Every once in a while, sports reminds people who don’t care much for sports why so many people do.
Only a game can wrap up the most extreme and seldom experienced feelings that drive us through life – all that suppressed hope, despair and triumph – and put each of them on display in real time. That’s its magic.
It’s proof that years of pressure can produce one great moment of catharsis that validates all the waiting. It makes life seem simpler and more just than it is.
Whether or not you care about baseball, you probably care a bit this morning. Not because one baseball team beat another in a great (maybe the greatest-ever) game. But because what a whole bunch of people believed was or wasn’t likely has been turned inside out.
When Ben Zobrist – native of Eureka, Ill., about 220 kilometres from the Magnificent Mile – stroked the game-winning hit, he did not round into second. He high-jumped there. His helmet went flying. He looked in danger of cartwheeling disastrously onto his noggin. How many times do you get to watch a guy define his life on live television? Because you just did.
After he’s done something magnificent, they will say of a man that he has written the first line of his obituary. In those five or six seconds, Zobrist wrote the entirety of his.
In years to come, Zobrist could flap his arms and fly to Mars and the day after he succumbs, the headline will be, “MAN WHO BROKE THE CURSE DIES. (Also, colonized space).”
Nobody can resist the power of that idea. It’s a cynical world, shorn of illusion. We don’t expect to be surprised, and certainly not pleasantly.
But the Cubs winning the World Series in extra innings of Game 7 is the prestige of a 108-year-long magic trick. It’s a global “ta-da!” moment.
The party will last a day or two. Then comes a lengthy moment of consideration. If the Cubs can do it, man, anything really is possible.
This is where people begin looking around for the next pitiable franchise, the next bad streak.
There are longer losing streaks – Cleveland’s, for instance – but right now none has more symbolic weight than 49 years of disappointment in Toronto. Once we cross over to 50 in a few month’s time, it’s going to seem like a building has collapsed on the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Because it won’t just be Canada any more. The Leafs are about to become the North-America-wide punchline the Cubs had been since your great-grandmother was in short pants.
And rather unexpectedly, that should come as welcome news.
Five years ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs were what the Cubs had been for most of the 20th century – losers, and not particularly lovable ones.
It’s fashionable to like Chicago now, but that’s brand new. I’ve spent most of my life thinking of that team as a clandestine operation whose sole purpose was destroying the career and legacy of Ryne Sandberg. Go back as far as you want, pick out another generation and another generational star, and that pattern held true.
Just like the Leafs.
Borje Salming, Darryl Sittler, Wendel Clark, Mats Sundin, et. al – the Leafs existed to ruin good players for better money.
In the ‘60s or ‘80s or ‘00s, the point to liking the Cubs was proving your loser bona fides. It was a hair-shirt fanbase.
This was more than doing poorly in the standings. It was picking the wrong coach, the wrong players, screwing up the draft, doing everything as badly as it could possibly be done.
Why did Chicago fans hate Steve Bartman so deeply and viciously? Because a guy interfering with a catch makes sense. People understand that.
Everything else about the Cubs made none. It was as if they started every season hitting a big, red button marked “Incompetence” and then waiting for the room to fill with cyanide gas over eight months. After one season had been put down, they’d roll out another and do the same again.
Just like the Leafs.
From 1968 onwards, they weren’t building something. They were mining it.
In Chicago, as in Toronto, the boom-bust of “maybe we can” to “who are we kidding?” began arriving at shorter and shorter intervals. We used to give coaches a few years. Eventually, they got a few months. If they’re going to hurt us, they might as well do it quickly. We don’t get attached.
Then the Cubs changed. First and foremost, they stopped chasing their own ghost. They accepted that a century of stupidity was not going to be undone by one or two lucky rolls. So they stopped trying.
Like Phil Jackson likes to say, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” This is the real process, in sports as in life. Steadiness is the cardinal virtue of the aspirational sports franchise.
The Cubs stopped trusting magic bullets via free agency or trade. They invested in scouting and the draft. They overpaid for executive and managerial talent. They made patience and good governance their institutional hallmarks.
At the risk of adding curses to curses – just like the Leafs.
This is, of course, no guarantee of anything. Had things gone the other way on Wednesday night, we’d be talking this morning about how the Cubs always find a way to blow it. The letdown would have been like being dropped from orbit. All the newcoming back-slappers would’ve slipped quietly around the other side of the ring, and jumped in to celebrate with the Indians.
But they didn’t. All those sensible decisions culminated in one well-timed hit.
That’s the lesson the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans can draw this morning from the Chicago Cubs. Anything is possible.
But some things are more possible when you stop wasting your time worrying about the past, and instead try to build something for the future.Report Typo/Error
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