Chicago Cubs: Past Failure Meets Everlasting Hope

Getty Images Sport David Banks

Upon a 103-58-1 regular season, the following excerpt details my thoughts on the Cubs, shaped in part by history’s failures, yet everlasting hope.

Last season the Chicago Cubs were a wild card entrant with 97 wins. They had blown through first-year hype and expectations brought on by new manager Joe Maddon, free agent acquisitions headed by Jon Lester and call-ups of mega prospects — 2015 Rookie of the Year and likely 2016 MVP — Kris Bryant and Addison Russell. Together as a unit, the team had soared all the way to the NLCS against the New York Mets.

Though the wild ride ended at the hands of a four-game sweep, optimism could not have been higher, even as the visitors from Queens celebrated a trip to the World Series that elimination night. 

This was only the start.

September 15, 2016

Flash forward to a Thursday in mid-September, as the Cubs clinch the Central, boasting an MLB-best 93-52 record, and up 17.5 games over their long-standing arch-rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, a team that had tormented Chicago over the years.

The clinching, mirrored with the commanding lead, was nearly as strong a satisfying feeling as it was when the Cubs dispatched the Redbirds off the hallowed grounds of Wrigley Field some 11 months prior in the NLDS in four games.

David versus Goliath had switched roles in a sense. But the Cubs were the lovable giant in this film.

The 2015 season was as fun a year the Chicago Cubs had treated their faithful to in quite a while. As the playoffs became a reality, I was confident and optimistic, yet precariously cautious. I’d been here before. Heading into Game 4 of their 2015 NLDS matchup with the Cardinals last season, I documented my thoughts of where my psyché was.

Now in 2016, the following is a carefully worded, thought out depiction of my mindset one year later. For so much has changed, there’s always a not-too-distant reminder of past history, mixing with the seven other teams still separating us from 11 more wins. The difference is I don’t necessarily wait for something to happen like may have been the case in previous years–we’ll get that to in a minute. As if Cubs fans need a reminder. The detail will shed light on what makes this ride so exhilarating, while hoping to supplant that potential seed of pessimism. 

Just like the long-uffering legion of Cubs’ fans, we all have our story. My father’s is 1969. It was a year when the Cubs went from a sure thing to just another failed experiment. Not just any failed experiment, but one that literally brings to mind black cats and all that ugly stuff to do with hexes this and curses that. 

Without going into the bitter detail–you can read about it above–1969 is best summed up as an 8-game lead by mid-August turned into an 8-game deficit by seasons’ end.  

There’s the 1984 Cubs, boosted by MVP second baseman Ryne Sandberg and Cy Young winner Rick Sutcliffe. Manager Jim Frey was named NL Manager of the Year, as he guided his Cubs to 96 wins. As luck, or lack thereof, would have it, the San Diego Padres eliminated the Lovable Losers three games to two in the NLCS. Sutcliffe, 17-1 for the Cubs that season, had a 3-0 lead, but bad breaks, including a ground ball through the legs of shortstop Leon Durham, proved costly. 

Then there’s my story. That fateful night, October 14th, 2003.

The Cubs are playing the Florida Marlins in the 2003 NLCS. Chicago had won the NL Central with 88 wins, one game over the Houston Astros. The Cardinals had finished just three out. In Dusty We Trusty was that year’s slogan, as Dusty Baker, in his first season as manager on the North Side, led the talented veteran bunch. From the magic that was Sammy Sosa of those days to Mark Prior, a potential Cy Younger on the mound, they went up against the upstart wild card winners, those spunky Marlins.

The “Fish” were guided by veteran leadership in Jack McKeon, who had taken over mid-season and led the clubs’ revival, the iconic Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, and a young Hall of Famer-to-be in Miguel Cabrera. The Marlins had proven they were a very formidable opponent.

However for the Cubs, up 3-0 in Game 6, and with their own formidable ace in Prior on the mound, the 18-game winner had pitched his team to within five outs of the Cubs’ first World Series birth since 1945. I remember watching on my TV as if it was yesterday. Prior, with no obvious signs of slowing down, had a 3-hit shutout and one out in the 8th inning when it happened.

An innocent foul ball, a Cubs fan, and Moises Alou, Chicago’s left fielder, forever bound together in history. Alou thought he would have caught the ball had Steve Bartman not leaned forward and tried to catch it. I remember watching Alou, seething immediately following the play, his own meltdown on the field captured by the cameras for all to see, only fueling the faithful in the stands around the cramped ballpark with anger and vitriol towards Bartman. 

In that Here we go again mantra, almost immediately after the Bartman incident, the wheels fell off the Cubs magical ride. The Marlins scored eight times in the inning. Eight! The Marlins won the game 8-3. Whether you really believe in curses and jinxes or not, all you can really point to is Baker not going out to settle down the troops in the immediate aftermath. Or for not pulling Prior when it’s evident a change was needed. Or shortstop Alex Gonzalez misplaying a potential double play to kill the Marlins late rally.

If there was any real evidence to the wheels falling off this was it. 

