(Editor’s note: This column was printed before the Cubs’ 5–2 loss to the New York Mets in game 3 of the National League Championship Series. By the time you read this column the Cubs may well have been swept.)
Last Wednesday, something happened that has happened only four times in history:
The Chicago Cubs won a baseball playoff series.
The Cubs’ 3-games-to-1 win over the (hated archrival) St. Louis Cardinals moved them into the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets, in pursuit of their first World Series appearance since shortly after World War II ended.
(I’m writing this now because of The Journal’s deadlines. As of press time the Mets had won the first two games of the NLCS, which made them halfway to a World Series trip of their own. If you read this column tonight, it may be out of date and pointless if the Mets sweep the Cubs.)
The Cubs have been in pursuit of a World Series title since their back-to-back wins in 1907 and 1908, both over Detroit. (Their last World Series appearance was also against Detroit, but the Tigers won the 1945 World Series in seven games. Detroit is not in this year’s playoffs.) For perspective: The Cubs hadn’t yet moved to what now is Wrigley Field. My grandmother, who lived to be 98, hadn’t been born yet the last time the Cubs won a World Series. No Cubs’ radio announcer has ever said “The Cubs win the World Series!” because commercial radio hadn’t been invented yet, and the first baseball game wouldn’t be broadcast until 1921. Neither the National Football League nor the National Hockey League nor the National Basketball Association existed the last time the Cubs won a World Series.
My father (who I had to resurrect last week, as you read here) is a much bigger Cubs fan than I am. A high school friend of his had an aunt who lived near Wrigley Field, so he got to see a number of Cubs games. (There may also be some residual bitterness over the Milwaukee Braves moving to Atlanta in 1966.)
Someone once wrote that Cubs fans learn early that life is not fair. There was the epic 1969 collapse, when the Cubs led the National League East by nine games in mid-August, only to lose 17 of their last 25 games and finish eight games behind the equally unlikely Mets. The 1984 Cubs came out of nowhere to win the NL East and won the first two games of the National League Championship Series, only to lose the next three on a poor pitching performance, a ninth-inning Steve Garvey home run and unearned late runs. Even worse was 2003, when the Cubs won a five-game National League Division Series and had a 3-games-to-2 lead over Florida, only to utterly collapse after the Steve Bartman Incident. (Bartman caught a foul ball instead of Cubs left fielder Moises Alou with five outs left before a World Series berth. From that point, the Cubs gave up 17 runs and lost the NLCS.)
One argument for the Cubs’ historic futility has been that the Cubs have made so much money that their previous owners, Tribune Co., had no incentive to spend money on a winning team. Tribune preceded the Wrigley family, under whose ownership the Cubs sank to such depths as having a “College of Coaches” instead of a manager, and the infamous Lou Brock-for-Ernie Broglio trade.
Still, in addition to the entertainment preferable to afternoon soap operas, the Cubs had their merits. Baseball fans must attend at least one game at Wrigley Field just to see the ivy and experience the ambiance of a tiny ballpark more than 100 years old in a charming urban neighborhood. Wrigley Field is either the best pitcher’s park in baseball when the wind is blowing in, or the best hitter’s ballpark in baseball when the wind is blowing out. (One score from a 1979 game: Philadelphia 23, Cubs 22.)
In my high school days I would sit outside our house working on my suntan and reading while listening to Harry Caray broadcast Cubs games on TV, which were in the afternoon because Wrigley Field didn’t have lights until 1988. Caray was quite an experience, singing during games (not just “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”), pronouncing players’ names backward, having more difficulty with diction as the game went on (supposedly due to his drinking during broadcasts, though his TV partner Steve Stone wrote that that was highly exaggerated), and, as a diehard fan would, be exuberant with wins and despondent after losses. After a game-ending double play that bounced off relief pitcher Lee Smith to second baseman Ryne Sandberg, Caray exulted, “The Good Lord wants the Cubs to win!” (But not get to the World Series, or so it seems.)
Unfortunately, the Cubs lack the charm they used to have, which had little to do with their perpetual losing. Wrigley Field now has lights, Caray died in 1998, and the Cubs aren’t on WGN-TV anymore. Whether they make an NLCS comeback or not this year, the Cubs seem poised to be good for the next several years, given the youth of their productive players. Of course, that’s been the case in previous years. As the T-shirt available around Wrigley Field says, anyone can have a bad century.