When the sun set on the Chicago Cubs season last week in a Wrigley Field blowout at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers, I searched the past to find the future.
After three consecutive appearances in the National League Championship Series — after three total since the round was added in 1969 — it became clear Cubs fans need to look no further than their own city’s history to see one of three paths for the suddenly proud franchise.
My first baseball memories are the 1984 Cubs collapsing against the Padres, but in terms of clarity and recall, they pale with the 1985 Super Bowl Bears. Saying something took the nation by storm is a trite cliché now, but the swagger of the “Super Bowl Shuffle” paired with a 15-1 regular season, two playoff shutouts and a memorable 46-10 thumping of New England in Super Bowl XX remain a touchpoint in American sports and pop culture history.
But the Bears famously never won another title with the core of that roster, despite several other trips to the postseason. As great as that one season might have been, the franchise is remembered for underachieving. That’s one possibility for the Cubs: from turning Grant Park into a sea of blue and turns on “Saturday Night Live” and “Dancing With the Stars” to fans wondering “what might have been?”
A Chicago Bears fan of the 1980s almost certainly became a disciple of the 1990s Michael Jordan Bulls. Two consecutive three-peats, an unprecedented 72-win season and rock star status — millions of us simply knew we were watching basketball’s Babe Ruth at his peak. (And take nothing away from Scottie Pippen’s contributions.) You can’t win three in a row without back-to-back trophies, but the Cubs’ young offensive core makes this outcome a possibility, or at least the fantasy of never losing in the final round.
As bad as the Cubs were for so many years, there were glimmers of hope along the way. The same was even more difficult to say for the once-moribund Chicago Blackhawks, who somehow paired the rock solid Jonathan Toews with the flashy Patrick Kane (and a lot of other talent, but this ain’t a hockey column) to win the elusive Stanley Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015, an impressive stretch of dominance in the game’s salary cap era that delivered plenty of heart-stopping drama.
After waiting 108 years for the team’s third trophy, Cubs fans would be insane to expect or even demand three parades in six seasons. But it can be done, especially if Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are a Jordan/Pippen or Toews/Kane pairing.
To draw comparisons strictly to baseball’s past, the Cubs can look to the best-case scenario of the 1990s Yankees: a trophy in 1996, a year off and then three straight wins before narrowly losing the 2001 Series. Or the recent iterations of the Red Sox and Giants, each of which banged out three championship seasons inside a decade. With those options in sight it’s seemingly a downgrade to settle on the 1990s and 2000s Braves, who have only the 1995 trophy despite never missing the playoffs between 1991 and 2005.
As a fan of the sport at large, I’m actually excited to see the Dodgers and Astros square off in the World Series. Both teams have stacked rosters with young stars and a few seasoned veterans, elite pitching, stellar defense and hungry fans. Either Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander are ending this series with a legacy-cementing ring, but MLB will benefit if the many stars involved get a true chance to shine.
Like the Cubs, the Dodgers and Astros should be favored to win their divisions in 2018 as well, but the fact it’s an outlier to have two 100-win teams facing off in the Fall Classic is proof enough that no team gets this far on talent alone.
The Cubs’ braintrust wisely educated fans about the vagaries of October and stressing the importance of building a contender to get as many playoff chances as possible and accepting there’s only so much that can be controlled, and any championship will involve a degree of luck.
We’ll always have 2016 — but we’ll always crave another winner.