Let’s begin with what seems obvious, but what is obvious to one eludes another. Nothing in the long, sad history of the Chicago Cubs has had any tangible effect on the team that just beat the Los Angeles Dodgers. You know, the actual guys who just landed the franchise’s first National League pennant since 1945. Chicago Cubs. World Series. Because Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Jon Lester & Co. have been running roughshod over the rest of the major leagues since spring training, we shouldn’t be shocked by this. But let’s face it: We are.
That’s because of the historical context, a long-chronicled series of disasters and near misses that colors our experience of this thrilling ride. No, the current Cubs players are not responsible for those past disappointments. Many of them probably aren’t even aware of more than one or two of them, if any -- ballplayers often have little sense of the history of their own game. For us, though, the disappointments are part of the lore of baseball and that building saga has in time created a cultural phenomenon that now fuels our emotions over the events we just witnessed, and our imaginations about what is yet to come. You may root for the Cubs or not, but if you love baseball, you’re paying attention.
The 2016 Cubs are now very much a part of this story, as were Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ryne Sandberg, Kerry Wood and all those others who fell short in the pursuit of what was just achieved. They just happen to be authors of the happiest chapter yet, and hope to write the grand finale in the coming days.
On my flight to San Francisco during the National League Division Series between the Cubs and Giants, a gentleman sitting behind me said, “I told my wife that if the Cubs win the World Series, I can die the next day.” He said this not once, but three times. Enough to make me a little nervous.
That’s how much it means to longtime fans in Chicagoland.
During the early history of the franchise, the Cubs won pennants and even a couple of World Series, but that all occurred during the time or before Harry Truman was president. When the Cubs and Dodgers took the field Saturday, it was the seventh time Chicago played a National League Championship Series game with a chance to win a pennant. In a sense, the Cubs’ NLCS victory was their first real accomplishment of the season. 103 wins? That’s nice. NLDS victory? Fine. Three victories in the National League Championship Series? Those were fun, but wake me up when they win the next one. Because the Cubs had been here before.
Seven games. Three different Octobers. Consider this a sort of catharsis.
Baseball subdivided in 1969, creating what we now know as the league championship series. It took 16 years after that before the Cubs played in an NLCS. That was in 1984, a year that suggests ominous portents in Wrigleyville for reasons that have nothing to do with George Orwell or Van Halen.
Oct. 4: Cubs at Padres, NLCS Game 3
The situation: The Cubs won the first two games of the series amid controversies about things such as the lack of lights at Wrigley Field and the lack of actual big league umpires -- the men in blue were on strike, and replacement umps worked the first four games of the NLCS. After winning the first two games of the best-of-five series, Chicago was one win away from its first World Series in 39 years. It seemed like a big number then because we didn’t know. We just didn’t know. Game 3 was the first of three straight games to be played at Jack Murphy Stadium, if necessary.
How it went horribly wrong: The Padres won 7-1, so there was no gotcha moment in this game. Dennis Eckersley was a pretty good starting pitcher before 1987, when Tony La Russa turned him into the prototype of what we now know as the three-out closer. Eck shut out the Padres through four innings and the Cubs took an early lead. He got into trouble in the fifth, giving up three runs on hits by Garry Templeton and Alan Wiggins. He also stayed in the game, something that would never happen in the 2016 model of postseason pitching staff deployment. In the sixth, Eckersley was finally pulled by manager Jim Frey with a couple of men on base. Kevin McReynolds hammered a three-run homer off reliever George Frazier and the Padres cruised to a 7-1 win.
What they said at the time: A woman named Phyllis Liss had flown from Illinois to California for the game. After the loss, she told The Chicago Tribune, "It's a sad day. I didn't want it to be like this. But we'll get them Saturday. I’ve been a Cub fan a long, long time. I came here to scratch my 39-year itch." That was 32 years ago.
Oct. 6: Cubs at Padres, NLCS Game 4
The situation: No worries. The Cubs lost Game 3, but they still needed only one, and Harry Caray was still a Cubs fan and a Bud man.
How it went horribly wrong: Garvey. This is the Garvey Game, when the one-time Dodgers MVP first baseman hit a walk-off, two-run homer off Lee Smith to beat the Cubs 7-5. Garvey was wandering around the field before Thursday’s Game 5 in Los Angeles, smiling as if he’d never dealt such a miserable blow to Cubs fans. In fact, there have been a lot of characters from the 1984 NLCS hanging around the two ballparks: Garvey, Smith, Ryne Sandberg, Bob Dernier, Ron Cey. What does it mean? Anyway, Frey had drawn criticism for not starting NL Cy Young winner Rick Sutcliffe in Game 4. Still, the Cubs led 3-2 at one point in the middle innings and were in position to finish it off.
What they said at the time: “There will be tomorrow!” shouted Hall of Fame Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale, who called the game for ABC, when Garvey’s drive disappeared into the stands in right-center.
It’s best not to consider his words too literally.
Oct. 7: Cubs at Padres, NLCS Game 5
The situation: OK, Garvey got them in Game 4. Maybe Frey should have started Sutcliffe instead of (allegedly) peeking ahead to Game 1 of the World Series against a Detroit Tigers team that had just finished off Kansas City in the American League Championship Series. But now Sutcliffe was set for Game 5, he was rested and he had won 17 of 18 since being acquired by the Cubs during the season. It was all good.
