George Orwell probably had the most sullen assessment of sports. He called it, "War minus the shooting." In Orwell's eyes, serious sport has nothing to do with fair play or sportsmanship. "It is bound up with hatred, jealously, boastfulness, disregard of all rules, and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence."
Orwell sounds as if he eavesdropped on my fantasy draft, or Sunday touch football game, which is a bit unsettling. What bothers me most, though, is that his dour view of sports doesn't allow for the majesty and the mirth that is the Chicago Cubs, the darlings of baseball and pending World Series champions.
When the Cubs get this hot, Major League Baseball may as well just hand them the trophy immediately. Feels just like 1908 all over again, doesn't it? I mean, what could possibly go wrong now?
Look, there is no magic to the Toronto Blue Jays' sudden rebirth. To most fans, that was all about mergers and acquisitions, sexy as a stock trade.
That the hapless Cubs have reinvented themselves seems more like antigravity or even sorcery. They play Friday in Los Angeles against a mythic team in our nation's most fanciful city, where nothing is real — not bosoms, not noses, not lawns. Only box office receipts, which can be semi-fabrications as well.
It seems appropriate that the Cubs once trained on Catalina, baseball's Alcatraz. Every time I go to the island, I wonder what percentage of inhabitants might be descendants of bored outfielders looking for a few warm hugs on a cool spring evening.
From 1921 to 1951, with a break during the war, Catalina was the most improbable spring-training location. There, the Cubs practiced under the watchful gaze of a visionary who made a fortune in, of all things, chewing gum. Back then, you could get very rich one penny at a time.
Ever since, this winsome franchise has been at the forefront of enlightened thought.
In what a sportscaster dubbed "the dumbest single coaching situation in the history of modern sports," the Cubs once used a rotation of eight coaches, in lieu of a manager. One of them, Charlie Metro, would not allow his players to shave in the clubhouse after the game.
Not even the Greeks have this kind of mythology. In 1926, a Cub named Grover Cleveland Alexander was bounced from the dugout for showing up drunk six days in 10 games.
Presumably, five had been OK?
During the 1945 World Series, tavern owner William "Billy Goat" Sianis put a curse on the team after it prevented his pet goat from entering Chicago's Wrigley Field (security was much tighter then).
By all accounts, the curse worked.
In 1964, the Cubs traded outfielder Lou Brock for pitcher Ernie Broglio, a swap that is roundly mocked unless you understand that Broglio was a combined 30-17 with a 2.99 earned-run average the previous two seasons.
Often more adept at the plate than the mound, the Cubbies once scored 22 runs against the Philadelphia Phillies — and lost, 23-22.
Don't ask me why I know that stuff and not my kids' birthdates. Meanwhile, I'm still in therapy over the Cubs' 1969 slide, which was the moment puberty ended for me and old age set in. I was 12.
Most famously perhaps, a fan by the name of Steve Bartman became the second goat in franchise folklore. In 2003, with the Cubs five outs from the World Series, Bartman simply did what he'd seen players do his entire life — panick at the perfectly wrong moment — by deflecting a potentially catchable foul ball and thereby opening the floodgates to an epic playoff collapse.
No team in sports has had this many quirks, cranks and characters. In 1908, a versatile infielder by the name of Heinie Zimmerman threw ammonia on a teammate's face, and was beaten mercilessly by Frank Chance, his 31-year-old player-manager. War minus the shooting.
Of course, the Cubs are also a team of greats: Cap Anson, Jimmie Foxx, Charlie Root, Ron Santo, Ryne Sandberg, and the best broadcasters not named Scully: Jack Brickhouse, Lloyd Pettit, Vince Lloyd, Harry Caray.
Most legendary of all, of course, is "Mr. Cub" himself, Ernie Banks, who died this year, though not in spirit.
As every Cubs fan knows, it is not just baseball's most renowned Pygmalion, Theo Epstein, who is behind the team's uncanny renaissance. It is also Banks, sitting in his new sky box and chatting up the gods of baseball.
"Here, have some gum," he says, connecting the old days with the new. "Now, about that crazy curse."