The Cubbies Win the Existential Pennant! The Cubbies Win the Existential Pennant!

A few days ago someone sent me an e-mail asking me if I was at all concerned that the Chicago Cubs, who finished at the top of the National League, would go all the way to the World Series and win, thus rendering obselete a comment that one of my characters made in Old Man’s War, defending the Cubbies despite their then at least two centuries of championship futility. I wrote back and said this was one of those things I really didn’t worry about. One reason I didn’t worry about it is that there are no explicit dates noted in OMW, so I could just say that those two centuries of futility begin whenever it is the Cubbies win their last one.

But the other reason is even simpler, and that is because I firmly believe that the Cubs, when pressed, will always find a way to lose in the clutch. It is their destiny and heavy responsibility to be the sport’s designated losers — a destiny they previously shared with the Red Sox, but which they now carry alone, which of course makes it an even heavier responsibility. As I’ve noted before, if the Cubs were to win, what would they gain? A sports championship, to be sure, but how special can a World Series win actually be if even the Florida Marlins have won it? Twice?

But the Cubbies’ reign of futility — well, see. What other team could replace them? Among teams who have ever won a World Series, the next longest drought is held by the Cleveland Indians, at an insignificant 60 years. Among those who have never won the World Series, the Texas Rangers are mere pups at 47 years of age. No offense to Indians and Rangers fans, but the futility of these teams is pedestrian and banal compared to the futility of the Cubs. They are H0-scale version of existential dread. The Cubbies are the full-sized runaway train, hurtling headlong toward the burned-out bridge over a yawning, bottomless chasm. And the train is filled with adorable kittens.

You don’t just throw that sort of distinction away on something so obvious and common as a World Series championship. They give one of those out every year. The Cubs’ streak, on the other hand, is a century in the making. There is nothing else like it in the history of North American professional sports, and it’s made even more poignant by the fact that the Cubbies are so often good, as they were this year. They could have gone all the way. You could even argue that they should have gone all they way. But they didn’t. And now they won’t. And this is as it should be.

And so when the Cubs were swept in three games by the Los Angeles Dodgers (whose own streak of World Series futility is a mere 20 years long — a pup, as these things go), I was not surprised, and for the sake of Cubs fans, I was somewhat relieved. ‘Twere best it was done quickly, and all that; no point dragging those poor men and women through one or two more series just to compound the heartbreak. I understand that Cubs fans may feel differently, of course, but I think they may be too close to the subject.

The fact that I was born and raised in Southern California and am a nominal Dodgers fan has nothing to do with this, either. It could have been any team that stood in the Cubbies’ way. And if the Dodgers go all the way, what of it? What’s another World Series win to a team that already has six? They have their moment in the sun, and then it’s back to the relentless, cyclical grind. Meanwhile, the Cubs, and their streak, continue — a testament to persistence, to futility as Sisyphusian high art: Yea, a statement about the very condition of man. Perhaps a statement best read at a distance, as Cubs’ fans might agree. But even so.

I for one admire the Cubs’ position in sports and in history, which is why in Old Man’s War I see their streak continuing well into a third century. World Series wins come and go, but the Cubbies’ streak — well. That endures, my friends. That endures.

46 Comments on “The Cubbies Win the Existential Pennant! The Cubbies Win the Existential Pennant!”

  1. I have been a Cub fan for about 20 years now.
    Besides the annual saying of, “Wait till next year”, this year reintroduced us to an old familiar saying.

    “Just waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

    And on top of that news, the Cubs postseason losing streak is now at 9 games.

    It’s nice to know that even the Cubs “losingness” carries over double time into the playoffs.

  2. The Padres may be pups, but they are exceptional at breaking the hearts of their fans. Last year they got to the wildcards and every damn game was a soul-sucking nightmare compounded by the horror of watching Trevor Hoffman completely losing it.

    And this year they ranked last in their division.

    Yup. You want to know futility, be a San Diego baseball fan living in St. Louis. :P

  3. At this point I will be surprised if they DON’T win. Allow me to explain. We’ve seen hurricanes, devastating earthquakes, demonic powers AND the Red Sox have won the World Series. If you needed clearer signs that we were in the end times, I don’t know what you’d get. The ocean fizzing methane, perhaps?

