Once again, Ex-Cubs Factor rears its ugly head

Mike Royko

October 16, 1991|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

IT WAS A YEAR AGO, almost to the day, that I was the target of widespread ridicule and derision. Oh, the hooting and jeering I endured.

That was the day, shortly before the World Series began, that the headline above my essay declared: "A's might as well throw in the towel."

As that headline indicated, I had written that the Oakland A's did not have the remotest chance of winning the series.

Some of my sportswriting associates and many readers thought it was the most idiotically funny thing they had ever seen.

Didn't I know, they asked, that the mighty A's were overwhelming, unbeatable, incomparable, and were creating a dynasty? They had won the previous World Series in four straight. They had just won their playoff series in four straight. They were like Desert Storm.

Or, in the words of Ben Bentley, host of the Sportswriters TV madhouse: "Could the A's be the greatest team in history?"

We all know what happened next. Not only did they lose, but they didn't win one game. They were crushed and humiliated, and they haven't been the same since.

So here we are, once again approaching the World Series. And once again I caution the experts: Don't sneer at a mysterious force that is so powerful it defies all odds, all logic, and can change the course of baseball history.

I'm referring, of course, to the amazing Ex-Cub Factor.

For those who may be unaware of it, the Ex-Cub Factor works this way:

Since 1946, 14 teams have entered the World Series with three or more former Cubs on their rosters.

As with Oakland last year, some of these teams were thought to be superior to their opponent. Others weren't that strong. But bulge of biceps, fleetness of foot, managerial cunning, experience, poise -- none of it mattered.

All but one of these Cubs-tainted teams lost.

That's what happened last year. The Oakland A's had three ex-Cubs. They lost in four straight games. One year earlier, when they had only two ex-Cubs, they won in four straight games. Strange, eerie and terrifying.

So what does that tell us will happen this year? It tells us that if the brawny and cocky Pittsburgh Pirates get past the upstart Atlanta Braves, the Pirates will be doomed.

That's because the Pirates, in an act of suicidal folly, put four ex-Cubs on their roster. No other team in the playoffs has the curse of even three.

You would think that by now, no team would defy the Ex-Cub Factor. It hasn't been a secret.

It was discovered in 1981 by a Ron Berler, a Chicago writer, teacher and baseball stats nut. He sounded the alarm, but did the experts listen? No, they sneered and said it had no scientific validity; it was just a silly, meaningless coincidence.

That's what they said when the Boston Red Sox had certain victory within their grasp. Then Bill Buckner, one of their three ex-Cubs, let that fatal ground ball dribble it all away.

And that's what they said before the unbeatable Oakland A's, with their four ex-Cubs, turned to mush.

Naturally, the ex-Cubs become indignant when it is suggested that they might be responsible for disaster.

A reporter mentioned the Factor to Gary Varsho, one of the four ex-Cubs on the Pirates. He dismissed it, saying: "No one around here brings it up or thinks about it."

Naturally, he'd say that. If managers ever come to accept the virtual certainty of the Factor, no ex-Cub would be able to find work. They might have to file discrimination complaints with the federal government. But even the bureaucrats might hesitate to take action when they looked at the evidence.

Nobody knows why the Cub factor is so devastating. It isn't that the ex-Cubs are terrible players. Some are remarkably good, such as Dennis Eckersley, of the A's, who became a big star after he left the Cubs.

Some students of the game believe that having once been Cubs gives players something called "Cubness," which means that in their hearts they know they're losers.

But this theory doesn't hold up. If a team has only one or two ex-Cubs, their Cubness doesn't appear. Which is why Toronto, with mighty Joe Carter, an ex-Cub, isn't afflicted. Only when there are three does the Factor kick in.

Which has led some scholars, such as Dr. I.M. Kookie, the noted expert on lots of stuff, to theorize that it is not a curse, but a virus that becomes active only when there are three carriers in the same dugout.

If this is true, one would think that the government would have launched a research program to isolate this virus and find a cure.

But as Dr. Kookie says: "There would be a taxpayers' revolt. With all the other problems in the world, why spend good money to find out why Cubs are losers? It's something we have to live with. Like the new old saying goes: 'Two Cubs are company, three's a complete disaster.' "

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