The Chicago Cubs

Now that the World Series is under way, I will write about my favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. They are not playing in this year’s World Series, but only two years ago they won the World Series, ending the longest championship drought of any professional sport.

Around Christmas of 2016 I told my father that I hoped the Cubs would take after the (basketball) Chicago Bulls of the 90s who won six championships in the span of eight years. I hoped that they would not take after the (football) Chicago Bears of the 80s who assembled a talented team but only won one Super Bowl. I regret to say that, over the last two seasons, the Cubs have resembled the Bears more than the Bulls.

This year the Cubs won ninety-five games. That tied them for most wins in the National League, which is a good thing. They were tied with the Milwaukee Brewers, who—like the Cubs—play in the Central Division of the National League. Because they were tied, the teams had to play each other in one game to determine who would represent the Central Division in the playoffs. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies, both in the West Division, also finished the season with the same number of wins and also played one game to name the division champion. This is the first time that two extra games have been added to the schedule at the last minute to determine the championship of two divisions.

Because the Cubs won more than half the games they played against the Brewers this year, the tie-breaking game was played in Chicago. The Cubs lost that game 3-1. The Rockies also lost on the same day. This led to the Cubs and Rockies playing a game to determine the Wild Card team. Because the Cubs had the better record, that game also was in Chicago. The Cubs lost again, this time 2-1.

It is possible to win a baseball game 1-0. In fact, it happens quite often. Usually, though, when a team scores only one run, they lose the game. When Chicago’s offense fails in the two most important games of the year, fans like me worry. Granted, they were one of the best teams all year long. Granted, they have been in the playoffs the last four years, making it to the pennant-deciding games three of those years. And granted, they have recently won a championship in memorable style. But champions cannot rest on their laurels.* Their fans expect them to succeed every year.

The Cubs have assembled a team with awesome talent. This season they had to contend with injuries and other distractions. They still did very well. But only one team can be a champion. Cubs fans waited 108 years to see the Cubs win a World Series. (They won the World Series in 1907 and again in 1908.) They do not want to wait another century for another championship.

A meme was posted on Facebook by a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. It depicted a “participation trophy” for the 2018 Cubs in the postseason. That was clever. It was also painful to see.

The bright spot is that the Cubs were beaten by the Colorado Rockies. There are ten teams in the National League East and West divisions, and now eight of them have blocked the Cubs from advancing in the playoffs. Aside from the Dodgers, who took the pennant from the Cubs in 2017, no National League team has stopped the Cubs in the playoffs more than once. Every time the Cubs faced a team in the playoffs more than once, the Cubs won the second time. (On the other hand, every East or West Division team that met the Cubs in the playoffs for the first time beat the Cubs—until 2017, when the Washington Nationals broke the pattern by losing to the Cubs.) So, according to that pattern, only Philadelphia stands in the way of a Cubs Championship in 2019.

Cubs fans have suffered from the slogan “Wait til next year” for most of our lives. The great players wearing Cubs uniforms today owe it to their fans to do more than participate. They are paid to be champions, and champions they will be.

 

*The expression “rest on your laurels” comes from the ancient Greek Olympic games. In the ancient world, winners were not given gold medals. They were given laurel crowns—C-shaped ornaments worn on the head, woven from branches taken from a laurel tree. Julius Caesar wore a laurel crown. So does the cartoon Little Caesar of the pizza chain. Laurel crowns dry up quickly. They become brittle and fall apart. Therefore, athletes need to go out and win new crowns. They cannot rest on their laurels. J.

Cubs win!

The Chicago Cubs clinched their division by defeating the St. Louis Cardinals last night. Since the expansion of the major league baseball playoffs, few teams have managed to return to the playoffs the year after winning the championship. The San Francisco Giants managed a dynasty of sorts, winning three championships in five years (all even-numbered years). The New York Yankees are the last team to win consecutive championships, doing so in 1998, 1999, and 2000.

