It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. -- A. Bartlett Giamatti, "The Green Fields of the Mind"
Normally, I end my final game recap of a baseball season with Bart Giamatti's words, but this afternoon, as, perhaps not coincidentally, one of those fall chill rains is falling gently in Chicago, it seems more appropriate to begin with them. Let me attempt to put into words the stunning collapse of the team we just knew was going to be the one to win it all.
Usually, one of my game recaps includes a link to the boxscore of the game. Why bother? You all saw it, and you don't need me to tell you or remind you of the series' last game, which, although the score was closer, the Cubs didn't appear to be there, just as they barely showed up for games one and two. Neither did I read any of the local sports pages' articles or columns about the disaster -- and having heard that they were filled with remarks about goats and black cats and curses, I'm glad I didn't. To mention those, I think, is lame and weak and doesn't address the facts.
Which are: it is, even now, a sunrise later, hard to believe that the team we saw all summer, the one that put up the best record in the National League and the team that was, most likely, the best Cub team in three generations, looked like the Dusty Baker-led clown squad that stunk the joint out at the end of 2006. How does this happen? How does a team that looked so good for six months look so bad for three days? Even during their losing streaks of four (in June) and six (in August and September), they didn't look this bad.
Perhaps part of the answer can be found in this New York Times article, one I could read because it was more dispassionate, coming from a source outside of Chicago. Tyler Kepner, the writer, quotes Derrek Lee:
"No question, there’s a larger weight in Chicago," Lee said after the Cubs were swept from the playoffs for the second year in a row. "I hate to call it pressure, because it’s hard to put more pressure on us than we put on ourselves. But you can feel it in the city. They want it bad. It’s understandable. But it’s all about how you perform on the field."
And quotes Mark DeRosa:
"You read about it every day, the 100 years," DeRosa said. "You know about it. Every guy who signs here wants to be part of the team that gets it done. You look at what happened — if I turn a double play, it changes the complexion of Game 2. It’s one of those things; I don’t know. I’m just in shock that this is the end."
"Every guy who signs here wants to be part of the team that gets it done."
That, in one sentence, may be the biggest part of the problem. They put too much pressure on themselves; someone posted here the other day that the 2004 Red Sox, who finally broke that team's long drought (and they've now won twice and have a chance to do it again), called themselves "idiots" as if they didn't care about all the history -- and then they played like it, playing for the moment only, even as they had to win four straight elimination games to even make it to the World Series, then four more in a row to sweep it.
Maybe that's what future Cub teams have to do -- NOT care so much. Play loose, as the Dodgers did. The tightness in each Cub performance showed in pretty much every at-bat and pitch that happened after James Loney's grand slam, and to some extent even before. Don't blame the fans -- we have been here long before today's players were born, and will be here long after they are retired. "Cowboy Up", as those '04 Red Sox said, take the blame -- as Kerry Wood did in '03 -- and next year, get it done.
In the meantime, this feeling is different than 2003 or 2007. In '03, that team roared through September and its first nine postseason games, bringing us to the brink, but they were playing over their heads. Last year's elimination came so fast after a breathless chase to even get there, that we barely had time to be upset, much less angry.
This one makes me angry. This team was the one that was "different", that felt right, that set records and accomplished feats that hadn't been done in decades. And not only do they go out early, they go out with barely a whimper. Maybe what I wrote above has something to do with it, that they put too much pressure on themselves, and the weight of the 100 years does affect them on the field. Thinking about it intellectually, it shouldn't. But intellect and statistical prowess can't always stop things from gnawing into your head -- you surely know this in your own lives, and a professional athlete, highly trained though he may be, is a human being, subject to the same thoughts and feelings as the rest of us. And if you are thinking, "Hey, this was a great season with lots of great things to remember!" -- well, yes and no. Sure, there are a lot of 2008 games that will always carry wonderful memories for me, from Z's no-hitter to A-Ram's walkoff vs. the White Sox to Soto's 9th-inning tying HR to the division clincher.
But the 2008 season -- SEASON, not individual games -- was a failure.
Will I quit? Hell no; I'm a Cubs fan. That's how I grew up; if you're my age or older you have many of these shared disasters, now all of us have 2008. When last night's game ended I took off my division champions T-shirt, that I had been wearing for whatever luck or mojo it could contribute (sure, I know it can't really affect players 2000 miles away), but why not? -- and tossed it in the trash.
I'll recover it, of course. Anger will fade, as will the feelings of "it's NEVER gonna happen", to sarcastically paraphrase the sign that's been all over Wrigleyville the last couple of years. I don't really have the stomach to watch a lot of what's left of the postseason, though I may catch a game or three before it's over. In normal times I'd probably have deleted 2/3 of the posts all of you have made, but under the circumstances I'm leaving all of them; I figure you all need the catharsis (as one was titled) and to let out your emotions. It's way too early to talk about how to retool this team for '09 -- and yes, it does need changing, just as every team does, including whichever one is the last one standing this year -- but keep this in mind: what do you do to "retool" a team that blew through the regular season so easily, leading the league in virtually every important stat category? What do you add to it (or subtract from it) so that the team that does enough to get into the postseason is strong enough (physically and emotionally) to win eleven games in October?
I don't think any of us knows that answer. Hell, Jim Hendry probably doesn't know the answer, or he'd have done it and I wouldn't be writing these words today.
I have, sadly, a funeral to attend tomorrow (not for the team, though that'd be appropriate, too), and so I may be scarce for a couple of days. If any of you wishes to start a discussion thread for any of the remaining division series days, go ahead.
And keep the faith. We are Cubs fans. We hope, someday, that our turn will come, while we still inhabit the Earth.