The Curse is Dead, Long Live the Cubs
As a Cubs fan tasked with writing an article about the curse (I will no longer refer to the curse with a capital letter, I refuse to give it that much importance anymore) and the Cubs winning the World Series, I was not sure how to react.
In some respects, I’m writing about something words could do no justice. When my friends, who all knew I was a long tormented Cubs fan, asked me how I felt about the Cubs winning the World Series, I told them “It’s simple, now I can die in peace.” How do you follow that up? Unless I am going to receive total consciousness on my deathbed (credit to Cubs fan Bill Murray as the immortal Carl Spackler), I have been to the mountaintop, and it’s all downhill from here.
That being said, all writing comes down to telling a story, and this is a story that I believe anyone can identify with, whether or not you’re a Cubs fan, or even a baseball fan.
In life, there are things we’ve always wanted, but resigned ourselves to the fact that we will never have them. But then that perfect moment happens. The moment where so many things had to come together that it is nearly impossible to comprehend, and we finally get what we most desire. But that is the end of the story. From a factual standpoint, on November 2, 2016, or November 3, depending on your time zone, The Chicago Cubs defeated the Cleveland Indians 8-7 in game seven of the World Series to win their first World Championship since 1908, or 39,465 days, but who’s counting?
However, this is like saying the United States Olympic hockey team defeated the U.S.S.R. 4-3 on February 22, 1980 or that a movie called Star Wars premiered on May 25, 1977. The facts do not tell the tale. And this tale, although entirely real, begins with a curse.
The Curse is Born
Although every Cubs fan knows the history of the curse, an introduction is necessary for the story, much like the Star Trek reboot felt the need to explain the branch theory of time travel to a sci-fi crowd.
In 1945, the last time the Cubs appeared in the World Series, the owner of Chicago’s Billy Goat Tavern, William Sianis, brought his pet goat to Wrigley Field for game four of the World Series. For those old enough for this to mean anything, the Billy Goat Tavern was the basis for the classic Saturday Night Live “cheeseburger, cheeseburger” sketches (being born in the same year Saturday Night Live premiered, referring to anything about Saturday Night Live as “classic” makes me feel old and decrepit).
To be fair, Mr. Sianis did purchase a ticket for the goat, and the goat was allowed into the ballpark. Although there may be certain cultural differences between 1945 and now, I am guessing a common thread is that no one wants to sit near a goat during a sporting event, especially a World Series game.
As you can imagine, nearby fans complained about the goat’s smell, and probably other things I will leave to your imagination, and Mr. Sianis and his unfortunate goat were asked to leave. Outraged by this display of perceived interspecies discrimination, Mr. Sianis allegedly declared that “them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.” Now I have no idea whether or not Mr. Sianis actually had supernatural abilities, but I would not mess with someone who walks around with a goat in public. Just saying.
The Cubs went on to lose the 1945 World Series, the curse was born, and the Cubs began their 71-year journey through baseball purgatory. Over the years, the curse became known as the curse of the billy goat (again, no more capital letters). To Cubs fans, it was just “the curse” or “the Cubs curse,” probably because “curse of the billy goat” wasn’t very poetic or just had disturbing connotations. But whatever it was called, it had begun.
The Curse Knows No Rationality
In the course of my education and in my job, I have been trained to always think rationally and logically. That being said, when it came to the curse, to borrow from Ernie Hudson in Ghostbusters, “These things are real.” During my years as a Cubs fan, “I have seen shit that’ll turn you white.”
How can you deny the reality of a curse when an actual back cat is involved? You read that right, a black cat. This took place in 1969, and was the most notorious early manifestation of the curse. The 1969 Cubs were the most talented Cubs team in decades, and included future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins, and Ron Santo (due to his terse relationship with the media, Ron Santo was not inducted into the Hall of Fame until after he passed away, but that is a rant for another time).
