Seen It Before

Well. It’s June 7th, and the Chicago Cubs have the best record in Major League Baseball at 39-23. And apparently, this is the first time they’ve had the best record in baseball at this point in June since 1908, which happens to be the last time they won a World Series. 100 years ago.

These things are interesting as trivia, but are worth … exactly nothing.

I’m happy they’re doing so well. I’m very pleased with the tenacity, the efficiency, the depth, the managing, and just the overall feeling of quality and quiet confidence that this team gives off. All great things.

But there are four months to go before the playoffs even start. So you have to first endure that torture test, just to get into the playoffs. Then, in the playoffs, you have to first beat one good team in a best of five, then another (even better) team in a best of seven, then another (better yet) team in a best of seven. It’s not easy, even for a very good team.

And a lot can change between now and then.

I’ve been through a lot of baseball games, a lot of pennant races, in my life. One thing I’ve learned is that it doesn’t make sense to get too emotionally wrapped up in all of it, unless you like disappointment.

I’m a baseball fan, more than a Cubs fan. A purist, basically. As such, I value quality: quality of play, quality of managing, quality of organizations.

You might ask, why have I been a Cubs fan for 40 years then? A very good question; go to the front of the class. Let’s just say I’ve learned a lot along the way, and have had to disassociate my feelings from my fandom.

Maybe that makes me the one on the outside looking in. Lots of fans seem to like to ride emotional roller coasters, and attach large chunks of their overall sense of worth and emotional well-being to the doings of a baseball team. Seems kind of strange to me, frankly, but I admit, I used to do that too.

But I hated the way it felt to lose. Too much, in fact. So I had to learn how to stay a fan, yet in a way that I could manage to not want to put a bullet in my brain around mid-October. So I took that “oh, yay!” part of the fan in me and put it in a box, to be hauled out only on certain occasions. The last time was probably in game 6 of the 2003 NLCS against the Marlins. We all know how well that turned out. Burned, yet again.

But all this misery has led me to learn a few more things. Like, teams don’t win (or lose) because of ghosts, or goblins, or gremlins, or Billy Goats, or curses. That is just silly, offered up by people who are either unable or unwilling to look at hard truths about their teams. And, an affront to the integrity of the game, frankly. As Doug Buffone says, “just stop yourself”.

The truth, at least as I have come to see it, is this:

  • The only goal worth pursuing is winning the World Series.
  • Teams that win the World Series do so because they are (nearly always) objectively better teams.
  • Better teams are better not because they have more “stars”, or some of their players have better individual stats, or because they have a dominant offense or pitching staff, but because they have fewer (and less serious) team weaknesses than their oppostion, such as defense, the bench, the manager, the bullpen, or team leadership.
  • Fewer (and less serious) team weaknesses mean there are fewer ways for the opponent to beat you in a short series.
  • In other words, the same qualities in a team that lead to dominant regular season success are not always the same qualities that allow a team to beat another one in a 5 or 7 game series.
  • Superstars are overrated, everywhere and always, unless they deliver in the clutch in October. See “A-Rod”.
  • Pitching, catching, and defense are inextricably inter-related, and are perpetually under-valued by fans and media, and even some dumb managers — but not by smart managers. You can’t really “hide” bad fielders in a 5 or 7 game series, or a weak bullpen. And having a great catcher, who rarely makes mistakes, calls a solid game, shows leadership with the pitching staff, and can block everything in the dirt is a huge piece of the pitching/defense puzzle.

But Cubs fans, and media who support and encourage them, are going a little nuts these days. Best record in the Major Leagues. Woo Hoo! First seven game home-stand sweep since 1970. Awesome! First time they have the best record in the majors this late in the season since … 1908! Freaking great!

Whatevs. I’ve seen this before, folks. 1969, 1970, 1972, 1970-whatever, 1977, 1984, 1985, 1989, 199-something, 1998, 2003, 2004, 2007, … you get the picture.

And you know what? Here’s another thing I’ve learned during all that misery:

It’s all a mirage until you beat good teams in October. Period.

Now, as for reasons to be positive … does their current level of play lead one to conclude that, yes, they just might beat good teams in October? Yes, maybe, a little bit. So there is that. If they can play like they are playing now, in October, then yes, get the party started.

That’s a pretty big “if”. Lots of teams have been great in April and May, only to fade later. Who knows why? It happens.

And even though the media would like you to believe — with their obsession with drama and narrative over harsh reality — that this year, marking 100 years since the last Cubs World Series title, bestows upon them a mantle of inevitability, a karmic correction, the truth is this: it doesn’t matter if it’s been one year, ten years, or 100 years. All that matters is whether a team is good enough this year, to beat the teams it must face this year, to (a) make the playoffs, and (b) beat every team in succession.

That’s pretty much how sports work. If you’re good enough, you win, and if you’re not, you don’t.

I like drama too, and believe me, I’ll be partying like it’s 1999 if the Cubs manage to pull it off this year. It’s been a dream of mine for 40 years, are you kidding?

So I really hope they win. And maybe they’re truly good enough to win this year; they sure have shown signs of that. But it’s early yet, and it won’t surprise me if they don’t win more than a division title, and it shoudn’t surprise anybody who has been paying attention to history, either.

But if they do win, it’ll be for one reason, and one reason only: they were good enough to beat everybody else.

And that is the best reason to celebrate, of all.

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