I watched Catching Hell, the documentary by Alex Gibney about the Steve Bartman debacle in 2003, again this Sunday morning. My initial reaction was to just update my Facebook status with something snarky aimed at all my Cubs-fan friends (again). God, those people are fun to poke with a stick.
Those Cubs fans are, of course, the real villains (along with the press) of the film and of Steve Bartman’s life. They treated that man horribly for little or no reason simply because they bought into a mob mentality and stopped thinking. The film even makes fun of Chicago fans by obliquely comparing them to Dominican fans who have “traces of voodoo” in their history, but who do not believe in baseball curses.
Bad behavior also gives Cubs fans something in common with Boston and New York fans as well. Yankee fans’ treatment of Roger Maris (and many others on their own team) has been well-documented, and they are the recognized king-sociopaths of baseball fandom. Or they were until no one could afford seats to the new Yankee Stadium. Boston fans (and the press) made Bill Buckner a pariah for similar reasons, though Buckner was at least an actual player on the actual team.
The Sox would also win the World Series the season after the Aaron Boone/Steve Bartman-dominated 2003 postseason, ending the other thing they had in common with Chicago (besides lovable yet annoying fans): a curse on their beloved franchise.
I had all this running through my head when the film’s coverage of the “curse of the goat” on the Cubs franchise began. Then I thought of this question: Exactly what kind of a–hole thinks their team is cursed while everyone agrees the Royals, Padres, Pirates and others are just mediocre franchises destined to eat at the kids’ table forever? All these teams are in exactly the same position everywhere, except their respective fan bases’ minds.
I must admit here that I am a lifelong San Diego Padres fan, so I know a thing or three about running head first into the glass ceiling of baseball. My favorite baseball team has made the World Series twice in my lifetime, but they have also lost 90 or more games five times in the same span. Most of the rest of that time was spent hovering somewhere in the middle, with a few notable exceptions (I’m still not ready to talk about 2007 or 2010).
But where is the “lovable losers” moniker for Padres fans? No one put a “curse” on the franchise, so there’s no one to blame for all the losing. San Diego is also not a “major city,” nor is the franchise one of the oldest in baseball. So no one is going to have pity for a fan base that has only been suffering since 1969.
The Cubs haven’t won a championship in nearly four generations, and it was essentially that long for Red Sox fans too. Not only is that a hell of a long time, but that time was put to good use: For all that time, from 1908 to now, the Chicago press and fans have engaged in myth-making out of sheer denial of the fact that their team could be that incompetent for so long. But it’s happened and they somehow get credit for choosing not to just deal with it.
There’s the original “curse of the goat” which began, supposedly, because a local tavern owner was not allowed to bring his goat into Wrigley Field one day. Why anyone would bring a goat into a baseball game anyway is beyond me, but apparently the man took it personally and put a curse on the franchise forever.
This is the basis of most Cubs’ fans innate fears about the franchise never winning a title. Whether they believe it or not, it is in the minds of everyone who follows the team closely. It’s part of the lore of the franchise just like the apocryphal story about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree is part of American history. It was there the night Steve Bartman became a part of the mythology of the curse as well. Much of the early part of the documentary even focuses on the atmosphere in the stadium once the Bartman play happened. “Death-wish fulfillment” is the psychological term I just invented for it.
There’s also the black cat that ran in front of Ron Santo during the fateful 1969 season and the painful NLCS loss to the Padres in 1984 as well. Instead of a random happenstance and an especially painful loss, these have become part of a series of events related to the curse. That has only extended the power of the myth the fans themselves have had a major part in creating and perpetuating.
One could even add the career arc of Sammy Sosa to the myth of “the curse.” By the time he was in his second year with the team at age 24, Sosa (who is hilariously listed at 165 pounds on his baseball-reference page) had made himself into an MVP-contending, power-hitting, strikeout machine and was the king of Chicago by 1998, when his 66 home runs and 158 RBI got the Cubs into the playoffs. By 2003, he had privately failed a test for performance-enhancing drugs and would only spend three more non-consecutive years in baseball after that. Now he looks like this.
There’s also Mark Prior, who was on the mound when Moises Alou didn’t catch that fateful foul ball. The “Year of Bartman” (2003) was also his only great season in Major League Baseball. Prior went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA and a 6.2 WAR, while throwing 211 fantastic innings. He also was over 100 pitches in virtually all of his starts, including throwing more than 124 pitches in all but one of his September starts. Dusty Baker sucking at managing pitchers is no myth, by the way. Though it is a curse.
