THIRTEEN ‘NEXT YEARS’ LATER…
Confession: I am not the biggest baseball fan at Rambling Ever On. I’m not even the biggest Cubs fan at Rambling Ever On. That distinction belongs to Mark Sass. But this is my 15th baseball season as a resident of Chicago and I’ve earned my Cubs stripes. I was outside the stadium with thousands of other people on October 14, 2003 for the “Bartman Game” and I don’t need anyone to tell me that you could feel the air sucked out of the stadium when Moises Alou had a tantrum after missing that foul ball. My friends Chris Wright and Joel Reed were right there with me and while I don’t live with many regrets, one of them is that I didn’t buy a “2003 Cubs World Series” T-shirt they were selling outside the stadium. I would have worn that thing with ironic pride til it disintegrated from the properties that made it a solid. And while I didn’t go back down for Game 7 the next night, I did sit right there on my couch next to Joshua P. Crowe and listen to Thom Brennaman gush over Josh Beckett slamming the door on the Cubs first chance at a World Series in 58 years. To this day, if Josh and I want to annoy each other all we have to do is say HOW BOUT BECKETT in Brennaman’s obnoxious voice.
But I was also there in Wrigley Field on June 3, 2003 when Sammy Sosa got caught with a corked bat. And I was there for a random August noon game in 2004 when LaTroy Hawkins1 blew a save to the AAA Cincinnati Reds, who had given up on the season and brought up throngs of minor league players. If you have any sense of baseball and don’t know this already, I beseech you to go find the Cubs lineup and pitching staff for that 04 team. And tell me how that 25-man roster not only failed to make it to the World Series, but didn’t even make it to the playoffs. Only the Cubs. And I was there, again in front of a TV, for all six games the Cubs lost in the 07 and 08 playoffs, getting swept out both times after winning the division, one of them after winning 97 games.
THE BLACKHAWKS JUST DON’T DO IT FOR ME…
Anyway, I say all that to say that I’ve been through the fire since moving here in 2002. And I know Chicago fairly well by now. I can tell you that this city loves the Bears, Cubs and Bulls – in that order. And then way after that comes the White Sox. And I’ll argue that all day. And I can also tell you that this city is championship starved. People flood the streets for parades with the Blackhawks win because they are so ready to celebrate something, anything. But this isn’t really a hockey town like it is for the Big Three sports2. And other than Jordan, Pippen, et. al, this city has the 85 Bears and one White Sox Championship in the last century. When you look at the sports championship history of Chicago, you can see why Michael Jordan is as significant as he is. And why the members of the 85 Bears still hold power in the media. For the Bears-Bulls-Cubs people, this is what they have.
So while I think a Super Bowl would mean more to Chicago in a vacuum, there is a context to the Cubs that everyone knows and that means that a Cubs championship will mean more to this city than anything. I’ve joked for at least a dozen years that if the Cubs ever win, the people here will pick the city up and throw it in Lake Michigan. The celebration will be that wild, that outrageous. They may well need the National Guard. I’m not even kidding. (In 2003, when the Cubs were on the brink of just making the World Series, I parked my car in the suburbs so it would not get destroyed.) Despite the Cub fans who deep down do not want the team to win so as to never lose the Lovable Loser label (those fans really do exist), Chicago is absolutely ready to spontaneously combust over 108 years of frustration. The current climate is amped like a 6th grader on an energy drink. It reminds me of Nomar Garciappara’s first at bat for the Cubs in 2004. That stadium was ready to violently explode. We were so sure that mid-season acquisition would take us all the way.
Despite the Cub fans who deep down do not want the team to win so as to never lose the Lovable Loser label (those fans really do exist), Chicago is absolutely ready to spontaneously combust over 108 years of frustration.
WE REALLY THINK WE CAN BE THE SEQUEL TO THE 04-13 RED SOX…
So if you have been following the Cubs this off season, you can see how this year more than any other maybe ever feels like something special. I’m not a baseball expert. If you are wanting a breakdown as to why adding Lackey and Heyward to the 2015 success is going to help, you’ll have to look elsewhere. If you want someone to pontificate over the re-signing of Fowler, I’m not your guy. More than baseball, I’m a culture guy. I study people and history and events.
But I will offer this: this year feels a lot like 2004. That year SI had a Cubs WS champ prediction on their cover with “Hell Freezes Over” as headline. This year’s Cubs carry that kind of moxy. But there is one major difference. The 04 Cubs were a collection of great players and since baseball isn’t as dependant upon fluid, on field teamwork as football and basketball, it seemed like putting 4 very good pitchers and a bunch of potential .300/25 HR hitters together would equal the end of the Curse. That obviously didn’t pan out for many reasons. But this year the moves, with Epstein pulling the strings, feel like they are pieces to a puzzle that we need to complete the championship image. The Mets last year exposed gaping holes (our 3rd and 4th starters, contact hitting) that we addressed if want not only to beat them, but to compete with the Royals, who walloped New York about like New York walloped us. So maybe the confidence is more justified this time around.
But I will offer this: this year feels a lot like 2004. That year SI had a Cubs WS champ prediction on their cover with “Hell Freezes Over” as headline. This year’s Cubs carry that kind of moxy.
BUT EVEN THE RED SOX DIDN’T WAIT 108 YEARS…
All I know is that anything less than a championship this year – even a Game 7 World Series loss at the end – is going to be demoralizing. The city cannot handle a “next year” after the result last year and the hype right now. I’m sure many Cub fans think this is an overreaction by me and that the Cubs will be relevant for at least a decade no matter what happens in 2016. But my rejoinder is that this is the Cubs. They utterly collapsed because of one fluke foul ball miss in 2003. They had the deer in the eye look in both playoff embarrassments from nearly a decade ago. They didn’t lead the Mets for a single inning in last year’s NLCS.
That is just in my time in Chicago. It doesn’t even count 1998 or 89 or 84 or 69. And I know this like I know my name is Gowdy: the thought of hearing any “next year” jokes because we didn’t get it done this year has the palpable potential to send the fan base and team into a tailspin. If I’m wrong, I’ll admit it. Gladly. But if not then some of us will be bracing for the next black cat, the next foul ball mishap, the next playoff sweep.
But I think it can happen in 2016. I’ve got my riot gear ready and a nice suburban parking space picked out.