Cubs’ New Curse: Being Winners
“Ah, you loved me as a loser, but now you’re worried that I just might win.”—Leonard Cohen, “First We Take Manhattan”
Dr. Andrew Weil — noted guru of alternative medicine and expert in mind-body interactions — is not known for theories on success in sports, but he hit on something in his 1974 book, “The Natural Mind.” He described two types of paranoia: In one, sufferers see a hostile pattern in random events; in the other, faced with the same events, they feel that “the universe is a conspiracy organized for their own benefit.”
The second type might be best illustrated by New York Yankees fans, who feel: “What the heck, if we didn’t win this year, we’ll win next year, or at least soon.”
The first pretty much applies to all other baseball fans — but none more than the long-suffering fans of the Chicago Cubs.
Let’s relive one of the most horrible moments in Cubs history.
In Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series, the Cubs, who had not won a World Series since 1908, were up three games to two over the Florida Marlins in the best-of-seven series. They needed to win only one more game to make it to the Big One. They were leading 3-0 in the eighth inning. The Marlins’ Luis Castillo lofted a fly ball into Wrigley’s left-field stands. Cubs outfielder Moises Alou dashed to the wall and stretched for the ball as it headed toward the front rows of seats. But instead of an easy out, the ball was grabbed by a non-thinking, ball-hungry Cubs fan. The team was five outs away from the World Series with a three-run lead, but at that moment all Cubs fans knew in their hearts that their team was cursed.
Like a bad science fiction plot, their worst fears materialized. Castillo walked, opening the floodgates for an 8-3 Florida victory. The next night, also at Wrigley, the Marlins won 9-6, taking the National League pennant and heading for the World Series.
Yes, of course, the Cubs might have lost the game anyway, but that’s irrelevant. What matters is that the incident seemed to create—or perhaps reflect—a kind of psychic paralysis in the Cubs and their fans.
That game was played Oct. 14, 2003, a date that lives in infamy with Cubs fans. Or rather, it did. The game, and the fan who interfered with that ball, Steve Bartman, can now be mentioned without a shudder.
Wednesday night, with the Cubs leading 8-7 in the final game of the 2016 World Series, the Cleveland Indians had two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning and the tying run on base. Chicago third baseman Kris Bryant fielded a weak grounder and, smiling before he even scooped up the ball, fired to first baseman Anthony Rizzo for the win. Bryant thus freed his city and millions of Cubs fans around the country of more than a century of wretched memories.
Everyone is right in calling this World Series the greatest ever. They’re also correct that the seventh game was the greatest ever played. What everyone—Cubs fans, Indians fans and everyone else—is too close to see is that it was also one of the worst games ever played, at least from an aesthetic point of view.
The fielding was atrocious, from Cleveland outfielders nearly colliding while chasing a fly ball and allowing two runs to score in Game 6, to Indians centerfielder Rajai Davis hesitating on a throw as a runner scored from third on a pop-up to the Cubs, allowing two Cleveland runners to score on a single wild pitch by Chicago ace Jon Lester.
I could go on. At times it seemed as if the players from both of these long-suffering franchises were paralyzed by the overwhelming collective dread of their fans. In the end, the most exciting World Series ever seemed to be decided not by the team that wanted most to win but by the team that was least terrified of losing.
For most of the World Series, the team most terrified of losing was the Cubs. In addition to terrible fielding and bad base-running decisions, Chicago hitters, who had ranked second in the NL in scoring over the regular season, looked as if they were swinging not at baseballs but at invisible demons. As the New York Daily News’ Mark Feinsand wrote Monday, the Cubs’ lineup “has wilted, swinging early and often—and usually not at good pitches—against an Indians pitching staff that has dominated high-powered offenses all postseason.”
Veteran Cubs catcher David Ross, who hit a key home run in the final game, admitted that after the first five, “We’re [Cubs hitters] getting outside of ourselves. I see a lot of early swings. We’ve done a real good job of putting together lengthy at-bats all year long, [but] right now, the moment and the atmosphere of us wanting to do so much for these fans, I think that’s where it comes from.”
That was it: wanting to do so much for their fans.
Baseball, it has been argued by many, isn’t really pressure. Pressure is what families go through to make ends meet and weather hard times. OK, but when you’re doing something in front of 40 million people and carrying the burden of dreams for God knows how many multitudes, while trying to succeed against a team as talented and motivated as yours, it can sure feel like pressure.
I suppose it doesn’t matter whether it was the fans who fueled the paralysis in the players or the players who created the impending sense of doom in their fans. After a while—and, in the case of the Cubs and Indians, a while means decades—it hardly matters whether it’s the fans or players responsible for the pattern of defeat, since one feeds off the other.
In the end, it was lucky for the Cubs and Indians to be playing each other because there are no ties in baseball, and ultimately only one team loses. And let’s admit the possibility of something else: Do many fans of so-called “lovable loser” teams create a negative atmosphere for their teams because in some strange way they fear winning? Winners, after all, are usually not very lovable and are almost always difficult to identify with. But “pathetic” is often its own consolation, which is why feeling sorry for oneself can be consoling.
Well, too bad, Cubs fans: Your boys are no longer lovable or losers. And now comes the torment of being kings of the hill. Gone is the comfort of baseball fans’ pity.
Here’s hoping the Cleveland Indians and their fans will come to know that feeling next season.
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