The Cubs in the NCLS: Shaking off Defeatism

Sometime in the early 2000s–I think it was probably 2002, though maybe 2004 or 05– after a particularly stinging loss, I was at my wits end. So, before I drifted off to sleep, I prayed with the fervor of someone begging for their life. I asked God

How many freakin' memes do you think this picture generated?
How many freakin’ memes do you think this picture generated?

to please help the Cubs win, please, please let me see them win. I was a grown freaking man, and this is what I was praying for? There were hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees running, homeless from genocide and rape. A child was dying from hunger about every 8 seconds. I have close friends who are struggling with depression. And, I’m praying for a freaking baseball team to win.

That was one of the rock bottom moments in my baseball fandom. You could also look at the day after the Cubs dropped the infamous game to the Marlins, when I went on a profanity laced rage over my other Cubs fan friend admitting defeat before the series was over. You could also look at the next night when they did get eliminated and I wailed on a punching bag until my knuckles bled. As I look at myself through all of this, I feel this common emotional thread that urges me to feel like a victim, this feeling wondering why we (as if I’m on the team or something) are marked with this improbable bad luck, and how it will strike this time around.

As I type this, the Cubs are showering after their 5-3 loss to the New York Mets in game 3 of the NLCS, which puts the Mets up 3-0. If I really wanted to go gloom and doom, I’d pull out a stat right now about how few teams have come back to win a league championship series when trailing 3-0. It doesn’t look good for my boys. I made a brief stop to the facebook/twitterverse to see, as expected, that many Cubs fans are treating this as the final game, assuming they are done. Sure, the odds aren’t great, but this is way more baseball than we fans have been treated to in about 12 years.

Still, this is some frustrating stuff. The team went on a tear the last week of the regular season, which is a good way to go into the playoffs. They had to play a Pittsburgh team that was better than them in the regular season, and handled them, inducing fights with gatorade coolers in Pirate dugout. Then, they went to St. Louis, the other team who was better than them, and handled them. It seemed like a storybook kind of thing. The teams left were not as good.

Enter the Mets. If you followed the Cubs during the regular season, this is the team you would want to play. The Cubs played the Mets seven times and won seven times. They owned these guys. Also, if you know your Cubs history, you know

In a 1969 Cubs vs Mets game, a black cat ran past Ron Santo. They went on to a monumental collapse and the
In a 1969 Cubs vs Mets game, a black cat ran past Ron Santo. The Cubs went on to a monumental collapse and the “Miracle Mets” were born.

that the heartbreaking year that was 1969 ended with the basement dwelling Mets having a late surge and passing the Cubs who had owned the National league all season, only to tank at the end. It’s one of the famous collapses in Cubs history. What a post season. Beat all the teams in your division who are better than you, including then Cardinals, then face off against the team that famously stole your thunder in ’69 on the way to your first World Series in over 100 years. That’s how you shake a monkey off your back. And don’t even get me started on Back to the Future II.

But if you believe too much in destiny, you’re in danger of believing in curses too. It seemed like destiny for the Cubs to win in 2008, when they were clearly the best team in the league and it was exactly 100 years since their last World Series win. What about ’89 when they were in their first full season of lights at Wrigley Field, only to be outstaged by two California teams and an earthquake? These things were too perfect. It was meant to be. How could they not win? This must mean they are doomed to lose.

This first cut is the deepest
This first cut is the deepest

When you cheer for a team with a reputation for losing, or, to be more accurate, going long stretches without winning the final championship, you go through stages of emotional distress. There is the destructive heartbreak of the first time they really lose a game you hoped they’d win. This is like the first time a girl dumps you in the 6th grade, and you were sure you were going to get married. Then you grow older and realize sometimes love hurts. But, there comes a moment when something seems special. You’ve had your heart broken, but this time is different. This time it’s destiny. You go all in again, and something goes wrong. They lose, and you really hurt. This one is more than heartbreaking–it’s debilitating. You vow to yourself that will never hurt that way again.