By August 16 of that season, the Cubs were up nine games on the second place New York Mets. The Cubs collapsed, going 8-17 in their last 25 games and ultimately lost the division by eight games. However, the season effectively ended on September 9, 1969 during a crucial series against the Mets in New York. During the game, while Ron Santo was standing in the on deck circle, a black cat ran onto the field past Ran Santo, turned, stopped, and stared directly into the Cubs dugout at each and every player. After that, it was over. You really cannot make stuff like that up.
After this, the curse morphed into its true form. What was most insidious about the curse was that for the most part, the Cubs were just lousy. But on those rare occasions when the Cubs had a good team, they would find some bizarre or soul-destroying way to blow it. The curse, more than anything else, taught you to accept failure and not even hope for anything better, because it would just be snatched away from you in the cruelest way imaginable.
A Curse or Just a Bad Baseball Team?
Make no mistake; moments of hope were few and far between because for the most part, the Cubs were consistently bad. Cubs fans know all the old jokes (some of which were actually pretty clever) – “How do you know if the Cubs are out of it? It’s Memorial Day,” “What did Jesus say to the Cubs? Don’t do anything until I get back,” or the flyers that said, “To the woman who left her nine children at Wrigley Field, please come pick them up because they are beating the Cubs 5-0 in the seventh inning.” For one season, the Cubs official team slogan was actually “We’re working on it.”
This was a massive part of the problem. Whether this contributed to the curse or was part of it, for years the Cubs were just a bad organization. Medieval scouting, non-existent player development, and a farm system virtually bereft of top-level talent despite repeated high draft picks all did their part to foster the “loveable loser” image, although Cubs fans found nothing lovable about all the losing.
With no reliable pipeline of talent, the Cubs were left to wallow. As far as I can tell, the Cubs’ organizational philosophy for the better part of half a century was basically, “hopefully we have a few guys at the major league level who can play, maybe we get lucky with a few draft picks and they actually develop, we sign some free agents on the cheap to plug the roster holes, and who knows? Maybe we’ll be good once every now and then.” Not exactly what you’d call a compelling vision for sustained success and long term excellence.
And so it went. Years of perpetual mediocrity or downright awfulness occasionally broken up by a Cubs team that came out of nowhere in a given season and was actually competitive. Of course the curse reared its goat head during those infrequent seasons the Cubs had a competitive team to crush the hopes of Cubs fans who actually had the temerity to believe.
The 1984 Cubs: Garvey and Gatorade
The 1984 Cubs team was the first to make the playoffs since the 1945 World Series team (39 years without so much as a playoff appearance sounds pretty cursed to me), and featured heroes of Cubs lore with nicknames like Ryno, the Catcher Who Has No Fear, Zonk, the Sarge, and Big Red.
I remember watching the first two games of the 1984 NLCS at school (this was pre-lights at Wrigley Field), and even though I was just a kid, I knew this was a big deal. Of course, this was followed by the Cubs losing the next three games in San Diego to the Padres and Steve Garvey, someone who lives in Cubs infamy to this day.
It wasn’t just that the Cubs lost a five-game series after being up two games to zero. It was the fact that they actually led each of the next three games before losing, culminating in game five, or the “Gatorade game.”
In the decisive game five, the Cubs were up 3-2 heading into the bottom of the seventh. Before taking the field, someone had spilled Gatorade on first baseman Leon “the Bull” Durham’s (another great nickname) glove, but he took the field with the glove regardless. With one on and one out, Tim Flannery (remember him?) hit a grounder through Durham for an error, and the Padres went on to score four runs in the inning and move on to the World Series.
I was still a kid in 1984, and although the Cubs’ loss in the 1984 NLCS made me sad, it did not have the emotional resonance that events do when you are an adult. In my experience, as you mature you gain a greater insight into your emotions and thoughts, and you can better express and comprehend your feelings. That is why as bad as 1984 was, 2003 was infinitely worse.
Following the 1984 debacle, the Cubs basically went into hibernation until 2003.
