“F—— goat,” comedian and Cubs fan Jeff Garlin is saying, and I must admit that the quotes that follow are not as precise as I might like because it’s hard to take notes when Diet Coke is spurting out of your nose. “A goat? OK, let’s get something straight. It is not a curse to not want a goat at a baseball game, all right? That is not a curse. Nobody wants livestock in baseball games, OK? That is not a curse. You sell Babe Ruth, yeah, OK, maybe that’s a curse. You sell the greatest ballplayer ever, OK, I get it. But kicking a guy and his goat out of a baseball game, no, that’s is not a curse.
“You know, this was a time when people dressed up. I mean nobody would let a goat into a game now, and people dress like pigs. Back then people wore suits to games, they wore hats. There wasn’t a team in baseball that would be like — ‘Sure, oh yeah, the goat’s fine.’
“And by the way, do we know if this guy had another successful curses? Does he have a list of curses that we can look at? If he had a whole bunch of curses that worked, OK, fine. But I’m not buying that he tried only one curse, and it worked, and it was because they did not let bring a goat into a game.”
Jeff Garlin can keep going. He has kept going. But for now he stops here.
“F——- goat,” he says.
This is an unromantic attempt to unwrap the most mysterious streak in sports. Yes, we’re taking on the Chicago Cubs. Reports swirl around that Theo Epstein will become the next GM, the great Theo, the man who ended the Boston Red Sox curse. Epstein is a brilliant guy. But he should know: This one’s different.
See this is not about how the Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908. Everybody talks about that, but it’s deceiving. Between 1909 and 1945 the Cubs won seven pennants. They were a dominant team in the National League. It just so happened that they kept losing World Series. That was a different kind of pain.
No, the streak we’re talking about here is 66 years of not even reaching a World Series. It is the longest streak in the history of baseball. Every single team except the Cubs that was in existence in 1946 has been to at least two World Series since — and the only team with only two pennants since World War II is the Chicago White Sox, who have probably had something rub off. The Pittsburgh Pirates have been to three. The Cleveland Indians have been to four. The Baltimore Orioles — then the St. Louis Browns — have been to six. Even before Theo’s so-called-jinxed Boston Red Sox had won in 2004 and 2007, they had been to four World Series since World War II. They just hadn’t won any of them.
If this was just any team, then you might chalk up the streak to chance. Bad luck. Curses. Money problems. But the Cubs are not just any team. They are one of the most popular teams in all of baseball. They play at baseball’s most famous corner: Addison and Clark. They are in one of America’s biggest cities, one one of baseball’s most famous ballparks, they have one of baseball’s most passionate fan bases. The Cubs have had a long series of great players — Hank Sauer, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Lou Brock, Ron Santo, Fergie Jenkins, Bill Madlock, Bruce Sutter, Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Greg Maddux, Sammy Sosa and so on.
And still: Zero pennants in 66 years.
Why? Oh, there is no shortage of explanations in Chicago. Curses. Goats. Day games. Bad trades. Bad luck. Compliant fans. Unmotivated ownership. Bartman.
“What are you doing?” Joe Mantegna asks. He’s the star of the show “Criminal Minds,” but first and foremost he is a Chicago Cubs fan. He was the inspiration and co-writer of the play “Bleacher Bums,” about Cubs fans in the Wrigley Field bleachers. His first memory is of being five years old, sitting in front of his family’s black-and-white television, and watching Cubs star Hank Sauer. He and his wife own a restaurant in Burbank that specializes in Chicago hot dogs.
I’m writing about why the Cubs have not been to the World Series in 66 years.
“What are ya, nuts?” he asks. “Why is the sky blue?”
* * *
The f—– goat
The story goes like this: In 1945, at the fourth game of the World Series, Billy Sianis — owner of Chicago’s famed Billy Goat Tavern* — brought his pet goat to the game. He had become somewhat famous for bringing goats to various events. He bought two tickets and was even allowed to parade with his goat on the field before the game.
*Sianis was celebrated by John Belushi’s “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger” bit on Saturday Night Live.
Sianis and the goat — named Murphy, by the way — went to sit down for the game, when people around started to complain that, you know, maybe a goat shouldn’t be at a World Series game. There are varying reports. People may have complained about the smell. People may have complained that Murphy was eating their food. People may have complained that they were at the WORLD FREAKING SERIES and they didn’t want a goat next to them. Whatever the reason, the Cubs ordered that Sianis and his goat leave the premises.