    I’m pretty sure that the Cubs winning the series is one of the signs of the Apocalypse.

  4. You are, of course, right about the Cubs. To win would be to squander a most notable achievement. The Dodgers, however, will lose until the day they return to Brooklyn.

    I’m not biased about that at all.

  5. I will point out that that the Houston Astros have never won a World Series in their entire existence, and have been in the World Series only once. I would submit that they are more deserving of winning a World Series than the Cubs.

  6. It is telling that the White Sox were never able to make more out of their own futility. Until they won in 2005, their last World Series win was 1917. You’d think they’d be able to get some sympath out of 80+ years of nothing. However, when you’re playing in the same city as the Cubs, there’s really no point in trying to play the lovable losers card. (Plus the Sox haven’t really been lovable since Veeck put them in leisure suits.)

  7. The other streak of frustration worth noting is the San Francisco Giants, who are now at 54 years and counting. Their last championship came when they were still in New York.

    The Cubs are arguably playing under a curse like the Red Sox (Babe Ruth) and White Sox (Black Sox) were: They took advantage of the Merkle Boner en route to their title in 1908.

    But seriously: The main reason the Cubs have gone so long since winning is that they’ve been an awful team for most of their history. They rarely get to the playoffs, and since the playoffs are a nearly-random outcome (due to the statistically insignificant short series played in them), the most important thing is to get there. They’re the opposite of the Red Sox in this respect: The Sox have had decent teams from the 40 through the 70s, and since 1986 they’ve been good more often than not. They’ve racked up so many playoff appearances in my lifetime that they were likely to win at least one of them. (Full disclosure: I’m a Red Sox fan.)

    (The other points on the grid are the White Sox, who have rarely had good teams yet managed to win a Series in 2005, and the Giants, who have had many good teams in San Francisco, but have never won a championship there.)

    It’s really hard to win a championship in this era of 30 Major League teams, especially since only a few teams have both the smarts and the resources to be consistently competitive. The Cubs have the resources, but have rarely displayed the smarts. But if they ever put together a front office like the Red Sox or A’s have, then they should be able to line up a series of playoff appearances, and eventually break the curse.

  8. I still maintain that the Red Sox having won the World Series feels wrong. It’s like Charlie Brown finally being allowed to kick that football.

  9. My mother always said that she’d live until the Cubs took the Series — in short, forever. She got a little nervous back in the mid-80s — she nearly amended it to “AND the Bears get the Super Bowl.” But it looks like she’ll be with us for a while.

  10. If they win will baseball finally stop being the “national wastetime”? If yes then I hope they win soon.

  11. Iam reminded of a (probably apocryphal) story out of World War II: A young lieutenant was ordered to get a squad of men and take a fortified German position.

    He asked if he could pick his own men and was granted permission. He then asked for all the Cubs fans in his unit. When the colonel asked why Cubs fans, the lieutenent replied, he knew the mission was probably suicidal. If there was any chance of success, the lieutenant said, he needed men who could face certain defeat yet remain optimistic.

  12. I think the thing with the Giants is, they might not have a World Championship, but they still have the dubious pleasure of watching a guy possibly on steroids hit another record-breaking home run. (Up until he became a free agent.) When I was in SF, I used to wish not for the home runs, but for the times they’d walk Barry, because they’d fling rubber chickens over the side of the bleachers, which I found more entertaining than the game itself.

  13. The only thing I miss about living in Illinois is taunting the Cubs fans. I can’t wait for next year when the Cubbies start on their 2nd century of not-quite-good-enough-itude.

  14. I’m pretty sure I have a 3 or 4 century run of futility for the Cubs in my 29th century universe, but (a) it’s the 29th century, (b) you could have two of those in that span and (c) I’m a Cubs fan. I was, of course, amused by The Scalzi’s Cubs futility reference in OMW. An easy call to make.

    As for the Dodgers, I’ve never forgiven them for leaving Brooklyn — which happened before I was born. It was a genetic inheritance from my mother, who spent part of her childhood in Brooklyn.

