Editor’s Note: Mike Downey is a former Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune columnist and a frequent contributor to CNN. The views expressed in this commentary are his.
Mike Downey: Praying for the Chicago Cubs to win World Series is fine. Counting on the Cubs to win is insane
Mockery, sympathy, love, loyalty, sarcasm, masochism ... the Chicago Cubs have had it all, he says
“Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie” (1996): A real science-fiction film, but with fake dialogue dubbed over it. A jet is shown in the sky. The city of Chicago is seen down below. “I can see the Cubs lose from here,” says the pilot.
Mockery, sympathy, love, loyalty, sarcasm, masochism … the Chicago Cubs have had it all. What they have NOT had is a championship of Major League Baseball for 108 years.
October 14, 1908. Arizona and New Mexico were not states yet. The Titanic hadn’t sunk yet. Women weren’t permitted to vote yet. Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon hadn’t been born. And Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill, Florence Nightingale, Claude Monet, Leo Tolstoy and the Wright Brothers were all still living the last time the Chicago Cubs won a championship.
This is why “is this the year?” is what a great many greatly amused Americans are asking us – and “this IS the year!” is what a lot of uncommonly confident Chicagoans are assuring us – as playoff play gets under way Friday at ancient temple of doom Wrigley Field against the San Francisco Giants. The Cubs are considered by many to be the favorites – yes, the favorites – to win the 2016 World Series!!! Woo hoo!!!
No, really. No fooling.
I know, calling the Cubs the team to beat is like calling cauliflower the food to eat. It is a phrase you just don’t hear. The Chicago Cubs are the chimpanzees of baseball’s zoo – cute, popular, always a delight to see. They just don’t inspire any awe or fear the way the lions and tigers do. You never think of the Cubs in terms of menace and prowess, circling their prey. You think of the Cubs as sacrificial lambs. They play on the same fields, but they’re pretty much there just to get shorn and devoured.
You can go on websites and see all the Cub-kidding merchandise that’s sold. T-shirts with funny sayings like: “Fool Me Once, Shame on You – Fool Me 100-Plus Times, Shame on Me” or “What Did Jesus Say to the Cubs? ‘Don’t Do Anything Till I Get Back!’” I still own one with my personal favorite motto on it: “Any Team Can Have a Bad Century.”
Ah, but 2016 could be the anomaly, the asterisk, the asteroid headed Earth’s way. The chimp suddenly appears to be a 500-pound gorilla. The lamb looks hungry and mean. If ever the Cubs did seem to be the team … well, let’s just say these guys look pretty darned promising and leave it at that, shall we?
They won 103 games. That’s the most any Cub team has won in one season since 1910.
They have a wise old manager, 62-year-old Joe Maddon, a man who goes to work in goofy T-shirts of his own. “Try Not to Suck” is the slogan on one.
They have a bright team president, Theo Epstein, who was a prodigy of 30 back in 2004 when as general manager of the Boston Red Sox he helped that similarly disorganized organization win a World Series for the first time in 86 years.
They have a lineup of fine hitters, led by Dexter Fowler, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, not necessarily in that order, and a staff of sharp pitchers, led by Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta, who will begin the National League Division Series in that order.
It could all go wrong, of course.
(a) The Giants are good. They impressively eliminated the New York Mets in a one-game wild-card showdown Wednesday night behind Madison “Mad Bum” Bumgarner, who has one of baseball’s most awesome reputations and nicknames.
(b) If the Giants don’t beat them, maybe the Los Angeles Dodgers or Washington Nationals will. One of those teams would be the opponent in the National League Championship Series.
(c) If that doesn’t stop them, maybe the Red Sox could, or the Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers or Toronto Blue Jays. One of those teams is going to represent the American League in the World Series.
(d) They’re the Cubs!
See? I saved the worst for last.
Praying for the Cubs to win is fine. Counting on the Cubs to win is insane. I thought they looked like a lock in 2003, needing five more outs to go to the World Series, when lightning struck and they let the Florida Marlins score eight runs in the eighth inning. Bye-bye, Cubbies. I thought their 1984 team was on its way, until the San Diego Padres accepted their unexpected generosity. Bye-bye, Cubbies. I thought their 1969 team was baseball’s best, at least until the previously just-as-inept New York Mets made mincemeat of them. Bye-bye, Cubbies.
You have to go back to 1945 to have witnessed the Chicago Cubs in a World Series, and what can I tell you, my friends, except that I do not personally go back to 1945. I am a fairly old dude, but even I have never seen this phenomenon in person.
Do you know who Don Johnson is?
Bzzzz, wrong! He is not that actor who did “Nash Bridges” and “Miami Vice.” If you are a true-blue fan of the Cubs, you know that Don Johnson is a former infielder who is the last Cub ever to come to bat in a World Series game. (He made the last out of 1945.)
Do you know who Jimmy Sheckard was?
Bet you don’t. He isn’t a household name in any household. Babe Ruth, yes. Jackie Robinson, sure. Jimmy Sheckard? No way. But if you are a true-blue fan of the Cubs, you know that Sheckard was an outfielder who played in FOUR different World Series for them.
I know it’s hard to believe, but the Cubs made it to the World Series four times between 1906-1910. They truly were a good team once – you know, back when Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft were in the White House. Before newfangled inventions like televisions came along.
Where did the Cubs go wrong? Darned if I know. I did the math and added up 35 players who are now in the Hall of Fame and played for the Cubs at one time since their last championship. I mean, from the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance combo immortalized in verse to Rogers Hornsby, Jimmie Foxx and Grover Cleveland Alexander of old, to Ernie Banks, Lou Brock and Bruce Sutter of later, all wore the baby bear on their sleeves for a week or a year or a career.
Do the Cubs not know how to win?
Of course they do. By baseball’s calculations, the Cubs have won 10,711 games in their history, dating back to the 19th century.
Do the Cubs have a curse so they can’t ever win?
Of course they don’t. This is a part of the legend and lore and absurdity of the Cubs that a lot of us would like to get rid of, once and for all. Funny once upon a time, the nonsense about mysterious forces has become insipid beyond belief. It is as lame as lame can be, yet somebody somewhere will haul it all out this week or next, oh that “goat” that jinxed the Cubs, ha ha ha, oh that fan who interfered with the ball, blah blah blah.
This is why the Cubs must win and win soon! We must put a permanent end to this nincompoopery, so please, pretty please, let 2016 be the last of it.
WILL the Cubs win?
It really is quite a quandary, isn’t it? What makes them special, what makes the Cubs the Cubs, could be lost forever if they do. It would be Charlie Brown finally kicking the football. What makes the Cubs popular isn’t necessarily being a winner.
On that fateful day in 1908 when they last became champions, do you know how many spectators were in the grandstand in Detroit to see the game? A grand total of 6,210. So it isn’t like Chicagoans turned up there in droves.
I decline to declare this the Cubs’ year. I refuse to even believe this will be the Cubs’ century. I am not getting any younger, though, nor is Planet Earth, just in case they care to boldly go where no Cub team in this lifetime has gone before.