For Chicago Cubs, heat of play-offs will be a sharp departure from breezy season

Gregg Patton writes as the play-offs loom, the juggernaut Chicago Cubs will have to deal with the weight of heightened expectations, increased pressure and their own history.
Chicago Cubs fans hold signs before a game against the St Louis Cardinals last week. Nam Y Huh / AP Photo / September 25, 2016
Chicago Cubs fans hold signs before a game against the St Louis Cardinals last week. Nam Y Huh / AP Photo / September 25, 2016

It has all been fun and games for the Chicago Cubs since the season began.

Now comes the heat. The pressure. The twitch of anxiety that comes with high expectations.

If the late, famed Chicago broadcaster Harry Caray knew his Cubbies were expected to win the World Series this year, one can only imagine his loudest, most befuddled ever, “Holy cow!”

This is strange territory indeed for the Cubs and their followers, who have gone 108 years since their last championship, and have absorbed all that losing into their DNA.

Cubs fans are well known for their behaviour. They do not hide from their legacy of defeat and pratfalls.

They have embraced their sad history with an optimism that a World Series title will come, some year, just not this year.

Until this one. Now they have a team with the best record in MLB, the only club that will finish the regular season with more than 100 wins.

The long-suffering Cubs had not posted the best record since 1945, the last year they even reached a World Series.

Now their loyalists are not sure what to do.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” said a Cubs fan, and friend, recently, when I mentioned that his team was looking good.

Not only is he nervous about losing again, oddly enough, he’s even nervous about winning for the first time in his lifetime.

He said it would “change everything,” and perhaps take some of the excitement out of future championship runs. He laughed at his own confusion.

Here is the other thing. The Cubs have come to be known as the “loveable losers”. Will they still be loveable if they win?

Frankly, no. The best comparison are the Boston Red Sox, who ended their own 86-year stretch of agony in 2004.

That year, most of the baseball world pulled for a Red Sox triumph. Now that the Sox have won twice more since then, Boston are just another annoyance to cheer against.

Likewise the Cubs will have a bandwagon of fans from neutral cities cheering them through each post-season. Until they grab their elusive prize. Then, special no more.

Of course, winning tends to make everything right for a team’s own fans, no matter the circumstances. And the Cubs have a lot of reason for hope.

Chicago went into the regular season as favourites, and delivered. Manager Joe Maddon implored his team to embrace the expectations, and believe in themselves as winners.

They quickly built a big lead in the National League Central, and were never challenged. They clinched the division with weeks to spare.

They have multiple players in contention for Cy Young Awards and Most Valuable Player trophies.

So what could go wrong?

Lots. Baseball generally is not very kind to teams that excel in the regular season. Since MLB went to its current play-off system in 1995, only four of 21 teams that topped the 162-game schedule went on to win the World Series.

Some also would argue that the Cubs have had it too easy for much of the season. Chicago cruised their way through September’s pennant races, and now get dropped into the searing competition of the play-offs.

Then there is their own history: seven World Series defeats since 1908, an overall post-season record of 32-60 and that aura of failure.

“We all know what the deal is around here,” pitcher Jon Lester told the Associated Press. “You can’t run from it. All you can do is go out and play.”

Enjoy it, Cubs fans. Then win or lose, enjoy it some more, as always.

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Published: September 30, 2016 04:00 AM

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