And this led to the curse — again there are different versions of the curse. According to one, Sianis pronounced that no World Series Games would ever again be played at Wrigley Field. According to another, he sent a telegram to Phillip K. Wrigley saying that the Cubs would lose the World Series and never win another. According to a third, he cursed the Cubs to an eternity without pennants, whether they played at Wrigley Field or not. Sianis, for the rest of his life, was vague about such details. We only know that in one form or another, the Curse of the Billy Goat happened.
The Cubs were leading the series 2-1 at the time — both wins had been shutouts. They lost that game and the next and were blasted 9-3 in the seventh game. Sianis in 1969 supposedly removed the curse. His nephew has, more than once, come to Cubs games with goats. Butchered goats have been hung from the Harry Caray statue in an effort to appease the God of … what? Goats? Baseball? Still, the Cubs have not been to the World Series since.
“Pathetic,” Garlin says. “It’s f——- pathetic.”
* * *
In 1946, the Chicago Cubs were not too bad. Phil Cavaretta had a nice year, so did Stan Hack, and on June 2nd the Cubs moved into third place. They stayed there for the rest of the season. Every single day through June, July, August, September, the Cubs were in third place. It was a never-changing disappointment: The Cubs had been to the World Series in 1945. But the war was over. The best players were back. The game was changing. And the Cubs would not have a winning record for the next 16 seasons.
“The Cubs fell behind almost all the rest of baseball because they refused to develop a farm system,” writer and bemused Cubs observer Bill James says. See, those Cubs years were dominated by one man, Phillip K. Wrigley, who owned the team for more than four decades.
Phil Wrigley was an interesting and complicated man. He innovated baseball in quite a few ways (he was the man behind the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and the ivy on the Wrigley Field walls). He was odd in many few ways; it was often said that he had no friends. Everyone agreed, though: Wrigley was deeply principled. He honestly did not want lights at Wrigley Field because he thought it would hurt the neighborhood. He believed in keeping Wrigley Field beautiful because he wanted baseball to feel like a picnic for families.
One of his deepest and most ingrained principles was trying to preserve the minor leagues — so much so, he thought it insulting they even were called “MINOR leagues.” Wrigley is probably the only owner in baseball history who actually WANTED there to be another major league — no matter how much it might hurt his business — because he thought it would provide more opportunity for fans and players. “Wrigley did not believe in farm systems,” Bill Veeck writes in “Veeck As In Wreck.” “It was his belief — and he was right — that baseball could only remain healthy if the minor league clubs were free to develop their own players and sell them to the highest bidder.”
He may have been right in a moral sense, but his stance wasn’t much good for building baseball teams. While other teams developed players by draining the minor leagues of talent and power, Wrigley’s Cubs kept trying to do business the old-fashioned way. The only good young player the Cubs acquired from the end of the war until the late 1950s was Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, and that was old-business — the Cubs bought Banks from the Kansas City Monarchs in the dying days of the Negro Leagues. They signed a few hard-throwing pitchers who did not pan out, but other than that they hardly even tried. The Cubs were terrible year after year.
All this happened in the immediate years after the Billy Goat’s Curse — and so the curse took on a life of its own. But there was no curse necessary in those early years of the Cubs streak. Without any real way to acquire or develop young talent, the Cubs for the first decade and a half after the war, didn’t have stand chance.
And then, suddenly and dramatically, the Cubs changed course.
* * *
The L Flag
You probably know that after every victory, the Chicago Cubs raise a W flag to commemorate the win. This tradition began so that people passing by on the El train would know that the Cubbies had won.
What you may not know — what I didn’t know, sadly, until Cubs announcer Len Kasper filled me in — is that the Cubs actually raise an L flag to commemorate losses. Every loss. They do this for the same sensible reason, to let people on the trains know the Cubs lost, but step back and think about this for a minute. The Chicago Cubs have to be the only team in American sports that will actually RAISE A FLAG WITH AN L ON IT to let everybody know that they lost the game. Theo Epstein might want to know about that.
“How do I feel about that?” Cubs uber-fan Steve Hirschtick asks. “Excuse my language but f— cell phones, f— Blackberries, f— all that. If you don’t raise the flag, how will be people on the subway know that the Cubs lost?”
