Pretend you're Hazel Nilson. It's 1955, you're in your 40s, and you're shopping for a new Ford.
The salesman is telling you about the new options available for the first time this year: factory-installed air conditioning, wooden appliqué side moldings, and this strap on the seat that you can snap around your waist to keep you from flying out the windshield in a collision. Seems like it might be uncomfortable, and you've never flown out the windshield before, but ... well, you'd sure like to live to see the Cubs win a World Series.
You get the seat belts. And, while you're at it, the moldings. Good choice, Hazel.
If there's anything we learned in the moments before and after the Cubs finally won their third World Series, it's that a lot of people were living for this moment, just as White Sox fans in 2005 were staying alive to see their club win one, just as Red Sox fans were trying to hang on long enough to see Boston win one. Is there anything in baseball still worth staying alive for? Yes, though the answer to that question is far more speculative than it was one week ago.
On a team level
No, the Indians' World Series drought does not immediately get promoted to national crisis just because the Cubs' drought has been retired. But we're operating on a long timeline here -- I plan to live at least 50 more years, and I'm optimistic you'll make it to 100, which gives us plenty of time for things to get historical.
Consider the Cubs, for instance. It had been 108 years since they last won the World Series, but in how many of those years would it have seemed like this? In 1909, a Cubs championship would have been only 24-point news. In 1910, hardly noticed. In 1935, an L.A. Times article headlined "Cubs Beat Cards Twice, Clinch Flag" doesn't mention anything extraordinary about the Cubs making the World Series. When did the Cubs' drought become The Cubs' Drought?
The answer is going to vary by the fan, but a reasonable estimate is going to be not less than 60 years, and probably a decade and a half more than that. In a where-are-they-now piece on Ernie Banks, the writer Rich Cohen assesses the state of Cubs romance in 1969, when Chicago blew a late-season lead to the Miracle Mets: "At this point it had been 24 years since the Cubs had played in a World Series. A drought, but not epic. In other words, here was a chance for the Cubs to win and for their fans to live normal lives. It's as if, in '69, two roads diverged, and the Cubs took the one less traveled by: the losing road, where misery begets misery and wearing a Cubs hat is a way of letting people know you are holier, for your kingdom is not of this world." Emphasis mine; emphasis crucial.
A decade after that, the Cubs were seen not so much as cursed as just a really, really lousy organization. Decades-long complaints about cheap ownership and management were focused on just how bad the Cubs were -- not so much unlikely to win the World Series as unlikely to produce a good product, period. Fans protested in front of Wrigley in 1981: "For the first time in modern Cub history, there is evidence that the fans are tired of being the dinosaurs of the National League," a newspaper account at the time said.
As to the drought: It was a relatively minor storyline. When the Cubs went to the playoffs in 1984, the date "1908" doesn't appear in The New York Times article announcing it. Instead, the Cubs (and the Tigers) were "sentimental favorites because they are among only 10 franchises still in place since the turn of the century; they have remained in their historic, urban ball parks; they have resisted the evils of artificial turf, and they were the opponents in the last war-affected World Series, in 1945, when pennant-winning teams didn't need a crap-shoot league series to qualify." A few years before that, in 1979, a Cubs pennant push was acknowledged with just the faintest touch of romance by the L.A. Times, "Pennants don't come easily to the Cubs. They won their last one in 1945, their last World Series in 1908, back when Tinker and Evers were playing catch with Chance. They've had some famous nosedives since."
The Billy Goat curse, to that point, seems to have been little more than a local gag, especially among the writers who hung out at the Billy Goat Tavern. Legendary metro columnist Mike Royko didn't mention the curse in his 1970 obituary of the goat-owning Bill Sianis. By 1997, when Royko wrote his final column, he launched it with this: "It's about time that we stopped blaming the failings of the Cubs on a poor, dumb creature that is a billy goat. This has been going on for years, and it has reached the point where some people actually believe it."
So somewhere between 1984 and 1997, the Cubs' drought became not just a living thing, but a life source all its own, spawning its own storylines, emotional breakdowns, self-fulfilling prophecies and legends that some people actually believed. Cleveland has, by that timeline, only a decade or so to go to match the Cubs for droughtiness.
It's not a given that it'll ever be the same for Cleveland, though. There are twice as many teams to beat now as there were in the Cubs' first half-century of futility, and the number of teams that are going to have outstanding droughts could multiply. As is, eight teams have never won a World Series, including the Rangers (who began play in 1961), the Astros ('62) and four other teams birthed in the 1960s or 1970s. Seven teams have droughts of 48 years or more, long enough for their teams' local Eddie Vedder or John Cusack to bemoan the total absence of baseball euphoria in their lifetimes. To a middle-aged Brewers fan, there is practically no difference between her angst and that of a middle-aged Cubs fan.
One way this might play out is that the very forces that make Cubs-like droughts more possible could make them more diluted -- that the Indians might go 150 years without us ever caring about them on a national scale. Or perhaps we won't become jaded to the long sufferings of long-suffering fans, and more droughts will just mean more empathy.
If that happens, we could live to see Cleveland win fairly soon. The Indians already have their own curse, as reported by the L.A. Times in 1984:
After Bobby Bragan was fired as manager of the Cleveland Indians in 1958, he stood on second base at Municipal Stadium and proclaimed a curse against the team. At least that's the way the story goes.
To remove the curse, a self-proclaimed witch, amid a cloud of burning herbs and incense, performed an occult ceremony Friday at the same spot [where] Bragan was said to have stood 26 years ago.
The witch ... asked to be identified only as Elizabeth. ... Calling on a supreme goddess, she said: "Remove the curse that was put on the Cleveland Indians by a rather misguided individual."
