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[posted 11.28.2003]


THIS YEAR MARKED THE 100th anniversary of baseball’s World Series, but for years to come the playoffs that led up to this year’s fall classic are more likely to remain in the collective American mind than the series itself. The Cubs and the Sox: Everyone from sportswriters to the UPS guy waxed on and on for weeks about how wonderful a World Series matchup between these two teams would be.

Each carried generations of tragic history into the playoffs — a combined 180 years without a World Series championship — and so the prospect of the Cubs and Sox meeting in the World Series captured everyone’s imagination for one simple reason:

One of them would actually have to win.

Of course, the two teams’ histories don’t really resemble each other. The Red Sox have fielded several great baseball teams over the years and have reached the World Series many times. They just haven’t won one since 1918. The Cubs, though — theirs is a different kind of misery altogether. Not only have they failed to win the championship since 1908, but they haven’t even made it to the final since 1945. What the teams share, however, is that over the years their failures have become among the most well known staple stories in baseball history.

We’ve all heard, of course, how the Red Sox were cursed for trading Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees and that the Cubs’ fate was sealed when someone denied a goat entrance to Wrigley Field (A goat! Does any ballpark make it common practice to let goats attend games? Curse us all!), but never mind that nonsense. I’m more interested in something else…

What makes us adore these tragic cases?

After all, consider the Chicago White Sox, who offer a perfect contrast to their north-side counterparts. The White Sox last won the World Series in 1917, a year before Boston’s last championship; they haven’t made it to the big dance since 1959; and they have a black spot in their history that makes Boston’s Curse of the Bambino seem laughable. And yet you’ll never hear a White Sox fan blame Shoeless Joe Jackson for the decades of failure dating back to the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal. They don’t believe in curses, they don’t embrace their team’s failures and they don’t wax poetic about losing.

And so, while White Sox fans grow increasingly bitter with each season, the Cubs faithful are the exact opposite. They have turned their failures into something else. Deep down they seem to enjoy the drama of each tragic season, while remaining ever optimistic that next year will be their year. It’s the emo scene of baseball: Wallowing in heartbreak each fall, hopes turned to the eternal promise of spring, and spring training. That’s the life of a Cubs fan — and they love it.

Now, I’m not trying to suggest that Cubs fans don’t really want to win. As we all saw last month, that is clearly not the case. But what would have happened if they had defeated the Marlins? What will happen if they ever actually do win it all?

To begin with, the party in Chicago would be greater than that of all six Bulls NBA championship celebrations combined. More important, however, the lives of Cub fans would be changed forever — the end of the world as they’ve known it.

Because they’d no longer be a tragic story in baseball lore. Fans would be cheering just another baseball team, this year’s Anaheim Angels. And if the Cubs had gone on to win it all this year, imagine how their fans would have reacted the next time they had a losing season. There’d be no more “loveable losers,” no more “wait until next year.” Having tasted victory, they would expect nothing less in the future. And Chicago’d be in danger of having bitter fans on both sides of town.

The night after the Cubs lost the NLCS to the Florida Marlins, I talked to a die-hard Cubs fan who had dragged herself to our psych. class. Her hair was pulled back, she hadn’t bothered with makeup, and she looked like she hadn’t had a minute of sleep the night before. I gave her my condolences about the loss, and she assured me she was all right.

“I expected this to happen,” she said.

I reminded her that she had a lot to be proud of, that the Cubs had only won 67 games the previous year, and to come back and make it as far as they had was a massive turn in the right direction.

But my words didn’t comfort her much. It was still 58 years since the Cubs last won a pennant, and 95 years since their last World Series Championship. Like every fall she had endured so far in her life, all she had left to hold onto was next year.

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andy cline lives and works in the west suburbs of chicago.