I begin to tell Steve that they will know because they have f—- cell phones and f—– Blackberries, but it’s not polite to interrupt a Cubs fan in mid-rant, especially a rant coming in non-stop from Thailand. See, Hirschtick and his wife Orawan moved across the world more than a decade ago. He had been a corporate tax lawyer in California. He had made a lot of money. He decided it was time to drop out and live a different kind of life.
He took the Cubs with him. Day after day — night after night in Thailand, which is 12 hours ahead of Chicago — he watches the Cubs play on his computer. If you could find the little village where he lives — and you probably don’t want to bother because Steve says it’s in the middle of nowhere — you would find a replica Wrigley Field scoreboard, a precise version of the Cubs marquee, and a marble tablet to commemorate Lee Elia’s rant about Cubs fans.* There’s a also gigantic concrete and steel Cubs baseball, the shrine of shrines, one he says will outlive him by 50 or 100 years so that archeologists will someday wonder what kind of strange tribe lived there.
*Elia on Wrigley Field fans: Eighty -five percent of the f——- world is working. The other 15 percent come out here.”
Hirschtick also brought two W flags with him. Two. He thought the first one would work out. As I wrote in Sports Illustrated, that’s the very definition of an optimistic Cubs fan. But, even so, he still thinks the Cubs should raise a flag every single day to let people in the neighborhood know they lost. He says it’s the very essence of who the Cubs are.
“It’s honesty,” Jeff Garlin says, though you can probably guess the Cubs’ word he put between “It’s” and “Honesty.”
* * *
Good young players started to show up in Chicago in 1960. The Cubs, on the surface, were more screwed up than ever. This was about the time when Wrigley came up with the bizarre “College of Coaches” concept where the team had coaches alternate as managers throughout the season. It was also around the time that Wrigley hired a hypnotist of some sort to travel with the team and put various hexes on opposing players. Wrigley, among his other quirks, was a big pro wrestling fan. The Cubs didn’t win more game over the next few years — in fact, they lost lost 100 for the first time in the team’s history in 1962, and in 1966 they did it again.
But, quietly, something was beginning to change. It began that year, 1960, when a 20-year-old third baseman named Ron Santo and a 20-year-old pitcher named Dick Ellsworth first showed up. Both talented players had been signed as amateur free agents, exactly the sort of thing that the Cubs had avoided doing for decades. Wrigley had basically accepted that his antiquated views about free markets, while perhaps justified, weren’t going to help the Cubs win any games.
The Cubs then went on a spectacular run of signing and developing young players. In 1961, a 23-year-old hitter with a sweet-left-handed swing named Billy Williams worked his way into the lineup. A talented 19-year-old second baseman, Ken Hubbs, got his first big-league at-bats. He would win the Rookie of the Year Award in ’62. In 1962, a speedy outfielder named Lou Brock was called up, and in ’64 a shortstop named Don Kessinger made his debut. Good young pitching was tougher to come by, and as mentioned the Cubs were still losing liberally. But something was changing.
There were bumps along the way, one of them tragic. Ken Hubbs died in a plane crash just before the 1964 season — he was just 22 years old. But, from a baseball perspective, the Cubs’ system was so deep they called up another young second baseman, Glenn Beckert, who would play in four All-Star Games.
The same year as the Hubbs tragedy, the Cubs — in that desperate attempt to find the pitching that they could not develop — traded a young Lou Brock for an older Ernie Broglio, and some people will still call that the worst trade in baseball history. It’s certainly a first ballot choice for the “Bad Trade Hall of Fame.”
But one thing that is forgotten: Just two years later, the Cubs made one of the great trades in baseball history, a first ballot “Good Trade Hall of Fame” move. They traded Bob Buhl and Larry Jackson to Philadelphia for a speedy outfielder, Adolfo Phillips, and a right-handed pitcher, Ferguson Jenkins. You could argue that the Jenkins trade more than made up for the Brock deal. First: Phillips was a good player with some power and speed — he had a great year hitting in the No. 8 spot in 1967 (he led the league in intentional walks).
