I was awakened yesterday morning by a phone call from my editor who was taunting me about a column I had written on July 22, a piece in which I had declared the Chicago Cubs dead and the Boston Red Sox, then eight games behind the New York Yankees, on life support. My editor pointed out that the Red Sox have been on a spectacular roll ever since I filed that column, that they have taken control of the American League wild-card race and might just catch the Yankees to win the division. And that despite all the Cubs' early-season injuries, they are only a half game behind the Giants for the wild-card spot in the National League.
He suggested that in the interest of fairness I revisit my position, take another look at my assertion that both the Cubs and Red Sox are cursed by the weight of great expectations.
So I did just that. I've looked at everything that's happened since July 22. I've looked at the fact that the Red Sox have gone 35-13, a .729 winning percentage. I've considered that three of their starting pitchers -- Derek Lowe, Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez -- have been almost unbeatable for the last seven weeks. I've even considered that my colleague Thomas Boswell, one of the great students of baseball the past 30 years, feels the Cubs have the best talent in baseball and he thinks they'll start to pull away any day now and win the NL wild card.
And after considering all this new evidence, I've come to the same old conclusion:
They're both cursed, and neither is going to the World Series.
Sorry, Boz, but we've been waiting on the Cubs all season and the fact is their knees and backs have buckled under the weight of expectations. In fact, they are the most infuriating kind of team: one loaded with talent that does stupid things on a regular basis. These Cubs aren't even lovable. They argue with the official scorer over judgment calls, they whine about the local broadcasters calling the games, they swing for the fences against gale-force winds when a grounder the opposite way will win the game. The Cubs were playing .532 baseball (50-44) on July 22 when I wrote they were going down, and they've played .583 baseball (28-20) since then -- not exactly the kind of dramatic improvement I was hoping for as a Cubs fan.
This is a team that has so dramatically under-performed that the player brought in to be the number four starter -- old man Greg Maddux -- is leading the staff of young studs in victories. It's a team so undisciplined -- and for that Manager Dusty Baker ought to be accountable -- that young Carlos Zambrano pointed and shouted at Jim Edmonds as Edmonds rounded the bases after hitting a home run off Zambrano.
The Cubs, given their lineup and pitching staff, are unspeakably disappointing.
And they certainly don't appear to have any of the fortitude the Red Sox have.
I'll admit that it is increasingly difficult to stick to my story that the Red Sox are going to ultimately backslide into being the same old Red Sox. There's nothing whatsoever disappointing about their season so far. They've responded to every challenge thrown out there by the Yankees. In fact, we can probably trace the Red Sox' summer launch to July 24, when Bill Mueller hit a walk-off home run to beat the Yankees on a night Alex Rodriguez tried to chump Sox catcher Jason Varitek, who stood right up to A-Rod and threw the punches that started a big brawl. (All the Cubs' pitchers do is throw at batters, particularly those of the far superior and classier Cardinals, then fold up like a card table chair.) The Sawx didn't just beat the Yanks that night, they beat Mariano Rivera. And who else has beaten The Hammer of God this season? The correct answer is, uh, nobody. The Sawx and only the Sawx.
The Red Sox have shown guts and played with smarts night after night for nearly two months. When it appeared a leaky defense was going to kill the season, they put Orlando Cabrera at shortstop, Dave Roberts in right and Doug Mientkiewicz at first and stopped giving up all those unearned runs. The Red Sox are 11-0 when Roberts starts in right field. And trading Nomar Garciaparra might be not just a stroke of genius, but ultimately the antidote to The Curse. Seriously, usually the Red Sox are too busy collecting stars; this time they dealt a guy having no season to speak of to -- the Cubs! It's like sending a virus to somebody else's computer. They dumped off their curse on a team already cursed. (Does that, by the way, negate the Cubs' own curse?) But here's my problem with this masterful stretch of baseball the Red Sox have put together:
It came too early.
The Red Sox have been so hot for so long they've stirred those preseason expectations all over New England once again. The Yankees, particularly their starting pitching, look so ready to pounce on in October -- maybe even this weekend in New York, when these two begin a three-game series at the Stadium. And you know what happens when the Sox face real expectation, don't you? Knees buckle. Backs give out. Same as the Cubs.
The Red Sox needed to be 10 back of the Yankees, get hot right about now, and win 15 of their final 20 to take the wild-card spot, then come into October with a free-swinging, underdog, what-have-we-got-to-lose approach that might have been sustainable for a month. They needed to sneak up on October, not have this running start right out there in the open. They're supposed to play this perfectly for another six weeks? Who do they think they are, the Patriots?
The Red Sox, at the very least, will be in the playoffs. The Cubs probably won't get there, even though the schedules (of the Astros, Giants, Marlins and Padres) favor them in these final 21/2 weeks. It's not that they can't get hot. They took the wild-card lead a couple of weeks ago and looked to be in good shape, only to lose three of six games to Montreal. How can you think about competing with the Cardinals and Yankees in October if you can't beat a homeless team with the worst record in the league in September?
It was pretty painful this week for Cubs fans to look to the South Side of Chicago and see a World Series champion playing home games in town for the first time since 1918. No, I'm not talking about the White Sox; I'm talking about the Florida Marlins, chased from Miami by hurricanes and forced to play "home games" 1,500 miles away. Perhaps Cubs fans should have gobbled up those tickets because it'll probably be as close as we come to seeing a championship team call Chicago home for the foreseeable future.