The Chicago Cubs and the Leviathan

Doppler radar-like, I could hear it coming and I could feel it passing just by. Two Massachusetts kids raced through the third floor corridor of our dorm, wordless but louder than silence. Stationary, I stared at the red and green mess on the TV. David Ortiz had just delivered his second walkoff hit in as many nights to force a Game 6 in the 2004 ALCS between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees.

A week later: My then-Intro to Greek instructor (and now friend, for 12 years running) wondered to our class if everyone had gone crazy because of the lunar eclipse that October. Nope. The Red Sox had just sent all of Rhode Island into a frenzy by sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals to win the 2004 World Series, their first title since the year World War I ended. My English professor remarked that she knew then-President of Baseball Operations for the Red Sox Theo Epstein’s mother, who was an instructor at Boston University.

“An ancient one”
Baseball is an old sport. The Chicago Cubs began operation in 1876 as the Chicago White Stockings. Before 2016, they had last appeared in the World Series in 1945 – a year before the NBA was founded. Their 1908 title predates both the NHL and the NFL.

Professional baseball’s  19th century origins has meant that there have been some epic championship droughts. The Red Sox did not win between 1918 and 2004, the White Sox from 1917 to 2005, and the Cubs from 1908 to 2016. Even the longest current drought – belonging to the Cleveland Indians, this year’s runners-up – dates to the Harry Truman administration.

During my years in New England in the mid-2000s, and especially during the fall of 2004, the anxiety expended on the Red Sox was heavy enough to send the university campus into frenzies of relief after each victory. Sometimes I thought of this seemingly throwaway quote from Moby-Dick:

“Almost universally, a lone whale proves an ancient one.”

Why did we – even me, an 18 year-old from Kentucky who grew up rooting for the Indians – think so much about this baseball team? Because they were basically alone in their futility, and it was some truly ancient futility, dating to a time when my oldest grandparents hadn’t hit double-digits yet. The entire point of being a Red Sox fan was that you almost certainly had never seen a championship in your lifetime. Every game was life and (will we win before my) death. Generations of fans came and went, but that ancient whale – the Curse of the Bambino, traced back to the fateful 1918 day when Babe Ruth was traded from the Red Sox to the Yankees – was very much alive, however immaterial.

“This grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale”
But curses are ultimately just stories. The Red Sox curse broken during my first year in college was “only” the third longest at the time. Why was it so much more prominent than the longer White So and Cubs curses? I mean, Boston is one-sixth the size of Chicago. Both the Cubs and White Sox fanbases are substantially larger than Boston’s.

The answer: The marketing around the Curse of the Bambino was flawless. It combined specific superstitions – the Ruth backstory, the epic collapse to the New York Mets in the 1986 World Series, clips of which had been shown endlessly on ESPN in the school cafeteria during that year’s Red Sox run – with Boston’s longstanding inferiority complex compared to New York City. Being cursed, doomed to root for this alwasy second-best team, was emblematic of being a New England sports fan.

I don’t know when the Red Sox drought in particular took on the momentum of a “curse,” but 1986 seems like a good candidate. Up 3 games to 2 on the Mets, the Red Sox were at one point just one strike away from a title. Instead, the Mets rallied for several runs to completely turn the series around. Infamously, with the game tied, a hit from Mookie Wilson slipped between the ankles of Boston first baseman Bill Buckner, reaching the outfield to send the game-winning run home. Buckner was for years the face of Boston’s baseball failures.

It wasn’t his fault, though. Let’s say he grabs that ball. The game doesn’t end. The Red Sox would have batted again, but they also would have defended the lead in the bottom of the next inning since the game was at Shea Stadium. And guess what: Even with the loss, the Red Sox still had Game 7!

