Spring hopes eternal, and every year baseball teams gather in Spring training with hopes of winning the World Series. The longest drought in history belong to the Chicago Cubs, who haven’t won a championship since 1908. For 108 years, the Chicago Cubs have gathered in spring with such a quest in mind, and for that long they have failed.
This year, under the stewardship of the baseball’s best GM, Theo Epstein, the Cubs have their best chance to finally overcome their century (plus) of ineptitude and in the process exorcise the infamous Billy Goat Curse. Epstein, who is somewhat of a guru at getting rid of curses, architected the 2004 Red Sox team that was able to vanquish the curse of the Bambino. He was hired by the Cubs in 2010 to accomplish the same feat in Chicago. Call him Theo Epstein, Curse Buster.
After completely gutting the roster, the rebuilt Cubs had one of the best records in baseball in 2015 and made it to the NLCS. They lost in 5 games to the Mets largely in part to the Mets amazing pitching and due to the heroics of New York Met second baseman Daniel Murphy (irony of ironies – the goat was also named Murphy ).
Despite the loss, the Cubs brass considered this a stepping stone of sorts. After years of futility, the rebuilding efforts spearheaded by GM Theo Epstein and coach Joe Maddon were starting to bear fruit. Key off season acquisitions (2B Ben Zobrist, RF Jason Hayward, and SP John Lackey) strengthened an already potent roster. In August, they also extended Epstein’s contract for five years.
The Cubs raced out to an impressive record early on and by May they had such a commanding lead in the division they never really looked back. The Cubs improved on their strong 2015 by winning the NL Central Division and had the major leagues best record. The Cubs had the best run production, one of the better pitching staffs, the best defense, and one of the best offenses in the major leagues. Their manager, Joe Maddon, orchestrated this team in an amazing manner all year, making the right moves all along and using what could be the most diverse set of players in baseball.
The team was so good during the regular season that they were actually the favorites going into the post-season. The Cubs, the favorites ? That’s a scary thought.
Could this be the year the Cubs finally put an end to the drought. It doesn’t feel like some untimely misfortune will strike the team, destroy its morale, and cause it to self destruct. The team is so good it seems immune to disaster. It doesn’t feel like there will be the Billy Goat, the black cat, the Gatorade Glove, or the infamous Steve Bartman incident. For historical purposes, let’s review some of the club’s more infamous moments.
The Cubs had a 2-1 games against the Detroit Tigers going into Game 4 of the 1945 World Series. The World Series used a 3-4 format instituted during World War II so the Cubs only had to win 2 of the 4 games at home to win it all. In the first game at Wrigley Field, Billy Goat Tavern owner Billy Sianis was asked to leave because the odor of his pet goat Murphy was bothering fans. Outraged, he is alleged to have declared: “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.” Detroit won Game 4 to tie the series and took the next 2 out of 3 to beat the Cubs 4 games to 3. The Cubs have not played in a World Series since.
In 1969 the Cubs were leading the division by 8 games over the Mets when a black cat crossed the path of third baseman Ron Santo as he was standing on the on-deck circle. From that day on, the Mets surged to a 19-5 while the Cubs went only 8-12. The Cubs didn’t make the postseason. The Mets won the World Series against heavily favored Baltimore and entered baseball lore as they became known as the Miracle Mets. In 1984, first baseman’s a bottle of gatorade was mistakenly spilt on Leon Durham’s glove before the final game of the NLCS. Durham considered using a different glove for the game but decided against it. Late in that game, Durham committed an error that put the Padres in a position to win the game. The Padres victory was part of a 3 game comeback when the Cubs were one win away from the World Series. (It is also ironic to note that Durham was acquired by the Cubs in a trade that sent Bill Buckner to the Red Sox. Buckner’s similar but much more famous fielding error would happen two years later in the 1986 World Series that allowed the Mets to win it all.)
