By Sept. 26, 2016, the ivy at Wrigley Field in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, has long bloomed into its iconic dark green shade. At a typical sellout game at one of the sport’s most iconic ballparks, 41,000 loud fans stood up to watch their all-star third baseman, Kris Bryant, step up to bat at the top of the seventh inning. Three pitches later, Bryant sent a high curve ball into the left field seats and rounded the bases for the 39th time that season. The home run wasn’t anything the fans hadn’t seen all season — the final score was. A 12-2 domination over the Pittsburgh Pirates had given the Chicago Cubs their 100th victory of the season, the only team in Major League Baseball to achieve that feat in 2016. The Cubs are in the World Series, and for the first October in a very long time, Cubs fans finally have something to be excited about.
It’s been 108 years since the Cubs have won baseball’s ultimate prize. At that point, the Ottoman Empire was still in power, the television had yet to be invented and Arizona, Oklahoma and New Mexico were yet to be admitted as states into the union. But perhaps the most important figure since the Cubs last won the World Series is 15,000: the approximate number of games the team has lost since then. For the last century, Cubs fans have suffered from “The Curse of the Billy Goat,” originating back to an old Wrigley Field security guard who ejected a Chicago bar owner for bringing his pet goat into the stadium. He responded by cursing the team to never win another series at Wrigley. And even to a casual fan who doesn’t believe in curses, it’s hard to ignore the facts — before this year, the team has only been to one Series since then, and even that was all the way back in 1945.
“The vibe of the city had absolutely changed, and that was before the playoffs had even started,” CAS freshman Yuji Cusick, a native of Hinsdale, Illinois and a lifelong Cubs fan, said. “The team was finally winning, and Chicago had something to be excited about.”
This Cubs team, however, is different from the perennially awful teams of the 1980s, 1990s right up until the early 2010s. Armed with reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, National League MVP front runner Kris Bryant and a manager regarded by many analysts to be the best in baseball in Joe Maddon, this team has the firepower to win it all. And they’re not top-heavy, either. At the 2016 MLB All-Star Game in San Diego, California, the entire NL starting infield consisted of Chicago Cubs.
“Seeing so many Cubs players at the All-Star game was awesome,” Cusick said. “We used to have one or two players that anyone had heard of, and now we’re dominating the All-Star roster.”
A resilient, albeit young, team was the key to getting past the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series. Down two games to one with a back-to-back set of night games on the road, an inspiring performance by star pitcher Jon Lester gave the team the momentum to rally off two more wins, including a 5-0 shocker over elite pitcher Clayton Kershaw in the clinching game six.
“Clayton’s the best pitcher in the game,” Bryant said in an interview with Fox Sports. “But we’re not a team that backs down from a challenge.”
A challenge is the perfect phrase to describe what’s in store for these young stars. Conquering a 3-1 deficit to the Cleveland Indians in the World Series is no easy task, as the Indians finished the regular season with 94 wins of their own and proceeded to finish off the Boston Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays in the playoffs with just one loss. Star pitchers Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller make the Indians a team that will not roll over, especially with Kluber poised to throw in game seven.
The millennial generation has seen some truly iconic sports moments, from LeBron James bringing a title to Cleveland to Michael Phelps winning more Olympic Gold medals than any athlete in history. But should the Cubs win the World Series, the argument could be made that this is the most important event that sports fans of this generation will have had the pleasure of witnessing. Heading into the series, Cusick could taste the history.
“[The other events] don’t even compare,” Cusick said. “LeBron winning a championship was inevitable. But after 108 years, you start to question if [the Cubs] were ever even going to go back [to the World Series]. Now they’re four games away from doing what everyone in Chicago thought was impossible.”
To put it in perspective, the only major professional sports league that was even established the last time the Cubs won the World Series was Major League Baseball, according to ESPN. Eighty-three different teams across the four major sports have captured titles of their own, and the New York Yankees have won 27 different times since the Cubs’ drought began. Should the Chicago Cubs complete the near-impossible task of breaking the curse, they would be able to shed their “lovable losers” tag and escape the title of the most disappointing team in sports history.
“We’ve been the losers for so long,” Cusick said. “We’ve only come close a few times, and we’ve been consistently so bad. That’s why I think this year is special, because we only become contenders once every 15 years or so.”
And he’s absolutely right — the Cubs were last seen as contenders in 2003, a year that will live in infamy until the drought ends, as the team, five outs away from going back to the World Series, blew a three-run lead in the eighth inning of game six. And that collapse may not have happened had a stray fly ball been caught by Cubs left fielder Moises Alou rather than a 38-year-old fan named Steve Bartman, who interfered with the play. Until the Series trophy is back in Chicago, that game will forever be associated with the curse.
The Cubs have endured so much bad luck since 1908 that a win this year would be against seemingly all odds — from the Bartman incident in 2003 to a black cat walking across the team dugout at a Mets game in 1969, leading to an eight game losing streak that forced them to miss the playoffs, to improbable sweeps in the 2008 and the 2015 playoffs by the Dodgers and the Mets, respectively.
“Every time we make it, something seems to go wrong,” Cusick said. “That’s why Chicago wants it this year, because so far nothing bad has happened.”
Perhaps it is the curse itself that would make victory in 2016 most memorable. Perhaps it’s fighting back from a 3-1 deficit — the lovable losers flipping the script. But perhaps most importantly, the 450 fans who were gifted t-shirts that read “Just One Before I Die” by the team at game six of the NLCS just for being over the age of 75 will be able to see their Cubbies win a World Series and rest in peace as lifelong fans.
Email Jash Babla at [email protected]