I have been a Cubs fan since childhood. We Cubs fans were known for our faithful endurance, supporting a team that had not won a championship since the Theodore Roosevelt administration, a team that had not even won a pennant since the year World War II ended. The victories of 2016 were deeply satisfying, as the Cubs dominated the opposition all season, winning more than one hundred games, and then proceeded to bring home the National League pennant. The World Series was hard-fought, memorable for all baseball fans. The championship was not decided until the seventh game of the series, and that game lasted ten innings, including a brief rain delay.

The Cubs’ first opponent in the playoffs next month will be the Washington Nationals. Although the Nationals have never won a playoff series, I am concerned about the Cubs’ chances due to an odd pattern in their post-season history. From the year teams had to win a playoff series to gain the league pennant until the Cubs’ championship of 2016, they were in the playoffs seven times. In 1984 they came close to defeating the San Diego Padres for the pennant, but the Padres managed to win the series over the Cubs. In 1989 the Cubs returned to the playoffs, only to be defeated by the San Francisco Giants. In 1998 the Cubs and Giants were tied for the wildcard position and played a one-game extra game, which the Cubs won. However, afterward they were beaten by the Atlanta Braves. Do you see the pattern yet? Each time the Cubs were knocked out of the playoffs, they were beaten by a different team.

In 2003 the Cubs returned to the playoffs. They met the Braves again and won the series; afterward they had to face the Florida Marlins. The Cubs were within five outs of winning game six and the pennant when the team seemed to fall apart, yielding eight runs, the game, and (the next night) the series. In 2007 the Cubs were beaten three straight games by the Arizona Diamondbacks; in 2008, they were beaten three straight by the Los Angeles Dodgers. The pattern continued.

The Cubs were sold to a new owner, who brought in new management. The new management rebuilt the Cubs from the ground up. In 2015, they surged into contention, earning one of two wildcard spots in the National League. They defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates in the one-game wildcard playoff game, and then won a series against the Cardinals, demonstrating that they could not be stopped in the playoffs by a team in their own division. But when they played the New York Mets, the Cubs were swept in four straight games.

Seven different teams have stopped them in the playoffs: the Padres, Giants, Braves, Marlins, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, and Mets. Three teams remain to be challenged: the Nationals, Colorado Rockies, and Philadelphia Phillies. In 2016, the Cubs were privileged to face the Giants and the Dodgers, teams that had stopped them before. But now they have to break their pattern completely by beating a team that has not threatened them in the playoffs to date.

On the other hand, the Cubs have a pattern of winning championships two years in a row—they did so in 1907 and 1908. J.

World Series memories part three

The Chicago Cubs won their last World Series 108 days ago.

If you follow baseball even with mild interest, you will remember last season when baseball announcers were obliged to mention, every fifteen to twenty minutes during every game, that the Cubs had not won a World Series in 108 years. Their last championship was in 1908, setting a record of futility for professional American sports teams that may never be broken. Their last National League pennant and World Series games happened in 1945. Most Cub fans had never seen a World Series game played in Wrigley Field. Year after year, faithful fans supported the team skeptics called “the Lovable Losers.” In some ways, it was more painful to come close in 1969, 1984, and 2003 than it was to accept another losing season and move on to football in the fall.

The climb to a championship began when the Chicago Tribune Company sold the Cubs to Tom Ricketts. Ricketts then hired Theo Epstein to oversee the rebuilding of the Cubs. Epstein concentrated on acquiring young talent. The team in Chicago fared badly at first, while the future Cubs worked their way through the minor leagues. Then, one by one, they began appearing in Chicago. The new leadership traded experienced Cubs for prospects and projects. Epstein brought in manager Joe Maddon. He also signed expensive free agents John Lester and Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward. By 2016 the magic was ready to happen.

The Cubs had won the National League wild card in 2015, beating the Pittsburgh Pirates in a one-game play-off and then defeating the St. Louis Cardinals before being swept by the New York Mets. The four embarrassing losses to the Mets may have been one of the best things to happen to the Cubs; they energized them for the next season.

