Cubs are goats once again

October 04, 2008|By PETER SCHMUCK | PETER SCHMUCK,peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

It has been 63 years since local tavern owner William Sianis and his pet billy goat were asked to leave Wrigley Field during the last World Series to grace its Friendly Confines, but the legend it spawned refuses to die.

The "Curse of the Billy Goat" is as much a part of Chicago Cubs history as Tinker to Evers to Chance, the double-play combination that played such a large part in the most recent Cubs world championship, which - at last count - was exactly 100 years ago. The Cubs have not been back in the Fall Classic since owner Philip Wrigley ordered the smelly goat out of the field level in 1945 and its master decreed they would never win another National League pennant.

Now, no one seriously believes that a disgruntled and long-dead farm animal is making the ball bounce funny in the playoffs this year, but the ball is bouncing funny again anyway, and you have to wonder just what the Cubs and their fans have done over the past century to deserve the longest title drought in baseball history. Even discouraged Orioles fans have to admit nothing they have gone through over the past 11 years compares to that.

The curse was ceremoniously lifted on several occasions by Sianis before he died in 1970 and more recently by his nephew Sam, but the misfortune marches on. The Cubs squandered that big NL East lead to the Amazing Mets in 1969 and blew a two-game advantage in the best-of-five NL Championship Series against the San Diego Padres in 1984. And, of course, nothing quite compares to the deflected foul ball in the 2003 NLCS that turned generic Cubs fan Steve Bartman into the symbol of all that has befallen the beleaguered franchise.

Which brings us into the Lou Piniella era, which already has featured one unsuccessful playoff appearance and is about to feature another. The Cubs were swept by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Division Series last year and came up winless in the first two games of the 2008 Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Wrigley Field.

Nothing terribly supernatural about that, but the Cubs had the best regular-season record in the NL this year and had dominated the Dodgers (5-2) in head-to-head competition. They also figured to have a little numerological karma stored up because it has been exactly a century since their last world title.

Instead, here are the only numbers that matter: The Cubs are down 0-2 in the best-of-five series after two home games, and only one other team has ever gotten out of that hole to reach the League Championship Series since the three-tiered playoff system debuted in 1995. That was the 2001 Yankees team that rallied to beat the Oakland Athletics. The manager of that team now manages the Dodgers, and Joe Torre is hoping for a little karmic payback of his own after being forced out of the Bronx after 12 straight playoff appearances. The Yankees, you might have noticed, are nowhere to be seen in the postseason for the first time since before Torre showed up there.

Piniella has to be wondering what's going on. His most dependable pitcher at Wrigley Field (Ryan Dempster) couldn't find the strike zone in Game 1, and his entire infield came unglued Thursday. All four Cubs infielders made an error as the Dodgers pounded out a 10-3 victory in Game 2.

"The last two days, that's probably been the two worst games we've played all year, from a walking and errors standpoint," Piniella said afterward. "It wasn't fun to watch, I'll tell you that."

It wasn't much fun for the two sellout crowds in baseball's version of the Heartbreak Hotel. There are a lot of Cubs fans who believe in the curse, and it's hard to blame them, but it's more likely the weight of their outsized expectations this season combined with the heaviness of 100 years of history to ramp the pressure up too high at Wrigley.

The odds are stacked against them going into Game 3 tonight at Dodger Stadium, but it's still possible destiny isn't done with them.

If they are looking for an inspirational precedent with some interesting human interest tie-ins, they might want to go back to 2004, when the Boston Red Sox were down 0-3 in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series against the Yankees.

The Red Sox also had a little history to get out from under and staged an unprecedented comeback to defeat another team managed by Torre before sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series to break the Curse of the Bambino.

But Manny Ramirez was the main man on that team and now has teamed with Torre to push the Cubs to the edge of another quick exit from the playoffs.

Don't think you can blame it on the goat, but the Cubs and their fans have a right to wonder whether somebody up there doesn't like them.

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon most Saturdays and Sundays.

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