Yes, the Cubs went to the playoffs in 1989 and 1998, but the 1989 team lost four games to one to the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS and the 1998 team got swept by the Atlanta Braves in the 1998 NLDS, and you knew deep down once the playoffs started in those years that the Cubs were overmatched.
He Who Shall Not Be Named
In 2003, an out-of-nowhere Cubs team roared into the playoffs. Not only did the Cubs make the playoffs, but they actually looked like a promising young team with a future. Led by a starting rotation featuring growing phenoms Mark Prior (until arm problems destroyed him), Kerry Wood (see Mark Prior), and Carlos Zambrano (until he decided it was his world, and everyone else was just living in it), the Cubs won the NLDS, their first win in a postseason series in 53 years, and stormed into the NLCS against the wild card Florida (not yet Miami) Marlins.
Here are the facts: The Cubs went up three games to one, and lost the next three, including the last two at Wrigley Field (as in 1984, leading at one point in both games). As I said at the beginning, however, this does not begin to tell the tale.
Unless you pay no attention to baseball whatsoever, or have been living in a cave with your eyes shut and your hands over your ears for the last 13 years, you have heard of game six of the 2003 NLCS, or as I call it, “the Game With the Fan Who Shall Not Be Named” (there is no need to bring up his name, he has been vilified worse than Mrs. O’Leary’s cow).
To recap the facts: Up three games to two and looking for their first World Series appearance in 58 years and first potential world championship in 95 years, the Cubs scored once in the bottom of the seventh to take a 3-0 lead on the Marlins. With thousands of people gathering outside Wrigley Field, the Cubs entered the top of the eighth inning with Mark Prior on the mound (if you saw Mark Prior pitch before the injuries ravaged him, he looked the part of the future perennial Cy Young winner) and the impossible dream on the verge of reality.
With one out in the inning (five outs from the World Series), Luis Castillo hit a foul ball down the left field line toward the stands. It looked like left fielder Moises Alou had a chance for the leaping grab, but the Fan Who Shall Not Be Named reached out for the ball and Alou did not make the catch, slapping his hands angrily against the wall.
Whether or not Moises Alou could have made that play has been debated as endlessly as the Zapruder film and whether Han Solo or Greedo should’ve shot first, and there is no need for me to give my personal opinion. No matter what you believe, following that play the Marlins scored eight runs in the inning and won the game 8-3.
Even though there was still a game seven (which the Cubs led 5-3 after four innings), Cubs fans knew it was over. Once again, the curse had announced its presence with authority (Bull Durham reference) and that was it. Game seven was more of a death march than an actual contest, and deep down Cubs fans knew it. This was when I comprehended the true nature of the curse.
By 2003, I was an adult (depending on who you ask), had a steady job in a respectable profession (again, depending on who you ask), and had become part of the adult word where things like curses and superstition are left behind.
If the Cubs didn’t have a chance, they couldn’t get your hopes up.
I watched game six of the 2003 NLCS from start to finish, and I remember thinking after the Cubs took their 3-0 lead in the bottom of the seventh (right after the late great Bernie Mac sang the seventh inning stretch and said “root, root, root for the Champs”) as the game went to a commercial break that I was actually going to see the Cubs go to the World Series.
This was the first time all season that I had allowed myself to truly believe after months of maintaining a careful emotional distance. And that was the thing. After the play involving the Fan Who Shall Not Be Named, you could actually watch the Wrigley crowd and everyone outside wilt. Everyone knew what was coming.
No matter how much you hoped, everyone thought the same thing: Here we go again. And it happened. I realized then what the curse was all about: Don’t even care, because you will just make it worse.
Granted, the years of continuous losing were bad enough, but there was a certain relief involved. If the Cubs were awful from the start, you could let things go early and move on with your life. Even if they started out the season competitive, you figured they’d collapse before too long. You always protected yourself emotionally and refused to get personally invested because you had been burned too many times before.
After game six of the 2003 NLCS, I finally saw the curse for what it was: At the moment you finally let your guard down after years of carefully crafted cynicism (alliteration aside) and said “OK, I’m ready to believe this will actually happen!” That’s when the Cubs would rip your guts out in the most heartbreaking way possible. Not only that, things got worse over the next few years.
