Next Year Could Be This Year

If you live in Chicago or one of the many Midwestern enclaves where baseball fans live and die with the fortunes of their Cubs every year, you are probably getting a little nervous right about now.

It's the middle of August and your Cubbies haven't collapsed in the standings yet. No June Swoon. No July Swan Dive. And the August dog days have not seen the Cubs screw the pooch - not yet anyway. If I didn't know any better, I would have to say that the Cubs are genuine contenders for their division and perhaps even the National League crown.

Then again, I know better.

I know that you just don't ignore the curse of the Billy Goat as if it weren't real. The curse is ignored at the team's peril. It has produced legendary collapses in the standings, freak injuries, strange bounces of the ball at crucial times during vital games, and, of course, Steve Bartman.

Bartman is the hapless Cubs fan who is accused of single handedly keeping the Cubs out of the 2003 World Series by supposedly interfering with a pop foul down the left field line at Wrigley Field in the 8th inning of game 6 of the League Championship Series against the Marlins with the Cubbies up 3 games to 2 and 5 outs away from their first World Series appearance since 1945. Cubs hurler Mark Prior was pitching a 3 hit shutout at the time and the Cubs were ahead 3-0 with one out in the inning when left fielder Moises Alou ambled over to the wall to catch the ball only to have Mr. Bartman reach out and snag it before Alou had a chance to get a glove on it.

Replays clearly showed the ball was catchable by Alou. But it was the left fielder's angry, disgusted reaction and his glaring at the poor young man that set the fans off. They pelted Bartman with beer, popcorn, hot dog wrappers, and anything that wasn't nailed down. They kept it up as Bartman, for his own safety, was escorted from the park by a phalanx of beefy Chicago cops. And they kept right on throwing things on the field when the Marlins, given a second chance, went on to score 8 runs in the inning, winning game six and then coming from behind once again in game seven to defeat the Northsiders and take the series 4 games to 3.

The aftermath of the incident was surreal. A Da-Daist playwright couldn't have come up with anything more bizarre than what happened next. Bartman was hounded by Cubs fans from across the country. A newspaper published his name and address as well as his place of work. He was the butt of late night jokes for weeks. Political cartoons featured Bartman hiding out with Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden. The ball Bartman tried to catch was actually scooped up by a Chicago lawyer who sold it at auction where it was bought by a Chicago restaurateur named Grant DePorter for the astronomical sum of $113,824.16. The ball was later blown to smithereens on live television by a special effects wizard from Hollywood and what was left of it was steamed - the essence of which was added to the soup at Harry Carey's landmark restaurant in downtown Chicago.

To say that this incident could have happened anywhere else in the Major Leagues or maybe anyplace else in the universe is simply denying reality. Finding bizarre, inventive ways to lose has been the hallmark of Chicago Cubs teams since 1908 - their last world championship. That record of utter futility is even more remarkable when you consider the fact that the next closest championship drought in professional sports is a tie between the Arizona Cardinals who haven't won a championship since 1948 when they were the Chicago Cardinals and the Cleveland Indians whose last World Series title was the same year. That's a 40 year gap between the haplessness of the Cubs and their next closest competitors in the hopelessness derby.

But Cubs fans the world over are daring to ask the question: Could this year be the year? Trailing the Milwaukee Brewers by 1.5 games in the division and 4 games out of the Wild Card race, the Cubs go into the stretch run banged up, battered, and bruised, but not broken. Missing from the lineup until the first week in September is their best player, Alfonso Soriano, who injured a quad muscle on August 8. Soriano has been the heart and soul of the offense and has performed brilliantly at times. All-star third baseman Aramis Ramirez has a gimpy leg, while several other players are just coming off or going on the disabled list.

Granted, the Cubs record as I write this are just one game above .500 at 60-59, with the team having won just 3 of its last 11 games. But it doesn't feel like a typical Cubs collapse; rather a bump in the road on the way to possible immortality. Manager Lou Piniella, one of the more intense personalities in baseball, will see to it that the injuries and other bad breaks will not be used as excuses as they sometimes have been in the past by the club. And the fact that they play in the weakest division in baseball will help the Cubs stay in contention probably down to the wire.

There is still time for the Billy Goat curse to work its dastardly magic. But perhaps the Cubs have something even more powerful on their side; simple, dumb luck. The law of averages has got to catch up to the club some day. Balls that would normally fall inches out of reach of Cub fielders may start to be caught. Bad hops of the ball could bounce their way. Ground balls could "have eyes" and squirt through the infield for key hits. Victory could be snatched from the jaws of defeat rather than vice versa.

Anything is possible. And God knows, Cubs fans deserve all the luck the fates can bestow on them. They've been saying "Wait until next year" for so long, eventually one of these years, by sheer weight of history and the odds, will be the year.

Rick Moran blogs at Right Wing Nut House