In 2003, with the Cubs ahead 3-0 and needing only five outs to advance to the World Series, longtime fan Steve Bartman innocently reached out from his seat in left field corner wall and attempted to catch a ball that was easily going into the glove of on-rushing left fielder Moises Alou. That would have been the second out of the eighth inning. Rather than coasting to victory (as probably would have happened), the Cubs self-destructed by allowing 8 runs in the inning and subsequently lost the game. They never recovered and lost to the Florida Marlins in Game 7 the following day. Alou screamed at the fans, who all turned on Bartman after Fox replayed the play over and over and showed the despondent Bartman hunched over in his seat. The fans eventually turned on him, including one guy who poured his beer on him, and fearing for his safety, he had to be escorted out of the stadium. But we’ll leave at that since we don’t want to infuse this story with too much negativism from the past. (If you must, see the ESPN 30 for 30 film Catching Hell, the best documentary on the Bartman affair: http://www.espn.com/video/clip?id=13883887)
But lets forget the past. Let’s look forward to October 2016.
The Cubs first round foe in this years playoffs are the formidable San Francisco Giants, who have won 3 championships in the last 6 years. San Francisco has won every championship in even years since 2010, so given that history they should contend again this year. Not the kind of match-up that Chicago was probably looking for, and especially not one in the first round of the playoffs.
Game 1 was a pitcher’s duel between the Cubs John Lester (who pitched for the 2007 Red Sox team that won a second championship this century), and Johnny Cueto who pitched for the 2015 champions Kansas City Royals. Cueto pitched flawlessly but made one mistake in the eighth inning, a fastball that he left high and that Cubs second baseman Jorge Baez barely hit into the left field bleachers for the ony run of the game. A tense game was not what the Cubs players or fans were looking for, not especially after having lost so many heartbreaking games throughout the years. but getting the win gave the Cubs much needed momentum against a team that plays its best baseball in October. The Cubs were on their way towards exorcising the infamous curse.
Game 2 was much less tense. The Cub raced out to 4-0 lead after two innings. The only drama came when starter Kyle Hendricks was forced to leave the game when he was struck with a line drive in the fourth inning. Relief pitcher Travis Wood pitched effectively but his biggest impact was when he became only the second relief pitcher in postseason history to homer in a game.
Game 3 featured a great pitching match-up between the Cubs ace Jake Arrieta and the Giants super-ace Madison Bumgarner. Jake drew first blood when he hit a 3 run homer in the second inning. (It is worth noting that the only pitchers to hit home runs in the franchise history are Rick Sutcliff (1983) and Kerry Wood (2003), and the Cubs lost both of those series in brutal fashion.) The Giants clawed their way back in the game to make it 3-2 in the 5th inning. Arrieta, who had looked unhittable to that point, started to look vulnerable. In a game that was widely anticipated to be one of the best pitching duels in recent playoff history, Arrieta and Bumgarner were both gone by the sixth as both managers maneuvered to win this game. Going into the bottom of the eight the Cubs still led 3-2. That’s when the Giants began their rally by getting their first two runners on base. Surprisingly, Maddon called on his closer Arnoldis Chapman for a 6 out save, almost unheard of these days of multiple relievers. Chapman got the dangerous Hunter Pence on a strikeout, but the next batter, Connor Gillespie, hit a ball to the deepest part of the park and just like that, the Giants had a 4-3 lead. San Francisco added an insurance run with another single off of Chapman. The Giants had finally solved the Chicago pen. Chapman, who had been virtually unhittable in the last month, couldn’t get another out. He left the game roughed up.
The Cubs would for sure lose this game. The story would sound, unfortunately, eerily familiar. That is until, Kris Bryant, homered, albeit barely, in the top of the ninth to tie the game. In the bottom of the ninth, right fielder Al Mora Jr. saved the game with an amazing diving catch. Instead of another crushing loss, the game was going into overtime. The Giants prevailed in 13 innings when Joe Panik doubled off the right-center wall to drive in Brandon Crawford. The Cubs still lead the series 2-1. The Giants were never going to be easy to solve. Bochy, counting tonight, has led the Giants to a 10-0 record in elimination game. The Cubs had it within their grasp and let it get away. But they still have 2 more games to get one. You have to believe if you’re a Cubs fan that your team can do it. You can’t let the doubt creep in, you have to stay positive, don’t you ?