Will It Ever Be Our Turn?
In 2004, the Boston Red Sox ended their curse.
In 2005 (and this is the first time I have openly acknowledged this), the Chicago White Sox won the World Series for the first time since 1917.
For Cubs fans, this was especially disheartening. The mutual antagonism between Cubs fans and White Sox fans is well documented. There are only three things Cubs fans and Sox fans agree upon: 1) Anyone who puts ketchup on a hot dog receives a punch in the face; 2) the only things Cubs fans and Sox fans detest more than each other is someone who won’t pick a side; and 3) when baseball season is over, everyone ceases hostilities and complains about the Bears.
For Cubs fans, seeing the White Sox win the World Series and celebrating so soon after the emotional trauma of 2003 was like watching the next-door neighbor, who you never really liked, become a multimillionaire while you’re still struggling to pay the bills. People around you are celebrating while you wallow in misery. Not only that, but in 2004 and 2005, teams with their own tortured histories broke through, so you knew it was possible, but you were just so beaten down you had no reason to think it could happen for you.
And so it continued for the next several years. In 2004, the Cubs had a promising team coming back but fell apart down the stretch and missed the playoffs. Cubs fans almost felt better off for not having to reach the playoffs and then watch the Cubs lose in an improbable and soul-sucking way.
And that, as I said earlier, was the most insidious aspect of the curse – you not only came to accept failure, but it was almost comforting in a sick way. If the Cubs didn’t have a chance, they couldn’t get your hopes up. For the most part, the Cubs also gave you no reason to get your hopes up.
The curse essentially infected the entire organization from top to bottom like a perpetual weight around everyone’s shoulders, and was more than just gut-wrenching individual moments.
From can’t-miss prospects who missed (Gary Scott, Felix Pie, Corey Patterson; anyone remember them?), to free agent signings who went bust (Milton Bradley, George Bell; how have you been?), to established and previously successful managers who vowed to overcome the history and change the culture and then left broken and beaten by the curse (Lou Pinella and Dusty Baker; no smiles when they left), to Hall of Fame players whose careers were forever defined with “but they never won a World Series” (Ryne Sandberg, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins, Ron Santo and others who all deserved better), the curse was an anchor dragging them all down.
And here was another part of the problem. How does a franchise attract top-level free agents with a history like this? It’s like a realtor trying to sell a house where a grisly triple homicide took place – “Don’t worry about the chalk outlines and the blood stains, it’s got really big bedrooms and nice views!” This was the state of the Chicago Cubs.
An Exorcism? Really?
So what did the Cubs organization do over the years to combat the curse? Did they do something crazy like creating a long-term plan and focusing on building on organization with proper staffing and resources in scouting, drafting, and player development?
Of course not, they came up with promotional gimmicks to break the curse. Yeah, that’s the ticket (thank you Jon Lovitz)! Over the years, the Cubs literally blew up the ball from the play involving the Fan Who Shall Not Be Named, brought in a priest to perform an exorcism, and had members of the Sianis family bring a goat to Wrigley Field to lift the curse. Not exactly what you would call inspiring.
You might be asking yourself at this point, “How could anyone put up with this for years? Doesn’t there have to be a limit to how much suffering a person can stand? This is a total bummer, why keep perpetuating the misery?”
This is a legitimate question, and it is really up to each individual who kept the faith to answer for themselves. For me, I told people that being a Cubs fan was the ultimate quixotic quest (although I also said that if I ever had children, I would never allow them to be Cubs fans because that would be tantamount to child abuse) which could never be surrendered, and I also suppose that since I had come so far, what was a few more steps every year?
More importantly, I think deep down every Cubs fan kept a kernel of hope buried under those layers of ingrained cynicism and fatalism. To quote Tim Robbins from Shawshank Redemption, “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
March to Mediocrity
In most stories involving triumph over long-standing adversity, it is always darkest before the dawn, and much soul searching is involved before that triumph occurs. So it was for the Cubs.