Much more importantly, Jenkins would become perhaps the most valuable pitcher in Cubs history, certainly the best since Three Finger Brown and Pete Alexander. And with Jenkins stabilizing the Cubs pitching staff (along with a couple of young Cubs pitchers, Joe Niekro and Ken Holtzman), with the Cubs hitters coming into their own, with the hiring of the intense and storied manager Leo Durocher (Wrigley once said he wouldn’t take Durocher “as a gift”), the Cubs jumped from 100 losses to an 87-74 record in 1967. They had a winning record again in 1968. And that, of course, led to 1969, when the Cubs were in first place every single day of the season through September 8. Their entire infield started the National League All-Star Game. Jenkins and Bill Hands both won 20. It was the best Cubs season in 25 years.
But, of course, it still had some Cubs quirks. There was infighting among players. In late July, Durocher left the team for a couple of days as he joined his new wife for Parents Day at his summer camp — reports came out that Wrigley briefly fired him before allowing him to explain (not that there was anything to explain; he really did go to to Parents Day at summer camp with his new wife).
And then, there was the black cat. Thats the story that gets told most often. Supposedly a black cat walked across the dugout in New York with the Cubs up 1 1/2 games and about to start a crucial series with the Mets. The Cubs were promptly beaten two in a row by the Mets, and the Mets ran away with the division from there. Funny thing, the Cubs players don’t remember the black cat as much as they remember a Mets team that absolutely refused to back down. Those Mets were a young team, an upstart team, and that day New York starter Jerry Koosman plunked Santo, and Tommy Agee got off the deck after a scary purpose pitch from Hands and smashed a home run. For years, Cubs fans would point to the black cat … or to the wearing effects of a summer of day games … or to Durocher’s trip to his stepsons camp. But the simpler story seems to be that the Mets — led by the indomitable Tom Seaver — went 22-5 down the stretch (including10- and 9-game winning streaks), won 100 games, and took the title.
“People in Chicago still feel very close to that 1969 team,” Kasper says. “There was something about that team in particular that gets inside.”
The Cubs were still a good team in 1970 (they finished five games behind the Pirates) and pretty good the next couple of years, but 1969 was really the year, what John Updike called that nimble blend of May and December, that moment when the hitters were still young enough and the pitching held up and it just felt like there would be a happy ending to the story. But 1969 belonged to another miracle, and while many will want to point to black cats, the truth is probably much less exciting that.
“There are six or eight teams every year that could realistically win,” Bill James says. “Thing happened, things went wrong. Most of the time when you could win … you don’t.”
* * *
Joe Mantegna got his first big acting job in 1969. He was in the Chicago production of “Hair.” In those days, anything seemed possible. The production was loose, free flowing, and so he would often wear a tie-dyed Ernie Banks shirt for the show. He even invited Banks to see it one night. This led to Banks inviting Mantegna to a Cubs game, which led to one of the odder moments of ’69. Mantegna was in the dugout and he saw Ron Santo. And then, the little Cubs fan inside him rushed out, and he said: “Hey Ron, hit a home run for me.” Santo looked over Mantegna, who had extremely long hair and looked like the poster child for the hippy dippy 60s.
And Santo, who was only seven years older than Mantegna, said: “I’ll do my best, son.”
Well, what the hell? Anything was possible. The Cubs could win. Mantegna could become a rich and famous and great actor. It was all there ready to happen. One day in 1969 he met a psychic who said that the Cubs would lose in the end. A psychic! Well, what did she know? So, OK, yeah, it turned out the psychic was right, and the Cubs did lose. But there was next year. Or the next year. Or the year after that. He co-wrote “Bleacher Bums,” with other members of the Chicago Organic Theater Company about those strangers in the joyful and star-crossed Wrigley Field Bleachers. He got some acting jobs. Anything. Possible.
In 1984, Mantegna was doing “Glengarry Glen Ross” on Broadway. The Cubs won the first two games of their best of five series with the Padres. This was the year! He was sure of it. Of course, this wasn’t the year. It’s never the year. Steve Garvey homered. The ball went through Leon Durham’s legs. As soon as the game ended and the Padres — the San Diego F—— Padres — had won the pennant, some magazine called to ask him to comment. Comment? He had no comment. The next night, during after the show, he wore a Cubs hat and got booed on Broadway. But what the hell? “I still thought the Cubs would win someday,” he says.
