Soon enough, the panic will set in. We’re Cubs fans, and we have two default settings, anguish and doom. Occasionally we allow ourselves to get really excited about our team, but that doesn’t happen often, and it is always followed by a good, thorough soul crushing.
I’ve spent months both here and at The Athletic trying to convince everyone that this time it will be different. I have no hard evidence to support that. The weight of 108 years of disappointment carries a kind of momentum that mostly crushes everything in its path.
I could contend that the reason it will be different is because none of those previous incarnations of Cubs teams were as talented as this one. I honestly think there’s a pretty good argument to be made there. We know they’re good, we watch them every day, but we’re so close to it that I’m not sure we realize just how much talent there really is on this team.
When David Ross homered Sunday night he became the ninth Cub to reach double figures in homers this year. Nine. That list does not include Kyle Schwarber or Jason Heyward. That’s the beauty of these Cubs. They don’t just have a few good players, they have a lot of them. They have a utility infielder with more than 50 RBI and he rates as the sixth best infielder in the league in terms of defensive runs saved. Javy Baez doesn’t even play every day.
I could go on about how deep the starting pitching is, and how for the first time in forever the Cubs will enter the playoffs with a real bullpen. I can make a solid case that they have the best manager and best pitching coach in the game.
They are currently 100-53 and are 19 games clear of the pack in the NL Central. They wrapped up the best record in the NL with nine games left to play. You can say that they took advantage of a down year in the usually-mighty Central, but honestly, they were the cause of a big hunk of that. They won 13 of the first 16 games they played against Pissburgh this year. If the Pirates had held their own, and gone say, just 8-8 they’d not just be in the thick of the wild card race. They’d be ahead of the Cardinals.
But that’s not the point of any of this. We have plenty of time between now and October 7 to preview the Cubs playoff run. Today, I want to do something different. I want to use the rare moment of serenity you get when your team has wrapped up all of its pertinent regular season work with a week to go.
I want to thank them. For two seasons running they have been excellent. And we don’t get much of that around here.
You, and I have been Cubs fans for a long time. We’ve seen some shit. Most of it bad. Some of it fun, and too much of the good went bad in the kind of traumatic fashion that leaves you full of scar tissue.
I can remember at times in the winter after the 2003 playoffs just sitting in my office working away when suddenly I’d think of game six and want to stick my head through a closed window.
I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret about how a team can go 108 years without winning a championship. It’s pretty complicated stuff.
They had a lot of terrible teams. A lot.
And, there was some bad luck. But mostly just bad teams. From the time they were founded after the Civil War (think about that) until the end of World War II, the Cubs, for the most part were a pretty model baseball franchise. They were usually good, often excellent and on more than a few occasions they were good for prolonged stretches of time. In their first 63 seasons the Cubs finished first or second 24 times.
That included eight of their nine World Series appearances and both of their wins. From 1929 to 1938 they won four pennants and barely missed three more times.
The next 78 years would not be so kind. They would win one pennant, and that was during World War II. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Cubs success was directly a result of having lots of key players too old or too infirm to meet the desperately low requirements for active duty.
By 1948 they were a last place team, and they wouldn’t post a winning season again until 1967. Nineteen sixty seven! That’s post-Leyland Pirates level of ineptitude.
Those Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins Cubs would post six straight winning seasons, but never finish higher than second (which they did three times). Then, the franchise went right back into the shitter. They wouldn’t post a record over .500 again for 12 seasons.
You might remember those Cubs of 1984. But think about that. From 1947 through 1983 the Cubs finished above .500 six times. Six times in 36 years.
That is how you go 100 years without winning a fucking thing. This year marks only the 18th time the Cubs have finished above .500 in the last 69 years (not nice). But even .500 is a bullshit standard. How about this? The Cubs have finished ten or more games out of first place 61 times in the last 70 years. When you are non-competitive in 87 percent of your seasons over seven decades, you make it pretty hard to win anything substantial.
If you look at the supposed “curses” you will, of course, find out there’s nothing really there. Most teams who have played a sport this long have seasons where weird shit happened. If the Cubs had been competitive in just half of their seasons since their last World Series appearance losing a big mid-summer lead in 1969, or a ball going through the legs of a first baseman at a key time, or a Gold Glove caliber shortstop clanking a sure double play a couple of batters after a fan knocked a foul ball away from a left fielder are just anecdotes. But when you mail in 87 percent of your seasons with no chance to actually compete, these things take on inflated significance.
