10.08.2007

Curses? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Curses

by Jeff Siegel

A truism of American sport is that no matter how bad a fan's team is, the fan is always convinced that it is better than it is. The players are more talented than they look, and all of that losing just isn't fair. (Sort of the way George Bush sees the Iraq War.)

If the fan's team loses the big game, it's the official's fault. If the team has a bad season, it's the coach's fault. If the team hasn't won a World Series in a century, it's the curse's fault.

The Chicago Cubs sent their fans into just such a frenzy over the weekend, when they lost their National League playoff series to the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Cubs did little well – their best hitters didn't hit, their best pitchers, for the most part, didn't pitch, and they showed, to paraphrase Hemingway, a decided lack of grace under pressure. This sent Cubs fans looking for an alibi: bad luck, bad karma (reported The Chicago Sun-Times), and The Curse.

The Curse dates to the 1945 World Series, when the Cubs supposedly refused to let a local tavern keeper bring his goat to the game. The tavern owner, a local legend named William "Billy Goat" Sianis, then put a curse on the Cubs. Since they didn't let the goat in the game, they would never win anything again. And, since then, they haven't.

There is, of course, no curse. And that statement has nothing to do with anyone's belief in hexes, voodoo, or the supernatural. What is almost never mentioned is that in 1945 it had been 37 years since the Cubs had won the World Series, and they had done this without a curse to blame for their failure.

Instead, the Cubs relied on the same thing then that they relied on over the weekend: ineptitude. Wrigley Field remains the sport's cathedral, the best place to watch a game despite the stadium's increasing corporatization. Cubs fans, despite the influx over the last several seasons of too many boozing, caps-on-backward types, remain the most loyal and most faithful in the sport. (Religious overtones intended, as Ron Shelton knew when he wrote Bull Durham.)

But the Cubs are not very good, and have not been very good since 1908. They have had lousy players, lousy managers, and lousy ownership. The Yankees had Hall of Fame shortstop Phil Rizzuto in the 1950s, and the Cubs had Roy Smalley Sr., who made 51 errors in 1950. The Yankees had Casey Stengel manage them to nine American League pennants and six World Series titles between 1950 and 1960; the Cubs had seven managers in that period, none of whom finished better than fifth.

There have been exceptions, of course – four National League pennants between 1929 and 1938, the infamous 1969-1973 teams, and a couple of division titles in the 1980s and this decade. But, otherwise, they have been mediocre, and awful when they haven't been mediocre. Since the World Series started in 1903, they have won just twice. If the Yankees don't do that in three seasons, George Steinbrenner usually fires someone.

Which brings us back to The Curse. What fan wants to admit that their team is fundamentally flawed? So we invent a scapegoat (and, again, religious inference intended) to hide the truth from ourselves. ESPN's Jim Caple wrote a terrific piece about just this before the playoffs started, and was thoroughly roasted by Cubs fans who insist on believing that their team – because it is their team – is better than it is and that they are entitled to win because they have suffered. My friends, life does not work that way.

I do not write this lightly. I am a Cubs fan of 40 years standing who had my heart broken in 1969, my spirit shattered in 1984, and my faith destroyed in 2003. I winced every time Dave Kingman went after a fly ball, Paul Reuschel threw a pitch, and Corey Patterson came to the plate. And, after all these years, the only conclusion I can come to is that the Cubs do not deserve us. They do not deserve our loyalty and our patience, our refusal to admit reality, our decision not to find a team to support that might actually win something every once in a while. (I hear there are a couple in New York that aren't bad.)

The only curse is that we are Cubs fans of our own free will, and that we are too stubborn or stupid to acknowledge that truth. Blame who you will, but what it comes down to is what it always comes down to: The Cubs ain't real good, and no amount of rending of garments or gnashing of teeth will change that.

(For more on the frustration produced by that northside team from Chicago, please see: "The Cubs' All-Time Futility Team.")

(Photo of Cubs' outfielder Alfonso Soriano taking a swing during the regular season by kthypryn via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)






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