Great Expectations

By Randy Richardson

Some things naturally go together: Romeo and Juliet. Peanut butter and jelly. Baseball and Cracker Jack.

The Cubs and expectations? Not so much.

Historically, the Cubs have been to expectations what oil is to vinegar. They might tease you a bit but in the end they always separate. This, at least in part, explains how they’ve managed to go 107 years without winning a World Series, the longest championship drought of any major North American professional sports team.

They’ve become the “Lovable Losers” by losing even when, by most accounts, they should have won.

Take 1945, for example. That was the last time the Cubs actually made it to the World Series. In a war-depleted baseball season the National League Cubs were the cream of the crop, posting an impressive 98-56 regular season record, and were favorites to take the title. And when they won two of the first three games in the ballpark of the American League Detroit Tigers, all they had to do was take two out of four in their home ballpark, Wrigley Field, and they would be champs.

But that was before a billy goat walked into the so-called Friendly Confines in game 4, and its owner, Billy Sianis, after being told that he and his goat were not welcome there, reportedly placed a curse on the team. The Cubs lost that game and two of the next three, and haven’t been back to the World Series since.

Twenty-four years later, the Cubs, led by four future Hall-of-Famers – Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins and Ron Santo – were once again favorites to win it all. That was 1969, and it all began as it had been foretold. On opening day at Wrigley Field, April 8, the Cubs trailed the Phillies 6–5 in the bottom of the 11th inning. With a runner on base, Willie Smith hit a game-winning home run into the right field bleachers. This propelled the Cubs’ hot start, as they won the next three games, and 11 out of their first 12, creating a seemingly insurmountable cushion that would extend to 8½ games in mid-August.

santo-sheaBut then another animal – this time a black cat – waltzed its way into a critical game. This time it was against the New York Mets in Shea Stadium. Bad luck again followed. The Cubs lost that game in tragic fashion, brought on by a pair of miscues by a rookie outfielder, and that served as a springboard for the Mets and the collapse of the Cubs.  From August 14 through the end of the season, the Mets posted a 38–11 record, while the Cubs recorded only 18 wins to 27 losses for the same period. Despite a respectable 92–70 record, the Cubs would be remembered for having lost a remarkable 17 1⁄2 games in the standings to the Mets in the last quarter of the season. The Miracle Mets? They’d go on to steal the World Series that should have been the Cubs’.

It would be another 16 years before expectations would reach such lofty heights. That was 1985, a year after the Cubs, led by league MVP Ryne Sandberg and Cy Young winner Rick Sutcliffe, blew a 2-0 lead in the NLCS, losing three straight games in San Diego to the Padres. Hopes were high for 1985, however, with Sandberg blossoming into a star, Sutcliffe back for a full season, and the offseason signing of future Hall-of-Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley. The success of 1984 carried over early in the season, with the Cubs in first place with an impressive 35-19 record through June 11. Then four of their starters – Sutcliffe, Eckersley, Steve Trout and Scott Sanderson – went on the disabled list, leading to a 13-game losing streak that they were unable to recover from. They finished the season with a 77-84 record, 23 ½ games behind the St. Louis Cardinals.

Then there was 2004. This was supposed to finally be the year. After the heartbreaking end to 2003, when the Cubs came within five outs of going to the World Series, until a fan reached for a foul ball that seemed destined for Moises Alou’s glove. The expansion Florida Marlins came back from a 3-1 deficit in that series to win the last three games, including two at the Cubs’ home ballpark. But the sting of that season would have been soothed if the Cubs had lived up to the expectations that had been set for them in 2004. There was plenty of reason for optimism. The team had brought back future Hall-of-Famer Greg Maddux to anchor its staff of young stud hurlers: Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano. They’d also obtained slugging first baseman Derrek Lee from the 2003 champion Marlins, solidifying a powerful lineup that already included Sammy Sosa, Alou and Aramis Ramirez.

4de6cea2daccc_210315bOn the cover of Sports Illustrated’s 2004 Baseball Preview Kerry Wood stares down an opposing batter next to the headline “Hell Freezes Over: The Cubs Will Win the World Series.” But even a midseason deal that brought Nomar Garciaparra to the team couldn’t stop misfortune from rearing its ugly head again. Again, injuries befell the Cubs, as its top two starters – Wood and Prior – suffered arm injuries that put them on the disabled list for extended times. Still, they at least seemed headed to a Wild Card berth until a late-season collapse that ended with star slugger Sosa walking out on the team at season’s end.

Now here we are in 2016, and the Cubs’ greatest nemesis – no, not the Mets or even the Cardinals, but expectations – is stronger than ever.

After adding Jason Heyward, John Lackey and Ben Zobrist to a team that last year won 97 games and made it all the way to the NLCS, just about everyone is picking the Cubs to be the best – not just in their division but in all of baseball.

ESPN gathered 31 baseball experts and asked them to make their predictions. Thirty-one (61 percent) have the North Siders playing in the World Series. Fourteen (45 percent) have them winning it all.

USA Today projects the Cubs to win 101 games in the regular season; Fangraphs has them at a major-league-best 97-65, ahead of the Dodgers’ 92-70.

At VegasInsider.com, the Cubs are listed as favorites at 9-2 to win it all, with the Giants next at 9-1.

So is it time to put your life savings on the table and bet Cubs? Maybe not just yet. The Sun-Times’ John Grochowski noted that “being at the top doesn’t mean the Cubs are expected to win. At 9-2 odds, the expectation would be that if this season were played 11 times, the Cubs would be likely to win twice, with other teams winning nine times.”

What a party pooper.

Sports Illustrated didn’t pick the Cubs to win it all this year, but has them finally making it back to the World Series, only to lose to the 15-to-1 Astros. Being on the SI cover is oftentimes thought to be a jinx, but there they are – four of the Cubs biggest stars, Heyward, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Jake Arrieta, all smiles on the cover of the magazine’s regional baseball preview issue next to the headline “The Revenants.”

Given SI’s woeful record of forecasting winners, maybe having them not pick the Cubs is the best prediction of all.

“Just get us there,” Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon told reporters about the cover. “SI, please get us there. I’ll be happy with that.”

The biggest question facing the Cubs as they prepare to begin their historic quest, in Los Angeles against the Angels on Monday night, is whether they can keep from crumbling under the weight of such great expectations. It has become popular to blame curses or just plain old bad luck for the inability of Cubs teams in the past to win it all even when they seemed to be the team to beat. Oftentimes the reality is that they beat themselves.

Unlike last year, this year’s Cubs aren’t going to sneak up on anyone. They’re the favorites, and they like it that way. Indeed, Maddon not only tells his players to “Embrace the target” but has them wearing the target on T-shirts.

No one can predict the future. But if ever there was a Cubs team built to live up to expectations, it is this one. Sure there will be adversity along the way. It won’t come easy. But this team has the depth, the raw talent, and the perfect blend of crafty veterans and hungry youngsters to take all the blows.

And to lead them – to keep their eyes on that elusive prize – they’ve got the Maddon. More than any of their star players – Rizzo or Bryant or Heyward or Arrieta – it is that guy in the dugout – that cool, smart, bespectacled skipper – who makes even the oldest of die-hards, the ones that have suffered the most and have every reason for pessimism, believe that next year is finally here.

Hope. A feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen. It is something that Cubs fans have always had in abundance. As always, hope springs eternal, right? This time it feels different though. Doesn’t it? It doesn’t feel so dire. And that’s a good feeling. Not just for the fans but for the team they root for as well.

Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation.