Almost every big-name player, manager and general manager who joined the parched Cubs over the years arrived talking about the lure of winning a World Series in Chicago. Their comments hit on all the same themes: parades, parties and baseball immortality.
Nobody came in talking about worst-case scenarios because what’s the fun of that? Who wants to talk about hell when you can talk about heaven?
Cubs fans of a certain age already know the netherworld well. I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately. They have been through so much, and they have so much to gain from this wonderful season. And yet, I find myself staring into the darkness. Why? Because I grew up with this team and because I can’t help myself. Something in the wiring. Every once in a while, just for kicks, I’ll sidle up to the more intense Cubs fans of my acquaintance and ask a question.
“What if the Cubs have to play the Cardinals in a division series?’’
I watch for involuntary body movements. Literal handwringing. Nervous foot tapping. Maybe a hand to the jugular vein – their own, not mine.
Then the push toward the edge.
“Can you imagine if the Cubs lose to the Cardinals in a division series?’’
You know, innocent like, as if I’m asking for a quarter for the parking meter.
The question never fails to elicit a pained look, as if some bad sushi had just found its way to the lining of the stomach. Losing to the hated Cardinals would be nuclear winter for Cubs fans. I don’t wish that upon anybody, having gone through something like it in 1969. But the Amazin’ Mets were not the Cardinals that so many Cubs fans despise. The talented Mets decided to be really, really good at the right time in ’69. But you try to explain that to 9-year-old me, who hated everything about the Mets.
The older, less-invested, somewhat-more-mature me understands what this terrific season means to Cubs fans, but I also know, having seen too much carnage over the years, that wanting something badly enough is not protection against disaster. It might even invite it. And so, the mind wanders in the direction of worst-case scenarios. The Cardinals, that successful, imperious franchise, putting an end to a magical season in a National League Division Series? The Cardinals, the hero of every story they tell, bringing down a Cubs team with every reason to believe it should win the World Series this season?
Can you imagine? Probably in the same way you can imagine natural disasters, calamity and pestilence, including, but not limited to, bubonic plague.
The Cardinals are not just the Cubs’ archrivals, they are what the Cubs aspire to be. They win consistently, and they do it with a lot of homegrown talent. Cubs fans are tired of hearing that Cardinals fans are the most knowledgeable in baseball. It would be a lot less tiresome if St. Louis fans didn’t walk around in doctoral caps and gowns.
So to lose to the Cardinals, after what likely will be a 100-victory-plus regular season? It would be the worst for Cubs fans. Worse than losing to the White Sox in a World Series? Yes. This season, after all the buildup and all the success, yes.
It’s why I’m guessing many confident, yet vulnerable Cubs fans would rather play anybody else in that first series, whether it be the Mets, who beat them in the N.L. Championship Series last season, the Giants or nine guys wearing poison-tipped cleats.
The Cardinals are very un-Cardinal-like this season, relying on the long ball to win games. They don’t have the pitching or the offensive depth the Cubs do. Despite that, they are 8-8 against the Cubs so far this season, one of only five teams with a .500-or-better record against the North Siders. That’s the scary part of the equation. The Cubs know they’re the better team. They know they beat the Cardinals in four games in the NLDS last season. The Cardinals don’t seem to know it.
There is going to be tons of pressure on the Cubs, no matter what they say and no matter how much they dress up in pajamas, bicycle to the ballpark in their uniforms or jump around in their Wrigley Field party room after a victory. I think even the most history-scoffing, in-the-moment Cubs fans would agree that pretending 1908 doesn’t exist is unrealistic.
To add the Cardinals to the mix is to add more weight. You get the distinct impression that the Cards, with their stolid Midwestern bearing, don’t approve of Joe Maddon’s bounce-house approach to running a team. You get the feeling that they would relish the chance to ruin a dream season.
The Cubs are much better than the Cards. They’d be much better off playing someone else.