Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Eugoogly: Cub Fan Optimism

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 5, 2008

Well you better get ready for a brand new season

True story: I nearly wrote a playoff preview/prediction column for this blog. I actually wrote most of an Angels/Red Sox analysis before I realized three things:

  1. No one cares
  2. The MLB playoffs are kind of impossible to predict for anyone
  3. I was pretty tired anyways

But really, how can you say that the superiority between two baseball teams can be decided by a five-game series? It’s a 162 game season, one in which teams barely ever win even 2/3 of their games, and you think that a series that small between a 92 win team and an 88 win team is anything more than a coin toss?

The beauty of regular-season baseball is that you can’t rely on just one player or one hot streak–you have to have a full, balanced team, which plays consistently well over the course of an insane number of games. Which is why the Cubs and the Angels–two teams with depth at nearly every position, a uniformly strong starting rotation and well-stocked bullpens, despite having no obvious MVP candidates–were the two best teams in the regular season this year. Unsurprisingly, it’s also why they might be the first two teams to get bounced from the playoffs this year–because in a five-game series, depth and balance doesn’t really mean shit. Not that the Cubs couldn’t put out a pretty formidable starting nine, but the difference in ten regular-season wins comes from being able to play Reed Johnson in the outfield when Fukudome or Edmonds are slumping, of being able to trot out Ted Lilly as your 4th starter when Zambrano’s stuff is off, or to have Carlos Marmol to slip into your closer role while Kerry Wood is on the fritz–stuff that in such a small-sample series, doesn’t matter nearly as much.

Not that it isn’t a little eerie that both the Cubs and the Angels seem to be just a teensy, tiny, every so slightly bit…well, I’m not gonna say cursed, but maybe just predisposed to losing? The Cubs’ every-infielder-commiting-error thing in Game 2 was downright weird, as was the Angels seeming unwillingness to hit extra-base hits or put up extra-run innings in either of their first two. Everyone says that the Red Sox “have the Angels’ post-season number,” but what the hell does that even mean? It’s not like they’re really outplaying the Angels in any significant way, they just seem to be getting the breaks where the Halos aren’t. Is it really an issue of “mental toughness”? A cracking under the pressure? Or is it just that these teams have really bad fuckin’ luck? Hard to say, but I’ll generally pick the latter.

Anyway, point is, while I really do feel for Cubs fans, maybe they shouldn’t take this quite so hard. I know winning a World Series would be nice and all, but even with these dispiritng final games, can anyone really question that this was the best team in the National League this year? Yeah, history might not remember it as well as whoever wins the pennant, and lord knows I wouldn’t be too happy about the Phils getting swept (or losing in five, which is still an all-too-real possibility), but how mad or heartbroken can you really get at a team for losing three games out of five when, during the regular season, the Pirates could’ve beaten the Cubs three times out of five if a couple of breaks had just gone their way? The Boston Celtics could’ve played 20 best-of-five series with the Milwaukee Bucks last year and won 18 or 19 of ’em, if not all 20, but that’s just not the way baseball works.

It sucks that it hasn’t happened for the Cubs so long, and that shit certainly seems to break against them more often than not, but this is why having a cynical attitude about your long-suffering team might ultimately not be such a bad idea. But this year, Cub fans didn’t just hope for the best, they sort of expected it–going into the playoffs, the Wrigley faithful seemed to think that finally, the team was good enough to make a run at the World Series. Truth is, though, any year the Cubs made the playoffs was a year when they were good enough to make a run at the World Series–just ask the ’06 Cards, the ’02 Angels or the ’97 Marlins. Meanwhile, only a half-dozen times in the last 30 years has the team with the best regular-season record won the World Series, and the Cubs didn’t even have that. Just because they padded their regular season with a couple extra wins and could put out a marginally better roster than they did last year certainly wasn’t reason enough for the fanbase to assume that this season, the odds were significantly in their favor.

Or if you don’t buy that, how about this–even before game one, even without any sort of history or curse, the Cubs might not have even been the better team in their series. Yes, I’ve already said that the Cubs were the best team in the NL this regular season, and yes, the Dodgers didn’t even have one of the ten best records in baseball this year, but keep in mind that they spent nearly their entire season without leadoff man Rafael Furcal or closer Takashi Saito, most of their season without team MVP Manny Ramirez, and all but the last couple months without a full-power Derek Lowe. Now that all those parts are in full working order, and the team doesn’t have to resort to young’ns like Clayton Kershaw or Andy LaRoche, washed-up Plan B’s like Angel Berroa or Juan Pierre or sudden team albatrosses like Andruw Jones or Brad Penny (and imagine what the team would have been like if those two had bothered to show up), it’s entirely possible that this is now the strongest team in all the National League.

For the Cubs, it seems glib to say that there’s always next year (or, as so many oh so clever TV pundits have put it, there’s always the next hundred years), but you know what? In this sport, there is always next year. There’s no reason to think that the Cubs won’t be in the playoff hunt come next October, and then they’re just a couple rolls of the dice away from the World Series they’ve been craving for so long. And when it happens, don’t go in expecting a World Series (something that I definitely think won’t happen again this lifetime), and don’t go in expecting the team to fall on its face. Don’t expect anything at all. My dad put it best: In other sports, what you do in the playoffs is what matters. In baseball, you just have to get to the playoffs. Expect anything else, and you really only have yourself to blame.


R.I.P. Cub Fan Optimism, 2007-2008

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