In a few days, the curtain will come down on the 143rd season of Major League Baseball, and the 110th of the World Series era. I was at the Giants/Diamondbacks game yesterday, and in the middle of the 4th inning, the scoreboard showed a woman who was celebrating her 104th birthday. She seemed to be enjoying herself, wearing an SF cap and smiling, waving more or less in the direction of the camera. As the fans gave her a round of applause, I couldn’t help but think- wow, that lady was 3 weeks old the last time the Cubs managed to win a championship.
Plenty of baseball fans can cite 1908 as being the last time the Cubs won it all, but less remembered (well, anybody that says they actually remember it is lying, so maybe it’s better said that not many people bother to look it up) is that 1908 was actually the Cubs’ 3rd straight World Series trip, and 2nd consecutive crown. They were the premiere franchise of the first decade of the 20th century, but of course, they’ve never climbed to the top of the mountain since.
104 years of baseball adds up to A LOT of games. While the team has certainly had it’s winning seasons, between 1909 and 2012, the Cubs piled up over 7,800 losses. They won only a single playoff series, just one, the divisional round against Atlanta in 2003. As frustrating as it must be to be a Detroit Lions fan with a title drought stretching back to 1957, at most, a football team can only lose 16 times in a given season. Most years, the Cubs have 16 losses by the first week in May. There is no other sport in which failure accumulates for losing teams the way it does in baseball, which might go some way toward explaining why baseball is also the only sport in which people are given to speculating that supernatural forces are the reason behind the heavy weight of all that loss. And of course, no team is more associated with loss, failure, and the supernatural than the Chicago Cubs.
The Curse of the Billy Goat has become one of the most popular folk tales in American sports. The story goes that in 1945, Chicago bar owner Billy Sianis was incensed when he and his pet goat were booted out of Wrigley Field during game 4 of the World Series for the most obvious offense possible given the circumstances: smelling like a goat. Sianis’ response was to speak semi-strongly to the usher escorting him out of the stadium, saying “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.” That’s it. That’s the entirety of the curse.
There’s another slight variation on the story, in which Sianis sends a semi-strongly worded telegram to the owner with a similar but wordier quote, “You are going to lose this World Series and you are never going to win another World Series. You are never going to win a World Series again because you insulted my goat.” The Chicago Sun-Times recounted the telegram version of the story, but in theirs, the telegram simply read “Who smells now?”, and because it’s the only one of the 3 variants where Sianis’ comeback was actually snappy, it’s become the most popular version. But in any case, one of those essentially non-threatening reactions by Sianis to his ejection is what has supposedly been plaguing Cubs baseball all these years. What is supposed to have passed for a curse in 1945 wouldn’t even get you blocked by the producer on sports talk radio now, and people definitely weren’t any nicer to each other back then than they are now.
Sianis and his goat are documented as being there that day; they were allowed to parade on the field before the game with a sign that, in one of history’s clumsiest puns, read “Get Detroit’s Goat”. The local beat reporters took notice of his ejection, and a few brief lines appeared, playing up Sianis’ outrage, and even including a couple quotes from him, but there was no mention of the curse until several years later, when a columnist who frequented Sianis’ bar, Mike Royko, suddenly started playing up the story. Royko was a writer who usually wrote with tongue firmly in-cheek, and he also frequently wrote about other teams being cursed by having ex-Cub players.
The Curse of the Billy Goat story never would have gotten the legs that it did had the team itself not played it up several times over the years, as well as being bought into by alot of writers and broadcasters who really should know better. But if commentators are just choosing a clumsy narrative, the team actually benefits from the presence of the legend. It’s always there as a final excuse for any ineptitude on the organization’s part. Before their series with the Dodgers in the 2008 playoffs, the Cubs had a priest bless the dugout to try and lift the curse. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last. But if the 2008 Cubs were cursed, it was only by the reckless spending and personnel decisions General Manager Jim Hendry had made over the previous couple years, which finally caught up to them when the Dodgers swept them out of the playoffs. They are about to polish off a 3rd straight losing season, and barring a serious rally in the season’s closing days they will lose 100 games for the first time since 1966.
The legend is now ingrained in Chicago to the point that the story is treated as a sort of gospel truth, and you can be sure it will be the primary topic of conversation the next time the Cubs make the playoffs, which given the current state of affairs, could take awhile. But anyone who is familiar with the sport should be able to separate bad baseball from mysticism. When the story is told, it ends on the Cubs leading 2-1 in the series against Detroit when Sianis and his reeking sidekick were ejected, and then collapsing, never to return to the World Series.
