Jesus preached that the last would be first and the first would be last, but most people don’t believe that. Maybe in their hearts they do, but not in their heads. After all, if you hold that God really meant for the meek to inherit the earth, or even if He only wanted us to have a healthy respect for the law of averages, you’ll somehow have to account for the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs have been baseball’s lovable losers for so long that it’s hard for most peopleCub’s ownership includedto imagine them in any other role. The Washington Generals, perennial straight men for the Harlem Globetrotters, won more regularly than these guys. The Boston Red Sox are accursed. The Cubs are generally just bad.
Cubs’ fans have become so accustomed to their lot that they don’t even measure success by W’s and L’s. They flock to Wrigley to bask in the experience. If their team wins, that’s a bonus. And if their team somehow wins 10 in a row, they contain their excitement as a hedge against the inevitable collapse.
The Cubs have had a few moments of glory. As recently as 1998the magical season of Sosa and McGwire’s race for the home-run recordthey reached the playoffs. But you have to go back 56 years to find them in a World Series. And they haven’t actually won the Fall Classic since Teddy Roosevelt was president.
And yetdraw whatever theological conclusion you willthe Cubs are leading their division with just a third of the season to play. Despite their conditioning, Cubs’ fans are beginning to look upon their postseason prospects much like Harry Caray used to describe long drives to the outfield: “It could be...it might be....”
If it is, and this is the year the boys from the North Side finally throw off the burden that has weighed on them for 93 seasons, there should be a patriotic celebration that makes the average Fourth of July look like Joe Garagiola’s hair-wash night. Except for Southsiders in Chicago, who for their own historical reasons are allowed, it is downright un-American not to root for the Cubbies.
And, maybe, as part of the party, the organist at Wrigley should play “The Internationale” along with “Stars and Stripes Forever.” In a grand, unrecognized irony, socialistic leanings among baseball fans (the share-the-wealth, rooting-for-the-underclass leanings) are as American as George Washington, Cracker Jacks, and nickel-beer nights.
Because when it comes to ball clubs, most of us are Levellers. We root for the underclass. We cherish plucky upstarts who don’t respect their betters. We believe in sharing the championship wealth. We like turnover at the top.
That’s why this summer has been particularly satisfying. The resurrection of the Cubs, who finished dead last a year ago, would be reason enough for excitement. But the Philadelphia Phillies, another bottom-dweller, also entered the home stretch this week within spitting distance of first. Most improbable of all, the Minnesota Twins were still tied for the A.L. Central lead with mighty Cleveland, roughly three months after the Media Geniuses predicted they would fold.
In the past century, fewer than 10 teams have gone from worst to first in just one season. This year alone, that list might grow by three.
Even though they had wrapped up their division by mid-May, we must also count the Seattle Mariners as upstart underdogs, since they not only survived losing Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., and Alex Rodriguez but without those stars could achieve the most wins in history.
Add the Red Sox, too, who by all expert guesses would have poofed into dust after losing Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez, and Carl Everett to injuries. Instead, they’re still biting the Yankees’ behind.
Sometimes you sense something almost supernatural about a team that makes you throw logic aside. I got that feeling with the Cubs this weekend. On Saturday, Pittsburgh miraculously scored seven runs in the bottom of the ninth to beat Houston (by most expert accounts, the division’s best team) and keep the Astros from picking up a game on Chicago.
On Sunday, while Houston lost again, a fog nestled eerily over Wrigley Field and the Cubs nearly blew a 6-0 lead on St. Louis. Maybe it was the mist, or maybe that Chicago actually has a bullpen this year, or maybe it was fate. But in the last of the eighth, a Cardinals reliever who doesn’t throw wild pitches threw a wild pitch to give the Cubs an insurance run. They won 7-5.
Maybe this is the year the world turns upside down, the last will be first, and the Cubs and Twins will meet in the Series.
Or, by October, all of these summer bubbles may have burstand the new boss, to paraphrase Pete Townshend, may be the same as the old boss: the Yankees, Braves, or Indians.
But until that happens, you’ll find me rooting for the Twins, the Phillies, the Mariners, the Bosox, and especially the Cubs, imagining the utter joy in victory that only an utter loser can understand. Whatever Spartacus emerges from the cellar next year, I’ll root for them, too. So should you. It’s your duty as an American socialist baseball fan.