We’ve been here before.
It’s not exactly familiar terrain.
But we have been in this place where we stand today, just one game away from finally putting that billy goat’s curse to rest for good. Twice before.
The first time we stepped here was in 1984, the Cubs’ first postseason appearance since the 1945 World Series, when Greek tavern owner Billy Sianis allegedly placed that curse on the team after ushers escorted him and his smelly goat out of Wrigley Field, vowing that it would never return to the World Series again.
The ’84 Cubs looked well-positioned to end the World Series drought, playing in what would be the last best-of-five National League Championship Series. It started promising enough. They took the first two games at the Friendly Confines, and made it look rather easy in doing so. In Game 1, they crushed the Padres 13-0. Game 2 was closer but never really in doubt as the Cubs won 4-2. The rest of the series would be played in San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium, where the Cubs would need to win only one game and would have as many as three tries to do it.
The odds were clearly in the Cubs favor. Many of us old die-hards had already started getting the champagne bottles ready to pop. Even after the Cubs lost the next two, we still thought we had it. After all, we had Rick “The Red Baron” Sutcliffe going for us. Since joining the Cubs in a mid-June trade, Sutcliffe was nearly invincible, going 17-1 in that span. When the Cubs jumped out to an early 3-0 lead, we thought we had it in the bag.
That all changed in the bottom of the seventh, when, with one out and a runner on second, pinch-hitter Tim Flannery hit a ground ball at first baseman Leon Durham, which looked to be an easy second out of the inning. Somehow the ball went under Durham’s glove and through his legs for an error. By the time the inning was over a 3-2 lead had become a 6-3 deficit, which the Cubs could not come back from as the Padres became the first National League team to win a Championship Series after being down 2-0.
The second time was in 2003, and, for many of us, the pain of that one still lingers. It is Game 6, and the Cubs, up 3-2 in the best-of-seven NLCS against the Florida Marlins, have their ace, young Mark Prior, 18-6 in the regular season and 2-0 in the postseason, on the mound at Wrigley Field. With the Cubs leading 3-0 in the 8th and Prior mowing down one batter after another, it sure felt like it was going to happen.
Then, just five outs away from celebrating, the bubble burst in the form of foul ball off the bat of Luis Castillo. Cubs left fielder Moises Alou leaped against the wall, waiting for the ball to fall into his glove. But an overzealous fan reached out and took what looked to be a sure out away from him. Alou, in a fit of anger, threw his glove to the ground. Castillo later reached on a walk and a sickening feeling enveloped the not-so-friendly confines. Aided by Castillo’s walk and later an error by Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez on a potential double-play grounder, the Marlins went on to score eight runs in the inning and won the game 8-3.
The Cubs went on to lose the next game 9-6, giving the Marlins their second National League pennant in their 11-year existence, while leaving the Cubs once again empty-handed.
Now, here we are in 2016, once again one game away from winning the pennant that has eluded them since the end of World War II. The Cubs have two chances in their home ballpark to win just one game.
The statistical analysts at FiveThirtyEight say the Cubs curse is now more likely to end than continue. “According to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo prediction model, the Cubs have an 81 percent chance of capturing the franchise’s first pennant since 1945,” Neil Paine wrote for the website. “And with a 51 percent probability of winning the World Series, Chicago is now more likely than not to end its 108-year drought and celebrate a title for the first time since 1908.”
Beleaguered Cubs fans of course have heard this all before. Maybe we didn’t have it statistically spelled out for us, but we knew that we should have made it to the World Series in 1984 and 2003.
There are lessons that those past failures have taught us that should serve us well for tonight’s game and, if necessary, tomorrow’s.
Throw out FiveThirtyEight and its statistical predictions. We know that one last win isn’t likely to come easily. We also know that we can throw out any and all assumptions and presumptions about favorable matchups, especially when we know we’ll be facing the Dodgers’ best in Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and Kenley Jackson.
But mostly we know that at some point in the game there will be a freak play, a questionable call, or an error that will cause our collective hearts to temporarily stop beating. When that happens, we all need to realize that our hearts still work. We just need to take a collective deep breath, and realize that this is baseball. These things happen in virtually every game that is played. Once we come to this realization and have our collective breath back we need to all stand up and do what we’re supposed to do. We cheer for our team. We can’t let one freaky play dictate what follows.
We should also realize that the 2016 Cubs are better equipped to win this last game than either the 1984 or the 2003 versions. Not only are they a much looser bunch, as evidenced by the way they came back to score 18 runs the last two games after going scoreless in back-to-back games, but they’ve been here before. Sure they got swept last year in the NLCS, but they have that experience and had to win a one-game Wild Card Playoff and the NLDS to get there. They were expected to be back this year, and all season long they’ve lived up to the lofty expectations set upon them. In comparison, the 1984 and 2003 versions were both 5th place teams in their prior seasons, going a combined 138-188. They had no postseason experience coming into the season and no serious expectations placed upon them.
There’s good reason this Cubs’ team won 103 games this season, eight games more than any other team in baseball. They’re the best team in baseball, and probably the best Cubs’ team in most of our lifetimes.
Bill Murray’s got the right attitude, with his Ghostbuster parody T-shirt that says: We ain’t afraid of no goat. For 71 years now, we’ve let a stinkin’ goat keep us away from the World Series. It’s time to give that old goat the boot.
Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation