Friday, October 07, 2011
Call Me Bartman
It’s that time of year when we wait in expectation of another World Series victory by the New York Yankees or the Philadelphia Phillies, while recalling (or trying to forget) another lost season in the sad history of the Chicago Cubs. Anyway, that’s the way Cubs fans talk about it. I don’t see it that way. In my view, the Cubs are the greatest team in the history of sports, and I wouldn’t change a thing about them.
Yes, viewed superficially, the last 103 years have given fans plenty of cause for frustration. Like New York, Chicago is a big market. The Cubs have the budget to pay big salaries, but they squander it on long-term contracts to players who are bound to disappoint. Every year Forbes publishes a list of the most and least cost-effective teams in baseball, and this year the Cubs were near the bottom again, the second least efficient team. In other words, the Cubs are very expensive, as well as lovable, losers. Smaller market clubs like St. Louis and Milwaukee have succeeded by spending their money more wisely.
With that in mind, the Cubs are looking for a new general manager, someone from a successful franchise. They are especially pursuing Theo Epstein, who runs the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox, you may recall, were once considered cursed, too. By the time they did win a World Series in 2004, they had experienced 86 years of futility. So the Cubs are hoping to steal that fire from the Red Sox.
That would be a mistake. Keep in mind that the Red Sox, even at their lowest moments, were pitiable losers but never lovable. The lovable loser identity is the essence of the Cubs franchise. It is the brand that draws in fans year after year, keeping revenues high, and making Wrigley Field the happiest place on earth. Winning it all, even once, would only hurt. In sports, there are no “lovable winners.” Winning would court resentment and turn the Cubs into just another team that wins now and then, but mostly loses. Like the Cardinals – a despicable team. No, there is something pure, noble, and improbable about the Cubs, who really do seem set to lose for a thousand years, like the victim of a fairy tale sorcerer.
And that’s okay. They’re the Cubbies, the teddy bears of professional sports, stumbling, error-prone, from one boo-boo to the next, like a toddler. In this difficult world of ours, their problems don’t feel serious. What a relief! We want to pick them up, cuddle them, protect them. And yet we have to send them out again, to lose. The Cubs are lovable to all baseball fans. Even opposing players love them. In part, it is because the Cubs are an expression of everything Midwestern – humble, working class, down on their luck but still putting in the effort, clocking in and clocking out. At some level, the Cubs understand that the rest of the baseball world rides on their shoulders. They are the firm foundation of every other team’s success.
In a league in which twenty-nine teams go home losers at the end of every season, the Cubs are there to comfort the other twenty-eight, to show them that things could be worse. Except that things aren’t at all bad for the Cubs. Not really. But those other teams, whose dreams are never so grand, whose desires are less than mythic – those teams will never know it.
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