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Through the years, there have been numerous fascinating ways to deal with the Cubs Thing. Denial has been the big one. That’s the first stage of grief, right? Cubs Thing? What Cubs Thing? Countless managers and general managers and players and fans have treated it like a monster in the closet, ignored it, denied that there is anything to talk about here. Yes, the Cubs have not won a World Series in 108 years. True, they have not even been to a World Series in 70 years. Well, it’s chance. It’s incompetence. It’s a few ill-timed blunders.
But, they will assure you, there is no Cubs Thing.
What’s next on the five stages of grief? Oh yeah: Anger. Playing the role of anger will be former Cubs manager Lee Elia. When his Cubs started 5-14 in 1983, he gave a thoughtful oration on the Cubs Thing and the role of fans:
“F*** those f***in’ fans who come out here and say they’re Cub fans that are supposed to be behind you, rippin’ every f***in’ thing you do. I’ll tell you one f***in’ thing, I hope we get f***in’ hotter than s***, just to stuff it up them 3,000 f***in’ people that show up every f***in’ day, because if they’re the real Chicago f***in’ fans, they can kiss my f***in’ ass right downtown and … Print it! … Eighty-five percent of the f***in’ world is working. The other fifteen percent come out here.”
Elia was canned a few months after that.
Then comes the bargaining stage. The Cubs will promise to change. In comes a new general manager. In comes a big-time free agent. In comes a new philosophy. Look: The Cubs have had an astonishing ELEVEN Hall of Famers who played 250 or more games since 1946 — only the New York Yankees have had more. With so many good players, with such a huge fan base, with a great television deal, the Cubs HAVE to win at some point, right?
After bargaining comes depression — this shows up in the form of Cubs jokes. There’s such a thin line between comedy and tragedy:
“People always come up and ask me if the Cubs are going to win in their lifetime,” says Steve Stone, a former Cubs pitcher and broadcaster. “And I always give them the same answer: ‘How long are you planning on living?’”
“Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be Cubs fans,” George Will wrote.
“Any team can have a bad century,” former Cubs manager Tom Trebelhorn said.
“We came out of the dugout for opening day,” Cubs pitcher Moe Drabowsky remembered, and this was way back in the 1950s. “And we saw a fan holding a sign: ‘Wait ‘Til Next Year.'”
And at the end of all of these stages, of course, there’s acceptance. The best example of this might be the 1977 play “Bleacher Bums,” co-written by actor and lifelong Cubs fan Joe Mantegna. It is about a bunch of Cubs fans in the Wrigley Field bleachers talking about their lives and lamenting the Cubs’ losing. Again, they wrote that in 1977. It still plays.
“Reporters would ask me, ‘What’s going to happen when the Cubs win? How will the play work then?'” Mantegna says. “I told then, ‘Um, yeah, you know what? We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.'”
So, what stage is next? The Cubs are about to enter — let’s just say it — their most promising season since Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office. This is the year. This HAS to be the year. The Cubs are coming off a spectacular 97-win season that featured a fascinating array of kids — Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and so on — who should only get better. It also featured Jake Arrieta, who after June 21 pitched about as well as any pitcher in the history of baseball (basic numbers: 16-1, 0.86 ERA and the league hit .150 with two home runs).