The Cubs roared off to a great start in April and never looked back. More than half their starting lineup was voted onto the All-Star team. The Cubs’ only slump in the season came just before the All-Star break, but they were stronger than ever after that. They coasted through September, using extra pitchers to keep their starters from tiring. Then they met the San Francisco Giants in the playoffs. Giants fans thought that their team should be favored—they had won championships in 2010, 2012, and 2014, so it seemed that it was their turn again. The Cubs denied that destiny. Then they moved on to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers won two of the first three games against the Cubs, causing the Cubs batters to saw at the air chasing pitches the way they had done against the Mets a year earlier. In the fourth game, Zobrist turned the tide by laying down a perfect bunt. Somehow that was the crack in the dam which broke. The Cubs bats awoke, and they easily disposed of the Dodgers.

Their World Series opponent was the Cleveland Indians, who had not won a championship since 1948. The Indians’ manager was Terry Francona, who had managed eight victories in World Series games with the Boston Red Sox without a single loss. The American League had won the All-Star game, giving the Indians a home field advantage. That ended up being an advantage for the Cubs. Their young power hitter, Kyle Schwarber, had been injured on the third game of the season. He missed the rest of the season and the first two rounds of playoffs due to surgery and recovery. Now doctors said he was fit to bat and run the bases; he just could not play a defensive position. American League ballparks allow one batter (called a designated hitter) to bat but not play a position, relieving pitchers of the obligation to bat. Schwarber was that designated hitter four times for the Cubs, helping lead the team to victory.

Even so, the Indians won three of the first four games against the Cubs. They needed only one more victory to become champions; the Cubs needed to win the next three games. Once again, pitchers for the opposition had been fooling the Cubs’ batters, inducing them to swing wildly at bad pitches. But the Cubs had some good pitchers of their own. Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta held the Indians’ offense in check while the Cubs recovered their ability to score runs. The fifth game was a 3-2 nailbiter, but in the sixth game the Cubs broke out early and maintained their lead for the victory. Admittedly, Maddon overused his ace reliever, Aroldis Chapman, a pitcher who regularly throws the ball more than one hundred miles an hour. Chapman prefers to pitch just one inning (usually the ninth), but Maddon  brought him in earlier, which would have dramatic consequences in game seven.

Once again the Cubs broke out with an early lead, and all over the world Cub fans prepared to celebrate. Kyle Hendricks was pitching a gem of a game, but Maddon replaced him in the fifth inning to bring in Jon Lester along with catcher David Ross, who planned to retire at the end of the season. After Lester, Maddon brought in Chapman, and the Indians fought back. Chapman surrendered a game-tying home run in the bottom of the eighth inning, horrifying Cubs fans everywhere. (It was in the eighth inning in 2003 that the Cubs lost a big lead in a key game due to a freak circumstance which does not deserve to be mentioned.) Neither team scored in the ninth, bringing the game to extra innings.

Rain delayed the game, and Jason Heyward called a meeting in the weight room by the visitors’ locker room. There he reminded his teammates that they were talented, that they had won games all year, and that they were capable of winning this game. A string of hits in the top of the tenth inning gave the Cubs a two run lead. They gave up one run in the bottom of the inning, leading Maddon to change pitchers one last time. Mike Montgomery threw two pitches. The second pitch was grounded to third base, where Kris Bryant, wearing a huge grin, captured the ball and threw it to first base. Anthony Rizzo caught the ball, raised his fists into the air in victory, and slipped the ball into his pocket.

One hundred eight days later, the joy has scarcely diminished. The players are gathering for spring training, preparing to battle toward a second championship. Chicago sports fans have high hopes, but also long memories. In the 1980s the Chicago Bears assembled a talented team of great personality who had a marvelous season in 1985, ending with the Bears’ first Superbowl victory. The team should have been a dynasty, but they failed to return to the Superbowl. On the other hand, in the 1990s the Chicago Bulls also assembled a talented team of great personality, centered around Michael Jordan. His team won six championships in eight seasons. Cubs fans hope that the current Cubs will imitate the Bulls and not the Bears. Either way, the names will remain engraved forever in our memories. Bryant, Russell, Baez, Rizzo, Contreras, Schwarber, Fowler, Heyward, Zobrist, Arrieta, Lester, Hendricks, Lackey, Chapman, Montgomery, Edwards, Almora, Montero, and Ross: most of them are young as well as talented. Chapman and Fowler have moved on to other teams and Ross has retired, but the rest of them are back and ready to play again. On behalf of Cubs fans everywhere: Go Cubs, Go! Bring home another trophy! J.

