The most important thing to remember is there was no curse when the Cubs were swept in the 2015 NLCS. There was no fan interference, no brutal late-inning collapse. There was just a superlative pitching staff throwing as well as they could, and that was very well indeed. It didn’t have to be the Cubs the Mets mowed through on their way to the pennant. It could have been the Cardinals, Dodgers, Giants, Marlins, whatever. That kind of sweep was a non-denominational dominance.
In the Cubs’ clubhouse, as everyone cleaned out their lockers last year, here’s what everyone was not thinking:
Oh, man. It’s never gonna happen to us.
This is so Cubs.
Bartman cursed this franchise. And that’s why I couldn’t hit Noah Syndergaard.
No, the sadness was a baseball sadness. Opportunities missed. Chances squandered. Things they would do over. Some notion that the only recourse was to try harder and do better the next season.
Long intro short: The individual Cubs didn’t give a damn about a curse. They didn’t give a damn about what happened in 2003 or 2008 or 1998 or 1984. They lost last year because 29 baseball teams lose every year. They came back this season, convinced they were the best baseball team in existence. They’re not wrong.
Javier Baez was 10 when the Cubs blew the 2003 NLCS. Like he cares about that crap when he steps up to the plate.
And that’s the grand takeaway, the overarching message. When the Cubs were standing 60 feet, six inches away from the best pitcher alive, there wasn’t a single one of them thinking, "Oh, no. I’m wearing a Cubs jersey. Get it off. It burns. It burns! GET IT OFF!" They were thinking, "I don’t know why he’s not throwing the curve again. Something’s up. Just sit fastball, then."
They were thinking, "He’s catching a lot of the plate."
And two batters in, they were thinking, "We can do this. We’re kind of the best team in baseball."
That best-team-in-baseball bit doesn’t mean much of anything in the World Series, as we all know. Josh Tomlin could do his best Kyle Hendricks impression in a crucial game, and Hendricks could do his best Hank Borowy impression, and the previous 172 games won’t matter. Cubs fans don’t need to be told that the best team doesn’t always win the World Series.
At the same time, the Cubs, being the best team in baseball, just won the pennant, something they haven’t done in 71 seasons. They did it because they were the best team in baseball. And that still counts for something in the postseason every now and again.
Consider how the Dodgers made it to the NLCS. It was impressive as all heck. They led the world in DL time during the regular season, to the extent that manager Dave Roberts had to make more pitching changes than anyone else in baseball. Their best players weren’t the ones acquired by brute force and financial largesse, but the ones they snagged in the draft when other teams had the chance. The best players were the ones who shouldn’t have been there in the first place. They had a castoff from the Mets, a catcher-turned-closer, a cosmic belch with the best 73 curveballs that baseball had to offer. It wasn’t all nine-figure contracts and hot-stove bullying.
And yet, they had exactly two reliable starting pitchers. Two dominant starting pitchers, even. Still, it took a lot of jury-rigging and derring-do to get this far. Kershaw pitched on short rest; Kershaw was his own closer when he needed to be. They would lose whenever anyone who wasn’t Kershaw and Rich Hill would pitch, and they knew it, so they kept crossing their fingers and hoping, hoping, hoping there would be a game where it didn’t matter who they pitched, because they scored just so many runs. That game never came, so they kept asking for more from Kershaw.
The Cubs, though? They had four starting pitchers who made sense starting a postseason game. Even when John Lackey went out there, cuspids bared, yelling about whatever the hell he yells about, it made sense. That’s the kind of fourth starter a great team can use, especially when the other three starters are either Cy Young winners or contending for the award this year.
They were prepared for the postseason. They lined their pitchers up the way they wanted. They didn’t have fear when it came to their bullpen. When it came time to rest the disappointing mega-contract, they had not one but two outfielders they could turn to.
This is because the Cubs were an excellently constructed team. And if you want to know the truth, one of the reasons they’re going to the World Series is because of the stupid curse mythology. When Jon Lester had to choose between the Giants, Dodgers, Red Sox, and Cubs, there was a part of him that thought about how cool it would be to win with the Cubs.
Lester is the perfect Virgil to guide the Cubs through the underworld, then. He knows that curses exist to cease existing. That every doomed franchise is a Dave Roberts steal away from redemption; that every doomed franchise is a Dave Roberts decision away from redemption. Lester sat there in 2004, a minor leaguer controlled by a franchise of doom, watching as the doom swirled around his parent club, knowing what to expect, the pain that was going to happen. And then ... the opposite happened. Because of baseball. Balls hitting sticks and whatnot.
There isn’t a Cubs player who cared about 1945, at least as anything more than a curiosity, and that’s why they’re playing for 2016. They still have to win four out of their next seven games, and there’s still a chance they won’t. But they’re here. They won the pennant. Probably because they were the deepest team in the National League, the one with the most talent.
In the ninth inning, with Aroldis Chapman trying to save the pennant, Carlos Ruiz was up. He lined a shot right into the Bartman seats. Ohhhh, everyone thought. Ohhhhhh, that’s creepy as all heck.
Except it was just a strike. It didn’t mean anything. The ball was hit too hard for the left fielder to make a play. It went deep into the seats, not in the first row.
Because that’s how baseball usually works. It doesn’t always have to mean something. It can just make sense.
And in this particular baseball game, the better team won. They won the series. They emerged from the National League ahead of 14 other teams because they were better than those 14 teams.
The Cubs are in the World Series. It makes sense. It makes sense. This is an incredibly deep, well-constructed roster, and the only thing that could have derailed them was a team-wide hiccup at the worst time (which happens to several teams every year), or another team that was even deeper and better put together.
That team didn’t exist. So here are the Cubs. The 2016 National League champions, with a chance to light a century of pain on fire. Good for them. It’s about damned time.