They should raise the drinking age in Chicago to 70 tonight— David Burge (@iowahawkblog) October 23, 2016
That statement alone is, to be frank, shocking. The infamous "Curse of the Billy Goat", which I first wrote about almost ten years ago has been long interpreted to mean that the Chicago Cubs were never again even going to appear in a World Series. Throughout the 50s and 70s, the Cubs were famously a laughing stock. The only thing that saved them in the 60s was the legendary Ernie Banks along with the "great trio" of Ron Santo, Billy Williams and pitcher Fergie Jenkin. Attendance was still good, and it featured a 92-win season where the Mets still beat them for the pennant. However, the post-war era saw the "College of Coaches", the burning American flag incident, and three consecutive decades without an appearance in the postseason. The Cubs didn't reclaim any magic until the 1984 postseason, which, as I wrote at the start of the postseason, ended in a Billy Buckner play before there was even a Billy Buckner play. The Cubs would return to the postseason again in 1989 but without any heroics or interesting plays. Just another loss, just another year not making the World Series. The 1990s featured huge campaigns by Ryne Sandberg, Sammy Sosa, Greg Maddux, and Kerry Wood, and at least another postseason appearance. The Cubs are retaining their "lovable losers" status. With the exception of the 1984 disaster, it doesn't look like any dramatic curse-related stuff is bound to happen. Just decent but not good enough baseball.
Which brings us to the post-9/11 era of the Chicago Cubs. I was at Wrigley Field for a game in September 2003, and that was the year that the Cubs went on to win the pennant and secure a postseason berth. I was in New Orleans during the ALCS and was at a bar watching the game on...the day. You know what day that is. The day. The day that Steve Bartman, Cubs fan extraordinaire and participating in a routine fan activity that you see at least once or twice in every Major League Baseball game†, fucks the team up and cements "The Curse" as a thing back in the collective consciousness.
† I'm not kidding, either. Check out this SBNation post about the Steve Bartman game and scroll down until you see...
This guy. This guy in the gray jacket right here. This guy is you. And you were both lucky to walk away, whistling, free to go about your lives.
As the SBNation post mentions, and this is true about every "curse" event, is that that wasn't the be-all and end-all of the game and the series. The Steve Bartman incident was in Game 6 of the NLCS, an NLCS the Cubs had a 3-1 series lead in. What happened in Game 5? The Cubs lost, Steve Bartman wasn't involved. Game 7? The Cubs lost, Steve Bartman wasn't involved. And even in Game 6, the Steve Bartman incident wasn't a bottom of the 9th event that made or broke the game. Steve Bartman was nowhere near the ground ball hit by Miguel Cabrera and famously fumbled by Alex Gonzalez. Gonzalez makes that play, nobody knows who Steve Bartman was. Kyle Farnsworth was ordered to intentionally walk Mike Lowell, who then scored because Sammy Sosa didn't throw to the cutoff man. None of these people are Steve Bartman, and remember the Cubs still had a Game 7 they didn't win.
But then, that's true of every curse, every bad play. A black cat ran across Ron Santo in 1969, when the Cubs were 84-52 and the Mets were 5 games back. However, the black cat didn't shun a platoon system and left the best Cubs players exhausted in September: that was manager Leo Durocher. The Cubs played 26 games after the black cat incident and only won 8 of them, and no cats were seen at any of those games. Speaking of the Mets, any "Curse of the Bambino" fan can tell you about "Billy Fucking Buckner" and Game 6 of the World Series. That was a bottom of the 9th scenario (bottom of the 10th, actually), and had Buckner not misplayed that ball the Red Sox would have won the series. But they didn't lose the series that night either. Game 7 wasn't caused by Billy Fucking Buckner, though maybe had Oil Can Boyd not shown up to the game drunk as a skunk. Buckner actually had a pretty good game (2 hits in 4 AB with a run scored). The Oilers losing Dwayne Roloson in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final hurt, but the Oilers only scored a single goal in Game 7, and you can't blame Marc-Andre Bergeron for that. Baseball games are made up of a minimum 27 at-bats per team (as the Los Angeles Dodgers can attest to!) so there's always lots of reasons for a team to win or lose.
There was no "curse" involved in the Cubs losing the 2007 and 2008 NLDS, nor the 2015 NLCS sweep at the hands of the Mets. But what separates the 2003 Cubs from the 2008 Cubs is that in 2003, the Cubs weren't the only team in baseball facing a curse. Hell, they weren't the only team from Chicago facing a curse. Yet in 2004, the Red Sox broke the 86-year Curse of the Bambino, for the "crime" of selling Babe Ruth. The next year, 2005, saw the White Sox break their 88 year Curse of the...Cheating...Scumbags. There was hope for the Cubs to break their curse in 2006 when I wrote that blogpost linked to above (they finished 6th). In 2008 was the hundred year anniversary of the last Cubs World Series crown, and then they were swept out of the NLDS by the Dodgers. Last year they were playing in the NLCS and apparently being de-cursed by Back To The Future Part II. This curse, somehow, endured.
