Outside of St. Louis, the Cubs are the universal symbol of the Underdog. And I have to say, I don't get it. As one who spent his formative years in South Florida, watching the utter futility of the orange-and-white Tampa Bay Buccaneers play a brand of football that could never in anyone's wildest dreams be called "professional," I have a special kind of contempt for franchises who value winning so lowly as the Northsiders have.
The Bucs stunk, everyone knew they stunk, and no one loved the Bucs, not even ironically. All we were missing was Lee Elia to put it into words. Even the guys who got paid to play for the Bucs hated the Bucs. There was no "Curse of the ex-Bucs" the way baseball has enshrined the "Curse of the ex-Cub," because no one would re -sign a player lousy enough to have been let go by Tampa. (The only exception to this rule was quarterback Doug Williams, who led the Redskins to the Super Bowl in his first full year as a non- Buc. So much for a curse.)
If you compare the 16-game football season to the 162-game baseball season, I believe no franchise, not even the Chicagoans, have had a string as terrible as Tampa's twelve consecutive seasons of double-digit losses – a mark that would roughly equate to losing 100 games.
This utter failure to compete washed the love out of the football fans of the 1980s as bitterly and completely as ascorbic acid washed the color out of our faded blue jeans. "The Bucs" became a sad and sorry punchline to the world's least funny joke. Among Tampa fans, the few who couldn't help but care were simply infuriated by the plight of their team, even more so because we knew that our skinflint owner, Hugh Culverhouse, was making a profit every year.
These profits, however, are nothing in comparision with the in bounty that the Tribune Company is set to rake in over the sale of baseball's most successful losers. The most recent thumbnail valuations of the team puts their price at – as Dr. Evil might say – one billion dollars. Second only to the Yankees, and I believe Manchester United, in all of global professional sports.
Losing is the new winning.
Bad News Bears
Outside of congressional budgets, ten digits of money doesn't just appear out of nowhere. It rides on the backs of the tens of millions of people across the country, like St. Elmo's fire leaping between the little red C's on their baby blue caps, as they stampede towards Wrigley field, the shrine to losing.
What have the Cubs ever done to deserve their status as the sports world's only "lovable" losers? The Philadelphia Phillies have achieved some local notoriety for losing their 10,000th game (at the hands of our Redbirds, no less), amassing the most losses in professional franchise sports – has it sold them any more tickets? Has it brought any love to their team? No, and no. Were there throngs of fans flocking to Tampa's football complexes every Sunday, praying for a Super Bowl season? Definitely not.
The simple explanation is that these people all want to be there when the curse is ended. In a sense, they are the anti- frontrunners, the logical opposite of the casual fans of "America's teams," the Yankees, Cowboys, and Lakers.
There is a perverse pride among rear-runners, as we might call them. Wearing the Cubs hat means being able to identify with the precise era of losing that hooked you.
The "Greatest Generation," our venerable representatives of the WWII era, might remember the last World Series trip in 1945 and the sixteen years of sub-.500 baseball that followed. Their children, the Baby Boomers, would have been brought up during the fiery Leo Durocher soap opera that rose from ashes, crested with a near pennant that was stolen away by the Miracle Mets in 1969, and ended in a brawling, bitter finale. Generation X'ers were raised by the flickering WGN screen and the endlessly wavering voice of Harry Caray, extolling the likes of Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg, and young Greg Maddux, as well as the counter-cultural rant of manager Lee Elia. (Is it any wonder they were so bitter?) Those who fell in the cracks, or who are hanging on sub-branches of this family tree, have vague memories of Rigglemans and Lefebvre, general incompetents that seemed to correspond well with Chicago's other televised icon, Bozo the Clown.
Perhaps it was Caray's kindly drunken grandfatherly demeanor that made this losing feel so appealing. Or perhaps it was the true-life image of the "Bad News Bears," a legacy of honestly decent stumblebums that wore the blue pinstriped uniform and legitimately gave what they had, only to find out that it wasn't nearly good enough. The first example of this character type may have been the sainted Dizzy Dean, completely washed up thanks to a series of injuries by the time the Cubs purchased his contract in 1938. Signed to be the team's ace – and its biggest draw at the ticket office – Dizzy led Chicago into the World Series that year on little more than fumes. He lost his one start against the Yankees in what became a four-game sweep, a game that is often called "Dizzy's Last Stand," but won over his new city with his guts and good humor.
The number of games Diz appeared in after that season went from 19 in 1939, to 10 in 1940, to 1 – a single inning in his only start – in 1941, before retiring at the age of 31, and entering his second life as a color broadcast man.
Of course, this story means about as much to the latest generation of Cubs fans as the term "ice box" might to a fully modernized refrigerator. Nothing so heart-warming, nothing so lovable has graced the modern Cub teams. This is a team whose legacy is the high pitched anti-media whine of Dusty Baker, the medical collapse of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, the goat-making of Steve Bartman, and the destruction of Sammy Sosa, one of the two men who "saved baseball." This is a fan base that rattles its sabers about breaking the curse, or even proving that it never existed to begin with.
They expect the team to do whatever it takes to compete and to win, which I suppose brings them into the 21st century as far as sports fans go. "Win at all costs" is the philosophy of the day, thanks to the Cold War brinksmanship between Steinbrenner's Yankees and John Henry's Red Sox. Facing the aftermath of a 96-loss season, and with a potential sale in the wings, ownership wrote more than $300 million worth of checks and commitments to players, to bring back this newer, more bloodthirsty fan.
Re-sign Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez, check and check. Bring in the top free-agent hitter, Alfonso Soriano to prop up a very weak outfield, check. Bolster the rotation with the best pitcher they could get, Ted Lilly, check. Sign a "proven winner" to manage, check. Bury the fans' expectations for the ever-distant recoveries of Prior and Wood, check and check.
Taking a macro view, we can find faults – Do you really want to be paying Soriano to hobble around the bench when he's 38? Shouldn't you have already locked up Zambrano long term before now? – but in the short run, it's all paying off, even the hot-tempered choice of Piniella to replace the "playerfriendly" Dusty Baker.
On June 2nd, in the tail end of an otherwise dispiriting 5-3 loss to the Braves, Sweet Lou choreographed a little song and dance around the umpires' shoes under the pretense of arguing a call of some sort. It was just a bit of fun to fire up his team and the crowd, and perhaps to distract from the embarrassing sideshow that was going on between Zambrano and his catcher, Michael Barrett. Nevertheless, the team has won 29 of its last 44 games since that date, to pull as far above .500 as they have been in three years, and to pull within 3.5 games of the division-leading Brewers.
They come into town riding a full head of steam, facing up against our shambles of a rotation and our running joke of a defense. They who have made their annual series against the Cardinals into their own personal World Series – and done awful well at it, at that, winning 24 of their last 40 games against us – now actually have something to play for.
Compare that to our stakes now, as we approach the trade deadline as "sellers" for the first time in quite a while. What have we got to play for? Not pride, not the way this season has gone. Stubbornness is all I can think of. Pure, ornery stubbornness, a refusal to give in. If this finally is the Cubs' year, it will only come over our dead bodies.