I wasn’t old enough to remember the Red Sox-Mets incident, but I did witness the team’s loss to the Yankess in the 2003 ALCS on Aaron Boone’s walkoff homerun in extra innings. The Red Sox had led by 3 runs as late as the 8th inning when Boston manager Grady Little – in Melville’s terminology, that “grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale” – inexplicably allowed an exhausted Pedro Martinez to keep pitching to the Yankees, allowing New York to rally. After the game ended, I thought that maybe Boston is just always going to be second-best to New York, home of the two baseball teams (Mets and Yankees) who had prolonged years of New England sports misery.

“Saturn’s grey chaos rolls over me”
The next year, Boston broke through and then won again in 2007 and 2013. I was finishing college in 2007 and I don’t remember much excitement about that title relative to 2004. The Red Sox were just another team now. The White Sox also won during my undergraduate years.

Still, the Cubs drought persisted, that unrivaled Leviathan of sports curses. No titles since 1908. No World Series appearances since 1945. I moved to Chicago in 2008 and the Cubs won the division that fall. They were swept in the first round and a championship seemed further away than ever, with the drought guaranteed to surpass 100 years.

Since I began my time in Chicago living on the South Side, I started as a White Sox fan and never had many feelings about the Cubs. There was little doubt to me though that the Cubs were the dominant baseball team in the city in terms of fandom. When I moved to Irving Park in 2009, I became accustomed to the train full of Cubs fans arriving at the nearby Metra station from the suburbs, to take the bus to Wrigley Field. The losing persisted.

Many times, I wondered why Cubs fans bothered, not having reached my realization yet that, like Red Sox and White Sox fans before them, the losing perversely made it fun, or at least unique, to be a Cubs fan. Like the Red Sox, the Billy Goat Curse was a triumph of marketing. Following that loss to the Detroit Tigers in the 1945 World Series, the Cubs were for decades the second fiddle to the much more popular White Sox teams of the 1950s an 1960s (the 1959 World Series between the White Sox and the Dodgers was the most well-attended World Series of all time). No one was particularly aware of the Cubs’ title drought even as it passed 70 years in 1978.

Everything started changing in the 1980s. WGN launched its superstation programming, bringing Cubs games into living rooms around the country. Longtime Cardinals and White Sox announcer Harry Caray became the face of the Cubs, bringing his tradition of singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the 7th inning stretch to Wrigley Field. Steve Goodman wrote “Go, Cubs, Go.”

In the 1990s, the legend was cemented by Caray’s famous “someday the Chicago Cubs will be in the World Series, and it might be a lot sooner than we think” remark in 1991, and the team’s dismal 0-14 start to the 1997 season, which would prove to be his final one. In 1998, the franchise was also at the heart of the race to break Roger Maris’s home run record, with Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa hitting 66 home runs that year.

Even then, though, the Cubs’ drought, unlike the Red Sox’s, was not one well-known for near-misses and heartbreak. The team had appeared twice in the NLCS since LCSes were first instated in 1969. They blew a 2-0 series lead to the San Diego Padres in the 1984 NLCS, which was then a best-of-5 format – a surprising, but hardly unheard of, feat. They were easily dispatched by the San Francisco Giants in the 1989 NLCS.

It’s true that in 2003 they were snakebitten. With a 3 games to 1 lead over the Florida Marlins – a team that had at one point that season been 10 games below .500 and was managed by the eccentric 72-year old Jack McKeon – in the NLCS, they were shut out in Game 5, then blew a 3-0 lead in the 8th inning of Game 6 after a controversial incident with a fan trying to catch a foul ball. The Marlins won Game 7 and then their second World Series title by defeating the Yankees the next week.

Like the Buckner incident, the “Bartman game” (Game 6) has had many of its vital details airbrushed. The foul ball was probably not catchable. Cubs starting pitcher Mark Prior had thrown over 100 pitches by the 8th inning and unsurprisingly lost his control, walking that same batter on the next pitch on a passed ball. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez botched a surefire inning-ending double play. The Marlins scored an astonishing 8 runs in just that inning.

