Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Case Against Cubs Mythology

On a recent MLB on Fox broadcast, Tim McCarver stated, rather matter-of-factly, that if the then-hot Chicago Cubs were to go on to take over the NL Central from Milwaukee, win the NL pennant, and claim their first World Series in 99 years, that it would go down as “one of the top three great sports moments of all time.” While many baseball viewers, both casual and diehard, dislike McCarver for his tendency to overanalyze the minute aspects of the game (often incorrectly), broadcasters who make sweeping generalizations have always bothered me the most. As compared to what? What are his criteria? He didn’t elaborate, as the subject changed soon after (maybe Joe Buck felt sympathy for the clearly waning McCarver); however, the most infuriating part of this statement was that many baseball fans, even those who see it as a profoundly stupid thing to say, can at least see where McCarver is coming from…after all, it’s the Cubs; they never win! What McCarver said was just another instance of a pro sports team getting a free pass from the media based principally on reputation. The Cubs are always the loveable losers, just like the Steelers always have a great defense…reality be damned. The mythology of the Cubs affords the club the luxury of avoiding justly deserved criticism, and instead perpetuates the kind of thinking that McCarver articulated. To an objective observer, buying into the idea that it is a historically memorable sports moment if a high-payroll, big market team playing in a consistently bad division could win a championship borders on preposterous; instead, if the Cubs get back to winning, we’ll be subjected to hearing how a Cubs postseason will be the “feel good baseball story of the year”.
While several low-payroll teams have had successful seasons in the past couple years, the teams with the highest payrolls tend to appear in the postseason consistently (a notable exception being the Mets, who have appeared in the postseason just once in this century, though unlike the Cubs, they face scathing criticism from local and national media.) In recent years, the Cubs have consistently outspent most teams; since 2004 they have been amongst the top ten highest spending teams in baseball each season; only once since 2001 have they not had the highest opening day payroll in the NL Central. While the Cubs may not be the Yankees of the Midwest, for fans who criticize George Steinbrenner for tainting the competitive nature of the game with money, they should realize the Cubs are not blameless.
The past (or, most recent) decade of Cubs ineptitude has not been a result of playing in a difficult division- the Reds haven’t finished with a winning record since 2000, while amazingly both the Pirates and Brewers have been below .500 since 1992. No other division in baseball is even close to being so disparate.
The point I am making is not that the Cubs are bad, or “unlucky” – this is already acknowledged, and implicitly part of what McCarver said. What McCarver and others aren’t recognizing is that the Cubs are supposed to win, and some season, they will. The fact that they haven’t won the World Series in nearly a century is immaterial; few current Cubs were on the last playoff team in 2003, and not one player has been a Cub for more than ten years. Just like how dice have no memory, what happened to a Cubs team in 2003, 1984, 1969, or 1908 is irrelevant.
What keeps it going then? The folklore of the Cubs is deeply ingrained into pop culture, even non baseball fans are familiar with the memes. The rabid Cubs fan, a relatable yuppie type who still knows how to be one of the guys, has become a stale Hollywood archetype. Every girl who graduates college and moves to Chicago becomes a dilettante Cubs fan so she can feign interest to impress the guys at the awesome Lincoln Park and Loop bars her and her friends frequent. While a Cubs hat or jersey should be enough already, some people wear attire that unambiguously tells you that you do not want to talk baseball or anything else with this person. Sure, I’m painting with a broad brush, and some Cubs fans genuinely have a passion for their club, and 99 years is a long time, but the White Sox went 88 years between championships. The 2005 World Series won by the team across the city was a long time coming, but outside of the South Side, their victory was entirely ordinary- they were the best team in the division on paper, they had a relatively high payroll, and they played well all season, and especially so when it mattered. Memorable yes, but certainly not cracking anyone’s Top Three.

1 comment:

Minneapolis Red Sox said...

Does it make me a bad person to kinda like the scoreboard t-shirt design?

Whenever I wear my XRT shirt with the big W on the front, people just think I'm a Republican here...