Cubs strive to be 'lovable winners'
North Siders out to snap near century without Series title
MESA, Ariz. -- Don't blame the goat, misplayed ground balls or fan interference -- and do not call the Chicago Cubs "lovable losers." There's nothing lovable about this.
When the Cubs open the 2006 season on Monday in Cincinnati, it'll be 35,600 days since they celebrated their last World Series title. That party was held on Oct. 14, 1908, when the Cubs needed just five games to beat the Detroit Tigers and become the first club to win back-to-back World Series titles.
1908. Arizona wasn't a state in 1908.
The 98 years since the Cubs won that last World Series is a longer stretch than either the Boston Red Sox or Chicago White Sox had to endure. In 2004, the Red Sox ended their World Series drought. The White Sox ended theirs in 2005.
Is 2006 the Cubs' year?
"I told my wife that before I signed here," new Cubs reliever Scott Eyre said. "It's been 80-some years for the Red Sox, they won. It's been 80-some years for the White Sox and they won. It's been what, 98 for us?
"I'm a baseball history guy. Usually things go in patterns. There was some stat last year where some guy hit his 400th home run or 300th home run the same day three other people hit their 300th home run. Things happen."
So, it's a statistical certainty the Cubs will win the World Series in 2006?
"It should be," Eyre said. "I think [having the longest streak] is funny. Not funny 'ha ha,' but funny 'strange.'"
Man has landed on the moon since they won. There have been two World Wars. The Soviet Union has come and gone. The Cubs have played 15,168 regular season games since they won it all, and are 7,504-7,584 in that stretch, not including ties and some thrown-out results.
Since the Cubs' last World Series title, 1,495 players have played at least one regular season game for the team. Forty-eight people, including the infamous College of Coaches, have managed the Cubs, from (alphabetically speaking) Joe Amalfitano to Don Zimmer.
They haven't been entirely shut out of postseason play over the 98 years. In 1984, they clinched their first National League East Division title. In '89, they won another, and in '98, they advanced to the postseason as the NL Wild Card. In 2003, they won their first Central Division title. That year, they were five outs away from advancing to the World Series when the Florida Marlins rallied to win the NL Championship Series.
You'd think somehow, some way over all those seasons, the Cubs would have, should have won another World Series ...
But no. And while there has been some fun along the way, it's been mostly frustration, on the field and in the stands.
"Nobody likes a loser," Eyre said. "And second place is the first loser."
"I don't believe in the curse, so I don't blame the curse," said 80-year-old Doris Davis of Shipshewana, Ind., who hasn't missed a home Spring Training game in Arizona since 1980. "I think maybe we love our boys too much so we accept what happens. We have had some bad breaks -- everybody gets those. Ours have been a little more fatal than others."
The 2003-04 seasons under current Cubs manager Dusty Baker marked the team's first back-to-back winning seasons since 1971-72. Between World War II and the mid-60s, the Cubs were losers and not beloved at all. Crowds dwindled; they clearly were the second team in the Second City.
Things have evolved from Ernie Banks, sunshine and 60-cent bleacher tickets to Derrek Lee, sunshine and $60 bleacher tickets. Wrigley Field, the iconic survivor of simpler times, is the one constant, and it's the ivy covered walls and old fashioned charm that have been huggable, even (management hopes) with this year's addition of 1,800 new bleacher seats. That's why in February the team set a Major League record for single-day ticket sales.
Cubs general manager Jim Hendry has maintained he's motivated this year by the team's 79-83 finish in 2005, not the fact that its crosstown rivals are flashing their world champion trophy around town. It's the same for the players.
"I sit back as a fan and I enjoyed watching Boston and Chicago win," Cubs pitcher Greg Maddux said. "They're two cities that were really easy to root for.
"As far as baseball goes, you go and prepare yourself the best way you can to put yourself in position to have the most success you can possibly have and you hope it works out. Just because Boston and Chicago won didn't change a thing for me personally in how I prepare for the season. I've always tried as hard as I can, so it's hard to try harder.
"I was happy for Ozzie Guillen," Maddux said. "I played with him, so there was that little bit of incentive to pull for an ex-teammate and the city of Chicago. That's how I looked at it. When the World Series was over, I took a month off, played golf, and come November, December, I started getting ready for Spring Training."
Fans such as Davis prepare mainly by showing up year after year. Though Lee, the Cubs first baseman and defending National League batting champ, is one of the players Davis likes most on the current team, she has a special spot in her heart for catcher Michael Barrett.
"Michael is my favorite -- he's so darn cute," she said. "I love them in spite of themselves. Whether we win or lose, we still have our boys."
It's that loyalty from their fans that makes the Cubs unique -- and, well, lovable.
"You never give up," said Billie Vuylsteke, 82, a friend of Davis' who has been coming to Arizona Spring Training for 18 years. "I've been a fan since '39. I've had to listen to every nasty joke ever thought of about the Cubs.
"I just hope I live long enough to go to a World Series game," she said.
If you believe Eyre and his baseball logic, then it will be rocking at Wrigley Field in October -- and not because of another Jimmy Buffett concert.
"This is one of the best atmospheres I've ever played in, and we're not even in the season yet," Eyre said. "When you're out there, you watch Michael [Barrett] come back from the World [Baseball Classic] and you get [Carlos] Zambrano back, and you see the character they bring to the table. Michael's out there with the rest of us. A lot of guys on this team are -- that's what makes it fun.
"And if you told guys that the Red Sox won, the White Sox won, and it's our turn," he said, "they'd believe you."
Believing. That's lovable.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.