Curses and commitment go together. You can’t feel damned until you first become devoted.
In the past 15 years, the World Series often has felt like an exorcism for haunted teams. But it also has cast a flattering light on the fidelity of fans in those towns and their defiant bond to “get through this together,” even if the travail is as preposterous as an 88-year wait between world titles for the Chicago White Sox (2005) or 86 years for the Boston Red Sox (2004).
In 2010, the San Francisco Giants won for the first time since 1954, when they still played in the Polo Grounds. The 2008 Phillies’ title was just the team’s second since its inception in 1883. The Angels, despite a 41-year wait, didn’t win their first title until after doting owner Gene Autry had died at 91, still waiting for a ring. Last year’s champion Royals almost seemed like pikers for mentioning they hadn’t even been in the playoffs for 30 years until 2014. Yet the joyous parades in those towns made clear the wait was worthwhile.
Nothing speaks better for the long-suffering fan than his or her very long-suffering-ness. So many disappointments and pains in life cannot be avoided. Yet for 108 years on the north side of Chicago and for 68 years in Cleveland, sensible people have stood directly in the path of an experience that, repeatedly, has left them frustrated, angry or even in tears.
All sports have this phenomenon, and at times entire cities, too, such as Cleveland until the Cavaliers won the NBA crown five months ago. But baseball is the sport most suited to Biblical plagues of defeat with its big league history dating from 1871, plus the poor manners of the Yankees to win more than a third of all the World Series from 1923 to 2000.
But of all the seasons in all of America’s sports, this World Series already takes the prize for total perseverance. You can’t find any two teams and towns that waited so long for the same prize quite like these two.
This fan phenomenon — sometimes spanning more than an entire lifetime, still unrequited — seems remarkably stalwart, downright dignified and all the more worthy in light of its undeniable frivolousness. What a weird, wonderful virtue we’ve invented, woven out of pure smoke. Millions of people across generations refuse to swear off their loyalty to sports teams to which they are bound by absolutely nothing that is financial, legal or even tangible.
They stick. They persevere. They may cite motives rooted in some personal link to family, friends or even locale. But here’s what’s seldom said: No matter whether great-grandma adored Hack Wilson or grandpa rooted for Ernie Banks, or some uncle still thinks “Leon Durham” is a curse word, every one of them simply could let go of this passion for a uniform and whoever may happen to be wearing it this season. They could find some other place to invest their time and money, seek camaraderie and fun, rather than a familiar ballpark or stadium. No one keeps us from renouncing them. But who leaves a symphony hall, teeth clenched, muttering, “We’ll get that damn New York Philharmonic next year.”
On Saturday night walking up Waveland Avenue beyond the Wrigley Field bleachers, catching the Red Line back to the Loop, I was surrounded by people in Blue who were no longer blue. They spotted the Los Angeles Dodgers team buses rolling out and began singing, “Nah-nah-nah-nah, hey-hey-hey, GOOD-BYE.” They were especially glad to see the last of Clayton Curse-shaw.
You can’t get enough of these places, even if some of them — such as Wrigleyville or “Believeland” — aren’t actually on any map. Merry mobs temporarily leave their differences and cynicism behind and crunch together in commonality. On the El train in their Cubs-color-coordinated code of goofy honor, they laughed and sang, no doubt aided by being a few sheets to the wind.
The Cubs’ Ben Zobrist was a Royal last October, but because he was born in Eureka, Ill., he knows the emotional gap between 30 years and 108.
“It’s hard to put this into words, there has been so much emotion over the years from this fan base,” Zobrist told reporters. “It’s not just Chicago. It’s not just Illinois. It’s all over the country.
“I know they’re watching all over the country and all over the world. What a special moment. We’ve been wanting to do this for the fans all year long, and now that we’ve accomplished the National League championship, it’s time to move on to bigger things. The ultimate goal is still out in front of us.”
Of course, that same goal is in front of the Indians, too. And they have a unique advantage. When your town hasn’t won a World Series since 1948, how can you not be the sentimental favorite? Yet Cleveland isn’t. For decades, the lovable loser Cubs got the love and celebrity fans while the Indians, who actually went to the 1995 and 1997 World Series , have movies made about their ineptitude, followed by sequels. The Cubs are darlings with a national fan base. The Indians, in economically strapped Cleveland, draw fewer than 20,000 per game , third worst in the sport. The Tribe, their starting pitching rotation decimated, are serious Vegas underdogs while also resenting that their town’s misfortunes take only second place.
With all this against Cleveland, you might think they have little chance. But before the Tribe despairs, they should look back at their own team in ’95 that had a 100-44 record — a far better .694 winning percentage than the current Cubs (.640). Yet the ’95 Indians lost in six games, largely because their foe (Atlanta) capitalized on their one clear advantage: home field. The Braves won Games 1 and 2 , each by one run, ensuring that they would return to their own park. Then, when they got back home, the mighty Indians’ lineup was tied in anxious knots by pressure and fine Braves pitching.
How could a Cleveland lineup with Jim Thome (.314 batting average), Albert Belle (.317), Manny Ramirez (.308), Eddie Murray (.323), Kenny Lofton (.310), Carlos Baerga (.314) and Sandy Alomar (.300) — a lineup the current Cubs can’t touch — possibly lose? But it did, 1-0, in Game 6. The Cubs may romp this week. But like the ’95 Tribe, they’ve had just a couple of pressure games all season while this year’s Cleveland club has been Team Adversity and believes, as such teams do, that it has silly magic powers.
Here, perhaps, is what actually carries most weight, because it speaks so well of so many people, including plenty in pretty-long-suffering Washington. Whichever team wins, that city will have its parade. But the fans of the losers will, in the way of their breed, find a different kind of victory. Much as they would have preferred to be drunk on joy, they’ll share their frustration, rewind memories of their fine season, commiserate, support each other and, in yet another season without a title, show much of what is most resilient, most loyal and most generous in themselves. And they’ll show it to each other.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.