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Chronic winners in sport are insufferable, which is only one of the reasons the New York Yankees, for all of their artistry and glory, have never won the hearts and minds of fans of the games while even the Boston Celtics of classical lore were deeply resented west of Worcester.
Chronic losers, on the other hand, are inherently loveable. Their woes make much better tales. It is so easy for most of us to identify with them. Hence the huge and otherwise irrational appeal of the Chicago Cubs.
So, now it will be at least 101 years between championships for that toddling town’s northside wayfarers. They last bestrode the baseball world when Teddy Roosevelt was president and the Playboy of the Western World sat on the British throne and silent pictures were just beginning to move and nobody had ever heard of an airplane.
Maybe it has something to do with their team symbol. If you wish to project the charms of large, shaggy, omnivorous, carnivores you can call yourself “a Bear” or “a Bruin” or even “a Grizzly.” But a cuddly baby fur-ball of a creature that also inspires simple fables spun for little kids? Somehow, somewhere there’s an inherent contradiction in that equation.
There’s a limit to how much we should tolerate from the Cubs. It would seem a full century meets the statute of limitations for the sympathy a luckless baseball team can rightfully command? Moreover, their excuses have become too pathetic.
The alleged “Billy Goat Curse” said to have blighted their last World Series appearance in 1945 was merely goofy. But blaming the disaster of 2003 on an innocent fan guilty only of defending himself against a foul ball was too far over the line, even by the impoverished standards of loopy sporting fanatics. If Cubs Nation is destined to suffer another century they can attribute it to their own shameless persecution of poor Steve Bartman. It’s been deserving of a good old-fashioned hex. Like the incessant whining of the Red Sox legions at the end of their 86 years of wandering the wilderness, Cub Nation’s lamentations have become a bit of a bore.
Moreover, this year’s collapse in the very first round of the playoffs did not have the faintest whiff of tragedy about it. Rather, it was pure farce from the beginning when the Cubs infielders played kick the can with routine ground balls to the bitter end when the Cubs sluggers flailed hopelessly at pitches that bounced two feet out of the strike zone. A glutton for such punishment, your host watched all three games with a soaring sense of wonder that a team that could win 97 games in the regular season -- most in the National League -- could play so horribly in the post-season, when the games really count. Unforgettable at the end was the mask of near catatonic despair draping Lou Piniella, the Cubs’ volatile skipper. But then Lou, an American League man to the core, realizes the National League is no longer quite “major league.”
The Cubs’ follies instantly made the Dodgers the new darlings of the smart set while resurrecting the myth of Joe Torre as one of the great sages of our sporting times. In the richest imaginings of the devoted, the prospect of a World Series matching the Red Sox -- ex-custodians of Manny Ramirez and his act -- and the Dodgers -- new beneficiaries of Manny’s sometimes amazing caprices -- borders on the utterly spectacular. The Phils and Rays will be anxious to have something to say about it but the great unwashed masses dearly yearn for the potential circus of a Red Sox-Dodgers match-up in the World Series.
And in an act of splendid civility, the Anaheim Angels graciously advanced the possibility of that dream scenario by virtually gift-wrapping the opening round with your Red Sox. The Angels showed some grit and went down hard in Boston, but in the West Coast end of the proceedings their play was simply appalling.
The Red Sox are a smart, disciplined, well-managed team eager and able to pounce on the bumbling of bone-headed opponents. For that, you can give them credit, although they sweated this series more than they needed to. Nonetheless, three convictions emerge:
1. A team from the league’s weakest division that leads the league in wins is always suspect.
2. Further nominations for Mike Scioscia as manager of the year are unwelcome.
3. The Red Sox remain the luckiest team in the American League.
Meanwhile, the affable Torre, always at his best on the big stage entertaining the media masses, is obviously pleased to have rebounded nicely out in La La Land after getting bounced (by his definition) a year ago in the Bronx. Without uttering so much as a single complaint, Joe knows his media pets will carry the ball and bring much new abuse down on the Yankees and their ruling family, the so easy to hammer Steinbrenners. And all of that -- it seems quite clear -- amuses him.
For the record, Torre is a good fellow who’s been blessed in the latter stages of his life and did a fine job managing the Yankees the first half of his long tenure in New York and an increasingly mediocre job the last half. At no point in that fascinating saga was he ever “insulted,” least of all by the Steinbrenners.
Further evidence that Joe leads a charmed life came late this summer when Manny Ramirez dropped into his life and the cleverness of Torre, let alone the undistinguished Dodger front-office, had nothing to do with it. More to the point, it was not the miserable, malingering Mr. Hyde that Manny had become in Boston that the Dodgers obtained but the “other Manny”; the Dr. Jekyl Manny. The gay and effervescent Johnny Appleseed Manny. The Manny who brims with sweetness and light. That’s the Manny Torre got quite by accident and he carried the Dodgers to the playoffs whereupon they became the happy beneficiaries of the Cubs’ largesse. It had nothing to do with anyone’s cleverness. Reason, let alone logic, matters little in baseball. It’s all about mystical tides.
Manny’s epic surge with the Dodgers so far features a .396 batting average with 17 homers and 53 ribbies in 53 regular-season games and a .500 average with two homers in the playoffs. That’s fabulous. Unless you consider it irrefutable evidence of his near criminal (by sporting standards) behavior in willfully sandbagging in Boston to promote his personal agenda that mainly concerned the enhancing of his personal riches. In many other trades, he’d be ostracized for such antics. But we’re talking sports here. No one ever claimed ethics has anything to do with it.
Hank Steinbrenner was not off-base when he boldly asserted in a magazine column he himself penned that there’s something bogus about the Dodgers even being in the playoffs. They were five games under .500 as late as Labor Day and finished only three wins over the break-even point though they play in the worst division in the weakest league. Six teams with better records did not make the playoffs. In the AL East, they would have finished fifth. Should luck be such a factor or be allowed to dilute the regular season’s value?
Steinbrenner further argues the quirks of the playoff system have become intolerable and there’s growing agreement the wild card team needs to be penalized to make this dumb process remotely fair. An interesting solution -- coming from the Angels’ brass -- suggests giving the wild card only one home game -- the first. An even better remedy, I believe, would give the wild card one home game while increasing the opening round to seven games. Steinbrenner’s criticisms were valid, if impolitic. Inevitably, he got roasted for uttering them.
In a more perfect world it might be the Phillies against the Rays in the Series. Talk of your “losers!” The Phils have exactly one championship in over a century of existence while the Rays never had a winning season until the remarkable Joe Maddon spun his enchanting spell down in Tampa this year. Given the world we live in we’ll probably get the circus revolving around Manny.
But a word of warning. The Phils are for real. And so are the Rays!