After the gut punch in 2003 and the collapse in 2004, the Cubs did make the playoffs in 2007 and 2008 (although like 1989 and 1998, they were completely overmatched and swept in the opening round in both years), but this was not due to some organizational renaissance.
The Tribune Company, which had bought the Cubs from the Wrigley family in 1981, was headed into bankruptcy and told the Cubs management to open up the checkbook to free agents, whatever it took. This is perhaps the most effective (and maybe only) way for a franchise with a lousy history to sign quality free agents – back a dump truck full of money up to their front door.
The thought process behind this was not to reward Cubs fans for their years of patient loyalty, however, but rather that the team would be more valuable in a sale if it was a winner. A real estate magnate named Sam Zell had essentially acquired ownership of the Tribune Company, and in 2009 sold the Cubs to the Ricketts family. That’s right; the Cubs were flipped like an old house.
Enter the Ricketts Family
When the Ricketts family bought the Cubs, they said all the right things. Tom Ricketts, the Cubs Chairman, told the story of how he met his wife at Wrigley Field and that he was committed to do whatever was necessary to bring a world championship to Cubs fans.
Of course, Cubs fans were skeptical. Granted, after almost thirty years of corporate ownership it was liberating to have actual human beings owning the Cubs again, but Cubs fans knew the rampant free agent spending to make the Cubs more marketable for sale would come with a price; namely an overpriced roster filled with aging players on long-term deals, and combined with the perpetual neglect of the farm system and player development aspects of the organization, not much of a future.
Needless to say, the first few years of the Ricketts family’s ownership did not create boundless optimism. In 2009, the Cubs went 83-78; in 2010, the Cubs went 75-87; and in 2011, the Cubs went 71-91 and were as directionless as ever.
And Then Came Theo
And that’s when things changed, although the team’s record would not reflect that fact for several years. On October 21, 2011 the Cubs hired Theo (no need to give his last name, or you can just call him Cursebreaker the Mighty) as President of Baseball Operations and unofficial designated savior.
Maybe this says something about the state of the Cubs at the time, but an executive instantly became the Cubs biggest signing in years, and that spark of hope Cubs fans reluctantly maintained grew a little brighter.
Theo broke a curse with Red Sox, and he had a plan for the Cubs. Granted, it was a plan that would take time, but for the first time in perhaps forever, there actually was a long-term plan.
The plan was simple in concept, but difficult in execution: Build an organization with a consistent set of principles from the ground up, with talented and competent people to reinforce those principles at every level of the organization.
Theo knew this would take years, and he was always upfront about it. And Cubs fans were willing to wait. After all, after a century of failure, what did a few more years matter?
Theo of course started by hiring the best people he could find, and the Ricketts family deserves credit for this.
Rather than being interfering owners who wanted influence in every single decision, they essentially told Theo, “We believe in you and your plan, we will give you the resources to do your thing, and we will stay out of the way.”
Theo then created a binder called “The Cubs Way” which was distributed to everyone in the organization from the minor leagues on up, detailing the organizational philosophy, and then set up the creation of the Cubs’ advanced metrics database called “Ivy” which brought the Cubs into the forefront of analytics.
Theo did make clear all along that the on-field product would lag behind the organizational advancements for several years. Once again, there was a plan and Cubs fans were willing to wait. Turning to the team on the field, Theo inherited an aging, overpriced roster with no organizational depth that was not winning anyway, so the trades began.
You Have to Get Worse to Get Better
The trades were all part of the plan. Trade off the exchangeable parts of a major league roster that had no conceivable chance of winning a world championship for promising players and prospects, and combine those with draft picks to build a roster of cost-controlled players that would form the core of a world championship-level team, and then spend on free agents to fill in the roster gaps when the team was ready to compete.