Then, in 1989, the Cubs lost to the Giants in the playoffs, and that’s when the realization hit him: It wasn’t going to happen. Ever. He expected this realization to break his heart, but the simple truth is: It freed him. He could love the Cubs in a different way. For more than 20 years now, he has watched the Cubs and enjoyed the Cubs but he never again let the Cubs break his heart. “I hate to say this, ” he says, “but I”m walking on the dark side of the road. I know they’re not going to win. I just know it. I’ve accepted it. It’s a good feeling. It’s like I’m embracing a team that doesn’t even exist. It’s like I’m a fan of the St. Louis Browns.
“Look at the symbol. Have you ever looked at the symbol? We’re the Cubs. We are not a vicious team. We are the children of bears. We are just a cute little guy. I just decided I’m through losing my mind. I’ve accepted the inevitable. I’ve totally surrendered.
“Understand this: The Cubs will never win. Never. But if that day ever comes where the Cubs win, I think what we should do is collectively agree to stop playing the national pastime and embrace soccer. Join the world community. See why the rest of the world is so nutty about it. That would probably bring peace of the Middle East. If the Cubs ever win, it should be for the best of the planet.
“I’ll tell you a story. When “Bleacher Bums” first started having some success, reporters would ask me ‘What’s going to happen when the Cubs win? How will the play work then.” I said then, ‘Yeah, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.’
“Here it is 35 years later, and Bleacher Bums is still playing all over.”
* * *
The lovable losers era of the Cubs really began around 1973, and it began for the same reason that the Cubs fell apart after the war. They simply stopped developing players. There’s a myth that the Cubs traded away all their best talent, but the truth is that throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, they actually made quite a few astute trades. The problem was that between 1973 and 1980 the only two players of any substance at all that they drafted were Lee Smith and Mel Hall, and Hall would only be of value in a trade.
It was during this time that Wrigley seemed to more or less give up — or, more to the point, stop worrying too much about it all.
Bill James: “Wrigley, as he aged, developed the idea that people just enjoyed coming out to the Ballpark to see the games, enjoyed rooting for the boys, and that winning wasn’t EVERYTHING. They stopped making any real, committed and sincere EFFORT to win; they were just putting on a show for the fans. They had this old ballpark with no lights; they would bottom-feed off the players discarded by other teams, come up with an occasional pretty good player, win 75 games a year, draw pretty good attendance, make a little money, and everybody would be happy.
“It wasn’t just Wrigley who thought this way; these were very popular ideas in that era. The Cubs were cute, and charming, and nostalgic, and … wasn’t this just wonderful?”
Well, wasn’t it? The Cubs drew a million people every year, win or lose. Wrigley died in 1977, and seemingly in his honor the Cubs finished a perfectly mediocre 81-81. They were mediocre again in ’78 and ’79, then in 1980 they fell off the deep end and became terrible once more. In 1981, they were sold to the Tribune Company.
The Cubs started doing business differently under the Tribune Company. There are a lot of bad things to be said about a baseball team being run by an organization — things that would eventually take their toll on the Cubs — but at first it seemed like every move the Tribune Company made was gold. A hard-nosed man named Dallas Green was hired to be GM. He promptly made what is probably the greatest trade in Cubs history, certainly right up there with the Fergie Jenkins deal. He traded a 28-year old shortstop hitting less than .200 to Philadelphia for a fiery old shortstop and a young third baseman with some power and speed.
The fiery old shortstop, Larry Bowa, didn’t have a lot of skill left, but he had plenty of fury. And the third baseman, Ryne Sandberg, was moved to second where he became a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest players in Cubs history.
Other moves worked too, at least in the short term: The Cubs had already traded one of the few players they had developed — reliever Bruce Sutter — for first baseman Leon Durham (who they called “Bull”). Green traded for a few old war-horses — third baseman Ron Cey (who they called “Penguin”), outfielder Gary Matthews (who they called Sarge), outfielder Keith Moreland (who they called Zonk). He signed Dennis Eckersley.
And then, midway through the 1984 season — with the Cubs showing signs of being contenders — Green went for broke, traded three of the Cubs best prospects to Cleveland to get pitcher Rick Sutcliffe. And you would have to say the move worked precisely as the Cubs hoped. Sutcliffe in his second start with the Cubs threw a 14-strikeout shutout against the rival Cardinals. He lost his next time out and then … didn’t lose again. The Cubs won the next 15 times Sutcliffe started. When the Cubs scored two runs against the Padres, he gave up one. When he gave up six runs against the Mets, the Cubs scored eight. It was magical.
