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THE VIEW FROM LEFT FIELD
By Richard Crepeau
There was a time when being a Cubs fan was one of the easiest callings in the world. You would begin in spring training reciting all those exhibition season mantras like "We're all in first place on April first," or "This isn't the same team that finished at the bottom last year." One year, Leo Durocher reportedly said, "This isn't an eighth place team," forgetting that the National League had expanded to ten teams several years before. But I digress.
The point is that you could recite the mantras and feign optimism, while always knowing that by the end of April the suspense would be finished. The Cubs would have clearly revealed themselves and taken over sole possession of last place. For Cubs fans, reality always set in early. It was a liberating experience, as everyone could relax and enjoy the baseball season without the tensions of a pennant race or worrying about the consequences of another critical loss.
That's one of the reasons why Wrigley Field was (and is) such a great place to go to watch a baseball game. You could enjoy the ambience, the characters inhabiting the stands, and the intimate beauty of the place. And every game was in daylight. No darkness to magnify the gloom of losing as you left the yard for the El. And because it didn't matter if the Cubs won or lost, you still went home happy. On the odd occasion when they did happen to win, it was a bonus, adding marginally to the happiness of being at a baseball game in such a place as Wrigley Field.
Somewhere along the line, however, Cubdom took a wrong turn. Perhaps it began when the Cubs stopped folding their tents in April. Perhaps flirting with greatness in the late sixties and then again in the eighties was the beginning of the process that led to the recent bitterness in Wrigleyville. Perhaps it was adding lights that made the old ball yard less charming and losing more painful. Perhaps too many Cubs fans forgot their heritage or never knew their storied history. Has anyone ever heard Todd Walker or Moises Alou say, "Let's play two"?
In the last two years the Cubs have run afoul of their own delusions. After the marvelous Bartman incident had reaffirmed their heritage, Cubs fans refused to recognize his fateful role as "historic necessity." Many actually believed that the Cubs should have won the NLCS and the World Series in 2003. Illusions and more illusions; they can only lead to bitterness and misery.
Operating under this dark cloud, Cubs fans entered last season certain that victory would be theirs, that with the best pitching rotation in baseball and a lineup of impressive hitters, it was all but a forgone conclusion. "This year" would be different and the Cubs would walk off with the National League pennant and go on to win their first World Series since Teddy Roosevelt was president.
What happened when reality set in was all too predictable. The key figures in the best pitching rotation in baseball suffered from injuries and couldn't win ten games apiece. The Cubs biggest home run threat and spiritual leader missed a month of the season and reverted to his habit of chasing the low outside pitch. Before you could say "Billy Williams," the Cubs were looking up in the standings at the St. Louis Cardinals across an insurmountable gap.
But not to fear; this is the new wild card world where the playoffs were still accessible and sins of the regular season could be absolved.
Unable to open a lead in the wild card phase of the race, the Cubs set themselves up for disaster during the final ten days of the season. In spectacular fashion they lost leads in the late innings: two in extra innings, several by one run, and twice coming within an out of victory. It was a collapse of epic proportions, and indeed it will enter the annals of Cub lore somewhere between Bartman and the Black Cat.
Most disconcerting of all has been the un-Cub-like conduct of the players. Starting in late July the complaining began. The umpires were out to get them; injuries were killing them; the sportswriters gave them no respect; the television announcers, Steve Stone and Chip Caray, were too critical. How could they possibly win under these conditions? Todd Walker wondered aloud why Stone and Caray were allowed on the Cubs plane. You could feel Todd's pain as he affirmed he was no Ryne Sandberg.
The lovable losers were losing their cuddly qualities.
When the merciful end finally came, the front office called Steve Stone on the carpet, offended by his analysis of failure in a radio interview as the ship was sinking. On the final day of the season, Sammy Sosa arrived late and left early without consulting management. The result was a fine constituting the loss of a day's pay, some $87,400. Sammy said he would file a grievance over the fine. Astounding to think that a true Cub would ever think of filing a grievance.
Cubdom was in chaos.
Poor Dusty Baker, the architect of dissolution, didn't understand the Cub heritage and convinced his players that they were not the Cubs, but rather a team that could win the World Series. How sad for Dusty who drank too much from the winning ways in San Francisco and had forgotten that he was now a Cub, part of a historic legacy of futility. Baker has yet to learn to lose gracefully, with a smile and a call to "let's play two."
As Leo would have said, it's time to back up the truck. Get some real Cubs back at Wrigleyand take down the lights. Appoint a committee of coaches to rotate as manager. Fun at the old ballpark can return, but not while Cubs fans think that winning is within their grasp. It's not. These are the Cubs. The lovable losers. The non-Yankees.
"Recapture the legacy" should be the marketing pitch for this year. Read your Cub history. There are lessons to be learned, my friends. Learn them well.
RICHARD CREPEAU is author of Baseball: America's Diamond Mind, reprinted
by Bison Books (University of Nebraska Press) in 2001. He lives in Orlando,
© 2005 Richard Crepeau
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