If you want an example of Theo’s foresight, his first trade for the Cubs on December 23, 2011 netted a member of the 2016 team (Travis Wood). Not all of Theo’s trades were absolute winners (Carlos Zambrano for Chris Volstad really helped no one, but the Cubs took a flyer on a pitcher who had some potential and who didn’t have a penchant for throwing at batters’ heads), but the vast majority were (Andrew Cashner for Anthony Rizzo; Ryan Dempster for Kyle Hendricks and others; Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija for Addison Russell and others; and of course Steve Clevenger and Scott Feldman for Jake Arrieta, Pedro Strop and cash where Theo might as well have worn a ski mask for the way he robbed the Orioles).
On top of that, he built the farm system with first round draft picks Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Schwarber in consecutive years.
Just as Theo said, this would take time. In his first year with the Cubs, 2012, the record was 61-101; in 2013, it was 66-96; and in 2014, it was 73-89. But by then, Cubs fans (and I think involved baseball fans as well) had a sense of what was coming.
In 2014, Javier Baez (the last first round pick of Jim Hendry as Cubs General Manager, give credit where it’s due) and Jorge Soler made their debuts, giving Cubs fans a taste of what the newly rebuilt farm system had to offer (in my fantasy baseball league with keepers, I picked up Kris Bryant in 2014 even though I knew he wouldn’t sniff the majors that year).
At that point, the flicker of hope for Cubs fans grew brighter. I remember telling a friend (you know who you are) who asked what was going on with the Cubs that year to “give it two more years, and the Cubs will be there,” and then he laughed at me. But I could see the light at the end of the tunnel (of course, as a Cubs fan, I was still worried it was an oncoming train).
The Last Piece to the Puzzle
And then came Joe Maddon.
Joe Maddon was always the perfect manager for the Theo-engineered Cubs. He was relaxed enough to develop a team of young players and just crazy enough not to care about the curse.
How Joe Maddon came to the Cubs was one of those random events that led to the perfect moment I talked about earlier.
Rick Renteria, a well-respected bench coach with a promising future, was hired as the Cubs manager for the 2014 season, and he produced a perfectly respectable 73-89 record with a roster that no one expected to compete (the Cubs were still trade deadline sellers at this point).
After the season was over, Theo even said he would be back as manager. And then Joe Maddon (who I firmly believe Theo wanted to hire from day one with the Cubs) became available due to an obscure clause in his contract.
In 2014, Joe Maddon managed the Tampa Bay Rays, and had taken what had previously been considered a joke of a franchise to the World Series, and had one more year left on his contract.
However, when the General Manager of the Rays, Andrew Friedman, left for a position with the Los Angeles Dodgers, it triggered a provision in Joe Maddon’s contract that said he could declare himself a free agent if Andrew Friedman left the team (Joe Maddon did not remember this provision of his contract; his agent had to tell him). Joe Maddon then exercised his contractual rights, Theo met him at his R.V. down in Florida, and the rest is history.
I also believe that Joe Maddon, in addition to his in-game abilities and the wins those generated, also played an instrumental role in convincing Jon Lester and David Ross to sign as free agents for the 2015 Cubs team. These signings were monumental both on the field and for the collectively psyche of Cubs fans. Not only were the Cubs developing into a talent-laden organization, but top-tier free agents would actually sign with the Chicago Cubs! The flicker of hope was now a flame.
The Fire Starts to Burn
In 2015, Jake Arrieta turned into a combination of Cy Young and Christy Mathewson, Kris Bryant (poster boy for service time considerations), Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber made their debuts, and Anthony Rizzo turned into a perennial MVP candidate.
The Cubs went 97-65, made the playoffs, beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Wild Card game, and beat the despicable St. Louis Cardinals (the only thing a Cubs fan hates worse than the White Sox are the Cardinals) for the Cubs’ first-ever playoff series clinching win at Wrigley Field in the NLDS.
Although the Cubs were swept in the NLCS by the New York Mets (I was prepared for this to happen; the Cubs’ young hitters were strikeout-prone and the Mets’ starters were kryptonite to that), Cubs fans were just happy to be there with a young, promising team, and everyone knew that for once, things were only going to improve.