I remember I was sitting on my friend Steven’s couch in 2003, when the foul ball drifted over the Wrigley wall and Steve Bartman prevented Moises Alou from catching the foul ball. I remember saying jokingly, “If that costs them the game…” making a joke out of how ridiculous a notion it would be to even worry about something like that. Then they proceeded to collapse in monumental fashion. They lost that game, but it wasn’t an elimination game. If they won the next one, they’d go to the World Series. I thought it was totally reasonable to think they could just put the Marlins away and head on. But I was wrong. The series was over after the missed foul ball. Or, was it?

Would all that have happened if there hadn’t been this lingering feeling that something was going to go wrong? Would the Cubs have felt so much collective pressure if there wasn’t a stadium of fans with the air sucked out of them over an error? Would the fans have lost the will to live if the players had not let the pressure tell them they were destined to lose? Is this 2015 team just playing into yet another destiny of losing that will go down in the loser history books that we Cubs fans recount when we whine about our lot in life? Or, could we not just look at this team as an incredible group of young players who matured ahead of schedule, made the playoffs to the surprise of many people, and took down two teams they shouldn’t have before running out of gas? To go further, what if they are about to reel off 4 straight wins, making this NLCS series even more thrilling than the NLDS that took the Cardinals down? Few of us are feeling that way right now, because a big part of us tells us not to go all in, because we haven’t been rewarded for that before.

When we get hurt when we hope very deeply for something, we don’t want to feel that hurt again. Often, we blame the fact that we hoped. We think we were stupid to hope. If we are more “realistic,” next time, we won’t get burned, and that is actually the truth. The curmudgeonly Cubs fans who said this team didn’t have what it takes may, after tomorrow night, say, “yeah, I knew they would lose.” That fan won’t hurt as much, because not as much was invested. And then, if they win, that fan can jump right in on the celebration. But, that attitude can take over and become a philosophy. People can come to expect failure constantly and think they are wiser than the rest because they, “called it.”  They want to blame the hope for their problems, when the problem is really more the feeling of loss. So, the philosophy becomes, “don’t get your hopes up, because they will just let you down. They are bound to fail.” It’s hard to shake that off. It’s hard to get rid of the idea you are destined to lose.

The 2015 team rubs their helmets every time they get a hit.
The 2015 team rubs their helmets every time they get a hit.

This can apply to so many aspects of life, and all I’m talking about here is a freaking baseball team. But, I’ve seen myself and plenty of other people feel sorry for ourselves because a team we like doesn’t win, wondering why does it always have to happen to us. It seems pretty petty, right? I’m tired of feeling that way. I’m tired of expecting something bad to happen so I don’t have to feel silly for hoping. Hope doesn’t necessarily always have to be rewarded with success. Hope is something we should do more.

So, I will continue to be disappointed for the rest of the night that Cubs couldn’t seem to string together some hits, that the strike zone seemed to be right at the ankles, and that Daniel Murphy is all of a sudden the greatest hitter of all time. But, I plan to sit down tomorrow night on what could easily be their last game of 2015, ready to see them win one, and I’ll do that for every game they play until they are done. And, if they lose, I’ll be a little mad, but I’ll remind myself that this team wasn’t in the postseason last year, or the year before, or the year before, and it wasn’t too long ago they lost 100 games. I’ll think of how fun it was to care this much this late. And, I’ll remember these guys don’t owe me anything–I chose to support them back in ’84 as a six year old when I claimed them as my team. And, I’ll do it because I believe that if we all went at it with less certainty of our eminent failure, they might not be convinced that that’s the truth. They might do something even better than what we’ve seen already.

Chicago Cubs' Jonathan Herrera wears a gag batting helmet during the fifth inning of Game 1 of the National League baseball championship series against the New York Mets Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

And, I’m ready to deal with how that hurts if it doesn’t work, because I don’t want to be a hater. Just recently, I was talking to a coworker who is also a Cubs fan, just after the NLDS win. He said, “that’s great, but I’m just wondering when they are going to choke.” I’m tired of spending so much time wondering how things are going to fail. Even if they are, it’s a crap way to live. It’s a crap way to treat the things you say you love. So, screw it. I still think the Cubs will win.

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