Chicago Cubs: ‘Anyone can have a bad century...’

As the Chicago Cubs prepare to get their play-off campaign under way, Rupert Cornwell asks what chance the unluckiest team in sport have of claiming baseball’s biggest prize – the World Series – for the first time since 1908

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The Independent Online

A nervous hope, tempered by decades of sometimes wrenching, sometimes hilarious failure, grips the North Side of the Windy City, not to mention the Chicago Cubs diaspora scattered across America and beyond. Is 2015 the year when the most loveable losers in US sport finally win the World Series?

Baseball’s play-offs, the October sprint that follows the marathon six-month, 162-game regular season, open today with the American League wild-card game between the New York Yankees and the Houston Astros. Tomorrow, the Cubs take on the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League counterpart – and on paper the fates couldn’t have dealt the Cubs a tougher hand.

They may have compiled the third best record in the majors this year, but that was only good for third place in the all-conquering NL Central Division, behind the Pirates and the St Louis Cardinals.

If the Cubs get past Pittsburgh, they would face the Cardinals in a five-game division series. Only then would they take on either the New York Mets or the Los Angeles Dodgers for the  NL championship and a spot in the World Series.

And the Cubs being the Cubs, there’s dark superstition to overcome as well. In October 1945, legend has it, the owner of the local Billy Goat Tavern brought his pet goat to a World Series game at Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ ballpark, but was asked to leave because other fans were complaining about the animal’s smell.

“Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more,” its owner reputedly declared in fury as he departed Wrigley.

And they haven’t. They blew that 1945 series to the Detroit Tigers and haven’t won an NL championship since.

The Curse of the Billy Goat isn’t exactly Greek tragedy, but the team remains without a World Series crown since 1908, the longest such exercise in futility in American professional sport. As one recent Cubs manager endearingly put it: “Anyone can have a bad century.”

In 2003, the Cubs did briefly glimpse the end of the tunnel, when they were five outs away from beating the Florida Marlins and winning the NL pennant.

Then a Cubs fan called Steve Bartman wrecked everything by leaning down from the stands to catch a fly ball (as fans everywhere do). In the process, alas, he prevented a Cubs outfielder from making the catch. The Cubs duly folded and Bartman had to be escorted from Wrigley Field for his own safety. The Curse had struck again.

This year, however, everything feels different. The franchise has ambitious new owners who have launched a sweeping modernisation of venerable but creaking Wrigley.

In 2011, whizzkid executive Theo Epstein was brought in from the Boston Red Sox to take charge of baseball operations. In Boston, Epstein had proved himself an able exorcist, getting the Sox over their own “Curse of the Bambino” (deriving from the team’s sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919) and guiding them to their first World Series victory in 86 years.

The Epstein era in Chicago may have started out as business as usual, with the Cubs finishing bottom of their division in 2012, 2013 and 2014, but overlooked amid the usual jokes, a talented young team was taking shape. Now it’s blossomed.

The cornerstone, as always, is pitching, with a rotation led by Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. Lester had previously flourished under Epstein in Boston; the real revelation has been Arrieta, unrecognisable from the journeyman who once flopped with the Baltimore Orioles, putting together a 22-6 season, with an ERA [earned run average] of 1.77. Behind them, the bullpen has been solid, anchored by closer Hector Rondon.

The offense has provided its own revelations, too – not just first baseman Anthony Rizzo, a pillar in the middle of the line-up, but a remarkable group of rookies led by Kris Bryant, the 23-year-old third baseman, who’s hit 26 home runs and collected 99 RBIs [runs batted in] in his first season in the majors. Debutants they may be, but these newcomers have shown nerves of ice on the big-league stage.

The Cubs have two other things going for them. One is manager Joe Maddon, who between 2006 and 2014 worked wonders for the unfashionable Tampa Bay Rays before moving to Chicago. Relaxed and wise, Maddon has been crucial in keeping those rookies loose.

Second, perhaps even more important, the Cubs are hot. Rarely does the best regular-season team in baseball win the Series; as often as not it’s a wild-card team that’s playing well at the right moment.

This time, Chicago fits the bill perfectly. St Louis and Pittsburgh have wobbled slightly of late, but the Cubs wrapped up the season with eight straight wins, even after clinching their wild-card berth on 26 September.

Maybe the Pirates-Cardinals gauntlet may prove too much, but if the Cubs can survive that, why shouldn’t they go all the way?

The Mets and Dodgers are far from unbeatable. As for  the American League, the biggest threats are the mighty sluggers of the Toronto Blue Jays and the Kansas City Royals, edged out by the wild card San Francisco Giants in the 2014 Series. Again, both beatable.

First, though, come the Pirates and forgiving Cubs fans even raised $5,000 in a whip-round to send the long-vilified Bartman to the game in Pittsburgh. He politely declined the offer, saying: “I can pay my own way.” 

Translated: better not upset the Billy Goat.

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