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On Sentimentality, The Cubs, And Baseball

Ryne Sandberg won't be managing the Cubs in 2012.

For some, this has produced a lot of teeth-gnashing. I received an email from a friend last night, after the news of Mike Quade being fired had broken, reading simply "Bring on Ryno!" (This friend had clearly not heard the "Sandberg isn't being considered" news.)

Let me make this clear: though I felt Sandberg was qualified to be manager and my personal choice, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer didn't. And since I believe they are the right men to lead the Cubs to perennial contention and a World Series title, I'm going to trust them to make the right selection, whoever it may be. (I don't think we're going to have to wait too long, either; Theo & Co. have moved quickly -- we could know by next week.)

There was no room for sentimentality here; if you thought Sandberg was the right hire for sentimental reasons, I respectfully suggest that's the wrong tack to take. Sandberg did have qualifications for the job, but the thought that he should have been hired just because he's popular isn't the right one.

Just as wrong, I believe, is the idea that no former Cub should ever be considered for a return to the team, or that sentimentality has no place in baseball. For example, Greg Maddux returned to the Cubs in 2004, and posted a solid year as a fourth starter -- it wasn't his fault that the 2004 Cubs collapsed. Getting the right guy for the right situation is the important thing -- not which team he did or didn't play for. I have friends who think the Cubs should never trade for or acquire a former White Sox or Cardinals player unless "there's a team or two in between" because those players are "tainted". Ridiculous -- if a player from those teams can help the Cubs win, go get him. The same applies to a former Cub who's moved on -- if bringing him back can help the Cubs win, go get him, too.

However, I believe it is also wrong to dismiss all of Cubs history just because the team hasn't made the World Series in 66 years or won it in 103. Failing to win championships doesn't mean the Cubs don't have players or games or seasons worth remembering. Those of us who lived through the 1969 failure love those players to this day. Sure, they didn't win -- but they did provide us with thrilling games and Hall of Fame worthy performances. Why shouldn't we remember them fondly?

If we didn't have sentimentality, we wouldn't have FanPosts like this recent one where people described their favorite Cubs game -- many of the descriptions involving being there with family members when the Cubs won a key game in a pennant race, or just a thrilling comeback. These are the reasons we love this game. It builds on emotions. All of us, I believe, have favorite players to watch even as we "root for laundry", as some unemotionally put it. It's why we wanted [name redacted] to do well for the Cubs even though most of us thought he was a miserable human being. That doesn't mean we have to keep Aramis Ramirez because we like him; current management has decreed that he's too pricey to help the 2012 Cubs. And that's fine. Sometimes you just have to move on.

It's why some of us are fine with changes made to Wrigley Field even though we love the place as it is. It is part of the narrative that weaves together Cubs history and all of us as fans of the team. The ballpark, the players, management, ownership, all of us as fans -- that is what comprises "Cubs culture". It doesn't mean that culture doesn't need to be changed to include "winning", but if we deny all the history, we might as well be an expansion team and completely start from scratch. I don't want that and I don't think most of you do, either.

So, I believe we should embrace the past while acknowledging that a return to it isn't necessarily helpful in building winning. Theo Epstein acknowledged that history in his introductory news conference. I have no doubt that he and Jed Hoyer will make the right decisions going forward, but at the same time they both understand that all of us have been waiting a very long time for what they produced in a short while in Boston.

Some of this was expressed quite well in this New York Times column, which was about what might happen to the Rangers franchise had they won the World Series. Ross Douthat (usually a political columnist, but there's no politics in this one) wrote:

The pre-2010s Rangers never inspired much passion from the Texas faithful not because they never won, but because they never broke any hearts. They were just lousy-to-mediocre, year after year and decade after decade, with none of the near-misses and epic disasters that bind suffering sports fans to their star-crossed teams. Their five decades of existence resembled the Red Sox in the years between 1918 and 1967, the first half of the Curse of the Bambino era, when the Sox were routinely lousy — the nice run from 1946 through 1949 excepted — without inspiring the kind of suicide cult-like devotion that their fans would later become known for. It was only when the Red Sox started falling just short regularly and heartrendingly (in ’67 and ’72 and ’74 and ’75, then worst of all in ’78 and ’86, and then on through ’88 and ’90 and ’95 and ’98 and ’99 and into the 2000s) that the Boston fandom as we knew it, doom-laden and devoted, truly came into being.

What he's saying is that Rangers fans now have the heartbreak of a Red Sox-like collapse and choke, just as we as Cubs fans have 1969, 1984, 2003, 2008. It's the memories of those failures that will make success here that much sweeter when it does happen.

Acknowledge the past without getting sucked into it, I think, is the message here. Understand the Cubs' history and know that it makes us who we are.

And onward to victory.