And Game 1 of the best-of-five playoffs against San Diego, the Cubs won 13-0 and Sutcliffe himself hit a titanic home run that I still think of as one of the longest homers I’ve ever seen. The Cubs won Game 2 also. But, of course, you know — like Joe Mantegna knows — the Cubs did not win that third game. The Cubs were befuddled by Ed Whitson in Game 3. Steve Garvey hit the game-winner in the bottom of the ninth in Game 4. And Game 5 was a mess, with the Cubs blowing a three-run lead even with Sutcliffe on the mound, with Leon Durham making an error that has its place in Cubs lore, with the game ending as it had to end for the Chicago Cubs.
Green had built those Cubs had been built for one shot at glory. They gave it a heck of a run in 1984. They returned to lousy the next four years, and Green was booted. But, it should be said that Green was GM, the Cubs quite suddenly started having some success in the draft. In 1984, they drafted Greg Maddux and Jamie Moyer. In 1985, they took Rafael Palmeiro, Mark Grace and Kevin Tapani. The Cubs mostly botched that talent — the Moyer and Palmeiro to Texas for Mitch Williams trade is another gem — but the Cubs did go to the 1989 playoffs. They were taken out by the Giants in five games, Mantegna and other Cubs fans gave up home, Maddux left for Atlanta, and The Cubs weren’t heard from again for another decade.
* * *
A Cub Fan’s Greatest Memory
Jeff Garlin was in an electronic store on the last home game of the Cubs season in 1987 when he looked up at the television screen and saw that Andre Dawson was hitting. There was something about Dawson that touched Cubs fans that year. For one thing, he had a powerful season. He hit 49 home runs. He led the league in RBIs. He would be named MVP, and though looking back that was a ludicrous choice, there was a deep connection between the Hawk and the city.
See, Dawson played the game with a certain dignity. He had been a great player in Montreal, though few in America noticed, and though he had to play on Olympic Stadium turf that was harder than concrete and as level as San Francisco. After the 1986 season, with his knees shot from the treacherous turf, baseball owners refused to make him an offer. They were trying to destroy the salary structure of baseball and would be slapped with collusion charges before it was done.
Dawson was so eager to sign with the Cubs that he and his agent showed up with a blank contract. Tough ol’ Dallas Green wasn’t too impressed (“Dog and pony show,” he grumbled) but he signed Dawson anyway to a $500,000 — less than half of what Dawson had made the year before (though there was an All-Star bonus in there, and Dawson made the All-Star team). Then Dawson went out and played his heart out for the Cubs. Chicago fans, like all baseball fans, but perhaps even a bit more, have been drawn to effort, to professionalism, to the workday players who give a bit more of themselves. It’s no mystery why “Let’s Play Two” Ernie Banks became Mr. Cub or why the young Sammy Sosa, with his running-the-outfield routine made Chicago swoon. Dawson, as the cliche goes, brought his lunch pail to the ballpark. He played his heart out. And it didn’t hurt that the balls were light and the wind blew out a lot in 1987. Dawson hit .330 with 27 homers at Wrigley that season.
And the last home game of another lost Cubs season, Andre Dawson came to the plate one last time. The pitcher was someone named Bill Dawley. The circumstances were mostly pointless — the Cubs led by three. “Wouldn’t it be poetic,” Garlin would remember Cubs announcer Harry Caray saying, “wouldn’t it just be poetic if Andre Dawson hit one last home run here at Wrigley.”
And Andre Dawson homered.
“I was in the electronics story CRYING it was so beautiful,” Garlin says. “That’s my favorite memory. Andre Dawson’s home run at the end of a lousy Cubs season. What does that tell you?”
* * *
The Cubs have had their moments the last 20 or so years, though those moments have been stomped on by collapses and odd turns. They made the playoffs in 1998 when the young Sammy Sosa, out of nowhere, hit 66 home runs. Of course, that season doesn’t really hold up all that well for various reasons. They were within five outs of the World Series in 2003, led by an astonishing and young pitching staff featuring Mark Prior (22 years old), Carlos Zambrano (22 years old) and Kerry Wood (26 years old). But of course, that season is best remembered for Bartman and Dusty, the former a lifelong fan who happened to reach out for a foul ball, the latter a manager who threw his young pitchers a lot of innings.
