It had been over a century since the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series, and their last National League Pennant came just six months after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. While the 2016 Cubs winning the World Series should not have been a shock to baseball fans–they were loaded with young talent and good veteran starting pitching, their roster was built by Theo Epstein, and they were in the NLCS the year before–they shocked the world because of the lovable loser legacy of their jersey and their ballpark. If you thought nothing in the world could top 2016 for the Cubs and your fans, you would not be wrong, but their 2017 season has been underwhelming to this point, even without the context of history, fate, and destiny.
The Cubs currently hold a record of 43-43, four and a half games behind the surprisingly good Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central. They struggled early on, and they could very well go on a run, take back the division, and finish 2017 right where they were the last two seasons. But they are not the juggernaut they were before. They are not the only expected good team that has underperformed in the first half–the San Francisco Giants currently hold the second worst record in Major League Baseball–but the Giants were not expected to be right there with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals (or perhaps better than both) the way the Cubs were–and the Giants have three World Series titles in the bank for this decade after not winning any in their first 50 years in San Francisco.
As the Cubs’ struggles are going on–from Jake Arrieta’s drop in velocity, to Kyle Schwarber getting sent down to the AAA Iowa Cubs, to Miguel Montero getting traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for publicly criticizing Arrieta–I know the baseball operations people are still working long days trying to put out the best possible product, but it seems like Cubs fans are still just happy to have 2016. On the field, the Cubs are proving that chemistry is overrated, that it’s a product of winning, not the other way around. Off the field, Cubs fans are experiencing a long-awaited championship hangover of their own.
In 2016, the Cubs had five position players (Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Dexter Fowler) and two starting pitchers (Arrieta and Jon Lester) elected to the National League All-Star team. In 2017, all those players except Fowler (who signed with the St. Louis Cardinals as a free agent) are still on the Cubs, but their only All-Star representative (prior to announcing replacement players) is new arrival closer Wade Davis. This would make the Cubs the first World Series champion to not have any players from their World Series team in the following All-Star Game. I defend Cubs fans by pointing out the fact that the last time they won the World Series was a quarter century before the first All-Star Game, and they might not know any better, but they had seven guys voted into the game last year, so they clearly know how it works.
The plight of the 2017 Cubs reminds my of the 2005 Boston Red Sox, but with significant differences. The 2005 Red Sox experienced a greater amount of roster turnover from the curse-breaking season before, as Theo had built that team more through free agency and trades than through the farm system like he would go on to in Chicago.
Pedro Martinez signed with the Mets. Derek Lowe signed with the Dodgers. Orlando Cabrera signed with the Angels. Pokey Reese signed with the Mariners, but never played in another Major League game. Dave Roberts was traded to the Padres. The 2005 Red Sox had a different look to them, with guys like David Wells, Matt Clement, Edgar Renteria, and Jay Payton taking their places. It wasn’t the same. Renteria struggled, and my uncle referred to him as “Rent-A-Wreck” that year. Payton was designated for assignment after publicly complaining about playing time (Trot Nixon was Boston’s everyday outfielder in those years, and with Manny Ramirez in left and Johnny Damon in center, the fourth outfielder mostly played when there was a lefty starter and Nixon was sitting). In spite of all that, the Red Sox still went 95-67 and made the playoffs as the American League Wild Card. They were swept in the ALDS by the eventual World Series champion Chicago White Sox. It was not a bad season by any stretch of the imagination, but after the emotional lows and highs of 2003 and 2004, it was dull.
As a Red Sox fan, I wondered if the 2005 Red Sox were all baseball ever could be after seeing 2004 happen. I did not have to live through most of the drought, and it still felt like a once in a lifetime thing at the time. My grandfather was born in 1925, died in 2000, was a Red Sox fan his whole life, and never got to see them win it all. I saw them win it twice while I was in high school. Nobody alive today remembers the 1908 Cubs. Most Cubs fans alive today did not even remember them in the World Series, and even then, it was before television and before the Major Leagues were integrated. Even the 1945 Pennant team was ancient history.
This is why I was actually pulling for the Cleveland Indians in the World Series last year. Beyond my personal affection for Terry Francona, Mike Napoli, Francisco Lindor, and Andrew Miller, the plight of the Indians fan seemed more like the plight of the Red Sox fan before 2004. They had not won since 1948, and in my lifetime, transformed themselves from being Cubs-esque to being Red Sox-esque. The quintessential Cleveland sports movie is about a down on their luck Tribe team that improbably has a great season, but they don’t even get to the World Series in that movie! Major League came out in 1989, but then the Indians took the World Series to seven games in 1995, before falling to the Atlanta Braves, and again in 1997, before falling to the Florida Marlins. They lost the World Series again in seven games in 2016, and just like that, they are as far removed from their last title as the Red Sox were in 1986, when they lost the World Series in seven games for the fourth time since 1918.
