Monday, October 14, 2013

Ten Years in Purgatory: Blame, Heartache and the Consequence of Presumption

If you ask a Cubs fan to recall October 14, 2003, the immediate reaction is always a look away, a head shake, and a deep sigh. I was two months away from seventeen years of age that night. Now as I near twenty-seven, the wounds are long past the point of divine healing. Five outs from glory, five outs from breaking the "curse," the Cubs fell apart in a way that could not be replicated if anyone was sick enough to try.

The immediate reaction post-game was to blame a fan who did as any fan had. Over the years, blame turned to manager Dusty Baker and his mishandling of young phenom Mark Prior. Another target of anger was shortstop Alex Gonzalez for his bobble of a routine double-play ground ball. Often swept under the rug is who hit that infamous grounder, but I'll get to that in a minute. Before game seven was played the following night, I felt a second chance coming. The night before had left me, and the baseball world, stunned. The Florida Marlins had tied the series after having been down three games to one. The loss wasn't damning by any means, but it was the same story I had heard retread through the ages. Rarely a bridesmaid, never a bride. The Cubs were, and are, the living purgatory of sports.

If there is cause for superstition, the night of October 14th was ample inspiration for belief in such things. Was it the late Bernie Mac singing "root, root, root for THE CHAMPS! CHAMPS!" or maybe the revelation that ace Kerry Wood was reading Yankees scouting reports mid-game in preparation for his would-be game one start? Surely it wasn't just the actual poor play by the team. It had to be something beyond our understanding. After all, it was ours. The Cubs were going to the World Series and they were going to win. It was a foregone conclusion. But as we learned just last night in Boston, presupposed outcomes rarely come to fruition, especially when the evidence leads to an otherworldly hand at play. Of course, as any baseball fan in Chicago who is old enough to remember those two fateful October nights would recall, the Cubs lost both games. Florida won their second World Series in just their tenth season of existence.

Today not only marks the tenth anniversary of game six, but the 105th anniversary of the Cubs' last World Series title. Baseball can be unthinkably cruel. In that span of time, the north-siders faded from the prominence and National League dominance they experienced in the first half of the twentieth century to a joke, then a laughing stock, finally resting comfortably as a standard of futility with which any great period of failure is measured.

The years that followed the collapse of 2003 only poured kerosene on the open wounds. The very next season, the Cubs' partners in agony, the Boston Red Sox, broke their eighty-six year drought and won the World Series.

The next year, the crosstown White Sox ended the second-longest championship gap in baseball: eighty-eight years.

If the pain of watching those two streaks end wasn't enough, 2006 was taken by the Cubs' arch-nemesis, the St. Louis Cardinals.

Then Boston won again, creating a generation of new Red Sox fans who would be raised not on the misery of their fathers, but an overwhelming sense of pride in two championships in four seasons.

The Philadelphia Phillies, who went ninety-seven years before their first World Series title, won in 2008.

Then came the New York Yankees, a franchise so drenched in the champagne of championships that even the driest times seem to only lead to another title. If there is a line of perspective for success in American sports, the Yankees would be found as the furthest thing from the Cubs.

In 2010, the Giants ended a more than half-century of waiting, then did it again two years later. Sandwiched between, St. Louis won again.

There are plenty of stories about individual perspectives from that fateful night ten years ago. A simple search will find a litany of opinions on how some would have handled managerial duties that night. Hindsight is far better than 20/20.

For now, Mark Prior is all but removed from baseball. Dusty Baker is now out of a job after another October failure as skipper of the Reds. Alex Gonzalez now works for a sports management agency. The player who hit the routine ground ball that Gonzalez bobbled? He became the greatest hitter in a generation- Miguel Cabrera.

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