I was in Nashville last December for the 2015 MLB Winter Meetings, and for the most part nothing major happened while I was there. But on the last night we were there, sitting in a bar filled with members of the media, I first heard that the Cubs were going to sign Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward. Social media went into mass hysteria mode.
Suddenly the Cubs didn’t just look competitive, they looked like a potential juggernaut. When Dexter Fowler later turned down a multi-year deal to take a one year contract with the Cubs so he could be there when the curse was broken, you knew something was going on. That flame of hope was turning into a crusade, and the players were in.
Despite all this, I still maintained an emotional distance going into the 2016 season; I had been burned before. I knew it was a long season and the expectations were high, but even through Jake Arrieta’s early season no-hitter, the emergence of Kyle Hendricks into the second coming of Greg Maddux, Anthony Rizzo’s embracing of his role as team leader and all-around bad ass, Addison Russell’s realization of his potential, and Kris Bryant’s development into THE KRIS BRYANT, I tried to remain objective. It is a long season, and things happen. Even after the Cubs traded for Aroldis Chapman, my reaction was “if they win the World Series, it will be worth it, but if not, the Cubs gave up too much.”
Waiting for the Worst
The 2016 Cubs put aside any notion of a late season collapse, finishing with a 103-58 record and clinching the division more than two weeks before the end of the regular season.
But as the playoffs began, the inevitable doubts crept in.
Would the Cubs starting pitching, which had been so excellent during the regular season, maintain it during the playoffs; would the Cubs’ young hitters (who still had strike-out tendencies) perform against quality playoff pitching when individual at-bats are magnified; and most of all, when would the curse show up?
That was my deepest fear: The Cubs would appear on the verge on victory, I would let my guard down and believe, and then something inexplicable and horrible would happen and I would be punished for my foolishness. Whatever happened, however, I was committed to see it through. I decided that throughout the playoffs, I would not think about the next game or the next series, I would only think about the next inning and the next at-bat.
The Road to the Series
For me, each 2016 Cubs playoff series is almost a separate and discrete memory. By the time the World Series started, the NLDS against the Giants seemed like it happened in another lifetime.
I do remember this, however. In each playoff series leading up to the World Series, there were moments where the curse could have reared its billy-goated head, and I thought to myself “this is the opportunity to end it.”
In the NLDS, with the Cubs up two games to one in the series but trailing 5-2 going into the top of the ninth in San Francisco in game four with Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner looming for a potential deciding game five, the Cubs could have folded but instead scored four runs to take the series.
Then in game four of the NLCS, with the Cubs trailing the series two games to one after having their bats completely shut down by Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill (former Cubs draft pick, by the way) and not looking particularly good against Dodgers phenom Julio Urias (future fantasy stud if he ever learns command), Ben Zobrist laid his bunt down for a hit in the top of the fourth, and the Cubs bats woke up and the curse was beaten back again with a four games to two series win.
I suppose I should mention here that baseball, more than any other sport, is all about superstition. As Kevin Costner said in Bull Durham, “If you believe you’re playing well because you’re getting laid, or because you’re not getting laid, or because you wear women’s underwear, then you are.”
During the 2016 playoffs, I had my designated playoffs shirt which I wore during the first Cubs playoff game and every game thereafter (I also did not wash it until the playoffs were over), I missed the first 15 minutes of every Cubs playoff game because I missed the first 15 minutes of the first playoff game, I turned my television’s volume off every time the Cubs were losing in a playoff game, and I had lunch and ordered the exact same things at the same restaurant every Friday during the Cubs’ playoff run to create as much opposing force as I possibly could against the curse.
Before the playoffs started, I swore I would pay whatever a ticket cost if the Cubs made the World Series, but then I realized I couldn’t change anything and disrupt the mojo. Logical? No. Based on anything grounded in reality? Not so much. But when it comes to baseball in general and the Cubs in particular, logic and rationality go right out the window.