Lou PIniella’s 2008 Cubs were probably the best team in the National League — they led the league in runs scored with a nice balanced lineup and were third in league ERA with a balanced rotation and a now older Kerry Wood closing games. They got swept by a suddenly hot Dodgers team in no small part because they could not get out the Dodgers mercenary, Manny Ramirez.
It was easy to explain the Cubs failure for forty or so years after the war. The Cubs the last couple of decades are not too much different from most teams in baseball. Some good. Some bad. Some disappointment. Some triumph. Then only thing that makes them different is that they don’t ever quite get there, don’t ever quite win, and because they’re the Chicago Cubs that carries something more.
“That 2008 team was a great team,” Kasper says. “That team certainly could have won. They weren’t the first team to get into a short series in the playoffs and get swept. But with the Cubs, everything gets magnified, no question about it. They can’t just lose. When they do lose, it’s like ‘Oh no.'”
People threw a lot of theories at me about the Cubs losing as I wandered Chicago. One is that Wrigley Field — with all its day games, with the way the wind affects games — makes it very difficult to win. “The Cubs after all these years STILL don’t really understand Wrigley Field,” one close observer said. “They don’t get players who can be successful there. I mean, when you get a chance, go take a look at what Alfonso Soriano is hitting at Wrigley Field.”*
*Soriano is hitting .262/.313/.471 at Wrigley, and he has hit a bit better on the road over his Cubs career, though the bigger problem with Soriano seems to be that the Cubs signed him to a gigantic contract and he has not hit all that great anywhere for five years.
Another theory is that the Cubs make panicked moves because of their desperation to finally win. And that would be an interesting theory except that an even more popular theory is that the Cubs are perfectly fine with losing — because the fans will show up anyway. The attendance consistency is easy to see. In 1968 — when the Cubs started to get good after all those years in the wilderness — they drew a million people for the first time since the early 1950s. They kept drawing a million every year through the lousy seasons of the 1970s. In 1984, when the Cubs behind Sandberg almost reached the World Series, they drew 2 million fans for the first time. They drew 2 million (or were real close) every year for 20 years. In 2004, a year after the Cubs biggest heartbreak of all, they drew three million fans for the first time. They have drawn three million every year since.
And so, a few people along the way told me, point blank, that the Cubs lose because there’s no real reason NOT to lose.
“I don’t buy it” Garlin says. “Cubs fans want to win. Those big crowds? It’s the tourists. If you come to Chicago, you have to go Wrigley Field. If the White Sox played in Wrigley Field they would draw three million.”
The Cubs have not done a good job developing every day players — they haven’t really developed a good one since Mark Grace, though Geovany Soto has had his moments and there are many who believe 21-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro will become a star. The Cubs have spent a lot of money on players who underachieved, with Soriano being the poster child. And yet, with all that, the Cubs did have the best record in the National League in 2008, made the playoffs in 2007, were those five outs away in 2003, won 88 games in 2001 and 89 games in 2004, we’re not talking about a Kansas City Royals or Pittsburgh Pirates run of losing here.
“You know why the Cubs have lost?” Garlin asks. “Bad players. Bad management. Bad luck. That’s it. That’s the whole story here. People talk about all these other things, no, it’s not any other things. Bad players. Bad management. Bad luck.”
* * *
“Chicago fans don’t care about Bartman,” a journalist tells me. “That’s the national media that keeps bringing him back up. Chicago fans, the real ones, they moved on. There was a lot of emotion when it happened. But real Chicago fans don’t blame Bartman.”
You know the story. It was 2003. The Cubs led the Marlins 3-0 going into the eighth inning and had their best pitcher — probably the best pitcher in the National League — Mark Prior on the mound. He got the first out of the eighth. After a double, Luis Castillo hit a foul ball into the left-field corner, where the stands cozy up to the foul line. Several fans reached for the ball, but one, a fan named Steve Bartman, touched it. At the moment he touched it, Cubs left fielder Moises Alou had leaped for the ball.
The moment might have passed unnoticed, but Alou was furious. Later, he would be quoted by my friend, AP Columnist Jim Litke, saying he would not have caught the ball, and after that he would be quoted saying he never said that (or he only said it to make Bartman feel better), but in the moment he was sure he would have caught it and he slammed his glove down angrily. This turned all the attention in the world — and, more than the world, of Wrigley Field — on poor Steve Bartman. There was outrage. People screamed at him. Television followed him. Litke would write after that game that Mark Redman, who was pitching for the Marlins in Game 7, turned to a teammate and said: “Let’s make this kid famous.”