That curse is not nearly as famous, but maybe now that Cleveland is the droughtiest team in baseball, it will take on late life as surely as the black cat and the smelly goat did related to the Cubs. A few good fictions and there's no telling how much we'll come to embrace the poor Clevelander.
On a personal level
I grew up in the perfect era for record-breaking: The records that defined baseball's history were both old and under constant assault. I saw Pete Rose break the hit record, Rickey Henderson break the stolen-base record, Cal Ripken become the iron man, Nolan Ryan pass Walter Johnson in strikeouts, Mark McGwire topple Roger Maris. There were a dozen cards in every set just commemorating the records that had been broken the year before.
Now name a record that's been set since Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run. Francisco Rodriguez and Mariano Rivera set new saves records, but the save didn't even exist 50 years earlier and the closer barely did before the mid-'80s. Various strikeout-rate records have been set, but nobody cares. Aroldis Chapman probably throws harder than any pitcher in history, but we know that only because of technology that didn't exist for most of history. Ichiro did something -- consecutive 200-hit seasons, maybe? -- that qualifies more as a Fun Fact than a record. (It's not a record if nobody had ever thought to follow it beforehand.)
Not only are there few records being broken, but there are almost none under threat. Pitchers don't throw nearly enough innings, or start nearly enough games, to approach any of the counting-stat records, either for single seasons or careers. The offensive era that goosed so many record chases in the 1990s was killed by legislation; the reckless baserunning era expired in the wake of the game's strategic evolution. The only prestige record in any kind of danger at all is career home runs, and we're so cynical these days that anybody who hits too many home runs -- record levels of home runs -- is immediately treated with suspicion.
But there is one personal achievement that is, theoretically, as plausible now as it was when it was set, and it's built for our live-look-in media: the hit streak. Nobody has come close to Joe DiMaggio's 56 games, and if MLB's Beat The Streak game is any indication -- nearly 100 million entrants, and nobody has reached even 50 -- it's really, really hard! The average major league hitter gets at least one hit in about 66 percent of games, which means that we should see a 56-game streak in one out of every... oh, 16 billion trials. A season has a lot of trials, of course, but if every hitter and every pitcher and every game were exactly average, we'd see a streak like this every 500,000 or so years.
But players aren't all average, and given the distribution of talent on the far end of the tail, someone is disproportionately likely to do it. Ichiro, for instance, from 2001 to 2010, got at least one hit in almost 82 percent of his starts. If my math is right, and my assumptions are reasonable, we should expect a streak like DiMaggio's in about one in 50 Ichiro careers. So that's all we need: 50 versions of the most singular player of our lifetime. Cool, cool.
The worse those odds, the more we'll love it if somebody gets close. Nobody besides DiMaggio has topped 44 since 1900 (or 45 before that), which would give us all a powerful two-week buildup to the final mark. And unlike a home-run chase, or Miguel Cabrera's Triple Crown, the margins between history and not history would be inches every at-bat -- there would be an urgency for almost every plate appearance, like the urgency of the ninth inning of a perfect game.
For a variety of reasons -- fragmented culture, cynicism about cheating, a relatively modern awareness of how outside factors like ballpark, era, rules changes and so on dictate when records are set -- I don't expect to ever care about a record the way we cared about Ripken's streak or McGwire's 62nd. Maybe if somebody undeniably clean takes the career home run record. Maybe something so outlandish (a 50-game winning streak, a 19-year-old hitting .450) that I'm not bothering to imagine it. But I'm there for the 57th game of a hitting streak, and I'm there partly because I know you're all there, too.
On a historical level
We are not likely to see the first female major leaguer in 2017. There are no women in the affiliated minor leagues, no woman was drafted in the June draft, and no woman is playing Division I baseball. Most girls are steered away from baseball and toward softball at an early age. Baseball at the highest level is a single-sex sport, and whether this is sustainable for the rest of our lives is an open question, as all questions about the future are.
Clearly, from MLB's perspective, it's sustainable in 2017. Major League Baseball is popular. Commissioner Rob Manfred is not fending off constant scandals about the lack of women on major league rosters. It is generally accepted that women are excluded from play not because the sport is sexist (though composition of front offices doesn't exactly rule that out), but because the male body is generally different than the female body, and because there is no widespread development system for female outliers to get baseball experience or be discovered.
But we're talking about our entire lifetimes here. It's not hard to imagine a future some decades from now when we make a cultural decision that spending our billions on a field where women are entirely absent -- even by the influence of biology -- is unacceptable. Unacceptable not because any of the people at the top of the sport are bad, or uncaring, or sexist, but because it is simply not good for the culture to celebrate a boys-only club. (I wrote a book about a baseball season and regret how utterly it fails the Bechdel test. My 5-year-old has asked me whether girls are even allowed to play baseball -- and periodically asks again for reassurance.)
This is entirely speculative, but a half-century gives us plenty of time to speculate with. If baseball's maleness does become an economic, political or cultural liability, I don't know how it will get handled. Will we regulate performance-enhancing drugs in a semi-legalized way that allows an even playing field for male and female bodies? Will MLB invest in youth baseball for girls, creating a broader pool of young players from which elite standouts might emerge? Will the game actually go co-ed because it's determined to just be better than way, as the independent Sonoma Stompers did this summer? Can a separate, professional league be viable enough to solve this? Are these speculative solutions problematic in their own ways? They're all questions that we might struggle with before we're 108.
But there couldn't be a cooler story in baseball right now than seeing a woman play in and succeed in the major leagues. It's worth staying alive for.