Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 29, 2017

Book Review: What To Do When A Dream Comes True?

The reign of the Chicago Cubs will soon be over. Perhaps Tuesday evening at Chavez Ravine, and for certain by 24 hours later, either the Los Angeles Dodgers or Houston Astros will celebrate on the infield at Dodger Stadium, having supplanted the Cubs as World Series champions. But if Chicago’s one year atop the Great Game is coming to an end, that doesn’t mean the Cubs are going away. After the historic 108-year title drought, during much of which the Cubs level of play ranged between bad and abysmal, Chicago has become one of the National League’s premier franchises.

Over the last three seasons the Cubs averaged more than 97 wins a year, won back-to-back NL Central Division titles, and played in the NLCS three straight times. Given the random nature of baseball’s short playoff series, that last fact is particularly impressive. In the LCS era, franchises that have made more consecutive appearances than Chicago’s current streak are remembered as models of excellence – Atlanta in the ‘90s, St. Louis more recently, and in the American League the Oakland A’s of the ‘70s and the Yankee dynasty of the Core Four years.

Frequent LCS appearances do not guarantee titles; Atlanta’s sole championship in 1995 despite eight straight trips to the NLCS is a stark reminder of that. But being one of the last four teams standing means that a franchise still has a chance at claiming the Commissioner’s Trophy, and for three straight years the Cubs have been part of that conversation. Just like every other team Chicago has holes to fill in the offseason, most notably with its pitching staff. Still at this ridiculously early stage there’s every reason to think that the Cubs will be in the playoff mix in 2018.

World Champions. Repeated deep runs into the postseason. It seems fair to ask, whatever became of the Lovable Losers? A franchise that went more than a century between World Series titles and more than seventy years without even an appearance in the Fall Classic has undergone a dramatic transformation. For long-time Cubs fans, the experience has been at once exhilarating and disorienting.

That at least is the conclusion of journalist and author Rich Cohen, who attended his first Cubs game at the age of eight and grew up regularly taking the Red Line from his home in Chicago’s northern suburbs to Addison Station, which sits in the shadow of Wrigley Field. In “The Chicago Cubs – Story of a Curse,” Cohen tells the history of his favorite team, from early greatness through long decades of despair to its recent ascension to the Great Game’s heights, intermixed with the personal story of his lifelong devotion to the North Side Nine.

For those who think of the Cubs only in the context of their century of futility, punctuated by the supposed “Billy Goat Curse” in 1945, Cohen reminds us that the franchise, one of the charter members of the National League, began as a powerhouse. Originally named the Chicago White Stockings, the team won the inaugural National League title in 1876, and finished atop the standings five more times over the next ten years. After brief periods as first the Colts, then the Orphans, the renamed Cubs were regular contenders in the first decade of the 20th century, with an infield trio of shortstop Joe Tinker, second baseman Johnny Evers and first baseman Frank Chance, whose double play prowess was immortalized in poetry. They won three straight NL titles, losing the 1906 World Series to the crosstown rival White Sox, then beating the Tigers in both 1907 and 1908.

Then, as fans everywhere know, the winning stopped. Cohen recounts the Cubs move to the new Weeghman Park in 1916, the acquisition of the team by William Wrigley Jr. a few years later, and the eventual renaming of the stadium in 1926. And focusing around one of two players in each generation of Cubs teams, whose stories are in some way always about failure, Cohen takes readers through the long decades of misery and doubt.

Along the way he recounts his first visit to Wrigley: “My favorite part was coming out of the tunnel, the field stretched before me as the grasslands must have stretched before the first trapper to make it beyond the Alleghenies. Something about all that greenery in the middle of the city. Only when you see it do you realize it’s what you’ve been craving.” It is a sentiment that anyone who can recall their first trip as a child to a big league ballpark will share. Chicago lost that game, 8-3 to Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, and on the way home Cohen’s father urged him not to become a Cubs fan. When the son asked why, Herb Cohen offered this wisdom, “Because the Cubs do not win. And because of that a Cubs fan will have a diminished life determined by low expectations. That team will screw up your life.”

Naturally the only course for the younger Cohen was to become a rabid Cubs fan. Not one to believe in curses, as an adult he worked hard to understand a rationale reason for his team’s repeated failure. Cohen suggests that some of it is psychological, that a mindset of losing eventually permeated both the organization and its fans, which may be why it took an outsider, Theo Epstein, to finally turn things around.

But a large part of the blame in Cohen’s view goes to Wrigley Field itself, which for all its charm lacks a distinguishing baseball characteristic. It’s a pitcher’s park when the wind blows in off the lake, and a hitter’s paradise when the currents go the other way. Yankee general managers look for left-handed batters with power to take advantage of the Stadium short right field porch. In Boston teams are built to take advantage of the Green Monster. But Wrigley offers no such shortcut to greatness. On top of that Wrigley’s ever-so-charming experience makes the game secondary, and winning less vital. When he first offered this assessment in a Wall Street Journal article in 2012, Cohen was the brunt of harsh criticism. But in an interview for this book Epstein essentially agreed with the author’s analysis.

Finally, Cohen takes readers through the 2016 World Series, at both Wrigley and Progressive Field in Cleveland. Here he is faced with the challenge that confronted all long-time Cubs fans this time last year. What do we do now? When his team tops the Dodgers in the NLCS, Cohen suggests, only half joking, that if the Cubs win the Series the historic arc of the Great Game will have come full circle, and baseball should simply disband. What to do in this new world, where kids will think of the Cubs as a pretty darn good team? When Kris Bryant scoops up the final grounder and throws across the diamond to Anthony Rizzo, Cohen is both happy and sad: “A whole period of my life had just ended. My childhood suddenly seemed much farther away.”

The good news for Rich Cohen and every Cubs fan is that the Great Game did not disband in the wake of Chicago’s World Series triumph. One year later the drama is renewed, as it will be in next year’s playoffs, when the Cubs, who will never again be just a bunch of lovable losers, are likely to once more be part of the story. For baseball fans facing the low months between now and the start of Spring Training, Cohen’s book is a worthy read.

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