Like other “cursed” teams, the Cubs were ultimately victims of two contradictory trends, more so than these crazy one-off incidents:

  • Until 1969, only one team from each league made the playoffs (and until 1995, only two). This limited a team’s chances unless it had the best record in its division or league. Many Red Sox teams were in fact shut out of the playoffs in the 1970s despite winning close to 100 games, since the Yankees were often better.
  • But baseball was also expanding rapidly, with more teams making it harder to win a title in any given year. The Marlins only joined in 1993, for example. Expansion has meant that there are many teams (8, to be exact) that have never won a title and likely won’t for years. Already, the Rangers and Astros have existed for 50+ years with no World Series. The Mariners and the Nationals have never even won the pennant.
  • What’s the difference between a 50-year old pre-2016 Cubs fan and say a 50 year-old Milwaukee Brewers fan? Neither had seen a title in a lifetime (the Brewers have never won the World Series). The Cubs “curse,” compounded by lack of opportunity as well as expansion, lasted so long that it became impersonal. Only 100 people on earth alive as of Nov. 4, 2016 were confirmed to have been born on Jan. 13, 1906 or earlier, which is likely the minimm for having been sentient the last time the Cubs won in 1908. It was as if they had never won at all.

Melville has another good quote for this too, one that I think of even more so than the others I have cited here:

“When I stand among these mighty Leviathan skeletons, skulls, tusks, jaws, ribs, and vertebrae, all characterized by partial resemblances to the existing breeds of sea-monsters; but at the same time bearing on the other hand similar affinities to the annihilated antichronical Leviathans, their incalculable seniors; I am, by a flood, borne back to that wondrous period, ere time itself can be said to have begun; for time began with man. Here Saturn’s grey chaos rolls over me, and I obtain dim, shuddering glimpses into those Polar eternities; when wedged bastions of ice pressed hard upon what are now the Tropics; and in all the 25,000 miles of this world’s circumference, not an inhabitable hand’s breadth of land was visible. Then the whole world was the whale’s; and, king of creation, he left his wake along the present lines of the Andes and the Himmalehs.”

To be a Cubs fan was to stand constantly amid the “might Leviathan skeletons” of their two titles (1907 and 1908) from the Theodore Roosevelt administration, seeing the “partial resemblances” of the dead ball era game to today’s multimillion dollar MLB juggernaut, thinking about their “incalculable seniors,”  many of them long since perished waiting for a Cubs title, letting your thoughts bear you back to “that wonderous period” before Wrigley Field (the second oldest park in the majors, having been finished in 1914) was even built, indeed before time itself for anyone who is currently living, obtaining only “dim, shuddering glimpses” into what it must feel like to celebrate a Cubs title, and imagining an entire world that was yours for a day as you basked in your post-championship euphoria.

Those two kids running through the 3rd floor corridor were probably heading for the quadrangle. I didn’t follow them. But they were also running into the past, letting “Saturn grey chaos” roll them back to a reconstructed past they never lived through, a virtually ancient New England where the Red Sox were somehow the world champs. Would it feel that good this time, in 2004?

I had no rooting interest in the Cubs-Indians World Series this year. But once the game pushed into extra innings, I remembered 1997. That year, the Indians lost in Game 7 in extra innins to the Marlins – exactly the situation in 2016, except against the Cubs. I had been rooting for the Indians all postseason that year, watching the games with my grandfather at his house. When the Marlins got the Series-winning double, it felt like a gut punch; I’ve never really cared about any sports outcome as I did that one, when I was still an impressionable 11 year-old. This time came close since the circumstances were so similar, at least on the TV screen. I kind of miss getting so wrapped up in somewhat meaningless things like sports fandom now. I also missed him, and wondered what it woudl have been like for him to live to see all the curses – even the great Leviathan itself, the Cubs drought – finally end, with me 30 years old and sitting next to my dad on the couch in our North Side Chicago house.




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