When I moved to Chicago in the '70s, my baseball pals assured me that, with my Red Sox roots, I would be a perfect fit with Cubs fans at Wrigley Field.
But it turned out to be not so perfect. Granted the two teams shared extraordinary losing traditions. Still, I begrudged the comparison. To my eyes, it was no contest. The Cubs weren't remotely the Red Sox's equal when it came to epic failure. The Cubs were simply futile—hadn't been in a World Series in my lifetime—and you had to go back to1945 to find any monumental heartbreak. It was the difference between a curse based on trading the greatest hitter in the history of the game and a specious one having something to do with a goat and a bar famous for not selling french fries. And that was even before I had experienced Boston's demise in the '75 Series, blown in the ninth inning of the seventh game by a dunderhead manager, the 1978 horror of Bucky (Bleepin') Dent and the forever nightmare of '86 that is recalled with a single name: Buckner.
Wrigley Field was every bit the baseball treasure my friends assured me it would be. The problem was that, with no lights and only day baseball, every afternoon at the ballpark felt like a scene from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (even a decade before the movie was made). The fans played hooky from work and school, picnicked, drank beer and frolicked in the sun. There was this Midwestern civility to the place. Everybody seemed in a good mood all the time and the result of the game didn't seem to change that. Who wouldn't feel blessed to spend a Tuesday afternoon at Wrigley rather than behind a desk or a shovel?
I always enjoyed myself, but I never felt a visceral connection. How could Cubs fans endure such unending pathos without getting furious? In Boston, there was anger; in Chicago, there was resignation. It was the difference between our greatest Sox hero, Ted Williams, who spit at the fans, and the Cubs' Ernie Banks, who smiled and assured everyone he just wanted to play. I never particularly enjoy the abuse that spewed from the stands at Fenway Park (and in New York and Philly). But a few decades of being faithful at Fenway had apparently hard-wired my baseball brain to, at least, expect it.
And then, 30 years after my Wrigley debut, enter Bartman. Bartman was, of course, the poor fan whose overeager reach became the trigger point for a Florida Marlins rally that thwarted the Cubs' 2003 World Series dreams. Just as "Buckner" obscured the failures of other Red Sox players, Bartman became the fall guy for a collapse that occurred not in the stands but on the field. Chicago fans undoubtedly recognized that. But despite pleas from civic leaders, the media and, ultimately, even the Cubs to cut poor Bartman some slack, despite testimony from friends and neighbors that he was a great citizen as well as a great fan, Bartman was the fall guy (think Scooter Libby). Overnight, Wrigley became an angry and unforgiving place.
Which, now four years later, is the cue for the entrance of the team's new manager, Lou Piniella. He succeeds Dusty Baker, mellow, classy and dignified, who would have been ideal for the Cubs of yesteryear. But instead it's Lou, the last angry manager, who is perfect for this new age of the Chicago Cubs. Piniella is a throwback, the best man to kick the bases, scream his lungs out and ramrod this perennially disappointing franchise into shape—and into the playoffs.
Getting into the playoffs is, of course, the key to eradicating—now that both Sox (Red and White) have tasted championships—the greatest tragicomedy in sports. (If you are counting, it has been 99 years since the last World Series triumph for the Cubs.) As the Red Sox (and the Angels and the Marlins) demonstrated, a wild-card berth can be just the ticket to a championship. And as the Cardinals demonstrated last year, you can limp into the playoffs with a record that would be good for fourth place in other divisions and it becomes a footnote to the championship. And, as baseball has demonstrated in this new era of surprising parity, worst to first—the Cubs were 66-96 last year, worst in the National League—is no longer just an NFL scenario.
Toward that end, the Cubs spent a record $290 million to revamp their lineup, including the addition of Alfonso Soriano, who last year became only the fourth member of baseball's 40-40 club (with 46 home runs and 41 steals). But the naysayers—and they abound—say Soriano, who is likely to play center field, and Piniella are just more of the problem that doomed the Cubs last year. Soriano is a gem by the standards of a bygone baseball's era. But in a new era that prizes different stats, most notably OBP (on-base percentage), he may be overrated. He is subpar defensively (and has never played center field), strikes out way too much (160 times last year) and walks way too little—and his meager career OBP of .325 is actually a few points lower than that of Juan Pierre, the free-agent disappointment who manned the position for the Cubs last year.
Soriano's weaknesses may only be encouraged by Piniella, whose teams have always been free-swinging. These days that approach is regarded by many baseball experts as the ultimate sin; this is an era that argues for milking the count to exhaust the starter, enabling teams to feast on the mediocrity that is modern-day middle relief. And some say that is the good news about Sweet Lou. Please don't get Piniella's critics started on how he handles pitching staffs. Suffice it to say that there is already a Fire Lou Piniella Web site that doesn't even want to wait for the season's start to advocate Lou's early exit.
The good news for Cubs fans is that they can count on one sure winner: a new documentary called "Hello Again Everybody" that recalls the life and career of the team's late broadcaster Harry Caray. Caray may not have been the best baseball announcer ever to sit behind the microphone. But he may have been the most entertaining and certainly the most beloved. He spent 53 years in the booth—first with the Cardinals, briefly with the Oakland A's (owner Charley Finley wanted Caray to change his trademark home-run call "Holy Cow" to "Holy Mule" because the A's had a mule mascot), then with the White Sox and finally, uptown, with the Cubs. To hear one more Harry rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" or "It could me, it might be, it is … Holy Cow," well it should put a smile on any Cub fan's face. And they'll need all the smiles they can bring to the park this season. Because Wrigley Field has become the place where optimism goes to die.