Sunday, October 5, 2008

RIP, 2008 Chicago Cubs

I have been a Cub fan for more than 40 years. My friend Paul and I would travel the mile and a half up Clark Street to attend games (by the way, is there any better measure of how times have changed, that our parents, certainly not neglectful in any way, would let young boys go to games by themselves?), and I got to see the beginning of the resurgence under Leo Durocher. Sadly, or perhaps happily, my family had taken our four-year Michigan residency at such a time that I missed the first magical, then tragical 1969 season.

No, we returned in 1972, the beginning of the end for the great Cubs teams; Ernie Banks had retired, Randy Hundley was pretty much done, and the second-place finish in the division only concealed some very real problems. The following season brought some decent individual stats, but the team never came together, and subsequent seasons brought teams that were almost laughable (not all games were as bad as a 22-0 pasting by the Pirates, but many of them felt that way).

There was a flurry of early-season excitement in a couple of seasons in the late '70s, but nothing really tangible until the 1984 division crown - the first postseason appearance since 1945, the Cubs won the first two games...then lost three in a row.

Four bad years, another division crown, eight more bad years, a wild card berth, four more bad years. The Cubs had their good years, but couldn't seem to build a consistent team, certainly not a consistent organization that could produce solid major leaguers that could put them in contention year after year.

And what was oddest was that nobody really seemed to care all that much. Due to a series of decisions made in the executive suite, Wrigley Field became a party site rather than a place to play baseball. And parties always attract more people than competitions. The deification of Harry Caray, a man with no Chicago connection, but an unshakable belief that the ballpark was about beer and babes and fun, a deification which continues now, more than 10 years after his death, was just a part of that. (By the way, I have it on good authority from a fellow who worked in a tavern at the time that Harry's pre-game fortification ritual involved stronger stuff than Budweiser.)

There became a perverse sense that the Cubs were "lovable losers," that we should all be content to enjoy the greatest ballpark in the world and the occasional victory, but keep expectations low on the field. The fan-unfriendly decisions continued: the extension of the bleachers, making it much less likely that fans could catch balls on the streets behind the stadium; the amazing rise in ticket prices, making it much harder for fans to go to games (unless they could wangle tax-subsidized corporate season tickets); the "authorized ticket reseller" that a court decided wasn't scalping; the movement in just a few years from 90% of the games telecast over free TV to fewer than 40%. (An extra note on this last point: spokespeople can get cavalier over these things, saying that only 15% of fans don't have cable, and the revenue model doesn't allow for old practices. But this excludes a lot of people who have been fans for years, older people living on a fixed income, or in nursing homes; it would be nice to see a bit more honest concern, and maybe some action.)

But then the company seemed to start spending money on the team. They won the division on 2003, were quite competitive in 2004, fell off a bit in 2005, had an injury-plagued awful season in 2006, but won the division in 2007 and 2008. Fans could forgive a lot of the infelicities if the team was actually winning, and everything seemed to point in the right direction.

But there is the regular season, and there is the postseason. In the 24 seasons from 1984 to 2007, the Cubs made the postseason 5 times, won only one series, had a 9-19 record (six of those victories coming in 2003). They were swept in 2007 by a good, not great, Arizona team.

2008, though, seemed to be the perfect year. The team had matured, added some good players, and many people felt that there was a beautiful symmetry in that it had been exactly 100 years since the Cubs last won the World Series (of course, if the God of Baseball has six fingers on each hand, fans shouldn't get excited until 2052...). And the team was strong, owning the best record in the league.

If you care enough to have read this far, you already know the result: A first round, three-game sweep by the (on paper) far weaker Los Angeles Dodgers. But it's not just that they lost, that happens, it's the abjectness with which they lost. Bad in every single aspect of the game, the Cubs were embarrassing.

I don't really have anything more to say right now. I'm not crushed, only a child feels crushed by the failure of paid mercenaries to perform as he would wish them to. But, in these tough times, it would have been nice to have something to cling to (I don't own guns, and I'm not particularly religious). Instead, it's just the usual sense of something lost, of excitement dampened, of hopes quelled.

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