Pennant? Yes. Championship? Probably not.

I’m sure every American has heard these numbers repeatedly, for what seems like thousands of times: until this month the Chicago Cubs have not won the National League pennant since 1945—that is 71 years—and they have not won the championship in the World Series since 1908—that is 108 years. No other professional sports team in the United States has existed for one hundred years or more without winning a championship. Those teams that have never won a championship have existed for only a few decades or less.

I am a Cubs fan. I have been watching every game they played in the play-offs this month, although I had to join some games late because of classes I teach. I have been wearing blue every day this month. The Cubs and baseball have been on my mind day and night, yet I have not written a word about them to anyone—not on this blog, not on Facebook, not even in an email to family or friends. Why this silence? I have not written about the Cubs because of a personal superstition.

I am not normally a superstitious person. I share my house with a black cat and we cross paths often. I treat Friday the 13th like any other Friday. Yet as a baseball fan, I do follow certain superstitions, and one of those involves the fact that, whenever I write something about the Cubs, they immediately begin losing.

Now superstitions are the scientific method gone wrong. The scientific method is observation, interpretation, and testing the interpretation with predictions. Biologists and chemists and sociologists all use this method to learn about what they are studying. Why did something happen? Can we observe it happening, interpret its cause, and make predictions based on that interpretation? If the predictions come to be, we believe that our interpretation is valid. Every superstition involves some sense of cause and effect that is mistaken. Superstitious people do certain things expecting certain results, but other observers can see no connection between the actions and the results.

Not every tradition or custom is a superstition. When driving on the highway, I always look over my shoulder before changing lanes. A person who knew nothing about traffic might call that action a superstition, but I know that looking over my shoulder reduces the chance that my car will collide with another car.

Baseball superstitions are based on observations that appear to be cause and effect. Two friends are attending a game and their favored team is losing. Late in the game they exchange seats, and their team pulls ahead and wins the game. If this happens a second time, they will probably exchange seats every time they are at a game and their team is losing.

It is considered bad luck to mention that the pitcher is pitching a no-hitter. Many announcers scorn this superstition because they believe that they have a duty to keep their audience informed. Many fans groan when an announcer mentions the no-hitter, because often the other team gets a hit right after the no-hitter is mentioned. My father says it is bad luck for a pitcher to strike out the first hitter of the game. I have heard no one else mention this superstition, but I have observed that the prediction came true twice this month for the Cubs—both times the pitcher for the Cubs struck out the first batter of the game, the Cubs lost that game.

Whenever I write about the Cubs, they begin losing. Therefore, I have not written about the Cubs all this year. They won 103 games, which is a very good record for the regular season. They beat the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers to earn the National League pennant. Now they are in the World Series against the Cleveland Indians. But the Indians have won three of the four games played so far; to win the championship, the Cubs need to win three more games. If they lose just one more game, the World Series is over and the Indians have won.

A sage has said, “It’s bad luck to be superstitious.” Like fans who exchange seats to try to reverse the luck of their team, I’ve tried to reverse the Cubs fortune. If I fly a Cubs flag and they win, I fly it again for the next game; but if they lose, I put it away. If they lose while the flag is away, I fly it again for the next game.

Researchers say that sports superstitions serve a purpose: they allow fans to feel as though they take part in the teams’ successes. Superstitions allow fans to say “we won!” instead of “they won!” after a game. Obviously, the reverse is true: when a team loses, the team’s fans might blame themselves. This is why it is also healthy for fans to remind themselves, “It’s only a game.” Fans root for their team, they celebrate the wins, and life goes on in spite of the losses.

My name is Salvageable, and I am a Cubs fan. J.