People sometimes wonder how I can root for a baseball team that hasn’t won a World Series in my lifetime, and I tell them it derives from growing up in Chicago in the mid ‘60s and early ‘70s. During my formative years as a sports fan, I endured the disappointments of the ’67 and ’72 White Sox, the ’69 and ’73 Cubs, the ’73 Blackhawks and the ’73 and ’75 Bulls. I had moved twice, once to Dallas (where I was told by a cousin that they have real sports teams not like the losers of Chicago) and then to New York, and graduated college by the time that the Bears broke this presumed glass ceiling after their momentous 1985 season.
I held a Super Bowl party that year and needed to make a beer run at halftime, by which time the Bears had the game comfortably in hand with a 23-3 lead. It felt like my feet weren’t touching the ground; I recall my pal Dan, a Cowboys fan noticing my glee and saying “so yeah, this is what it feels like.” I’ve enjoyed that feeling often since then, notably the 2005 White Sox and nine—yes, count ‘em nine—different editions of the Bulls and Blackhawks.
Yet, it’s not the lack of ecstasy that feels defining about rooting for the Cubs and their Chicago sports siblings. Instead it’s a sort of hyper-rationality. I can’t turn on the game and feel entitled to see my team win. I may have as a kid, but I understand all too well that there is a team on the other side and sometimes they are really good too. As painful as it was to see the dreams of October 2003 slip away, it was balanced by a sense of wonder about those Florida Marlins, a team chock full of young players who would go on to accomplished careers. After they rallied to win that series I warned all my Yankee friend pals about the Marlins, their opponents in the World Series that year. The usual response was something like “thanks, but we’re not the Cubs.” A week later after losing the series to the Marlins four games to two, they were telling me that the real World Series was beating the Red Sox in the ALCS; I politely hid my schadenfreude.
It’s that rationality that makes the beginning of this Cubs postseason so anxiety ridden. On the one hand, the Cubs go in as the unequivocal best team in baseball; they won103 games in a year where the next best total was 95. With the exception of a pronounced slump in June, they have dominated since Opening Day. If this was a Bulls or Bears team, I might begin planning a championship party. But this is baseball. For one, only a few of the teams with the best overall record have won the title in the wild card era of baseball’s postseason. For another, dominance in baseball is different than it is on other sports. Just transliterate the won loss records to an NFL season. In that scenario, the 10-6 Cubs would have to face a gaggle of 9-6-1 or 9-7 teams to advance. By contrast a similarly dominant NFL team would be 13-3 facing teams that went 10-6, a 20% differential. It’s hard to expect regular season level dominance from a leading baseball team in the postseason. The matchups usually are thisclose. It also explains why some of the great baseball teams of my youth, the late ‘60s/early 70s Orioles and the early ‘70s Oakland A’s, didn’t win every year, and why the Big Red Machine Cincinnati Reds took five years to win a World Championship after their emergence.
Those numbers and that history make my rational side seek some sense of calm and equilibrium or perhaps a 10% ABV Imperial Stout. OTOH, my emotional side has some data of its own. The ’85 Bears, ’91 Bulls, ’05 White Sox and ’10 Blackhawks were each the best teams in my lifetime to that point, and they won titles. The ’16 Cubs are also best squad in my lifetime. So as I watch what might be a weeklong playoff disappointment or a three to four week long drive toward a title, I’ll be churning inside with part of me trying to stay calm and understanding while entitlement and certainty builds in the rest of me.