Sports Nut

The Cubs Savior

Chicago fans wait for their messiah. And wait, and wait …

Derrek Lee. Click image to expand.
Derrek Lee

After Derrek Lee broke his wrist in April, the Chicago Cubs proceeded to lose games in ways that only Charlie Brown could appreciate. After May and June’s cartoonish ineptness—the ball bouncing off the third baseman’s head, Neifi Perez bunting for the final out with two men on—the Cubs have fallen to 20 games under .500. The team is now on track for their worst season since Adolfo Phillips roamed the outfield. But the shame Cubs fans feel in watching their team fall apart is counterbalanced by the pleasure they take indulging in a favorite pastime: waiting for the team’s best player to return.

This is a Cubs tradition as hallowed as creeping ivy and underperforming center fielders. Call it the phenomenon of the Cubs Savior. Every year Cubs fans seem to pin their hopes on one guy—Derrek Lee, Kerry Wood, Sammy Sosa, Ryne Sandberg, Ernie Banks—whose extraordinary talents, they hope, will offset the other players’ mediocrity. As waiting games go, this one has been astoundingly futile—the Cubs Savior is less reliable than Godot. But when a team’s been aimlessly wandering for 100 years, its fans can be forgiven for seeking some Moses to lead them out of the second division.

Cubs fans are uniquely ready to accept this kind of desperate logic. The Cubs have rarely had more than one or two really good players at a time. The Cubs have also never really had a defining team persona, like the Big Red Machine or Go Go White Sox—it’s always just Ernie Banks (or whoever the “man” is that year) and a bunch of other stiffs. The one iconic Cubs team, the 1969 Banks-Santo-Williams squad, is best known for choking down the stretch and ceding first place to the Miracle Mets.

Banks, the relentlessly cheerful “Mr. Cub,” was the face of a dismal franchise in the 1950s and 1960s, hitting 512 home runs in the service of teams that only finished above third place twice in 19 years. Ron Santo and Billy Williams took the team through the mid-’70s. After that there was a long fallow period, notable mainly for producing baseball’s all-time best managerial tirade.Sandberg emerged in the mid-’80s, carrying the team for years except when he shared the spotlight with Andre Dawson. The Cubs thought Dawson would give the lineup some punch. He hit 49 homers and won the MVP; the Cubs finished in last place. In the mid-’90s, as Sandberg started to decline, the Sammy Sosa Experience—all chest taps and Flintstones vitamins—started banging its way around the National League.

But the messiah complex didn’t get really bad until 2003. Blame it on Dusty Baker—Cubs fans blame everything else on him anyway. Baker was arguably the Cubs’ biggest free-agent acquisition in 15 years. Before he came to Chicago, many called him the best manager in baseball. When the Cubs went straight to the playoffs that year, the credit went to their big-game manager. Baker’s single-season success validated the concept that, while teamwork still won games, highly competent individuals turned teams into champions.

And so in the last few years, Cubs fans have put their faith in a string of would-be baseball Jesuses, all of whom failed in their attempts to turn Gatorade into wine. In 2004, Sammy Sosa was supposed to recover from his back spasms and slug the Cubs back into the playoffs—never happened. Meanwhile, everyone waited for Kerry Wood and Mark Prior to get healthy. 2005 was supposed to be the year that Corey Patterson put it all together and became a 30/30 man. Patterson hit his mark: 34 RBIs and 34 fans who didn’t hate him by season’s end. Meanwhile, everyone waited for Kerry Wood and Mark Prior to get healthy.

Fans can be excused for putting great expectations on players—it would be weird if they started fawning over journeymen like John Mabry. But it’s inexcusable when management falls for the same delusions as fickle fans. Cubs GM Jim Hendry seems to have embraced the savior concept as much as anyone, surrounding his few stars with aging players, injury reclamations, and rookies from a farm system that isn’t as good as everyone thought it was. One can’t blame the Cubs’ collapse entirely on the team’s savior complex—nobody expected Aramis Ramirez to stop hitting, for one thing. But Mark Prior is brittle, Greg Maddux is old, and Kerry Wood’s career might be over. By putting his faith in these false idols, Hendry has ensured that it really will take a miracle for the Cubs to contend again.

It takes more than one or two really good guys to build a consistent winner. Successful teams either spend the money necessary to sign a stable of reliable superstars (the Steinbrenner Thesis) or construct deep, versatile rosters that can hit situationally, get on base, and keep the ball in the park. If the Yankees had built their late-’90s teams around Derek Jeter and a revolving cast of journeymen like Randall Simon, Jeromy Burnitz, and Todd Walker, then they wouldn’t have won very many championships.

Embarrassingly enough for the Cubs, some of the best examples of team-building come from their biggest rivals. Take the perennially contending Cardinals. When Albert Pujols got injured earlier this year, the Cards compensated thanks to a deep bench and played nearly .500 ball until Pujols returned. Or take the White Sox. After winning the World Series, they bolstered their already potent lineup by signing Jim Thome. The Cubs, on the other hand, signed Jacque Jones and gave Neifi Perez a multiyear contract, violating the golden rule of baseball management: Don’t give Neifi Perez any contract. This would all be OK, though, because they had Derrek Lee. Whoops …

Thankfully, there’ve been signs that, like an Amish kid during rumspringa, Cubs fans might be questioning their faith. In years past, the most popular unofficial T-shirts at Wrigley have been hagiographic togs bearing slogans like “We Got Wood” and “In Dusty We Trusty.” This year’s big seller depicts Cubs catcher Michael Barrett slugging the White Sox’s A.J. Pierzynski in the face. Are rage and bitterness displacing faith and belief in the hearts of Cubs fans? Sounds like the work of the Cubs Antichrist.