This was my state of mind as the Cubs entered the World Series. I still went to work every day and basically participated in life in general, but anyone who knew me also knew that my mind was somewhere else.
The Cubs were in the World Series, which was something I had previously accepted I would never see; but even though it happened, I still kept the emotional walls up. A world championship? Sure, it was now a 50/50 proposition, but the curse was still out there.
After the Cubs went down three games to two (including losing two out of the first three World Series games played at Wrigley Field since 1945) with their offense floundering and the Cleveland Indians’ dynamite bullpen waiting at home, I was prepared for the Indians to win, and the full culmination of the curse. The Cleveland Indians (who last won the World Series in 1948, but at least got there again in 1954, 1995, and 1997) would remove themselves as the Cubs’ last compatriot in long-term championship misery, and would do so at the Cubs’ expense. It was almost too perfect in a horrible way.
Setting Up Game Seven
AND THEN IT HAPPENED. The Cubs took game six with little doubt 9-3 and set up the winner-take-all game seven. As for game seven, some parts I cannot put into words, but I can tell you this. I had a project at work that had to be done the following day and I was working on with several other people. At 7:15 p.m. on the night of game seven (8:00 p.m. start time), I was still in the office working. When I saw the time and realized I still had hours of work left to go, I unleashed a profane rant that I am pretty sure generated its own physical substance and is still hovering somewhere over the Midwest. Thankfully, my two friends who were in the office with me basically told me, “we know how much tonight means to you. Go home, we’ve got this.” I will never be able to properly express my gratitude to these true friends.
The Return of the Curse… But Not
As for the game itself, I am guessing if you have read this far you know how the game turned out. For myself, I freely admit I turned off the game several times when the stress became too much, I smoked many cigarettes, and took a number of shots (I had already warned my colleagues at work that I would be showing up the next day looking like a bum in a suit).
When Rajai Davis (who almost turned into the Cubs’ fans version of Bucky Dent for Red Sox fans) hit his game-tying homer in the bottom of the eighth (really? Rajai Davis, who no one would describe a power threat, hits a game-tying home run? I felt like Mike Myers as Austin Powers – “Who throws a shoe? Honestly!”), I almost expected it. I was still waiting for it, and the curse had arrived in full force.
BUT THEN THE RAIN CAME. I give no opinion as to whether Ron Santo and Ernie Banks lobbied the baseball gods to just be merciful for once and let the Cubs finally have it, but I do know what happened next.
After the rain delay and the Jason Heyward speech (which will someday be the pivotal scene in a movie; just wait), World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (that’s why the Cubs signed him) and Miguel Montero gave the Cubs a two run lead in the top of the tenth, which Mike Montgomery (with no prior career saves) preserved for the win and the world championship. At a quarter to one in the morning (my time), it was finally over. The curse was dead, and the Cubs were world champions. It was finally safe to believe.
The Weight (wait?) of 108 Years is Over
When the Cubs clinched the NLCS against the Dodgers, my feelings were all excitement and I ran a fist-pumping marathon around my place.
When the Cubs won the World Series (I am still getting used to saying that), my feelings were different.
I still cannot entirely describe them, but the closest I can come is unabashed joy, and the feeling of an enormous weight finally being lifted. I ran the gamut of emotions, from delirious happiness at the win to the melancholy of thinking about fellow friends and Cubs fans who passed away and were not around to see this.
I let loose with a few tears of joy (any Cubs fan who denies shedding tears that night is either an unfeeling sociopath or a complete liar), and contemplated my new existence as a Cubs fan, lovable loser no more.
So what does it all mean? Circling back to the beginning, how do you express what it means for the Cubs to break the curse and win the World Series? I believe it has its own indelible and unique signature for everyone, with some shared emotions for all. For me, it means this: Faith is eventually rewarded, the seemingly impossible can be possible, hope is never a bad thing, and most of all, the Chicago Cubs are world champions. And I will never get tired of saying that.