THIRD PLACE — “Do they still play the blues in Chicago when baseball season rolls around?”
Steve Goodman asked that eternal question before his untimely death in 1984. He continued by asking “When the snow melts away, do the Cubbies still play in their ivy-covered burial ground?”
Sort of. You see, under new leadership (field Manager Dusty Baker and General Manager Jim Hendry), the Cubs are a different kind of baseball team. In the two years of the Dusty Era, the Cubs have still proven to be losers. They did string together two winning seasons for the first time in 30 years.
But in baseball, there are 30 teams and only one can win the World Series. When you haven’t won a World Series since 1908, or even competed for the trophy since 1945, it’s easy to draw the lines between winning and losing. You either bring home the hardware in October, or you lost.
The Dusty Cubs, though, are at least closer to winning than earlier editions. For much of my youth (save 1984, 1989 and 1998), the Cubs were out of contention far before the last week of September. In fact, I’m 25 and my dad is 52, and we’ve both seen the exact same amount of post-season series victories — one. Anyone who’s 95 or younger falls in the same boat.
So we’re getting somewhere here. We as Cubs fans are learning what it’s like to be fans of a good team that’s not quite good enough. Last year, I was so shaken by the debacle of the series with the Florida Marlins that I almost called in sick to work just so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone about how I felt.
This year, as the Cubs wasted away plenty of opportunities to stake their claim as one of the premiere teams in the National League, I was a little more conditioned. When the final week collapse was in full throttle — including three extra-inning losses to lousy teams like the Mets and the Reds — I was disgusted and disappointed, but not disenchanted with life in general.
I had wanted to write this column, a eulogy for the 2004 Cubs, as a way to prove how much of a real baseball fan I am, to say the Cubs and their fans should take no solace in any minor success this year. It was World Series or bust — especially after the Nomar Garciaparra trade — and the Cubs rolled craps.
But gosh darn it, even the horrors of this year couldn’t shake the eternal optimist in me. I just spent at least three hours of each day since April watching a team that featured a leadoff hitter who couldn’t get on base, a bullpen that couldn’t hold a five-run lead, a so-called superstar who sneezed his way onto the disabled list before bailing out on his teammates, a left fielder who never met an argument he didn’t like and a relief pitcher too busy calling the press box to learn how to get batters out and I still have good feelings about this season.
We had one guy foul a ball off his leg in June and never come back. One guy almost ended his season just by kicking an electric fan and blowing out his knee. Another guy — in his first game with the team — crashed into the outfield wall and cut his face open on the ivy. The manager’s motorcycle got a flat tire. A relief pitcher’s kid got hit by a car. The stadium was literally falling apart. Frankly, nothing at all surprises me about this team.
I wanted to side with the pundits, to dislike this team because of how it was wasting away its chances at post-season glory by focusing on things like the media or the umpires. I wanted to send a letter that said “You are the best collection of Chicago cubs I have ever seen in my life, and yet you can’t figure out a way to win 90 games. Please, for the sake of all of us praying to see a winner before we die, get your stuff straight and win.”
But I didn’t. I’m hopeless. I love the Cubs, warts and all. Maybe being a Cubs fan has allowed me to accept disappointment in my own life. Maybe it’s taught me to settle for less whenever possible, just because it’s easier. Maybe it’s too big a stretch to psychoanalyze my life based on my favorite baseball team.
So rather than drown my 2004 sorrows listening to Goodman’s “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request,” I’m already getting excited about 2005. I’m looking at how well Mark Prior pitched last Thursday and imagining that played out over 32 starts. I’m already penciling in Aramis Ramirez as an All-Star and MVP candidate.
And, in what some may describe as an act of child abuse, I’m already teaching my five-month-old son (who knows the last words of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” are actually “let’s get some runs”) the other Steve Goodman baseball song — “Go Cubs Go”
“Hey Chicago, what do you say?” Goodman sings. “The Cubs are going to win today.”
Well, maybe not today. Today is reserved for the teams that actually made the playoffs. But wait ’til next year.