If this is truly to be the year in which the Cubs right all of the wrongs–undoing the pain of an endless pattern of disappointment–regardless of how good they are, winning the World Series of baseball will require some luck. Or at least the avoidance of bad luck.
Playoff baseball is a crapshoot, a dart toss and a small sample rolled into a few cold weeks of October. The 2001 Seattle Mariners won 116 regular season games, only to see their record tying effort rendered meaningless in five short games against the New York Yankees.
Before the season began, I started telling people the Cubs would win 120 games. About this prediction, I was only half joking. These Cubs could win more games than any regular season team in baseball history and follow up with a heartbreaking October.
I don’t mention the possibility of an October collapse cynically–my intention is quite the opposite. Even considering the Cubs crazy-good start to the season, it’s a bit presumptuous to assume in May that these Cubs will be a playoff team. But I am very confident in that presumption, and I intend to enjoy the ride however deep into the calendar it travels.
These Cubs have the opportunity to correct the misfortunes suffered by generations of Cubs fans, and there are plenty of incidents which need correcting.
Any Cubs fan of my generation will probably tell you that the infamous game six and resulting loss of the 2003 NLCS was the worst thing that ever happened, but if you pull the lens back to view the big picture, the greater disappointment was that the Cubs had so few rolls of the dice with the talented core that collapsed in that series. Just as we’d begun to expect ritualistic playoff baseball on the North side, the Cubs had sunk back into irrelevance. The two major reasons for the organization’s success in ’03 can also be implicated for their failure to follow up with with another autumn dart throw–Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.
In July of 2013, the Cubs acquired Jake Arietta from the Baltimore Orioles–along with Pedro Strop and his left leaning flat-brim–for veteran pitcher Scott Feldman and Catcher Steve Clevenger. Arietta was viewed by the Orioles as a failed fifth round draft pick–all stuff, no results. In nearly 350 innings with the Orioles, Arrieta posted an ERA in the mid-fives, and showing no sign of progress at the major league level. Jake arrived at Wrigley’s doorstep like a baby in a basket–stealthily and without much fanfare, he and Strop joined the organization under baseball’s ubiquitous umbrella term, “prospect.” Even the most educated of Cub fans were likely unaware of Arietta’s existence before the deadline deal was announced.
Kerry Wood and Mark Prior had eerily parallel beginnings to their respective Cub careers.
Both players zoomed through the minor league system–Wood arriving with the big club in 1998, and Prior making his first major league start in 2002 only months after being selected with the second pick of the MLB draft. Each had incredible success in their first full major league season.
Prior undoubtedly had his best year as a professional in 2003, winning 18 games for the NL central champions. Wood arguably did his best pitching in 1998 when he led the team to its first ever wildcard berth, was elected the National League’s best rookie, and pitched perhaps the most dominant game in baseball history.
Even before their wildly successful campaigns, fan expectations of Wood and Prior were unreasonably high. After watching Wood suffer through injuries in 1999, and 2001, Cubs faithful were even projecting those expectations on Prior’s future health, buying–incorrectly–into a widely held notion that Prior was impervious to arm trouble due to his physical build and throwing mechanics.
Prior was first injured in 2004–and in spite of some dominant performances at the end of that season–was never the same nearly unhittable monster he was before the 7th inning of that ill-fated game six. Prior and Wood will forever be linked together in Cubdom–not so much for who they were, but who we wanted them to be.
We wanted Prior and Wood to be consistently dominant pitchers who were fun to watch, logged a lot of strikeouts, won a lot of meaningful games, and occasionally threw some no-hitters. And even as it should have become clear that neither pitcher would ever live up to our expectations, we just sort of pretended they were the aces we expected, as if we could somehow will them into being the players we so desperately wanted them to be.
Cub fans are sometimes delusional. It’s a defense mechanism. Without these delusions, the painful truths would have, by now, broken us completely.
There’s been a lot of discussion about whether Arietta will be a Cub beyond this season. That remains to be seen. Joe Maddon would remind us to live in the present–the present is a very good time to be thankful for Arietta, because he is exactly the pitcher we wanted Wood and Prior to be.
Be thankful because he is the anti-towel-drill. Because you can’t wait to watch him pitch again. Because He’s already won 2 postseason games, and completed a pair of no-hitters.
Because he came from out of nowhere.
And thanks again, Baltimore. You guys are the best.