A convenient scapegoat

CHICAGO -- It is simply no fun to look at the Chicago Cubs for what they are or what they were: A perennially disappointing sports franchise that was mismanaged for much of a century, from the way they ran the minor league operations to the way they spent money in the majors to the actual infrastructure of the ballpark.

No, no, no. The Cubs have to be cursed. It's easier to write that, easier to believe in the supernatural, more fun to feed the legend.

Theo Epstein was asked about it when he was hired. Tom Ricketts spoke about it when he bought the team. One particular fan must've believed it as a city turned on him.

In reality, only idiots and sports writers take the curse stuff seriously. But the idea of it, the literal and figurative goat haunting the franchise, will be a part of the Cubs' story until they win a World Series, whenever that may be.

The inherent misery/joy that is the Cubs is why a poor fan got the blame for the Game 6 collapse against the Florida Marlins in the 2003 National League Championship Series, rather than the shortstop, Alex Gonzalez, who bobbled a routine double-play ball, or the pitchers, Mark Prior and Kyle Farnsworth, who gave up run-scoring doubles.

All three of those events were more harmful than Moises Alou missing a chance for a foul ball because a fan interfered. You can look up the win expectancy chart here and … ah, who am I kidding? Print the legend! The Cubs are cursed, dammit!

It's been 10 years since the most important season in modern Cubs history. Tom Ricketts was just a rich fan back then, Theo Epstein, not yet 30, was a year away from his career-making season. Until that moment, the name "Bartman" was just a forgotten marketing gimmick in "The Simpsons."

What 2003 did for the Cubs was create hope and then, in the most brutal fashion imaginable, remind their fans that hope was a curse word.

But it's important to remember there was little time to sulk. In fact, the series loss was seen as a bump in the road, a prologue to greater days. The Cubs were now contenders. The stakes had been raised after general manager Jim Hendry hired Dusty Baker from the Giants and stole Aramis Ramirez from the Pirates and made a real run at it.

Once the dust settled, expectations were still high. In 2004, Sports Illustrated predicted the Cubs would win the World Series behind a powerhouse starting rotation, which added Greg Maddux. No one could imagine the team wouldn't win another playoff game for the next decade. With Prior and Kerry Wood? How could that be!?

In 2004, Wood was on that fateful SI cover, a necklace dangling over his jersey, the chin beard of the franchise. Wood would go on to start just 22 games that season as the Cubs' immediate fortunes turned ugly with a September collapse. His career as a starting pitcher was all but over. Prior's maddeningly disappointing career peaked in the seventh inning of Game 6. Like Bartman, Prior's life changed forever in that inning.

It took a few down years, and a lot of new players, for the Cubs to return to the playoffs, winning the division in 2007 and 2008, the first back-to-back division titles in, you guessed it, a century. The fans, now paying higher prices, were promised a winner. The Cubs were going for it. Lou Piniella was hired and Alfonso Soriano was signed as the Tribune Co. wanted one last go-around, if only to increase the value of the franchise.

The weight of those expectations crushed the Cubs in the 2008 playoffs as they were swept out of the divisional round for the second straight year. The ending was so merciless, it was like a guillotine. Off with their dreams!

But 2003, man, that was real pain for Cubs fans. The city was buzzing that fall. For someone who just moved here, it felt like everything you imagine a big city to feel like. Fans packed the streets outside of Wrigley during those final games, actually missing the action just to be in the vicinity of history. It was a shame that when the White Sox won it all two years later, most Cubs fans couldn't enjoy it. Who could blame them, though?

While some present the ending of the 2003 season as proof that the Cubs are baseball's oldest living punchline, it clearly shook up the franchise for the better.

The success of the 2003 team also jump-started the team's financial success. In 2003, the Cubs drew 2.963 million fans, up from 2.692 million the year before.

The Cubs wisely predicted a huge surge in ticket purchases the next season, instituting a wristband system for single-game sales, which only created the idea of more scarcity. The Cubs sold 572,705 tickets the day they went on sale in 2004, which doubled the previous Major League record. The Cubs wound up drawing 3.17 million, their first season of more than 3 million. That spiked in 2008 when they drew 3.3 million and has gone down every season since. The 3 million streak lasted until 2012 and helped pay for the large payroll teams that fans expected.

It was the crowds that convinced an Omaha billionaire with no love for baseball to buy the team.

In 2006, on a rooftop (ironically enough), Tom Ricketts started to convince Joe Ricketts to use his family money to buy the Cubs, which would soon be for sale. The ballpark was full, even in an off year, which showed the elder Ricketts this was a sound investment.

In 2004, the average Cubs ticket was $28.45, a 17.5 percent increase. By 2009, the last year of Tribune ownership, the average ticket was $47.75. The Cubs added more luxury seating close to the field and later more clubs and patios. The people's ballpark slowly became the rich person's ballpark. The Cubs catered to the drunks. The cost of bleacher tickets, I mean Bud Light Bleacher tickets, for prime games soared. In 2012, a bleacher ticket climbed up to $85 for the highest-priced games.

And now, with the Cubs' product poorer than ever, attendance is way down. The Cubs drew 2.642 million this year, their worst figure since 1998. Next year could be worse.

The beer is still good, the views spectacular. Wrigley Field will always draw enough tourists. But Cubs fans expect something more for their money now.

Soon, Epstein's rebuilding plan will come to fruition. Talented young hitters will captivate the city again. The buzz will return.

Will it ever be like 2003? Let's hope it's even better. Until then, just remember there is no curse and hope is just another four-letter word.