A Living Cubs Fan’s Continuing Lament

We are now in a position to answer a question that was raised in 2016—and was also mentioned frequently before that year. “Are Cubs fans the same kind of people now that their team has won a championship, or did the record of futility make Cubs fans a special breed, apart from other sports fans?”

The Chicago Cubs were one of the first professional baseball teams, and in the early years of baseball they were one of the better teams. They set a record of success in 1906, winning 116 games (more than three-quarters of the games they played), but they lost the World Series to their fellow Chicago team, the White Sox. They went on to win the World Series in 1907 and again in 1908. They would win the National League pennant seven more times over the next thirty-seven years, failing each time to win the World Series. Their drought then would become more spectacular, so that by 1980 Cubs’ fan Steve Goodman could sing woefully, “The Cubs haven’t won the National League pennant since the year we dropped the bomb on Japan.” The year 1969 saw them squander a significant lead at the end of the season, falling behind the New York Mets. Six times they reached the playoffs between 1984 and 2008, each time failing to grasp the pennant. Many years between 1945 and 2008, the Cubs were woefully behind their competitors in the National League, allowing their fans to turn their attention to football by the time August arrived. But to be a sports fan in Chicago was generally unrewarding in those years. Someone like me, born in 1962, could live into the middle of the 1980s glumly aware that Chicago sports teams had not won championships in any of the major sports—baseball, football, basketball, or hockey—in my lifetime.

The Cubs in particular were labeled “Lovable Losers.” Fans filled the ballpark, Wrigley Field, on warm summer afternoons when the Cubs played at home. Some fans grumbled that the owners of the Cubs would not bother to produce a winning team so long as the fans showed up to watch their teams lose. Other matters were also blamed for the Cubs’ lack of success. Some said they were exhausted playing home games in the heat of the day while other teams benefited from playing at night. Some said that the team was cursed—a billygoat named Murphy, denied a ticket to accompany his owner to a World
Series game in 1945, was the legendary source of the curse. Big matters and small matters combined to make Cubs fans feel cheated of the championship their team deserved—especially in the years 1969, 1984, and 2003. But Cubs fans remained faithful to their team, raising questions about what would happen to them should their team ever break their losing pattern and win a World Series.

 The team was purchased by the Ricketts family after the 2009 season. Two years later Theo Epstein was hired away from the Boston Red Sox to be President of the franchise. Epstein rebuilt the team from the ground up, bringing young talent into the minor leagues while gradually reforming the major league club through trades and free agent signings. Joe Madden was hired to manage the Cubs after the 2014 season. In 2015, the Cubs made the playoffs as a Wild Card team, defeating the Pirates and the Cardinals before being swept by the Mets for the pennant. The next year, 2016, was the year that the Cubs changed history, ending their 108-year drought by becoming champions in dramatic fashion, winning the final game of the World Series after midnight on the morning of November 3.

During the Christmas holiday of 2016, my father and I talked about the Cubs. I expressed the hope that their championship team would be like the 1990s Chicago Bulls—who won six championships in an eight-year run—and not like the 1980s Chicago Bears—who won but a single Super Bowl despite the talent and popularity of their roster. Sadly, the Cubs turned out to be like the Bears. They returned to the playoffs at the end of the next three seasons, but they fell short of gaining another National League pennant, let alone winning another championship. Gradually, their stars vanished. Some, like Dexter Fowler, signed with other teams. Others, like Ben Zobrist, retired. Finally, during the summer of 2021, Cubs management traded away the biggest remaining stars—Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javier Baez. Gathering younger and unproven talent in their trades, the Cubs began positioning themselves for possible success in future years, while resigning themselves and their fans to another period of futility reminiscent of the Cubs of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Why did the Cubs fail to repeat their championship success of 2016? Some fans blame manager Joe Maddon. Indeed, some Cubs fans insist that the Cubs succeeded in 2016 in spite of Joe Maddon. He made questionable decisions, particularly in the last three games of the World Series. Maddon overused Aroldis Chapman to preserve the victories in games five and six, exhausting him to the point that he surrendered the tying runs of game seven. Then Maddon removed Kyle Hendricks sooner than he should have in game seven, bringing in Jon Lester and David Ross for sentimental (rather than strategic) reasons. Lester and Ross also allowed runs to score, narrowing the margin of victory before Chapman’s struggles.

Maddon and the coaching staff did not serve the players well in Chicago. Even during the playoff games of their championship season, many of the young batters were distressingly ineffective against opposition pitching. While they showed some ability to adjust to pitchers when seeing them multiple times in the same series, too often Cubs batters misread pitches, swinging at offerings well outside the strike zone, thus wasting multiple at-bats. The same problems continued to plague the same batters in following seasons. Modern batters in general, but particularly those who brought a single trophy to Chicago in recent years, seem more concerned with launch angle and exit velocity than they are with making contact with the baseball and directing it to the part of the field where the fielders are not already standing. The fact that Maddon’s term as manager of the Angels was terminated this summer reinforces the opinion that his leadership was overrated and that he caused more harm than good to the players he was managing.

Other fans suggest that the Cubs’ players lost their competitive edge—their “hunger”—after the dramatic winning season of 2016. Michael Jordan and the Bulls remained hungry (although even Jordan had to take time off in the middle of the championship run). Other teams also are able to maintain success year after year, preserving their desire to succeed even in wake of a championship season. Those teams seem able to replace players and keep on winning without having to tear apart the entire team and rebuild after just one championship.

Some fans believe that it’s just a Chicago thing, or just a Cubs thing. Continuing success is not a tradition in Chicago, at least not in baseball and football. Chicago fans support their teams, win or lose; it appears that, as a result, their teams lose more often than they win. It seems unlikely that many (or perhaps any) of the Cubs from the 2016 championship will maintain sufficient success in their careers to be voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Jon Lester might be a candidate for the Hall, given his earlier successes in Boston as well as his years with the Cubs. Anthony Rizzo could rise to the level of a Hall of Fame player if he has a few good seasons with the Yankees. Otherwise, the players that Cubs fans learned to love in recent years now past will likely be treated as merely average players, or some of them slightly better than average. Meanwhile, regarding the current team, Cubs fans wait to see whether they are pouring a foundation for future success or merely digging another hole in which to bury the hopes of their faithful followers.

Which brings me back to my original question: is it the same, cheering for a Cubs team that has one championship in its recent history, or has the glamor of supporting “Lovable Losers” been dispelled by that one good year? Are life-long supporters of the Chicago Cubs worthy of respect from the fans of more fortunate and successful teams, or are we no different from the fans of any other struggling team? I do not yet know the answers to those questions. J.

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