Right in the aftermath of the Bartman/Alou incident there’s a runner on second base. If Alou had made the out, there’s two outs in the inning. In reality it goes down as a foul ball. Nothing to suggest the Marlins don’t still score in the inning or rally to win. But of course the flare for the dramatics rears its ugly head. It’s not just losing, it’s how the loss occurs that has tormented the Cubs and their fans.

In that fateful eighth inning, after the incident, the count is 3-2, one out, runner on second.

I don’t know that the most superstitious person in the world would be able to forecast what was about to happen next. If you could look up a picture of crashing and burning, the plethora of tragic events to be would still be too much even for Billy Sianis himself. 

The very next play after Bartman is ball four, but the ball gets away from catcher Paul Bako, and now it’s runners on the corners. 

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild comes out for a talk with Prior and the infield.

Pudge singles. 3-1.

What are you doing, Baker?

The bullpen is warming, but Prior is still out there. First pitch to Cabrera, he hits into the crucial sure-to-be inning-ending double play. Except Gonzalez, one of the better fielding shortstops in the league, can’t handle the ball. Did Gonzalez feel the weight of the situation at stake? Who knows. Of course it’s human nature to think about the magnitude of the moment, with added weight of history on your shoulders.

But in that moment, 95 years since the last championship, was likely not on his mind. Instead, trying to make the rally-ending double play was and he just gaffed in a major spot. Maybe he rushed things, due to the magnitude of the moment unfolding in the eighth inning. Who knows.

Bases loaded. Still one out. Up 3-1.

Surely by now, Baker pulls Prior. It’s obvious a change is needed. Yet Prior is still in there.

The situation is getting increasingly tense. Future Cub Derrek Lee, 3-25 in the series, 0-3 on the night, is at the plate. If the current state of affairs didn’t cause concern, history would indicate Lee can inflict damage. He had already done so against Prior in Game 2 with a home run.

First pitch to Lee. A punch to the gut. Game tied 3-3; A double down the left field line doing the damage.

Lee and the Marlins rejoice. Five straight hitters since the Bartman incident reach base. Baker finally makes his walk from the dugout. Pithing change, game is tied at three, this thing is still in our grasp. It’ll be okay. Of course FOX announcer Thom Brennaman puts to words what surely all have long been thinking since the Bartman incident:

And it’s safe to say every Cubs fan has to be wondering right now is the curse of the billy goat alive and well.

Thanks Thom.

Kyle Farnsworth intentionally walks Mike Lowell to load the bases, hoping to induce he double play. Instead Jeff Conine hits a sac-fly to put the Marlins ahead 4-3. Two outs.

Next batter, Mike Mordecai, slams a ball off the ivy. 7-3.

 At the end of the day the series was tied at three. I was hopeful. The Cubs were still technically in good hands with Kerry Wood on the mound for Game 7 at home the next night. Dad knew it was done. I wasn’t akin to this yet, so I wasn’t as sinister.

Game 7 doesn’t get off to a promising start. However, down 3-0 in the second inning of Game 7, Wood sends a jolt through Wrigley, electrifying the crowd with a game-tying blast into the left field bleachers. Surely this is the good fortune that will finally change the course of sure disaster less than 24 hours prior. 

Maybe, alas, the Cubs would be fine.

Alou gave the Cubs their first lead since before the Bartman incident, when he went deep to give the Cubs a 5-3 lead in the fifth inning. The very guy who had a meltdown on live TV the night before was a potential Game 7 hero.

And that was it. Florida rallied. Just as they had all season, and through the World Series. A team, not 15 years-old in existence, had already equaled the Cubs’ near century-long World Series total at two.

1908 meets 2003? What was this sick joke…

We won’t even get into 2008. Another promising year that the Cubs put together during the months of April through September, which even included former Cardinal Jim Edmonds helping lead the charge. 

None of that mattered, a sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS.

It was mere futility after that until 2015. The culture change was in effect, as Theo Epstein had taken over in Chicago following the 2011 season. Improvement had been marked across the farm-system, an area Theo promised he would address upon arrival. Maddon had come on board as manager, and with Bryant providing immediate production, the Cubs were finally showing their potential.

No one quite knew what to expect for the season coming off the heels of a 73-win campaign in 2014. But this wasn’t the same team with the now additions of Bryant, Anthony Rizzo coming into his own as a power threat in the middle of the order, and newfound ace Jon Lester leading the rotation.

The Cubs learned how to win in 2015. It didn’t necessarily start out on pace to a 97-win season. The Cubs learned out how to win as a young team matured and began to believe in its ability. 

97 wins later, and carried single-handedly by Jake Arrieta‘s historic second-half, the Cubs’ faithful had reason to be excited. As disappointing as it was seeing the season end earlier than originally hoped for that cool, crisp night October 21st, the party never really stopped.

A sudden stop in the NLCS was as fast and swif t a move by the Cubs than could have been hoped for. Epstein, General Manager Jed Hoyer and Co., put their vision to fruition and this was only the beginning.

The Cubs came back stronger in 2016. The NL Central was never close, as the Cubs finished 17.5 games ahead of the Cards. Stocked with MVP and Cy Young candidates, Chicago boasted one of the best lineups all season, and historically, with their +252 run differential. The Boston Red Sox, who scored a league-high 878 runs, were second at +184.

