Bleeding Cubbies Blues

Last night, the Chicago Cubs were swept out of baseball’s post-season after being completely manhandled by the New York Mets, and today, they will prepare to do what they have done for the last 107 years:  watch two other teams play in the World Series.

I enjoyed watching the Cubs lose, because it’s the second most fun thing that can happen in Chicago baseball.  The best thing, watching the White Sox win, didn’t happen much in 2015, and for a brief period, I was worried that the event I have long feared — the event that George Carlin said almost twenty years would be “the most boring bunch of shit you can imagine” — would finally come to pass:  the Chicago Cubs would win the pennant.

Of course, I shouldn’t have worried.  The Cubs did what they always do.  If I were slightly more generous of spirit, I would almost be in awe of the team:  they are, far and away, the most consistent team in professional sports, anywhere in the world.  All they do is lose.  They play with mechanical, mathematical precision, a finely tuned machine for losing ballgames; and it seems that no combination of players, no rearrangement of ownership, no change of ownership will change this.  They are built to lose the way a gun is built to kill.  It’s literally all they do.  If you could find someone willing to bet on them, you could make a fortune; to team has even come close to experiencing the kind of post-season futility the Cubs enjoy.  Their history of championship failure predates not only every other baseball team in the league, but every other league in sports.  New York may have the Miracle Mets, but Chicago possesses a true miracle:  a team so bad that they defy the laws of probability.

Whenever the Cubs enjoy some fleeting success, White Sox fans, and there are still a few of us alive and breathing in Cook County — indeed, it is a truism that most Sox fans are from Chicago, while most Cubs fans are from Iowa — are accused of being bitter.  It’s hard to figure out what this canard is meant to mean, exactly; what are we supposed to be bitter of? The Cubs’ stellar post-season play?  Their admirable winning record?  I suppose there’s something to be said about how the Cubs get all the media attention despite their depressing incompetence, but that generates more bafflement than outrage. People being elevated to positions of great fame and renown despite being demonstrably bad at their jobs is nothing new, but it’s still sort of hard to take in an area of life as allegedly meritocratic as sports.

If there’s really something that inspires anger, if not bitterness, it’s not the team — the Cubs, after all, are just an aggregation of mercenaries like every other team — but their fans.  Race and class issues are as intertwined with sports as they are with every other aspect of American society, and the archetypical Cubs fan — a hooting honky frat boy in love with the trappings and the fripperies of Wrigley Field, but only marginally concerned with the quality of the product on display there — embodies a certain sort of unearned privilege that will not be unfamiliar to anyone who ever worked for somebody else.  Surely there are Cubs fans who are thoughtful, interested in the game, aware of history, and genuinely concerned about fielding the best team and winning in the best way; I know a number of them.  But their team has long since been hijacked by people who do little more than buy into marketing, and it seems that a change of management has done nothing to change this.  The initial shock is subduing, and you hear little of addressing the weaknesses that led to such a solid drubbing at the hands of the Mets; instead, you hear that refrain, literally ages old, of “Wait ’til next year!”

It would be pointless to rehash the folly of the Cubs’ fans patience.  Entire generations, entire nations, entire ways of life have gone to ash since the last time they won the World Series; the number of men living who existed when they claimed the title in 1908 would not fill out their spring training roster. They are a team whose futility is literally world-historical; making jokes about how different the world is since the last time they claimed a crown is so easy, it’s not even funny.  The question becomes, do they really want to win a championship?  Without a World Series title, the Cubs are unique, if only for their awfulness; with one, they are the Philadelphia Phillies — just one more crummy, forgotten team. Losing is what comes to define them.

And this, more than anything else, may be why White Sox fans hate them so — not out of bitterness, or of jealousy, or of resentment, but out of some quirk of temperament that renders us intolerable, in the only real meritocracy left, of accepting those who not only tolerate failure, but celebrate it.  The White Sox have not always been good, but we have never loved being bad.  The phrase “lovable losers” slices at the entire conception of our baseball fandom like a razor.  Every noxious aspect of the North Side team — their front-running, their blind devotion to their urine-stinking wreck of a ballyard, their systemic incompetence, their erasure of their own history, the way they outsell a dozen better teams — all fades before our rage at the very idea of a fanbase that would glorify its own bungling.

But maybe they’re onto something.  The Sox’ glorious World Series victory of 2005 — without question the pinnacle of my entire baseball existence, as a player and as a fan — is ten years distance and already fading away, and it may be a long while before we see another one.  But the Cubs, as much as their fans make sad faces and pretend heartbreak, may be onto something.  When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.  If the White Sox win five more world series in the next five decades, they will be nothing more than a team with eight World Series trophies; but if the Cubs go an equal amount of time without winning anything, they will be a team that went 150 years without ever winning a title.  That’s not wonderful, but it’s special.  So, salud, my North Side neighbors.  You have something we South Siders will never have, will never even dream of being able to replicate — and you can keep it.

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