I thought the Cubs needed to get close and feel the pain of losing in the World Series before actually winning it. I thought it was Cleveland’s turn. I thought it would be best for baseball to still have this incredibly long drought intact. But baseball is not pro wrestling, and the best storyline is not what always happens. While the Indians can add this to their legacy, and that will make it even sweeter if and when they do win it all, it’s the Cubs and their fans who have to figure out what comes next for them. For a century, their identity was losing, and their fans, like Red Sox fans, wore it as a badge of honor. It takes time to figure out life after that championship you never thought would happen, and even if the Cubs turn their season around, their new identity is still a work in progress.
In a year when sports fans said goodbye to Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant, and much more quietly to Tim Duncan, in a year when we get to sit back and appreciate the late-career renaissances of David Ortiz, Ichiro Suzuki, Dirk Nowitzki, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Joe Thornton, and Jaromir Jagr, and in a week we learned for sure that this the end for Mark Texeira (retiring at the end of the season), Prince Fielder (retiring effective immediately due to neck problems), and likely also Tim Lincecum (designated for assignment by the Angels after posting an earned run average over nine), the weirdest departure is that of New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez… because of course it is. He wouldn’t go down any other way.
A-Rod’s career is coming to an abrupt end this week, after playing the series this week at Fenway Park against the Red Sox, Rodriguez will play one more home game in front of the New York crowd, and then will begin a new career as a special adviser to the Yankees’ organization for the duration of his playing contract. No chase for 700 or 714 or 755 or 763 home runs. No farewell tour. Just one last chance to be heckled by the Boston fans who have been heckling him since 2004, and one last chance to be cheered by the New York fans who I imagine could not have felt good about this guy being one of the faces of their storied franchise for over a decade. It’s just weird. Nothing ever totally added up with this guy.
I’ve been aware of Alex Rodriguez for as long as I’ve been following baseball full time (my earliest recollection of watching the games and knowing what was going on was the 1996 World Series between the Yankees and Atlanta Braves, when I was six, but I did not start following baseball day to day until the 1998 season, when I was eight), and I always knew he was a supremely talented player from his early days with the Seattle Mariners and his big free agent payday with the Texas Rangers, when his ten year $252 million contract shattered the record for player contracts in North American professional sports set by Kevin Garnett, but I did not hate him until 2004. The deal that the Red Sox tried to make to acquire A-Rod, would have changed the landscape of Major League Baseball, with the Sox having A-Rod at shortstop in 2004, and without Nomar Garciaparra available to be the trade chip to fill out the roster with role players, without Manny to be behind Ortiz in the lineup right when David Ortiz was becoming David Ortiz, and without Jon Lester, their lefty ace of the future. A-Rod would have come into Boston with enormously high expectations, would have had to replace Nomar and Manny, and would have had to deal with 86 and counting years of emotional baggage. In hindsight, it’s hard to imagine the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004 and 2007 without Manny, and hard to see the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2007 and 2013 without Lester. How would the ALCS comeback have even started? Do they even have Dave Roberts on the roster to steal second base if Nomar had already been dealt the winter before? Things turned out alright for the Red Sox without A-Rod, and I cannot see the A-Rod Era in Boston going any better than the last 12 years when A-Rod was in pinstripes went, but in the moment it was a slight that he ended up in New York that every Boston fan took personally on some level.
A-Rod was easy to root against because he was so insanely talented, yet so often disappeared from big moments. Michael Baumann of The Ringer wrote this week among other things about the bad week for star players who came to prominence in the late-2000s with unconventional bodies, with the end coming for the comically oversized Prince Fielder and the comically undersized Tim Lincecum, but A-Rod had it all from a physical standpoint. He was one of the seven most purely talented position players Major League Baseball has seen in the last 20 years, along with Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, Roberto Alomar, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and Mike Trout. While ballplayers like the inaptly named Fielder (Prince Fielder was so fat, he made Mo Vaughn look like Jacoby Ellsbury.) and Lincecum (Tim Lincecum was so small he made Pedro Martinez look like Roger Clemens. I think I’m done fat-shaming and skinny-shaming for this column. Moving on.) were praised for getting the most they could out of their unconventional baseball bodies, those seven guys had (and still have in the cases of Miggy and Trout) astronomically high expectations for their careers because they had it all. Griffey and Alomar are in Cooperstown already, Bonds should be, Pujols has cemented his status as a no-brainer Hall of Famer despite being on the decline, and Cabrera and Trout are well on their way. A-Rod has the numbers for the Hall of Fame, but it certainly feels like he never quite reached his full potential. There’s also the steroids thing, and being suspended for the entire 2014 season for PEDs. I’m on record as being pro-steroids to a degree. I’m a Barry Bonds apologist and a Manny Ramirez apologist, but the combination of A-Rod’s steroid use and his constant trying to shape his own image to be something he’s not (His tendency to try too hard to act human has given him comparisons to both Tom Cruise and Ted Cruz.) is what bothers me about him. He’s always acting because he wants people to like him. That’s something I can relate to, but on that level it’s annoying. Be yourself, man. Stop doing this weird Derek Jeter/Cal Ripken impression so people will like you more.