Think back to the few playoff teams we’ve had to root for. How many of them really had a chance to actually win something? The 1998 Cubs were lucky to get into a tiebreaker game to get into the playoffs as a wild card. The 2007 Cubs were not good. So that leaves just five teams in 70 years with a decent shot at winning a pennant or a World Series. Those aren’t good odds.
So these current Cubs get the sixth legitimate chance to win a pennant since the last time the Cubs won one. In the good old days, they’d have already won it. They’d be kicked back and waiting to see if they’d play the Red Sox or Rangers who currently lead the American League with puny little 92 win seasons.
Instead they’ll have to win seven more games to win the pennant. Seven little games. Doesn’t seem like a lot to ask. They can even lose five games along the way if they spread them out just right.
This is the part where we’re supposed to be worried. This is the part where the whole “baseball’s playoffs are a crapshoot” and “anybody can get hot for a week and take out the best team.” Those things aren’t wrong. In fact, some will argue that last year’s Cubs proved that by taking out the 100 win Cardinals.
But the reality is that the Cubs, and the Pirates had both been better than the Cardinals for several weeks at the end of last season, especially once the Cardinals lost Carlos Martinez and the the apparently irreplaceable Yadier Molina at the end of the regular season and Lance Lynn during the playoffs. Plus, even though the Cardinals won 100 games, they only won two more than Pissburgh and three more than the Cubs. Statistically, the three teams were equals. So the only reason it was a shock to anybody that the Cubs beat the Cardinals was because surely the Cubs would never beat the mighty Cardinals in something as important as a playoff series.
If the Cubs lose in the first round to the Giants, Cardinals or Mets it won’t be a stunning upset, it’ll be a goddamned international tragedy. Not because of the Cubs tortured past, but because they are a shit-ton better than any of those three clown shows.
Getting by the Dodgers or Nationals in the NLCS will be no easy feat.
But that’s why winning the whole thing is a big deal. Because it’s hard. That’s why it’s worth it.
And so, while I will be satisfied with nothing short of a pennant (and they might as well just win the whole fucking thing and get it out of the way), I am not enough of insufferable bore to pretend this hasn’t already been a great season.
From day one, the Cubs, OUR Cubs have been the class of baseball. They do everything well. They have a great starting rotation. They have a dominant bullpen. The offense can grind pitchers into submission. The defense is without peer. Their players can change positions from game to game or inning to inning without sacrificing anything in the field. It’s a team full of great players who are also great athletes. And, they don’t act like assholes. They act like they love to play baseball, they love to play baseball together and they love to play for the Cubs.
Gone are the days when Phil Nevin would make life miserable for everyone else on the team and trade himself to the Twins. Or when our beloved Greggie Maddux would escape his second stint with the team by having his agent arrange a trade to the Dodgers for Cesar Izturis and Blake DeWitt.
It wasn’t very long ago that the Cubs were a shit show organization form the owner’s box to the front office to the field to the minor leagues. They were a joke. They were a laughingstock. And now, against all odds, they are one of the marquee teams in the sport. It’s what they always should have been.
But they weren’t.
But now they are.
Joe Maddon raised some eyebrows last week when, while talking up his current team, he marveled that they should be even better next year. He’s not wrong. They’re doing this without one of the most feared young sluggers in the game.
As much as that sucked, it’s the beauty of this organization that Kyle Schwarber’s injury hardly slowed them down. As other teams lament an injury or two down the stretch, the Cubs are the best team in baseball without a left fielder who was probably going to hit 40 home runs this year. So boo hoo hoo.
Earlier this year I wrote that this didn’t seem like a season as much as it did a reckoning. They were out to settle nearly eleven decades of scores in one furious season. I know, that was mostly bullshit. These guys don’t seem particularly worried about any Cubs history, recent or distant. They’re not here to take away generations of pain, they are here to win a World Series for themselves, right now. That’s how it should be.
And so, next week begins the next ride of Anthony Rizzo and his Immortals. Where it will end, nobody knows yet. But it promises to be fun and horrifying and exhilarating and terrifying.
And after so many years on the sidelines in October, we wouldn’t have it any other way.