When did you know the Cubs were going to lose the National League Division Series? Was it when Conor Gillaspie emerged from the radioactive waters behind AT&T Park to hit a triple off Aroldis Chapman in Game 3? Was it when John Lackey allowed a Matt Moore single to give the Giants the lead in Game 4?
Or was it something more poetic, like when the Cubs went up 2-0, because you knew it would maximize their eventual disappointment?
I’m not a clever man. I went with the Conor Gillaspie triple. The Giants had been reclaiming their ex-prospects and experimenting on them like they were some sort of billion-dollar paramilitary force from the Marvel Universe. Of course it was going to be Gillaspie. We should have seen it coming from the second he was announced as the injury replacement for the real third baseman.
And losing to another random player from a spoiled team was going to make everything feel much worse for the Cubs. There isn’t a team in professional sports that specializes in anything like the Cubs specialize in making everything feel much worse.
So, that’s my answer. When the Giants took the lead in Game 3. That’s when I knew the Cubs were going to lose the National League Division Series.
This seems like a good time to point out that the Cubs most certainly did not lose the National League Division Series. They actually won it with one the most memorable postseason games in franchise history, mounting a ninth-inning comeback that might take another century to replicate. They made history. They’re making people believe.
If the Cubs had lost Game 4, they wouldn’t just have had monkeys on their back. They would have had bitey, scratchy Wizard of Oz monkeys that would have dropped them unceremoniously from 100 feet into the middle of Wrigley Field after a four-hour flight. They would have had to face Johnny Cueto, who shut them down in Game 1. They would have had to face their demons. Also, the monkeys.
Instead, they won, because curses aren’t real. Because even years aren’t real. Because even though this is a rational universe, baseball is just irrational enough that you don’t need to lapse into superstition and sorcery to explain it away. The Cubs didn’t lose the NLDS when Gillaspie hit that triple. They were overwhelming favorites to win the series even after the loss, both because they had two more chances and because they were the clearly superior team. And, look. That’s what happened. Just in a roundabout way that made you think about droughts and curses and destinies and acid reflux.
This is the perfect postseason to remember, then, that every team is cursed until they aren’t. The Toronto Blue Jays are the spoiled brats of the remaining teams, having waited only 23 years for their last title. The Dodgers have waited 28 years. The Indians waited 68 years. The Cubs have ... let me check, here ... oh, wow, they’ve waited 108 years. You’d think that would be a bigger story, but there it is. And the Nationals are in this weird spot between expansion team and team with a sad, winless history in another country.
At the end of a long, long baseball season, for at least two decades now, all of these teams have sighed and thought about just how long it took them to push the boulder that far, and how they would have to start over from the very bottom.
The Blue Jays had to watch two of the teams in their division win again and again, monopolizing all the fun.
Every team in the AL Central has won a World Series since the Indians did. Three of them have won at least two.
Every team in the NL West has won a pennant since the Dodgers, even the weird teams. And that’s before you get into what their rivals have done over the last few years.
The Nationals don’t even know if they qualify as tortured. Do they get credit for 1994? Do they get to wear the sadness of losing in 1981? I’ll bet there are more than a few Expos fans who didn’t know where else to go, so their hopes and emotions packed up and moved south.
All of these teams can take at least a little solace from what the Cubs and Indians did, knocking out the last remaining bullies of the postseason. There isn’t a chance that either of the spoiled teams will hack down the longer-suffering teams and enjoy even more success.
More importantly, the Cubs and Indians can take solace in the fact that we’re already used to calling the Red Sox and Giants spoiled. The Red Sox, who invented the modern sports curse, and who hadn’t won a thing in nearly a century. Who had their soul chewed into a thousand pieces by their blood rivals in the ALCS. Yeah, they’re the spoiled ones now.
The Giants, whose most famous celebrity fan might be Charlie Brown, who spent the ‘60s being perennial runners-up, who wasted the ‘70s, who got to the World Series for the first time in 27 years, only to have the earth shake and reset the A’s rotation. Yeah, they’re the spoiled ones now.
The Cubs-Giants series should all give all of the remaining teams hope, then. Not only did the most hapless franchise in baseball history just overcome the oppression of mythology, but the vanquished team also had to do it recently, too.
All of this should make the Cubs (and Indians and Blue Jays, et al) think that they’re not fighting against even-year demons and goats and well-meaning fans with headphones, but that they’re fighting against other baseball players. Some of whom might be irredeemably awful at just the wrong time. Like, oh, the Giants’ bullpen. It will take solid contact, great timing, stellar defense, fine pitching, and pinch of luck, just like every other championship team.
The Cubs won because they were a supremely talented team facing a supremely flawed team. Curses had nothing to do with it. Even years had nothing to do with it. And the series was an inspiration for every team left. It didn’t end when Conor Gillaspie stunned the world. It ended with the overpowering pitcher overpowered an overpowered hitter. Just like we expected.
The Even Year is dead. The curse we shall not name remains in play. Both of them are as irrelevant as ever. Turns out that the Cubs were the better team all along. And when a team is trying for that elusive championship, being the better team is infinitely more important than the crap we’re actually paying attention to, for some reason.