The way the 1945 World Series actually unfolded turns out to be pretty instructive in terms of badly managed baseball once you look into what actually happened. The Cubs lost game 5 by a score of 8-4, the key inning being the 6th when starter Hank Borowy was hit for 4 runs without getting an out. They won game 6 in spite of having blown a 4 run 8th inning lead. The game lasted 12 innings, and Borowy came out of the bullpen for four of them. Manager Charlie Grimm, old school all the way because it was 67 years ago, then decided to have Borowy start game 7 on zero days rest with predictable results. Detroit scored 5 runs in the 1st inning, Borowy failed to retire a batter before he was pulled, and the Cubs lost 9-3.
If this history was better known, the Fox broadcast team might have spun a different narrative in the 8th inning of Game 6 against Florida in the 2003 NLCS. It’s known now simply as The Bartman Game. The story is well known, and fits the cursed Cubs angle conveniently: the Cubs led the Marlins 3-0 with 1 out in the 8th inning, when a foul ball down the left field line was inadvertently knocked away from the glove of Moises Alou by the outstretched hands of Steve Bartman. The Marlins capitalized on the missed out, and rushed 8 runs across the plate. The shell-shocked Cubs lost that night, and the next.
The key play of the inning, in retrospect, clearly came a couple batters later, when Alex Gonzalez bobbled what would’ve been an inning ending double play. If the memory of that faded fast, it’s probably because at the time it happened, Steve Lyons and Thom Brennaman were busy talking about how the Curse of the Billy Goat had struck again, while the production team relentlessly replayed the foul ball that got away and continued to zoom in to close ups of Bartman. By choosing to focus on superstition, they were ignoring the real story as it unfolded in front of them. Sure, the 8th inning of game 6 in 2003 had a couple big moments- the foul ball, the Gonzalez error. But underlying the entire episode, just like in 1945, was abuse of the pitching staff.
The foul ball that Steve Bartman got his hand on was Mark Prior’s 113th pitch of the game. After the foul ball, with the count 1 and 2, he threw two balls to Luis Castillo, and then a wild pitch, putting Castillo on 1st and letting Juan Pierre move to 3rd base. Cubs manager Dusty Baker, who has had a long and proud history of overworking his pitchers (and in 2003 rode Kerry Wood and Mark Prior as hard as any two pitchers have been ridden in the pitch count era), kept right on sitting in the dugout, watching Prior, who at this point was clearly laboring with broken concentration. Prior got up 0-2 on the next batter, Ivan Rodriguez, then left a pitch over the plate that Rodriguez knocked into left field to bring the score to 3-1. Again, Baker kept sitting.
And then, the first pitch Prior threw to Miguel Cabrera was hit on the ground, to Alex Gonzalez. It looked like an easy double play ball, and it should have ended the inning, but caught up in the mounting tension of the game, Gonzalez closed his glove too quickly and clanked the ball. Still just one out, bases now loaded, with the dangerous Derek Lee coming to the plate.
After all that he had just witnessed, after seeing his pitcher lose his stamina, after seeing his defense lose it’s nerve, rather than change pitchers and try to settle his team down for a minute, Dusty Baker kept sitting there. Derek Lee ripped the next pitch to left field for a double to tie the game. Dusty finally jogged out to the mound, but the wheels had already come off.
In September and October of 2003, by himself, the 23 year old Mark Prior made more starts of 130+ pitches than every starting pitcher in baseball made in all of the 2012 regular season combined. He threw 7 innings and 116 pitches in game 2 of the NLCS, still on the mound while the Cubs held an 11-0 lead. Dusty Baker ran him right into the ground that fall, and left him on the mound in game 6 long past the point where anything was left in the tank. Of course you can’t say that the outcome would have necessarily been different if Dusty had brought in a reliever to start the inning, but it’s clear that every batter Prior faced after Pierre doubled was a mistake. His previous 4 outs were all on sharply hit balls to the outfield, and Pierre finally put it where the defense wasn’t.
In 2003 and 1945, indefensible overuse of the pitching staff caught up to the Cubs in the postseason, and led the team straight to heartbreak. This required no barnyard juju from a well dressed publicity seeking goat owner, but in sports as in politics, facts are rarely essential to crafting a narrative. Believing in The Curse of the Billy Goat also requires you to believe that the team’s misfortunes suddenly began in 1945. If Billy Sianis really DID tell the team that they’d be losing the World Series that year, it would hardly have been a bold prediction. In the 37 years between winning the 1908 World Series and losing in 1945, they made it to the series six more times, and lost all six. As 2003 has recently demonstrated to fans, far more painful than the year-to-year accumulation of losing are those moments when the team is actually successful, when they get close but still fail in the end.
Cub fans probably won’t have to worry about their team getting close again for a couple years at least, but when they do, they’ll be confronted with endless talk about the team being doomed by the supernatural forces that conspire against it. The organization will do something silly that plays into the hype. And if history has been any example, people will mostly buy into it. But I’d like to think that, collectively, we can let go of this tired narrative, and just call organizational and team incompetence on the Cubs’ part what it is and always has been: Bad Baseball. Your semi-strongly worded telegram to the owner is on me.