But these are all simply events that people chose to believe were related to each other because of a goat, even though they’re not evidence of a real curse. It’s myth-making at its finest. So why would anyone choose to believe that over the simple truth that the Cubs – along with many other baseball franchises – haven’t won because of a combination of bad luck and mismanagement at the wrong time? After all, Sosa was just on steroids the whole time, and the pitching-unfriendly Dusty Baker was the guy who left Prior in for 119 pitches as the team melted down post-Bartman.
It has to be easier to believe the team is cursed than to think it was just bad luck that caused the beloved 1969 Cubs to lose when it mattered. There has definitely been a lot of bad luck in Chicago history, but there is also an element of ego at work here as well.
After all, no one talks about long-suffering fans from smaller markets. At least not in the same near-reverential way people talk about Cubs fans today and Red Sox fans before 2004. It’s only a combination of living in a big market and losing a lot that allows Cubs fans to exist in their “cursed” world. What about Dodgers fans, you ask? First, they’re the worst major-market fans in sports because of their pure laziness and heralded lateness to games (Dodger stadium routinely doesn’t fill up until the third inning), and they also won two titles in the 80’s, which is in the lifetime of most of their “fans.”
The Yankees won about a million World Series titles between 1918 and today, and the Cubs and Red Sox have similar finances, leading their fans to convince themselves they should be able to compete in a similar manner year in and year out. Never mind that the Yankees had periods of irrelevance and that it was unbelievably good luck that the Red Sox owner had to sell them Babe Ruth to finance a failing musical. And notice how there isn’t any reverse myth-making to explain the Yankees’ success over the years? They’ve just won. No need to explain or come up with cockamamie reasons why.
In other words, Cubs fans are allowed to think the following: “We have money, we have some talent, we have a great fan base, and we live in a big city, so why can’t we win a ton of titles like the Yankees? Or even just one?” As though those things are somehow things that make baseball teams into champions and not subject to bad luck.
I don’t want to spend another season of Cubs futility pretending like their fans deserve more respect for rooting for a team that hasn’t won a title since 1908. They all chose to root for the Cubs just like I choose to root for the Padres despite them being the worst franchise in the history of everything holy. We can also all stop whenever we choose to and find some other way to spend our springs and summers.
Unless we’re going to give equal respect to fans of franchises that truly have no hope of winning, there is no reason to continue to feed the ego of big-city, big-money franchises and fanbases any more than we already have.
Forget winning a title, the Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t had a winning season since 1992. They have been victims of baseball’s financial structure and have been grossly mismanaged as well. But the Cubs have been mismanaged pretty much that whole time too, though no one seems to talk about the “curse of Barry Bonds” as the reason why the Pirates have sucked for the last 20 years. They’re mostly just consigned to the have-nots and everyone seems to be fine with that.
The Kansas City Royals have finished no better than third in their division (the weak-ass AL Central) and have had only one winning season since 1994. They too are a have-not in terms of financial ability within the league. And we’re all basically OK with that because, I mean, it’s freaking Kansas City.
Both the Tampa Bay Rays and the Oakland A’s have been very good for long stretches, and the A’s even won titles in the 70’s and 80’s. More recently, however, they have had the good fortune of having many of their minor-league prospects turn into very good Major League players. Carl Crawford, Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, Jason Giambi et al. all left those franchises because the A’s and Rays had absolutely no hope of ever affording them once they were eligible for free agency.
The Padres traded Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox and lost closer Heath Bell to the Marlins for the exact same reasons.
But it apparently takes a combination of money, a large city/fan base, and lots of idiocy in the front office for fans to be considered beleaguered or whatever.
So I’m tired of it only being a privilege of the rich and drunk at Wrigley to be a “long-suffering” fan base. Just because a team has sucked for longer than others doesn’t make its fans better, as evidenced by Cubs fans’ treatment of one of their own when he made a mistake in a playoff game loss.
This is the season we take it back for the teams that truly have no hope of winning. Another season of blown chances for the $100 million payroll Cubs is no longer worthy of our time. It’s their own fault that they suck, and it’s their fans’ fault for not demanding more from their team. Have fun with Jed Hoyer, suckers.