Sisyphus in Blue

Yes, I’m from Chicago.
No, I don’t want the Cubs to win.

I was born in Chicago, the second city — the home of the Blues. Chicago, a city landlocked in a flyover state, and with a chip on it’s shoulder for not being New York, or Los Angeles. It’s a big, bold, bawdy city. One with magnificent structures that punch through the sky; and of industry, agriculture, transportation, art, food, culture, and with weather that can kill the weak and the frail. It’s a city where politics is considered a full-contact sport, and a place that championship hockey, football, and basketball teams call home. It’s a hard-drinking, hard-knuckled town, but one where year after year, people flock to watch a baseball team that hasn’t won a World Series since the Ottoman Empire still existed. In the years since the Chicago Cubs have won a World Series, we’ve fought and won two World Wars, we’ve sent a man to the moon, and rovers to Mars; 19 presidents have come and gone, and the Soviet Union rose and fell.

Looking back at my misspent youth, hanging out in the right field bleachers of Wrigley Field, I don’t think I’d have had it any other way. Each frigid February, when single game tickets went on sale, I would take the day off work and stake out my place in the winding line of hopeful fans waiting beneath the EL tracks. This was my annual ritual. Standing outside in the bitter cold of a Chicago winter’s day, waiting to buy bleacher seats for as many games as I could afford over the coming season, meant more to me than Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, all rolled into one. It was easy to imagine the warmth of the sun beating down on me, and the cool breeze coming off Lake Michigan, as I would once again join the throngs of “bleacher bums,” drunkenly cheering on their favorite team, and mercilessly taunting the opposing outfielders below. Those summer days and nights were glorious and magical, and each spring was filled with the promise that this would be the “next year” we’d all been waiting for. But, as everyone knows, it never was, and it seemed as though it never would be.

The last time the Cubs won a World Series was in 1908, and no one who was there to witness it is still alive to confirm that it actually even happened. Generations of Cubs fans have come and gone without seeing their team in a World Series, much less win one. As the late Steve Goodman pointed out, “the last time the Cubs won a National League pennant was the year we dropped the bomb on Japan.” I wasn’t even alive then —in 1945 — when they last appeared in a World Series. That was when Billy Sianis famously put his curse on the Cubs. After being asked to leave a World Series game against the Detroit Tigers because the odor from his pet goat that he’d brought with him was bothering other fans, he angrily exclaimed, “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more!” Believe what you want about curses, but the Cubs haven’t been back to a World Series ever since.

In 1969, I was alive, but was too young to remember the fabled Cubs’ late season collapse, and the curse of the black cat. Some of the players on that team would later become the first of my baseball heroes; Hall of Famers like Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Fergie Jenkins, and Billy Williams. During that 1969 season, the Cubs had been in sole possession of first place for 155 days, and were considered a cinch for the World Series. But then, in mid-September, they went into a nose dive. After losing four straight games, the Cubs arrived in New York for what would become a crucial two game series against the Mets.

After losing the first game of the series, a black cat ran onto the field during the second game. The cat ran in circles around Cubs’ third baseman, Ron Santo, who was waiting on-deck, and then disappeared, darting beneath the stands. The Cubs went on to lose that second game, and lost 17 of their last 25. After building a 9½ game lead in the standings over the New York Mets, they finished the season in second place, eight games behind them. For the Chicago Cubs, and for their fans, 1969 was a catastrophe of epic proportions, and the birth of a second curse.

It would be another 16 years before the Cubs made it to the playoffs again, which was in 1984, my last year of college. Songs were written about the 1984 Cubs, whose star players included MVP, Ryne Sandberg, and Cy Young Winner, Rick Sutcliffe. In May of that year, the Cubs traded my favorite Cub, Bill Buckner, to the Red Sox. During the televised press conference announcing the trade, Buckner wept, and so did I. Whether it was the Cubs’ hex that followed him to Boston, or if it was the Red Sox own Curse of the Bambino, Buckner’s fatal error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series (made while wearing a Cubs batting glove under his first baseman’s mitt) was blamed for costing the Red Sox the game, and for allowing the New York Mets to ultimately win the Series.

