “Super-Station”. With cable and satellite TV in their infancy the Tribune created hundreds of thousands of new fans and re-captured old ones in areas that had no major league team, or which contained pockets of Chicago and Mid-West retirees, where the big networks would often only show games from big name clubs. The team developed a substantial and unique nationwide following. But they were also pushed to win.
They would hit the playoffs again in 1989, ’98, 2003, ’07, and ’08. Each time they fell short, but this was still manna from heaven for survivors of the Wrigley famine. Fans began to calculate that at a minimum the law of averages would begin to tell in their favour; make the playoffs often enough and sooner or later lightning must strike.
The 2003 series showed that the game is something more than averages. Playing for the NL Championship against the Florida Marlins in a best-of-seven series, the Cubs were leading in games by 3-2 and, in the eighth inning of the decisive sixth game, by 3 runs to 0. With one out, a Marlin batter popped up a foul ball down the left-field fence, the ball falling just one row into the crowd. Moises Alou, a skilled and experienced fielder reached into the crowd to grab the ball with his mitt, his eyes following it all the way. But Alou suddenly found the hands of a fan – Steve Bartman – also reaching for the ball, which hit them and bounced further into the crowd.
Despite his years of professional play Alou lost the plot, yelling at the fan and arguing for long minutes with the umpires. The ugly mood spread fast. It was as if a switch were thrown and the power drained from the fans and the players, although it would be in keeping with the Curse to imagine the feeling as one in which a magical, happy spell has suddenly been broken. In an instant stomachs fell, mouths went dry and throats closed as all the old fears rose up: the black bile that accompanies being the “Loveable Losers” of baseball, and cursed.
The team went from being on cruise control to simply falling apart, the Marlins feasting on them for eight runs in that inning to win. A listless, demoralised Cubs team lost the next game and the series. They had been just five outs away from entering the World Series to play against a shaky Yankee team, whom the Marlins would beat up to gain their second WS win in just over a decade of existence. Steve Bartman needed four beefy cops around him to leave the stadium and found himself subject to almost intolerable abuse afterward just for being at the centre of sporting history and doing what any fan would – but the truth was that Alou, and then his team, had simply not coped with the ordinary adversity of a single mistake.
Fans were annoyed rather than distressed at later losses in 2007 and 2008, when the Cubs were simply beaten by better teams. But 2003 was an introduction to Red Sox world. It was little consolation to know that the they had also fallen the same way that year – in seven games and getting to within five outs of winning the AL pennant. Naturally it was against the Yankees. Fans across America raised their eyebrows and marvelled at the power of the respective curses.
So here we are in 2015 and the Cubs are in the playoffs again. Hopes, always pegged low, have steadily risen. They entered as a Wild Card team, due to finishing third in the Central Division of the NL. But this time it’s only because the two best teams in baseball – in terms of season wins and losses – came 1st and 2nd in the same division. The Cubs finished the season of 162 games with a better win-loss ratio than any other team in either league except those two – the Pittsburgh Pirates and old foes from down the I-55, the St Louis Cardinals. The latter had won 100 games, always the mark of a great team.
Incredibly the Cubs have now beaten both, and beaten them well. They’re a young team and seem to be playing with joy and verve, uncaring of the weight of history. They will soon face the despised enemies of Cub fans everywhere, the New York Mets – a team whose evil I never fully understood until a TV break during a game when their “fans from Down Under” were introduced: Australian cricketers Greg and Ian Chapple. The series will decide the NL Pennant and see who goes to the show on October 27.
So is this it? Will the capricious gods of baseball be appeased? Will the curse of the damnable goat be lifted? Will the shameful stain of Loveable Losers be wiped away? You’ll have to forgive this New Zealand fan if I turn my lonely eyes away from the All Blacks in late October. They’re already winners many times over and I must support the underdog of all underdogs.
No Cub fan will ever get too confident, even if they’re leading three games to zero, holding a 10 run lead going into the 9th inning of the decider. But if a smoking DeLorean screams into existence at the entrance to Wrigley field on October 21st and Marty McFly steps from it to pronounce that the Cubs will win, the fans would not doubt their eyes and ears for a moment.
After 106 years of failure they’ll believe anything!