As the team of my youth, flush with league-leading, "it's gonna happen" success, meets my team of today, which is bringing to mind another kind of flushing, I'm hearing from a lot of my old Cub friends and thinking back on my old team, why I dropped them, and why I'm now an unblinking Nationals partisan, even this weekend.
I grew up near Chicago and, like all long-suffering Cubs fans, I adored Ryno, Gracie, Bull Durham, and the Hawk, cursed Steve Garvey and the goat, and when all else failed (and it usually did), Wrigley Field was always a great place to have a beer and meet girls. But by 2005, I was not just wooed by the Nationals--I was ready for a change.
First, it always bugged me as a fan how the Cubs are owned by the same corporation that owns virtually all the media that covers the team. The Tribune Company, owners of the Chicago Tribune as well as WGN TV and radio, who broadcast the Cubs and are huge media outlets in Chicago, has owned the team since 1981.
My feeling was that the media coverage was always overly forgiving, which I don't think is a coincidence. This was a team that for years was consistently terrible on the fundamentals, had a perennially barren farm system, bad managers, and all sorts of other problems that shouldn't be tolerated.
But the tone of the coverage was always epitomized by Harry Caray and Ron Santo--shameless homers both. The apologias and homerdom went on all day long on high-ratings shows on 720 AM like Bob Collins and Spike O'Dell. When the team deserved to be criticized, the focus on TV, radio, and even print always seemed to shift to talk of curses, the supposed greatness of the team's tradition, pretty Wrigley, the greatest fans, blah, blah, blah. (That's when Harry wasn't slurring total nonsense like how to pronounce "Sandberg" backwards or going on and on and on about how much Ron Santo deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. He doesn't.)
It just seemed to me that in the modern media environment the Cubs couldn't get away with their "lovable loser" schtick if they didn't have a willing accomplice on the media side.
Don't get me wrong. I'd trade Boswell, Harlan, Carpenter, Loverro, Knight, and the whole lot of them just to get Steve Stone in our booth. I'm not comparing the two teams. I'm just thinking about my feelings as a then-Cubs fan.
It certainly seems that since 2003 at least the Tribune Company has realized that they can really boost the value of their property by hiring some competent leadership and investing in a winner. They've done a lot of really good things in recent years, and not just spend on free agency. Some of their best players are home-grown--Zambrano, Soto, Wood. You also have to credit them that they had the prospects to do things like pry Harden away from the A's. Derek Lee and Aramis Ramirez were great, great trades, and smart re-signings. They're mostly an 2004 BoSox-style goliath trying to buy a championship, but not totally.
And with all the money they've spent, they've gotten value, which is far from guaranteed. You could do a lot worse dollar-for-dollar (ahem--Lo Duca, Estrada, Meat) than what they've gotten from FAs like Ted Lilly, Bobby Howry, and Mark DeRosa. Even Fukudome--he's been a disappointment, but he's no Andruw Jones. Soriano I think will haunt them, but even there if you're going to take on an albatross of a salary to win now even though the guy will probably be out of baseball by the end of the contract... I'd rather take ARod but that wasn't really the choice.
But still for me when the Nationals came to DC and started playing 6 blocks from my house in 2005, it was all too easy to trade in my Cubbie blue for good. The team had just become too unlikable to me. The underdog thing felt too contrived--at the time it felt like they were marketing that image to help sell a sub-standard product. Then there was Sosa and the steroids. And 2003 was a truly enervating, as the team's failure on the field once again became a silly exercise in curse-blaming. So when the Nationals came, I was kind of looking for an excuse to stop rooting for the Cubs anyway.
Of course, my ever-superstitious Cubbie friends warned me that my disloyalty would be punished in bad sports karma. And I'll be damned if it doesn't feel that way now watching Ronnie Belliard play first base. But not even one part of me is tempted to switch sides now. So maybe I'm earning back some good vibes that will pay off some time soon.
But I do wish the Cubs well (when they aren't playing us). If nothing else, my friends back home deserve their moment in the sun. And then they'll probably become as obnoxious and act as entitled as Red Sox fans are today, but till then, I wouldn't mind seeing the Cubs finally turn the trick and win it all. I'd rather see that then another expansion team or the NYY-BOS axis of evil.
That said, if the Schlubber-Lovers give you any lip, just ask them how many World Series championships they've won since 1924. We're up 1-0, and we didn't even exist for 30 years of that time.