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.
I have lived in New England my entire life, and always took for granted that Red Sox Nation was as staunch a region for baseball fandom as you will find anywhere in North America. The 86 year stretch without winning the World Series gave Red Sox fans an identity, a shared suffering that was passed from one generation to the next. Another city had longer title droughts, but Chicago’s baseball misery was diluted by having two teams (the White Sox won the World Series in 2005 for the first time since 1917 but that was never talked about nearly as much as the Red Sox, let alone the Cubs who still have not won since 1908), and the fact that they ChiSox and Cubs never came as close nearly as many times as Boston did. Winning it all in 2004 was great. For me, that first World Series win will always be the highlight of my sports fandom. Nothing will ever top that American League Championship Series between the Yankees and Red Sox. Nothing. Boston teams can win as many championships as they want, and nothing will top 2004, especially anything the Red Sox do, and that’s a problem for baseball.
That last paragraph serves as a warning to Cubs fans and Indians fans, and Mariners fans, and Rangers fans, and Astros fans that your baseball team will never matter as much as it did before your long awaited championship, because it’s not just a Boston problem. The Red Sox have won the World Series two more times since 2004, and the Patriots have won two more Super Bowls, and the Bruins and Celtics each won championships of their own. Boston has done an absurd amount of winning this century. The Red Sox have, along with the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals, been one of the models for how to win in modern baseball, so when they’re not winning, instead of getting angry, fans just change the channel. If the Red Sox can’t be relevant, the Pats will be starting back up soon enough and the NBA and NHL have done a great job (the NBA more than the NHL, but still) of turning their 82 game season followed by a two month, sixteen team tournament into a 365 day cycle of relevance with their respective drafts and hot stove cycles. Football and basketball are juggernauts, with football dominating the narrative on national sports radio and TV shows most of the year, and basketball having a real chance to catch football in the United States and catch soccer internationally in the next 20 years. Hockey has a problem in that it’s a regional sport. It’s a niche sport because it matters more than most things in Canada and in certain American cities (like Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh), but in those cities, there will still be interest in the Stanley Cup Final even if their team is not in it. While baseball matters in more American cities than hockey does, it’s relevance is much more localized.
If the Red Sox miss the playoffs, the playoffs do not matter in New England. I know this because I follow baseball more closely than most people in their mid-20s, and while all my friends were in on the Red Sox title run in 2013, it was really hard to get people to talk about all the compelling stories in the baseball postseason last fall, even that super fun New York Mets team, and even with one of my closest friends literally being named Daniel Murphy. The Red Sox have a likeable young team this year, with their top prospects finally living up to the hype we have been sold from the beat writers for years. The offense has been incredible, and longtime designated hitter David Ortiz has been the rare case of a player on a farewell tour, still playing like has always has. The problem is that the pitching is not good enough to keep up with their excellent hitting, and all of this offensive production could be wasted. If things go south, David Ortiz, one of the greatest playoff performers the game has ever seen, could play out the string in August and September in meaningless games, with the fanbase focusing on Patriots training camp and the potential Tom Brady vs. Jimmy G quarterback controversy. If you’re not in a fantasy baseball league (which I have not been in a few years), it is incredibly easy to lose touch with the rest of Major League Baseball. Baseball should be doing a better job of marketing itself. They have as much good, exciting talent under the age of 27 as basketball and hockey, and all three sports are doing better than football in that regard, but the excitement is localized. Red Sox fans are thrilled about Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Jackie Bradley Jr., and we see more of Baltimore’s Manny Machado than fans in other divisions, but a star like Bogaerts, or Betts, or JBJ, or Machado, or Mike Trout in Anaheim, or Bryce Harper in Washington, Marcus Stroman in Toronto, or Trevor Story in Colorado, or Noah Syndergaard in New York, or Kris Bryant in Chicago, or Joc Pederson in Los Angeles, or Carlos Correa in Houston does not get the same kind of national buzz (with the possible exceptions of Harper in Trout) as Karl-Anthony Towns, or Anthony Davis, or Russell Westbrook, or Connor McDavid. The pieces are there to generate interest beyond one’s local baseball club. They just haven’t figured it out.
Baseball, in a lot of ways, is trapped in centuries past. It’s a game without time limits, for the most part, that adopted instant replay long after the other three sports, that feels content to cater to older fans rather than actively cultivate new ones. Some of that is a good thing. The idea of following the same team that my grandparents followed as children is kinda cool. My grandfather died in 2000 and never got to see the Red Sox win the World Series, but I got to see them win it twice while I was in high school. Red Sox baseball is a tradition older than any of the other Boston teams, having played their first season in 1901. The Bruins played their first season in 1924 (making them the oldest current American NHL team), the Celtics played their first season in 1946, and the Patriots have been around since 1960. History can only get you so far in modern sports, though. It was the Patriots, not the Red Sox, that first turned Boston’s championship fortunes around in 2002, and it was the Cavaliers, not the Browns or Indians that broke through first for Cleveland, a team that was rarely if ever relevant without LeBron James on their roster. Kids today do not care about Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, or Sandy Koufax. Why should they? Baseball’s history will always be there, but baseball’s present should be what we’re celebrating.
Baseball needs to lighten up a bit. Cool things happen in any baseball game, but there are unwritten rules that prevent players to act like they’re having fun compared to the other sports. Jose Bautista flips a bat after a dynamite home run in the playoffs last year for the Toronto Blue Jays and old school baseball people lose their minds over it. What could be celebrated as a trending .gif the way fans would celebrate a Rob Gronkowski end zone celebration or a menacing Dirk Nowitzki fist pump or a Jaromir Jagr goal salute is condemned as being bad for the game in baseball. A guy like Bryce Harper plays with the kind of swagger people are used to seeing on a basketball court and people call for him to get off their lawn, so to speak.
I want baseball to do well. I want it to stand the test of time, and I want it to still matter in 40 years. For that to happen, baseball is going to need to adapt to the 21st century. Things could be more fun than they are. The powers that be just need to let it happen.