How it went horribly wrong: Leon Durham. Poor guy. The Cubs led 3-0 after five innings and Sutcliffe seemed to be following the script: Ace saves Cubs. Durham hit a two-run homer in the first inning -- people forget that -- and Gary “Sarge” Matthews hit a solo shot in the third. Sutcliffe began to waver in the sixth, allowing two hits, a walk and back-to-back sacrifice flies. In 2016, he would have been done. In 1984, Frey sent him out for the seventh. He walked Carmelo Martinez to start the seventh and stayed in the game. After a sacrifice bunt, pinch hitter Tim Flannery hit a roller to Durham at first. Right through the wickets it went, and Martinez scored from second. It got worse. Wiggins singled. Tony Gwynn doubled in Flannery and Wiggins. Garvey singled in Gwynn. Finally, after the Padres had put up their sixth run of the game and fourth of the inning, Frey summoned Steve Trout from the Cubs' bullpen to replace Sutcliffe.
What they said at the time: "I take the responsibility for this," Sutcliffe told the Tribune. "It's my fault." It wasn’t, but that kind of accountability is why Sutcliffe remains high in the esteem of Cubs fans to this day.
The Gregorian calendar's 1,984th year loomed as the worst for 19 years. Then the North Side faithful handed off their misery to a new generation. Those Cubs fans have since coped with 2003, their moment when the dream seemed so close. It was a year that made a lot of money for therapists all over Chicagoland.
Oct. 12: Cubs at Marlins, NLCS Game 5
The situation: This was a true wild-card era matchup. There were two 100-win clubs in the National League in 2003, the Braves and the Giants. They were knocked off by the Marlins (91 wins) and the Cubs (88 wins). That wouldn't have made a pennant any less sweet in Wrigleyville, where people packed the bars to watch the Cubs finish off Florida. They’d won three of the first four games of the series. Game 5 was big because with a win, the Cubs would get to start Mark Prior and Kerry Wood in the first two games of the World Series.
How it went horribly wrong: Josh Beckett dominated the Cubs, throwing a two-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts. It happens. Beckett had that kind of stuff, though the Cubs had scored six runs off him in Game 1. No problem, though. The series was going back to Wrigley Field, and Cubs manager Dusty Baker had Prior and Wood all ready to go.
What they said at the time: "We feel confident with those guys on the mound, especially after a loss," Baker said.
Oct. 14: Marlins at Cubs, NLCS Game 6
The situation: With the Cubs still needing just one victory for their first pennant in 58 years, they sent Prior to the hill. In his first full big league season, Prior went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA, 245 strikeouts and a third-place finish in the Cy Young balloting. He had already thrown 16 innings in two starts that postseason with a 1.69 ERA. During his last 11 starts of the regular season, Prior was 10-1 with a 1.52 ERA. Yep, this was in the bank.
How it went horribly wrong: Come on, you know what went wrong. It’s a sequence so famous that we made a documentary about it. It was the game that turned a surname (Bartman) into a synonym for scapegoat. Without reliving the complete set of gory details, let’s focus on the eerie similarity between this contest and Game 5 in 1984. As the Cubs’ season unraveled, their ace was left on the mound to twist in the wind. After throwing 7⅓ shutout innings, Prior allowed two doubles, two singles, a walk and the grounder to short that Alex Gonzalez booted.
What they said at the time: “It has nothing to do with the curse," Baker said. "It has to do with fan interference and a very uncharacteristic error by Gonzalez. History has nothing to do with this game, nothing.”
Oct. 15: Marlins at Cubs, NLCS Game 7
The situation: No worries. The Cubs still had Wood going and the Marlins were handing the ball to the mediocre Mark Redman. The Beckett card had been played in Game 5, Chicago was sitting pretty. Bring on the Yankees!
How it went horribly wrong: Wood gave up a three-run homer to 20-year-old rookie Miguel Cabrera in the first, but the Cubs rallied to take a 5-3 lead. Part of that rally was Wood’s two-run homer off Redman in the second. Wood walked two of the first three batters of the fifth, creating a high-leverage situation in which you can imagine Joe Maddon might have pulled Wood. But Wood faced Ivan Rodriguez, Cabrera and Derrek Lee in succession and each drove in a run to give Florida the lead.
Meanwhile, Trader Jack McKeon had summoned Beckett from the bullpen to calm things down, and like Madison Bumgarner in the 2014 World Series and Clayton Kershaw in this year’s NLDS, the ace turned into a clutch stopper. Beck threw four innings of one-run, one-hit ball. The Marlins kept tacking on runs and won 9-6. Dream over. Nightmare continues.
What they said at the time: "The Cubs will win next year," said Darren Baker, Dusty’s 4-year-old son.
Oct. 22: Dodgers at Cubs, NLCS Game 6
The situation: The Cubs bounced back from consecutive shutouts to throttle the Dodgers by a combined score of 18-6 to grab a 3-2 lead in the NLCS. Looming in Game 6 for the Dodgers was ace lefty Clayton Kershaw. After another Kershaw masterpiece, the Dodgers would then turn to lefty curveball wizard Rich Hill for Game 7. Behind them both was rested closer Kenley Jansen.
How it went horribly wrong: It didn’t. They won. Chicago Cubs. World Series. Believe it, folks, it happened. It finally happened.