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Windy City Bracing for Classic Fall Instead of Anticipating Fall Classic

Newsday

While fans, correspondents and talk-show hosts in New York engage in postmortems for a season that has yet to expire, their Chicago counterparts face a more daunting task. They must acknowledge the success of the moment while bracing for a failure that is inevitable. Such premortems are essential to the mental stability of those pledging allegiance to the Cubs.

If the lesson wasn’t understood in 1969, then it was driven home in 1984. Although anything is possible in baseball, nothing is more improbable than a World Championship banner fluttering atop the flagpole at Wrigley Field. It has yet to happen, despite the fact Wrigley has been in operation for 74 seasons, longer than any ballpark in the National League.

One theory holds that the ultimate triumph of the Cubs would subvert the world as we know it. At the very least, there would be one less thing in which to believe. “The Cubs are losers,” sports columnist Bernie Lincicome acknowledged after the team’s demise in the ’84 playoffs. “Again. And there is a sense of order to that, kind of like knowing that the Grand Canyon will always be an empty hole.”

Yet, there were those who professed shock at the Cubs’ collapse, after they had positioned themselves within one victory of a World Series appearance. Some, such as Chicago columnist and conscience Mike Royko, should have known better.

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“It just happened again,” Royko noted. “And this time it was even worse. It’s a monumental disaster. It makes 1969 seem like a minor aggravation.”

The latter was included in “The Cubbies,” a whimsical compilation of observations about the plight of the longest suffering franchise in major-league history, published in 1987. Consider that all the Cubs have to show for their efforts over the previous 43 seasons is one division title. They haven’t participated in a World Series since 1945 and haven’t won one since 1908. The country may not be ready for a recurrence.

“I think that Cub fans probably have the fewest suicides of any fans in the world,” explained Chicago-born comedian Tom Dreesen in the introduction to the book. “See, we have something to live for. I worry that when the Cubs do win the World Series, you’ll see a headline in the paper that says, ‘Cubs Win World Series: 20,000 Fans Commit Suicide. They’ve Been Wanting to Do It for Years, but Didn’t Because They Had Something to Live for.”’

According to the standings, Dreesen has cause for concern. Two weeks before the end of a season in which they were accorded virtually no chance of winning the National League East, they have opened a sizable lead over three alleged contenders -- the Cardinals, the Mets and the Expos. A division title is within their grasp.

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The truth of the matter, of course, is that those 20,000 are in no imminent danger. If the Cubs don’t fold in the next 17 days, there’s the memory of their playoff plunge in 1984. And even if they should surmount the obstacle of a seven-game series against the best in the West, there’s that Series jinx with which to contend. The team has lost in its last seven appearances in the Fall Classic.

Not even the Red Sox, whose history corresponds more closely to that of the Cubs than any other American League team, have been treated so badly. The Bosox can trace their last World Championship to 1918. It should surprise no one to learn that the team they defeated in that Series was the Cubs.

There are other, more recent links between the franchises. Don Zimmer, the manager of the Red Sox team that won 99 games in 1978 but lost a one-game playoff to the Yankees, plots strategy for the Cubs. Fresher still is the great first-base fiasco.

It should be recalled that the Cubs began the ’84 season with a first baseman named Bill Buckner. On May 25, 1984, they packaged him with a minor-league outfielder and shipped them to Boston in exchange for pitcher Dennis Eckersley. It may be another century before Bosox fans forgive or forget the ground ball that squirted through Buckner’s legs in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series.

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If that trade seemed well-advised, the star-crossed nature of the club was revealed by the consequences. In Buckner’s absence, Leon “Bull” Durham, a former outfielder, became the everyday first baseman. In the seventh inning of the deciding game of the National League Championship Series, with the Cubs holding a 3-2 lead, Durham went to one knee to field a routine grounder off the bat of Tim Flannery. Before the ball reached him, he abruptly lifted his glove. The tying run scored on the error and the San Diego Padres went on to a 6-3 victory.

“My first error all year with the glove,” Durham claimed later. As someone once said, timing is everything. “We came a long ways,” said Rick Sutcliffe, the losing pitcher, “but we didn’t quite get there. That’s going to stay with us the rest of our lives.”

Sutcliffe would appear to be more fortunate than many of his ’84 teammates. He’s still wearing a Chicago uniform in ’89. He may have earned another chance.

But a chance for what? For redemption or for more disappointment? It would be unreasonable to expect a different ending just because Jim Frey, the manager in ’84, sits in the general manager’s office, or because Zimmer, the third-base coach then, occupies the manager’s seat. For that matter, not even Joe McCarthy could win a World Championship with the Cubs. Nor could Leo Durocher.

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What else to conclude but that the Cubs’ sudden rise in ’89 merely is a prelude to a great fall? Some of their supporters have grown so conditioned that they would have you believe they prefer it that way. “I think they’re more endearing in defeat,” Studs Terkel decided in the aftermath of the ’84 season. “I like their loser-like quality.”

“The Chicago Cubs, like life itself, are a losing cause,” Royko wrote in 1985. “That’s why we have cemeteries, and Wrigley Field.”


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