The Cubs collapsed. There’s a line I heard once that goes something like this: Winners need to succeed and losers just need a scapegoat. I don’t know if that’s true, but the Cubs allowed eight runs in the inning, thanks to big hits, a crucial error, and Dusty Baker’s fetish for the intentional walk — the Cubs offered TWO that inning. And the Cubs lost Game 7 with Kerry Wood on the mound, and they blew a 5-3 lead in that one too.
“You know what I did when I saw the Bartman play?” Steve Hirschtick asks. “I was on the floor laughing. Really. I was choking with laughter. I had friends call me up with condolences, they thought I was going to be suicidal or something. No. I was here in Thailand laughing my head off. Who else could that happen to? The Red Sox talk about their curse? Come on. Who else? “
“I want to hug Bartman,” Garlin says. “I really do. … I will say this, I know I would not have touched the ball like Bartman. You know why? I would have been running away from the ball like a little girl. I would have been hiding and hoping that the ball didn’t hit me. It makes me sick the way Bartman was treated.”
Joe Mantegna has a more pragmatic view.
“If I was Dusty Baker, I would have taken that poor kid into the clubhouse and said, “You guys are just going to let THIS GUY take the blame for what just happened? You guys are going to hide behind this guy who and let him take the blame for 100 years of failure?”
“Of course it wasn’t Bartman. These are the Cubs. It was predestined. It it wasn’t Bartman, a meteor would have hit the mound.”
* * *
Jeff Garlin was living with Conan O’Brien in an apartment across the street from Wrigley when they first turned on the lights for the first time in 1988. He said that when they first turned on the lights, it felt like there was a helicopter hovering outside his window.
It’s amazing to think back now — almost 25 years later — that a baseball team refused to put lights in their home stadium. This had, for a long time, simply been a Phil Wrigley quirk. He wanted the Cubs to be a good neighbor. After a while, it became tradition, and once something becomes tradition there is no recourse. People argued about it constantly, but for so many years nothing changed. Sure, some thought the day games were a big part of the Cubs troubles.
“Sure it hurt the team,” former Cubs pitcher Mike Krukow says. “All those day games were brutal. They were exhausting. We’d come home from a trip, late late at night, and we had to be up the next morning to play. We’d go out at night, we had to be up the next morning to play. The heat … sure, it wore us down.”
Others, though, just thought the Cubs stood for a time when baseball was better. “I hate what they’ve done to the game,” Garlin says. “I do. I hate all these playoffs. I hate starting games late at night so nobody can stay up to watch ’em. Everything changes, but I don’t think baseball should change. … Wrigley Field is fine at night. I’ve seen night games there. It’s fine. It’s still good. But in the day, it’s magical.”
Eventually, of course, the Cubs gave in to modern times. Cubs fans like to point out that the first night game at Wrigley Field rained out — God, they say, was crying. The next night, the Cubs beat the Mets 6-4 when Jody Davis, Shawon Dunston, Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace and Andre Dawson got five hits in a row. And now there are lights at Wrigley. There are no Cubs officials in the crowd trying to put hexes on opponents. Lou Brock (and Ernie Broglio) have long retired, Ryne Sandberg and Leon Durham too, even Sammy Sosa’s gone. Harry Caray’s gone, though his voice still sings “Take Me Out To the Ballgame” sometimes. The world keeps on turning.
“You know,” Mantegna says, “when I was a kid my Dad used to show me the outfield fence at Wrigley Field. And he would tell me that he could remember when there was no fence out there, that people used to just be there. And he would say then they built a fence and it was made of wood and you could see through the cracks. And I would think, ‘Yeah? Who gives a s—-. Let’s have a hot dog.’
“And so all these years later, that’s what I do. I can tell my kids — you know, the Cubs used to only play day games, and Wrigley Field was the only park without any lights. And my kids can say, ‘Yeah? Who gives a s—-. Let’s have a hot dog.’ My point is, people my age, we can share that nostalgia. We can remember. But it doesn’t mean anything. It’s still baseball. It’s still Wrigley Field. And the Cubs always lose in the end.”