Saturday, October 22, 2016

Cubs Knocking on the Door

The Cubs are one win away from their first World Series since 1945.

The palpable tension of 1984, '89, '98, '03, '07 & '08 has yet to take effect on the current iteration of the Chicago Cubs National League Ballclub. Due to the measured and impressive rebuild that the Cubs have undergone since 2012, Cubs fans have great confidence in how competitive the club will be over the next few years. This is a tenuous mental place to be as a sports fan, with countless examples of fan bases thinking their team was on the uptick, only to see their window of competitiveness shut without any championships.

This happens in all sports, but the Cubs were at times willing participants in the "lovable losers" labeling. Since World War 2, the Cubs have been so bad, that they played zero postseason games between 1945 and 1984. Cubs fans would always end the season with a "Wait 'til Next Year" shrug. Rooting for the '84 Cubs with Ryno, Jody, Sutcliffe, Leon Durham, this was finally "Next" year! Until it wasn't.

When the Northsiders rolled into the playoffs in '89, they had an older Ryno, a young Greg Maddux, Mark Grace, Andre Dawson, Shawon Dunston, plus the top 2 rookies in NL ROY voting: Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith. That was Don Zimmer's team. This was the year! Except, it wasn't.

The 1945 Cubs won 98 games in the regular season, but
lost Game 7 of the World Series to the Detroit Tigers

A lot happened between 1989 and 1998. Not necessarily with regard to the Cubs, but the fact is that a lot changes in NINE YEARS. Harry Carry passed away in February 1998. He would've loved that season, while Sosa and McGwire chased Maris. This was not a very good Cubs team. Fans figured this HAD to be the year. The curse of the billy goat is a fully overblown narrative. Playoff tension may not be the reason this team lost because, again, this was not a great team, but the tension that exists from perceived curses, from hope, drama and despair, all that built up and reared its ugly head by Jim Riggleman's club. A Braves team with Greg Maddux swept these Cubs, emphatically showing that this was not going to be The Year.

Jim Hendry's 2003 team was beautiful and flawed. They "upgraded" at manager with Dusty Baker. At the top of the rotation, they had co-aces Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. This team really succeeded with depth in the rotation. With Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement, the Cubs had four starters who threw over 200 innings in 2003. The Cubs threw Dontrelle Willis into a trade for Clement and Antonio Alfonseca. This team also greatly benefited from a mid-season trade, when they acquired Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton from the division rival Pirates. This team was pretty loaded, with great pitching, and some thunder in the lineup. Sosa, Alou, Ramirez... They were in the same position this year's team is in. They are up 3 games to 2 in the NLCS and about to host Game 6 in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. This team was 5 outs away from winning Game 6 and advancing to the World Series. They had the lead, and their best pitcher was on the mound. A few things happened, the Cubs collapsed in the top of the 8th in Game 6. They had a lead in Game 7, but lost that one, too. This was going to be the year, but of course, it wasn't.

That team of 2003 seemed like was the beginning of something special. We had Wood, Prior, Zambrano - we'd be good for a few years and have more chances!

It didn't work out that way.

Jim Hendry reloaded to some extent. He "upgraded" again at manager. This time, hiring Lou Piniella, who won a World Series in 1990, which can be argued is similar to modern baseball.

Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Again, we are dealing with good, but flawed, teams. For he 2007 roster, they spent money on guys like Alfonso Soriano, Ted Lilly, Derek Lee. The team had Michael Barrett, Jacque Jones, and Rich Hill. They didn't win a playoff games, getting swept by the Diamondbacks. In 2008, they invested in Kosuke Fukudome and Rich Harden. They successfully moved Dempster from closer to starting pitcher. They didn't win a playoff game and were swept by the Dodgers. They pressure of sustained postseason ineptitude took a physical toll on Lou Piniella and his players.

Maybe it's because of a fundamental change in the Cubs' culture. Give the front office, Maddon, and the coaches credit for this titanic reversal in mindset. When Theo got here, the Cubs had been playing like a cursed team for years. On the contrary, we don't see players from the 2015 or 2016 Cubs afraid of expectations nor the failures of prior generations. Even through his struggles before Game 4, Rizzo was a conduit of constant affirmation in the Cubs winning. Joe Maddon certainly doesn't seem to stress about much of anything. Theo Epstein has looked a bit tense in the stands the past couple of nights, but none of his in-game nervousness permeates the dugout.

Game 6 of the 2016 NLCS is tonight. No-one can blame the Cubs if they lose to Clayton Kershaw and are forced to host a Game 7 tomorrow. Anything better than the fiasco of 2003 should give the team confidence going into the 7th game. What a story that would be, with ex-Cub Rich Hill taking the ball for Los Angeles with an inspiring and heartbreaking backstory of his own.

It's an emotional roller coaster. I try not to think of the Cubs fans who won't survive the winter, having never seen their team win a pennant.

Go Cubs!

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