Nevertheless, the ’84 Cubs went on a tear in the second half of the regular season, and they finished with a 96–65 record — winning their division by 6.5 games. After winning the first two games in the best of five, League Championship Series against San Diego, the Cubs lost the next two games, which forced a deciding game 5 for the pennant, and for a trip to the World Series — the first for the Cubs in almost 40 years. The Cubs led San Diego in game 5, by a score of 3–2 in the 7th inning. With Rick Suttcliff, the Cubs’ ace on the mound, it seemed the Cubs were finally going to break their curse. But then, first baseman, Leon Durham, let a routine grounder roll under his glove, and between his legs, which allowed the Padres to tie the game. San Diego went on to win that decisive game 5 — the first National League team ever to do so after losing the first two games in a Championship Series.

The Cubs made it to the postseason again, five years later, in 1989. After winning their division, they lost four games to one in the best of seven, National League Championship Series. The Cubs were simply over-matched by the San Francisco Giants, who would go on to lose the World Series that year to the Oakland A’s — the third game of the series interrupted by the Loma Prieta earthquake. Then, in 1998, two years after I’d left Chicago for San Francisco, and almost ten years after their last appearance in the postseason, the Cubs finished 2nd in their division, beat the Giants in a one-and-done wild card playoff game, and advanced to the National League Division Series. In that best of five game NLDS series, they lost in three straight games against Atlanta.

It wasn’t until 2003, almost 20 years after the ’84 season, that the Cubs looked truly unstoppable once more. That was going to be the year they shook off the ghosts, the year they’d finally break the curses, and the year they would triumphantly return to the World Series. Chicago had won their division — for the first time since 1989 — with a 88–74 record. Their starting rotation, which included Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano, and Matt Clement (each having won at least 13 games), led the National League in strikeouts with over 100 more than any other team. They again faced the Atlanta Braves in the best of five game, Division Championship Series, which would be a seesaw battle, but which Chicago ultimately won three games to two. Next, they’d face the Florida Marlins, an expansion team in just their 10th year of existence, who had won the 1997 World Series, and who’d made it to the Championship series in 2003 by winning a wild card berth, and then defeating the West Division champion San Francisco Giants three games to one.

By Game 6, after the Cubs had won three of the first five games, everyone had become convinced that the time had finally come, that the Cubs were finally going to make it to the World Series for the first time since 1945. Everyone, that is, except the state of Florida, and me. Even with just five outs standing between the Cubs and a historic moment in our national pastime — the Chicago Cubs’ returning to the World Series at last, I knew it wasn’t gonna happen. I didn’t buy it. I’d seen this movie before, and I knew how it would end. My friends all thought I was a cynic, a curmudgeon, a wet blanket. But the truth is, I wasn’t afraid to believe; I just simply knew better. I knew that the wheels would soon come off, and that what I was seeing was a glorious train wreck just waiting to happen. The rest, as they say, is history.

So, here we are, on the cusp of a 2015 National League Championship Series between the Chicago Cubs, and the New York Mets. It’s poetic, really. However, it’s bittersweet too. Ron Santo died five years ago, and Ernie Banks died just this year. How sad to think that, if they’d only lived just a short time longer, perhaps they’d finally get to see their beloved team achieve what they themselves had never been able to. How many other ghosts would be exercised by such an event? How many other curses lifted? I hear there’s even an effort under way to bring Steve Bartman back for the series. Why not Leon Durham? Or, how about Rick Sutcliffe, Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Lee Smith, André Dawson, and Bill Buckner too?

You see, that’s the thing about being a Cubs fan — it’s the longing. It’s the sweet frustration of coming so close, but never quite getting there, followed by the promise that each new spring provides. The team is synonymous with the city for which they are named; a constant need to prove that they are good enough, and living with a chip affixed squarely upon their shoulder. Somehow, it’s more of an inspiration to watch them, Sisyphus-like, pushing their boulder up the mountain, knowing that it will only roll back down again. It is continuing to do battle in the face of certain defeat, that is more powerful than doing so with the hope of possible victory.

So, what if they were to win, what then? Then the Cubs would be transformed into something else entirely, and not necessarily something better. Rather, shed of all that history, rid of all that lore, and having finally made it back to the World Series, they’d ultimately become just another baseball team. No longer would they be those “lovable losers.” No longer would they be so special.

So, do I want the Cubs to win? Of course not. Having lived in San Francisco for the past two decades, I can tell you this; that first World Series is undeniably sweet, but the next one (or two) just ain’t the same. Put another way, while I’ll never forget the first woman I ever slept with, I can’t seem to remember the second. In baseball, just as in life, the journey is more thrilling than the destination, and desire more intoxicating than satisfaction. So, be careful what you wish for Chicago, and be careful what you wish for Cubs fans. Because things will never be the same if the Cubs do finally win, and you may never be the same either.

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