The streets surrounding Wrigley Field are lined with banners bearing the Cubs logo, flags including a “W,” and signs outside several of the neighborhood bars confidently proclaim that “History Starts Now.”
Cubs gear has replaced that of the Bulls, Blackhawks and, yes, the Bears as the city’s uniform. Even fans of other teams, from other cities, find themselves making pilgrimages to the North Side, hoping to make even the smallest claim to history.
“People are excited for the postseason. They’re excited to see them, hopefully, get to the World Series and finally break this curse,” said Sean McNeill, one of the partners at Sports World, an apparel shop across the street from Wrigley.
And yet, that euphoria is accompanied by an undeniable undercurrent of angst for Cubs fans. After a lifetime – and more – of disappointment, it’s almost too good to be true that this might finally be their year.
“It’s exciting,” Debbie Hauslein, a lifelong Cubs fan who now lives in Florida, said, a note of caution in her voice.
Added her friend, Betty Bond, “But we’re keeping our fingers crossed. We don’t want to jinx it.”
Superstition goes hand in hand with sports. How many of us have worn the same shirt over and over and over again because our favorite team happened to win when we started wearing it? Or have made friends get up and move because they were sitting in our “lucky” seat?
But it goes beyond that for Cubs fans. While they are eternal optimists by nature, that outlook is rooted in despair.
There is the losing, of course, decade upon decade’s worth. It’s been 108 years since they last won a World Series, 71 just since they got there.
And the Job-like ways in which they’ve lost.
The Cubs were streaking toward what would have been their first playoff appearance since ’45 in 1969, spending 155 days in first place, only to lose 18 of their last 27 games and finish second to the Mets. When they finally did return to the postseason in 1984, they won the first two games of the best-of-five NLCS — and then proceeded to drop the next three.
They were five outs — five! — from the 2003 World Series only to unravel in a matter of minutes. Don’t you dare blame Steve Bartman, either. Ace Mark Prior melted down, and Alex Gonzalez booted what could have been an inning-ending double play.
“Too many broken hearts,” Jeff Winkler said, explaining the anxiousness that goes hand-in-hand with his excitement. “Too many years.”
These Cubs, however, are supposed to be different. They are built on solid pitching and even better hitting, with Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester both candidates for the NL Cy Young, and Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo making cases for MVP.
Their 103 wins are the most in the majors since the St. Louis Cardinals won 105 in 2004. Their .640 winning percentage is the Cubs’ best since the 1935 team. Their run differential was plus-252, not quite 1927 New York Yankees territory but staggering nonetheless.
And as the playoffs begin this week, the Cubs are the overwhelming favorites to win the World Series. Let that sink in: Baseball’s lovable losers are now the best in the game.
“You just try not to get your expectations up so high,” said Joe Spagnoli, owner of Yak-Zie’s, an institution in Wrigleyville. “But who wouldn’t want to see them win?
“It’s why I’m keeping my mouth shut.”
Current Cubs manager Joe Maddon and his players have laughed off the idea of a curse, with Maddon telling ESPN last year that, “I get it, but I just don’t vibrate at that frequency.”
It’s not Maddon, Rizzo, Bryant, Lester or Jake Arrieta who have Cubs fans knocking on wood and crossing their fingers, though. It’s billy goats, black cats and all the other karmic voodoo that’s bedeviled this team for more than a century.
“I just hope this curse gets lifted,” Elise Swopes said as she and her friends took pictures at Wrigley Field. “I’m done with it. I’m ready.”
A few minutes later, as if realizing she might have tempted fate, Swopes added one more thought.
“You haven’t heard me say (playoffs or World Series) once, have you?”
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.