The Cubs allowed the fewest runs in the majors (556) and the defense also came up historically huge.

Throughout the season the Cubs played to quite the opposite of their Lovable Losers stigma, playing more like the ’98 Yankees early on. Jumping out to a 25-6 mark, the season was playing out just as fans could hope. Even a swoon before the All-Star break was but a mere blip, as Chicago picked right back up with their winning ways beginning with the second-half.

The Cubs accomplished everything a team could hope to check off: Division, home-field advantage, 100+ wins, which was a personal goal for Maddon, and a first for him as a big league manager. 2016 wasn’t just a case of a good team winning the division. It was a great team demolishing the rest of the league.

This is World Series or Bust.

October 4th, 2016

It’s hard to be anything other than excited. But everyone knows what’s at stake. The team knows it. Lester recently alluded to the fact that regular season success means nothing without the ring. It’s true.

Last season was gravy. This season was expected.

But unlike previous iterations, these Cubs are built to last. It also helps knowing the guy who broke the curse in 2004 — Epstein — with the Sox is responsible for the makeup of the current 2016, and beyond, Cubs.

Sure. Until it happens, there will always be the bit of creeping doubt in the back of your mind, but the excitement outweighs everything else. I couldn’t be more confident in the lineup, or the rotation heading into the year’s most pivotal games. The team is healthy, and everyone has largely been firing on all cylinders the duration of the season.

I don’t consider myself all that caught up with jinxes and superstitions. But I believe enough in the baseball gods.  I won’t call it a no-hitter when one is unfolding before our eyes. I do believe a team is ‘due’ for a good or bad streak. While many might get caught up in a fun 8-game winning streak, I find part of myself is sitting there waiting for the inevitable shoe to drop because it will. But then we can get past it and start another fun streak.

The min bit of superstitiousness for me in 2016 has been refraining from glaring anything a ‘sure thing.’

I didn’t take anything for granted during this 2016 Cubs onslaught. Though it might have come off as taunting and teasing to text my Cardinals friend Eric to say something along the lines of “this is a big game, Cubs need this,” when referring to an otherwise meaningless game against the Cards up more than 10 in the division, I was merely acknowledging, at least to myself, that nothing is clinched, anything is possible, 1969 was possible.

Stay hungry, don’t get content

I knew deep down the Cubs had the division. But getting cocky sure wouldn’t help anything. That’s the other thing; while I feel this way, other fans are more blatant with their assuredness that only glory is headed the Cubs way. So much so, that they get it in ink. 

This could be it. As much as I am ready to declare this the best shot this team has had in years–better than 2008, 2003 and probably 1969–saying anything with a guaranteed certainty just seems like a convinent way to invite that other shoe to drop.

As if I have any real impact on any outcome. But that’s just the mentality after learning, and then witnessing the heartbreak. Cubdom.

I’m not rooting for the Mets or Giants in their wild card showdown. I didn’t root for the Cardinals when they were still contending for the wild card. Eric texted me on the last day of the season, “Do you want the Cards to make it in?” to which I replied, “Not rooting for it because they can be dangerous.” And I firmly believed that. 

The Cubs won the season series over the Cardinals 10-9. Chicago was 40-16 against the rest of the division. What better ammo for a team in St. Louis, a division rival, that had long been the big brother picking on the little brother that just wants to hang with cool crowd, than crashing the party and knocking them out. 

I know the Mets and Giants are both capable teams. It’s as if acknowledging these facts make it feel like I’m respecting my opponent enough that maybe the baseball gods really will be on our side. Just as much as I’m aware, while trying not to be wary, of the Cubs’ futile past, the Mets are defending league champions; the Giants are perfect the last three even-numbered years. Just as much as that proverbial shoe has always dropped on the Cubs, that luck, or whatever you want to call it, has been on the Giants’ side as of late.

Even though my words have no ill-effects on what may, or may not happen, just as my confidence is boosted by 103 wins and a demolition of the rest of the National League, the Cubs real season starts now. Of course all the regular season success feels good, and adds to the confidence. But we all know something much larger is at stake.

The target on the Cubs couldn’t get much larger. Most teams, on a year-to-year basis, are chasing the trophy. Only the 2004 Red Sox can really relate to what’s going through the minds of Cubs’ fans and players alike, as they not only chase the trophy, but try to forever shed the Lovable Losers tag once and for all.

Last season, fate rested on the sudden surge of newfound ace Jake Arrieta. He had defied so much to become not just a Cy Young candidate, but had joined the record-books with his sub-1 second half ERA. He was superhuman.

As confident as I was with Arrieta on the mound in a must-win game, I feel even more confident now in a best-of-five against whoever comes out of Wednesday’s matchup. But don’t expect me to get too far ahead of myself, as I’ve been here before. 

It’s funny; I don’t put much stock in analysis from the media, or get too carried away with predictions sure to go wrong, almost avoiding the media as if I’m a player, or part of the team myself.

Staying true to myself as a fan, while blocking out negative energy. 

Hey, it’s worked so far.