This could only happen with the Chicago Cubs.
Most professional sports franchises routinely acknowledge anniversaries of notable accomplishments. It may be the winning of a World Series or Super Bowl, or the eclipsing of a thought-to-be-unbreakable individual record, but all of those feats have something in common.
They identify greatness. No one celebrates non-achievement, and downright forgettable moments are treated in an appropriate manner: They’re forgotten.
Ah, but not in Wrigley Land. That’s the price to be paid for a century-plus of on-field ineptitude.
Cubs fans, unless they’re 110 years old, have no recollection of monumental exploits. How could they, unless they’re delusional or prone to fabricating events to make themselves feel better about their favorite major-league baseball team?
(And, by the way, please don’t argue on behalf of Sammy Sosa’s homer barrage in the late 1990s as a noteworthy happening. Strong suspicions that Sosa’s power displays were artificially aided render the long balls meaningless.)
Here’s the best way to illustrate the Cubs’ never-ending mediocrity — their ill-fated 1969 team that spent much of that summer in first place before squandering a large lead in the final six weeks, to this day, receives more recognition than a slew of other MLB squads that have won titles since then.
Inexplicable? On the surface absolutely, especially since other teams that collapsed in a similar manner as the ’69 Cubs routinely faded into oblivion before the passage of very much time.
But we’re talking about a ballclub that wears the nickname “Lovable Losers” with nary a shred of embarrassment, so nothing should shock us. Embracing a near miss instead of being disgusted by it is oh-so-Cub-like.
Being second-best seems to be the best for which the Cubs can ever hope, and part of the reason for that is probably traceable to another abject failure. I refer to the 2003 National League Championship Series.
If ever a Cubs team seemed destined to end decades of frustration, it was the 2003 edition. Led by young fireball pitchers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, those Cubs appeared to have all the necessary ingredients to make a serious run at a world championship.
Of course, being the Cubs, you suspected that somehow, in some way, the whole thing would ultimately blow up in their faces. And sure enough it did in Game 6, when a disastrous eighth inning turned a 3-0 Cubs lead into an insurmountable 8-3 deficit.
The reasons for the shocking meltdown were plentiful, but one still stands out above all others in some people’s minds: Steve Bartman. Fairly or not — and I choose the latter — the beleaguered Bartman became the biggest scapegoat because of his supposed interference with an allegedly catchable foul ball.
To this day, he maintains a very low profile. Bartman disappeared from view right after the incident because some idiots issued death threats to him, and he has stayed hidden in an attempt to elude nosy media folks who’d want him to recall those infamous few moments if they ever succeeded in hunting him down.
Bartman, though, recently became news again anyway, as last week marked the 10th anniversary of the Cubs’ collapse against the Florida Marlins. So even those of us who reveled in what unfolded that night at Wrigley Field, but long ago packed it away as nothing more than a fond memory, must be subjected anew to the entire episode.
Various local media personalities made sure to remind us of the anniversary, and some of them still cling to the notion that Bartman was the main cause of the negative effect on the Cubs. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.
And one reader of a recent Internet story about Bartman put everything into the most sensible perspective. He listed the chain of events in descending order of importance, and Bartman didn’t even make his top five.
First and foremost, this reader placed the biggest share of blame on then-Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez, a normally sure-handed fielder who botched a routine double-play grounder. And, inarguably, the misplay flung open the floodgates on the Marlins’ series-turning rally, but physical errors happen.
Instead, the major culprit was left fielder Moises Alou, not because he didn’t catch the “Bartman ball” — and remember, there was no guarantee of that since Alou was not a defensive whiz and the catch would have been somewhat difficult — but because of his over-the-top reaction when Bartman got to it first. Had Alou remained calm, there’s a very good chance Prior wouldn’t have unraveled on the mound, which was another contributor to the Cubs’ implosion.
Manager Dusty Baker’s do-nothing approach to the free-fall happening in front of his eyes wasn’t what the club needed at that juncture, either. Certainly, the situation called for cooler heads to prevail, but evidently Baker’s head was already on ice.
Oh, and lest we forget, there was still a Game 7 to play. None of what happened the evening before should have dogged the Cubs the next night, but it did, as Wood was unable to protect a 5-3 lead.
So in retrospect, there were myriad guilty parties who made the Cubs’ monumental fold possible. But this is not news to anyone who was around a decade ago.
In the same vein, Steve Bartman long ago ceased being a newsmaker. Heck, he shouldn’t have been one in 2003, but what else would we expect from a franchise and fans that have kept each other company in misery?
Bartman wasn’t unique, but merely a biologically advanced version of the billy goat and black cat. Funny, isn’t it, how Cubs players are never to blame for the team’s stumbles?
The one exception was Leon Durham, who caught heat for not catching a ball in Game 5 of the 1984 NLCS against San Diego. But even he didn’t fly solo in that instance — Chicagoans also made National League officials objects of disdain for giving the Cubs, who owned a better record than the Padres, only two home games instead of three because of Wrigley’s lack of lights at the time.
How dare a team be punished simply for not realizing electricity had already been invented?
You have to admit, though, that some of the excuses concocted over the years have indeed been novel ones. But while the goat and cat never cared what was said about them, Bartman did.
So everyone should cease referring to Game 6 as the “Bartman game.” It never was, but I guess only one thing will be able to ensure that stops happening.
Too bad we’ll have to wait till next year — and probably a lot longer.