The quintessential moments of A-Rod’s career came in the 2004 season, and they are not clutch, game-winning hits to bring the Yankees to glory or anything like that. First, there was the fight with Jason Varitek after getting hit by a Bronson Arroyo pitch in a midsummer game against the Red Sox, and then of course, there was The Slap. In a play also involving Bronson Arroyo, A-Rod became A-Fraud in the eyes of Red Sox fans (I was proud of myself for coming up with that nickname in 2004 when I was a high school freshman, only to go on sports message boards years later and realize everyone else on the Internet was thinking it, too.). He swats the ball out Arroyo’s glove, Jeter goes around to score, the Yankees win again. That’s what was going to happen. 86 years without a World Series title, and this guy who was supposed to be our shortstop in 2004 swats it away from us in the cheapest way possible. Fortunately Tito came out of the dugout and argued, and fortunately another umpire had a better angle and overturned the play. The look on A-Rod’s face, caught red-handed in a lie, but still defiant enough to act like he was the one being persecuted, was Alex Rodriguez in a nutshell. He could have led the Yankees to five World Series titles, he could have hit 800 home runs, he could have never taken a performance enhancing drug in his life, and that defiance in the face of false persecution act on second base at Fenway Park on that October night would still be my lasting impression of him.
The difference between Alex Rodriguez and other sports villains is that nobody wants to defend him. San Francisco fans still love Barry Bonds. Lakers fans will always love Kobe. Patriots fans will die on a metaphorical hill for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Yankees fans don’t like A-Rod either. Brian Cashman couldn’t stand him. Joe Girardi couldn’t stand him. They couldn’t even wait to for the season to end to push him out. A-Rod hasn’t said he’s retiring, just that his time with the Yankees ends this week. Might he try a comeback with a team like the Miami Marlins? He’s beyond washed up, but he’s close to 700 home runs. Leave it to A-Rod to write a weird ending for himself.
This week, the 2004 Red Sox came back to Fenway. Ten years after the improbable comeback that ended generations of suffering and disappointment and transformed Boston from a city of losers to a city of champions, it became clear that what happened that October will never get old. I was 14 years old when the Idiots reversed the Curse, but I still can’t help but smile whenever I think about that team.
It’s not like every guy from that team had a good ending in Boston, either. Johnny Damon left Boston for the New York Yankees after the 2005 season, but you’d never know based on the ovation he got. Pedro Martinez left for the New York Mets after the 2004 season, but you’d never know based on the ovation he got. Derek Lowe took his talents to the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 2004 season. Curt Schilling lost all his money a lot of Rhode Island tax dollars in his failed video game business, but this week he was the bloody sock hero once again, getting a huge ovation in the midst of his battle with cancer. Manny Ramirez ended his tenure in Boston in the most unprofessional way possible, leaving the team with no choice but to trade him to the Dodgers, but for one night, all was forgotten. Even Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield played their last games in the midst of the Fried Chicken and Beer Meltdown of 2011. Few things in life end well, but not matter what happens, Red Sox fans will always have 2004.
Even though the Patriots had already won two Super Bowls with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady that decade, but the Red Sox winning the World Series was what really changed the attitude of sports fans in Boston. Before this current era in Boston sports, there hadn’t been a championship team since the 1986 Celtics. For all my life up until that point (and decade prior to that in some cases), the best Boston teams reached their ceiling losing to the other great teams of their eras. Scottie Bowman’s Montreal Canadiens. Wayne Gretzky’s and Mark Messier’s Edmonton Oilers. Mike Ditka’s Chicago Bears. Mike Holmgren’s Green Bay Packers. Bob Gibson’s St. Louis Cardinals. Sparky Anderson’s Cincinnati Reds. Joe Torre’s New York Yankees. With the 2004 World Series, Boston went from being the underdog city to a city expected to win, and their teams became the ones everyone else measured themselves against. They backed it up with a third Super Bowl in February of 2005, World Series titles in 2007 and 2013, an NBA title in 2008, and the Stanley Cup in 2011, but for all their success, it made the defeats at the hands of the New York Football Giants in 2008 and 2012, the Los Angeles Lakers in 2010, and the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013 all the more painful. I’d say we were better off not getting that far to begin with, but that’s a really spoiled thing to say, and it isn;t even true the more I think about it.
Looking back a decade later, it’s still amazing what that team did. The 2004 Yankees were a really good team that was in their heads. If one thing goes wrong, if Kevin Millar can’t draw that walk off Mariano Rivera, if Dave Roberts botches the most important stolen base of all time, if Schilling’s ankle is any worse than it is, we aren’t celebrating a 10 year anniversary of a World Series title. Who knows, maybe if that team doesn’t get the job done, the Red Sox take a different approach and 2007 does not happen. 2013 happened because they hit rock bottom in 2011 and 2012, so there is something to previous years effecting future ones. What they did was amazing, and no matter how many times I see the Red Sox win it all, 2004 will always be my favorite.