Culture

Chicago and Cleveland -- Perennial Losers -- Make It to the World Series

Baseball is a game that, perhaps more than any other, lends itself to metaphor. It’s a game where myth and legend often collide with reality, yielding surprising results.

The metaphors are coming hot and heavy today as the Chicago Cubs — dubbed “lovable losers” by their fans — are going to face off in the World Series against the Cleveland Indians. The Indians would also be known as “lovable losers” if the moniker hadn’t already been taken.

Both franchises have amassed an awesome record of futility that will almost certainly never be matched in the history of professional sports. Cleveland has not won a World Series title since 1948, although they have appeared in four World Series since then. Meanwhile, the Cubs haven’t even been to the World Series since 1945. Their last championship was in 1908, which was almost exactly the same time that the first Model-T rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly line (October 1).

Not to take anything away from Cleveland, but the Cubs’ record of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is unmatched in baseball history. The list of Cubs failures is recited by fans like a Catholic recites a litany. The collapse of 1968, blowing a 13-game lead in September. The 1984 National League Championship Series where they blew a 2 games to nothing lead in the best of 5 series against San Diego when the normally reliable first basemen Leon Durham saw a ground ball scoot through his legs which opened the floodgates and led to a series loss.

In 2003, the Cubs held a 3-1 game lead over the Marlins in the best of 7 series, only to witness one of the most bizarre incidents in sports history. A fan — Steve Bartman — reached over the railing in the stands along the 3rd base line and tried to catch a foul ball. Unfortunately for the Cubs, left fielder Moises Alou was also trying to make the catch that would have ended the inning and probably sent the Cubs to the World Series. Alas, Bartman dropped it, Alou couldn’t catch it, and the flub opened the floodgates for the Marlins, who went on to win the game and the series. Bartman was terrorized by Cubs fans. A radio DJ gave out his home address and phone number. He was fired from his job. His life became nearly unbearable.

So it’s only natural that Cubs fans — and the entire city of Chicago — would go legally insane following the team’s victory over the Dodgers last night.

ESPN’s Jayson Stark:

“This transcends baseball,” said Ryan Dempster, a man who pitched 376 games for the Cubs over nine different seasons — and never had any of them end like this. “You know how many people I saw cry tonight? People crying. People hugging each other. This is far more than a baseball game. I don’t know how to put it into words, except it’s an event in these people’s lives that they will forever remember. And to be here, to watch it all happen, was just incredible.”

So how do we define what changed on this night? After all, it wasn’t as if the Cubs won a World Series. They merely won a game that will allow them to play in the World Series — against a team from Cleveland with its own history to rewrite.

But even the Indians have at least played in four World Series since the last time the Cubs played in one. Meanwhile in Chicago, the Cubs hadn’t reached this perch on the mountain since the Harry Truman administration, hadn’t clinched a World Series berth at Wrigley since 1932, hadn’t won a single best-of-seven series since 1908.

So even though there is more to do and more baseball to play, what happened at Wrigley Field was as epic as an league championship series clincher can possibly get. The Cubs didn’t just end a drought here. They busted more ghosts than Bill Murray ever did.

“Getting to the World Series is a big accomplishment,” said the manager of this ghost-buster crew, Joe Maddon. “Of course, winning it would be even greater than that. But I still believe that, in seasons to come, people are going to believe more easily now. They’re not going to look for the next shoe to drop. They’ll believe that something good is going to occur, as opposed to something bad.”

But wait. Maybe those people actually crossed that threshold before the final out on this night. Maybe there was a sign from the heavens, in the ninth inning of this game, that it was OK to believe. Really.

It’s difficult to explain to someone not familiar with the Cubs’ mystique what this World Series appearance means to the fans. With a mix of optimism (“Wait ’till next year”) and a deep, abiding sense of fatalism, the paranoia of Cubs fans is unlike anything seen in sports. You could see it in last night’s game when, in the 9th inning, Dodgers pinch hitter Carlos Ruiz walked. Despite having a 5-0 lead, you could see the doubt creep in on the faces of fans who had seen it all before. But another pinch hitter, Yasiel Puig, hit into a game-ending double play sending the fans into paroxysms of joy.

For the casual fan. it might be worth tuning in to see if the Cubs curse is truly broken or whether their fans will be forced to utter the familiar refrain “Wait until next year.”