But now, for the first time since October 1945, the Chicago Cubs are playing in the World Series. What was going on when the Cubs were in the World Series?
- Elvis Presley, aged 10, performed in public for the first time
- A bloody riot takes place at the Warner Brothers lot when striking set designers get a little slap-happy
- A patent is filed for the microwave oven
But now the paradigm is turned on its head. The Cubs are in the World Series. 71 years of heartache has already ended, and 108 years of heartache is within our grasp. What will it mean to cheer on a Cubs team after their curse has lifted? The Boston Red Sox saw a big leap in popularity following their 2004 World Series win (which coincided with hundreds of thousands of Expos fans looking for a new team). The Cubs have never been short on fans, but how will Cubs fans deal with all these new Johnny-come-lately fans who will jump onto the Cubs bandwagon only to be frustrated if they don't make it to the World Series between 2018-2030? What will young fans who only know the post-Bartman era think? If you're a 20 year old, the Cubs have made it to the postseason six times in your lifetime, four times since you can remember, and twice in a row playing in the NLCS. Is it being that special to be a fan of such a team? Pandora's Box of Cubs achievements has already been opened, and closing it may be difficult. The Curse of the Billy Goat is over, and if the Cubs miss the World Series next year in a humiliating or hilarious fashion, it's not something we can blame on a bar-owner named Sianis anymore. It's just our favourite team being shitty and disappointing us. But it's only a tiny disappointment now, a season's disappointment, a temporary event caused by rich athletes letting us down. Before, it was but a tiny part of a lifetime of disappointment, a long-standing tradition older than the...Angels, Senators/Twins, Astros, Mets, Royals, Expos/Nationals, Padres, Pilots/Brewers, Mariners, Blue Jays, Marlins, Rockies, Diamondbacks, and Devil Rays. The prototypical Cubs fan was Al Bundy (who, by the way, was Steve Bartman before Steve Bartman was Steve Bartman), like the second-season episode where Al and Steve collect classic Chicago Cubs baseball cards (minus Ernie Banks and Ken Hubbs).
We've replaced Al Bundy and Steve Goodman with Eddie Vedder and Bill Murray. Not to be a dig against either one of them, but they're just too...successful...to be Cubs fans. Even John Cusack feels like a step a little too high. When the holy figures of hipsterdom are fans of your team, can you be the lovable losers again? Can you be the lovable losers after a big win like this? It's not easy learning to adapt to plenty after being used to starvation. Most lottery winners end up miserable. The Red Sox and the White Sox have already beaten their curses. If the Cubs have moved from being "the cursed team you can tell your grandchildren about" to just another team that sometimes wins and sometimes loses, who is left to turn to? The second longest Cubs World Series drought is the Cleveland Indians (who are also in the World Series). After that is two teams who never played in the World Series since forming: the Nationals and the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners might be a good candidate: after all, they tied for the best record in the history of baseball only to lose the ALCS to the Yankees in the wake of 9/11. The Pirates haven't been in the World Series since their 1979 win, and the Brewers only appeared in one World Series in 1982 and never have won it all. They're also from Milwaukee, which is basically just northside Chicago extended slightly north. These are all decent picks, and you can easily live a lifetime where one of these teams is around but never wins a World Series. They do miss out on being generational losers, and in a sense nothing can ever replace the Chicago Cubs.
And that's maybe why I'm a little down about them in the World Series. A 71-year curse has been abolished, and it won't even be in my lifetime or even my children's lifetime that we can see anything like it ever again.
If there's any consolation in all of this, let's remember that the Curse of the Billy Goat covers the black cat and Steve Bartman and Leon Durham and four infield errors in Game 2 of the 2008 NLDS. You know what it doesn't cover? Billy Herman misplaying the ball and costing the Cubs the 1935 World Series. It doesn't cover the 1932 World Series where Cubs fans "got the goat" (no pun intended, Ruth said so himself) of Babe Ruth and he reacted by calling the next hit. The Cubs gave up an 8-0 lead in Game 4 of the 1929 World Series, and Billy Sianis hadn't even founded the damned Tavern yet (it opened in 1934). In other words, and I don't think you can say this enough, the legend of the Cubs didn't start with the Curse in 1945.
So if the Cubs can stink up the World Series and lose to the Cleveland Indians (another team of destiny, drawing many comparisons to the Kansas City Royals of 2015), then the cosmos isn't going to collapse. The Chicago Cubs will still be the lovable losers of yore. You'll still be able to say that there is not a single person alive today who remembers the Chicago Cubs last winning a World Series. The century-plus World Series victory drought will still be a thing, and getting one step closer and somehow failing to reach it (possibly in hilariously heartbreaking fashion) will just be another feather in the cap of long-suffering Cubs fans. This will remain a generational failure, where your great-grandfather who you never met was the last relative who read about a Cubs World Series in the newspapers. In other words, the Cubs can still be the Cubs. All the Cleveland Indians have to do is break their losing streak.