Why All the Love for the Cubs' Consistent Failure?
“Lots o’ folks confuse bad management with destiny.” — Kin Hubbard
The good news, a commodity in short supply, is that Americans are about to get a respite from the inundating Niagara of candidates’ blather. The bad news is that the respite will be a tsunami of Cubs Gush, which will slosh from sea to shining sea. So, brace yourself for a surfeit of dubious sociology and worse metaphysics. There is something about baseball, and especially about the Chicago National League Ball Club, that triggers — consider this column a trigger warning — incontinent rhapsodizing and nonsensical theorizing by otherwise sensible citizens.
The mesmerizing arithmetic of the moment is that the Cubs last won the World Series in 1908, when Teddy Roosevelt was president. Today the nation that is selecting its 45th president is as distant from 1908 as that year was from the second presidency, that of John Adams.
In the sport of the long season, after playing 162 games in 183 days, a team is what its record says it is, and the Cubs have baseball’s best record. This year’s team is vastly more talented than the team that made the Cubs’ last appearance in the World Series, in 1945, when many of the major league’s best players were still wearing military uniforms. (The Tigers had enough of them to defeat the Cubs in seven games.) From 1946 through 2014, just before today’s team materialized, the Cubs were 714 games — almost four and a half 162-game seasons — under .500 (5,095 wins, 5,809 losses).
Ethicists say losing builds character. Cub fans, who are mostly scar tissue, say they already have quite enough character, thank you. Dime-store anthropologists brood about how a Series win might puncture the mystique of the “lovable losers.” But what is lovable about consistent failure? For that, Americans have government.
Some Cub fans, luxuriating in losing, have taken a perverse pride in their team’s colorful failures, such as third baseman Don Hoak striking out six times in a 17-inning game. Or second baseman Glenn Beckert stranding 12 runners in a nine-inning game. Or Lou “The Mad Russian” Novikoff trying to steal third base — with the bases loaded. (He explained that he got “a good jump on the pitcher.”) Or shortstop Lennie Merullo making four errors in one inning. (He had a son born that day who was nicknamed Boots.) Or pitcher Dickie Noles being traded for himself. (Sent to the Tigers for a player to be named later, he promptly surrendered a bases-loaded triple, so the Tigers designated him the player named later and shipped him back to Chicago.)
Some Cub fans seem to relish theories about how curses or karma have destined the Cubs for failure. Actually, for many years the team’s management, having inherited a dandy ballpark but having no clue how to build a good team, decided to market Wrigley Field’s charms: The grass would be so green, the ivy so lush, the beer so cold and the sunshine (there were no night games until 1988) so warm that no one would care what the scoreboard said. Phil Wrigley, son of William, after whom the ballpark is named, even encouraged calling it Cubs Park rather than Wrigley Field because people like going to a park. This, he said, would appeal to “people not interested in baseball.” Good grief.
Wrigley’s bleachers became the best singles bar on the North Side, and the ballpark became a health resort for visiting teams. Then, in 2009, the Ricketts family, which did not make enough money to buy the Cubs by being indifferent to excellence, turned the team over to son Tom, who met his wife in Wrigley’s bleachers but who is agreeably unsentimental about the cult of futility.
So, all you purveyors of Cubs Gush, listen up. Referring to Wrigley Field as a “baseball cathedral” should be a flogging offense. It is just a nice little place on the North Side where men (calling major leaguers “boys of summer” should be punishable by keelhauling) work hard at a demanding and dangerous craft. And Cub fans, loyal through thin and thin, you must remember this: Your team at least won the Cold War. For years, it held spring training on Catalina Island near Los Angeles. So, when a Des Moines radio sportscaster named “Dutch” Reagan went to report on them he stopped in Hollywood for a screen test, and the Soviet Union was doomed. So there.
© 2016, Washington Post Writers Group