“We’ll Always Have Last Year” and the Curse of Low Expectations

Has recent success lulled Cubs fans into an unnecessary sense of ambivalence?

A 2017 Cubs fan

The stages of grieving for the 2017 Cubs season began even before the final out had been recorded in Game 3.

It’s perfectly understandable. Years in the crucible of Cubs fandom leads you to guard your heart a little more than a Yankees fan might. Their century-long winning pedigree makes coming back from a 2–0 series deficit seem plausible. For the Cubs, it would have to be a magic trick. It’s lightning that strikes once a century. We don’t expect it because we won’t allow ourselves to be hurt again so soon after our 108-year-old wound healed.

So when your manager makes the hare-brained move of going with a proven-to-be-unreliable relief pitcher when the bases are loaded — and he faces the opposing pitcher and proceeds to walk in a run — most Cubs fans are wise enough to see the writing on the wall and begin the grieving process.

Although after the glory of the 2016 season, the grieving process for Cubs fans has drastically changed. Now it looks an awful lot like ambivalence. Throughout this playoff run, I have been guilty of thinking the following thoughts:

“Hey, whatever happens, we’re lucky to be seeing a Cubs team that made the playoffs three years in a row!”

“I guess the Nationals are just the better team.”

“Even if we lose, we still won a World Series in my lifetime. I was lucky to be alive to see it!”

“I guess the Dodgers are just the better team.”

Don’t deny it just because the Cubs managed to win Game 4 — you had the same thoughts. And while all of the above statements could technically be true, you have to look deeper. Sometimes what you think is a foul tip is actually a strike out.

So let’s look at the genesis of this line of thinking. First off, there’s nothing wrong with gratitude for being alive to see the Cubs do the seemingly impossible. Honestly, I will never feel justified in being angry about the Cubs ever again. We all have Cubs fan friends and relatives who lived and died without the team even coming close. But this Cubs team is not a flash in the pan, so why are we thinking like that? Why are our expectations still so low? What hath success wrought? Most members of this Cubs lineup are still brushing confetti out of their hair from last year’s victory parade. Forget complacent reminiscing about 2016. Sustained success should be the new goal — especially when the Cubs are in the midst of a command performance with a repeat appearance in the playoffs. This is what we all dreamed about when the season began. We were an unstoppable force that showed no signs of slowing down.

Reality came crashing in after a bad first half of play, but hope returned when the dog days of summer brought the squad back to life. The team’s feast or famine offensive inconsistency was troubling, and the bullpen was sometimes shaky, but there seemed to be no intrinsic reason why the Cubs couldn’t make another heroic playoff push.

Unfortunately, the playoffs caught the Cubs during an epic famine that extended down to nearly everyone on the roster, at levels that were unprecedented even in the worst moments of the regular season. The bullpen, which has thankfully improved in recent games, was the straw that broke the camel’s back for a team that forgot how to score runs.

via Chicago Cubs Memes

So we were down 3–0 in the series and back to the mental grief that has surrounded our psyches for 108 years: Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. All is lost. We were lucky to be alive in 2016.

But when you’ve reached the land of milk and honey, that just means that you finally know how to get there — not that you need to accept a fleeting taste and never return.

This Cubs team was intentionally and painstakingly built to win. We endured the slog of burning the organization to the ground so that a phoenix could rise from the ashes and lead us into an era of domination. “Era” implies more than one year. They started winning ahead of schedule in 2015, they won it all in 2016, and they are poised to continue winning. We should be expecting victory.

It’s been almost a year since “last year,” and Cubs fans need to stop obsessing over it the way we used to obsess over “next year.” We need to adopt the mentality of a winning team and allow for the possibility that “this is the year” could apply to every year — at least while we’ve got this stellar squad of players who are achieving unparalleled success in their salad days.

Now we’re down 3–1, and we’ve quite literally been here before. The team needs to rise to the occasion. The fans need to get on their feet. And we all need to lift our expectations.

So…Cubs in 7?

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