    Dr. Phil

  15. I have many friends who are Red Sox fans. After Boston won, their fandom atrophied a bit. They lost their ferocity, and sitting in a bar surrounded by Boston emigres during a Bo-Sox game actually became bearable.

  16. As an almost-Bostonian, I was actually disappointed that the 2000 MLB Championship wasn’t between the Cubs and the Sox, culminating with Game 7, bottom of the ninth, 3 on, two out, a full count, and then the end of the world as we know it so no one could ever claim victory. The 21st century has been SO anticlimactic.

    Jack Tingle

  17. Mary @#3

    “I’m pretty sure that the Cubs winning the series is one of the signs of the Apocalypse.”

    As a lifelong Cub fan who had his 10th birthday ruined by an Al Weis homer in 1969, I’m afraid you’re right.

    See W.P. Kinsella’s “The Last Pennant Before Armageddon.”

  18. My father took me to a baseball game once. A couple weeks later, he took me to another one. Since I now knew what was coming, I took a book with me. He never took me to another one. I don’t remember the name of the home team we went to see, or who won the games. I still remember the book though. It was a history of mathematics by Lancelot Hogben. So I guess it is fair to say I am not a baseball fan.

  19. As a Dbacks fan it was….ahem….annoying to see the Dodgers sneak into the postseason in the last week or so of the regular season. The only solace was the knowlege that only the fact that their first opposition was the Cubs allowed them to get past the first round. The fact that my dad was a lifelong Cubs fan points out the genetics that have allowed me to remain optomistic about our next year’s chances.

  20. The world needs losers like the Cubs. When we spill coffee on our white shirts, trip over an imaginary crack on the sidewalk, or run out of gas on the freeway, icons like the Cubs are there to remind us that we are not alone.

    Thank you, Chicago.

  21. I never knew there was an alternative to “Sisyphean,”
    but don’t you think “Sisyphusian” looks like “sissy fusion,” sorta like cold fusion for wimps?

  22. About ten yearts ago Steve Alton wrote (in one of the sequels to his Humorgous shark book M.E.G.) about a guy who was then an up-and-coming Phillies player – Pat Burrell. Alton centered a scene of the book on Pat the Bat breaking Hank Aaron’s career home run record in San Francisco with a shot into McCovey’s Cove – ball and kayakers alike to be (predictably) eaten by said shark.

    Anywho, as to dating a book ,this would seem to be a much bigger ‘oops’ then John’s Cubbie reference.

  23. Not really a baseball fan, so… off on a tangent!

    When did SF authors stop putting dates in their books? I know it used to happen… hey, it was even the title a few times… but now? Not so much. Was there a passed in-book date that finally ticked over in SF-dom in general, “You don’t need them, and people will point out that you were wrong in your piece of fiction.”

  24. Well, speaking as one of the world’s few Texas Rangers fans, I must say that we are always happy when the Cubs fail. Sure, it’s schadenfreude, and in some karmic way, it probably hurts us, but every year the Cubs fail, people continue to ignore the Rangers’ ongoing futility.

    And the Rangers do, in fact, have a very special kind of futility. Unlike the Cubs, who actually field pretty good teams but then either fold quickly like a cheap table or dramatically like the Mets, the Rangers have a consistent reputation for mediocrity. The Rangers’ mediocrity prevents them from having ever been embraced by a fickle sports town who only likes winners. Not to mention being stuck in a division where everyone else is two time zones away (staying up until midnight just to watch your team lose is not fun).

    The only time the Rangers had any consistent regular-season success was in the late 90s, when they won the AL West three times…and proceeded to go 1-9 those three times.

    A 47-year history, one playoff win.

    Even the Cubs are better than that over the last 47 years.

    And that’s what I face as a Rangers fan. We *have* no team history. And no one cares. The average person in the DFW area couldn’t name two people on the Rangers lineup. Wrigley still sells out every game. The Ballpark in Arlington only attracts fans when the Yankees and Red Sox play so that New Englander expats can make it a home game for the road team.

    So screw the Cubs. Another 100 years of failure means another 100 chances for the Rangers to win it all.

  25. The real reason the Red Sox finally won a World Series? Gay marriage.

    Y’see, once Massachusetts had pushed the bigotry pendulum far enough in the opposite direction to compensate for the team passing on Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays (and for being the last MLB team to integrate), the curse was lifted.

