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It’s high time Cubs fans recognize curse blather for nonsense it is

BY DAN McGRATH
For the Sun-Times

The Cubs were as much a Wrigleyville presence as bike racks, snarled traffic and the Clark Street bars during a recent stretch of 17 consecutive games in Chicago. They won 14, including a four-game sweep of the World Series champion Giants, which conferred on them a playoff validity they had been building toward all season.

Perhaps more important, they played .824 baseball with the joyful abandon of youth, with no mention of Bartman, billy goats, black cats or other ominous totems of a cursed existence Cubs fans rely on to torture themselves with masochistic regularity.

These Cubs are oblivious. Joe Maddon was a 15-year-old high school sophomore in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, in 1969, the year most synonymous with the Cubs’ historic futility. Only six players on the current roster were alive on Oct. 7, 1984, when Tim Flannery’s grounder squirted through Leon Durham’s legs in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the National League Championship Series against the Padres. Kyle Schwarber was a 10-year-old fifth-grader in Middletown, Ohio, on Oct. 14, 2003, the night of an eight-run, eighth-inning meltdown in Game 6 of the NLCS against
the Marlins.

Yes, Steve Bartman was at the game. No, a star-crossed history — a misinterpreted one, at that — shouldn’t affect the work of men who were mere children when it was unfolding.

But then, in rapid succession, came word that the Cubs would be printing playoff tickets — how dare they tempt the fates that have been so cruel? — followed by an appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated and the doom that inevitably foretells.

Then ESPN, quick to jump to the front of any parade, weighed in with a feature on the Cubs’ revival and gave significant airtime to Sam Sianis, the owner/proprietor of the Billy Goat chain of bistros and a direct descendant of the original dispenser of the storied, stupid curse.

Sure enough, the Cubs lost back-to-back games to the Giants, ending a five–game winning streak and fomenting unrest throughout Cubdom.

Please. Make it stop. It’s all nonsense.

After Ken Holtzman no-hit the Braves on Aug. 19, 1969, the first-place Cubs had a 77-45 record and a seven-game lead in the National League East. They would go
13-27 in their remaining 40 games. Blame, if you will, manager Leo Durocher’s stubborn refusal to rest his regulars in the summer heat, but the Mets’ 30-10 run in their remaining 40 games was a more plausible reason for their overtaking the Cubs and pulling away to win the division by 10 games.

Certainly more plausible than the black cat that crossed Ron Santo’s path at Shea Stadium on Sept. 9 of that year.

Durham? A suspect fielder throughout his career. The timing of his misplay on Flannery’s ball was unfortunate, but the error itself was hardly an anomaly and carries no deeper meaning.

Bartman? To recap: He didn’t boot the double-play grounder that would have extracted Mark Prior from the inning with a 3-1 lead, and he didn’t give up hits, walks or sacrifice flies to the next six Marlins hitters, as Prior, Kyle Farnsworth and Mike Remlinger did.

But he sure was a convenient target for Cubs fans’ frustration. I was at Wrigley that night, and the anger unleashed on poor Bartman was too vile and vicious to be dismissed as funny or innocent. More like scary or life-changing.

Fast-forward five years. As Sam Zell’s shock jocks were taking over Tribune Co., I was ordered to seek out a new broadcasting bigwig and discuss possible collaboration.

‘‘Well,’’ he began with big radio-voiced insincerity, ‘‘the first thing you can do is find Steve Bartman for me.’’

He wasn’t much interested in hearing that the trail had gone cold and that we were OK with that, with allowing Bartman to resume life as a private citizen. I had sensed before and knew then that the Trib gig wasn’t going to end well, and it didn’t. Excuse me for it, but my feelings about the Bartman incident run toward the personal.

Even if he had kept his hands to himself, Bartman would have been perceived as a baseball nerd. Blame the cap, the headphones or the combination of the two. As such, he’s probably into the analytics revolution that has conquered baseball, behind the belief that there’s a numerical explanation for everything that happens on the field.

I tend to view VORP, BABIP and FIP as phrases in a language I don’t speak. But if someone wants to tell me a curse that can’t be quantified doesn’t exist, I’m down with it.