    (More seriously, the curse of the Sox was always the ownership, from Harry Frazee to John Harrington; once someone with a clue got their hands on the team, of course it was lifted.)

  26. I for one am tired of Cubs fans whinging about their losingness. Try being a Phillies fan sometimes, folks! Sure, they’re hot now – but for long-haul frustration you just can’t top the Phillies.

    They are the ONLY sports franchise in human history to lose more than 10,000 games. They would have to win every game from now until 2012 (when, I understand, the world is in fact scheduled to end) just to reach .500. The Cubs would have to go on a multi-season-long losing streak to get to 10,000 (not saying they couldn’t – just sayin’), and by then the Phillies will be moving ever forward toward oblivion.

    The Phillies have won exactly one Series title in their 126-year history. It took them 97 years. And they play in a city that hasn’t seen a major sports championship since 1983 despite having all four sports.

    But you know what? They’re not “cute”. The Cubs are cute. They blow games, series, seasons, and people go “awwwww, they did it *again*!” The Phillies are not cute.

    Nor did the Phillies have Mike Royko to describe their place in the universe: to remind us here in relentlessly optimistic America that if you truly believe with all your heart, and you work your fingers to the bone, and you follow your dreams, you will still fail if you have no talent.

    I feel your pain, Cubs fans. But you’re so cute that way.

  27. *sigh*

    Is it safe to assume that the Minnesota Vikings’ inability to win the Superbowl has extended for two centuries as well?

    I mean, I’ve only been a fan for about 34 years now, but it feels like 200 years sometimes.

  28. What I find amusing is reading the Tribune sports section last week, where they had a ‘power ranking’ of the playoff teams, and of course had the Scrubbies at the top of the list. This week they came to their senses — 1. Red Sox, 2. Rays, 3. Dodgers, 4. Phillies…

  29. I am a Cubs fan living in Seattle.

    The Cubs returned to form and I kind of expected it. It’s the Cubs for gosh sakes.

    But I have nothing to fall back on. The Mariners finished in the cellar. The Seahawks are 1-4, The Huskies are 0-5, the WSU Cougars are 1-4 and the Sonics are now in Oklahoma. The Storm (WNBA) made the playoffs at least.

    The middle grade soccer team the daughter of some of my friends is on is winning. (they are 6-0) But that’s about it.

    It’s not a good sports year in the Northwest.

  30. I suspect that the Cubs will never win one as long as they play at Wrigley in Chicago, and fans nationwide continue to remind them of the curse.

  31. I admit that after reading that Kinsella story, I get a little nervous when the Cubs are doing well and/or make it to the post-season. Yay! Armageddon averted for another year.

  32. Boston is not a friendly, chatty town. As a Chicagoan in exile, I wear a Cubs cap. Strangers on the street actually talk to me sympathetically. Even more since the Red Sox finally won. No event except the apocalyptic snow of “78 has ever induced Bostonians to chat with strangers on the street. Since the Cubs lost as usual, I will continue to wear the cap to show my faith.

  33. As a St. Louis resident, Saturday night was one of the top sports fandom moments of my life.

    First I watched Mizzou sprint past Nebraska in Lincoln for the first time in 30 years, 52-17, then I watched the final three innings of the Cubs season.

    Good times, good times.

    Go Rays! (the rest of this year) Go Cards! (always)

  34. John, as a philosophy guy, you may appreciate this:

    As an undergrad I took a course on Kierkegaard, and my class determined that Cubs fans were the sports analog for the Knight of Infinite Resignation (from _Fear and Trembling_).

    see Wikipedia here for a quick primer:

    By now Cubs fans know deeply that their team can never win the World Series in this life, and have accepted this. They can neither rationalize themselves into being a fan of some other team who could possibly win it, nor can they believe that somehow, despite their deep conviction of perpetual playoff futility, the Cubs will prevail and win the World Series.

  35. As a true-blue Cubbies fan from the day I was born, I’m not sure whether this post makes me want to kiss you or slap you. I think I’m just going to do what any good Cubs fan would and sit down with a hot dog and a beer, let it roll of my back and say “Eh, oh well!”

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