A clean slate

There have been curses and jinxes. Black cats, billy goats and Bartman.

Teams that had enough talent to win it all, and teams that had no talent at all. Long-suffering fans who have faithfully stood by the franchise every step of the way.

Most of us know the precarious history of the Chicago Cubs by heart. They’ve played the role of incapable winner, lovable loser and everything in between. And the longer you live as a baseball fan, the more impossible the storylines seem to become.

I grew up in Michigan, forever loyal to the Detroit Tigers. Back in the ’80s, though, it was the Cubs – with Harry Caray and Steve Stone on WGN – who dominated basic cable. With baseball in my blood from birth, I watched regularly. To a certain extent, I still do.

My memory first turns to the Sutcliffe and Sandberg team in ’84 that won 96 games. The ’89 squad had Grace, Maddux, Dunston and two up-and-comers in Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith. They were 93-69. Sosa’s home runs, Wood’s whiffs and the wild-card run in ’98. The memorable “five more outs” ballclub of 2003. Division champions in ’07 and ’08.

Of course, there were plenty of clunkers in between. But the moral of the story: the Cubs have been on the doorstep numerous times. And many of us are able to recall the players, the teams and even the games or outs like it all happened yesterday. The oh-so-close scenarios of the past are grating enough for me to recite, and I don’t even have a vested interest.

So why could this particular team be different? Because the aforementioned scars mean nothing to them. The painful moments, collapses and superstitions are basically just tall tales in 2015. Think about this: Anthony Rizzo was 14 years old when Steve Bartman notoriously plucked the ball away from Moises Alou and purportedly started the Cubs’ downward spiral in the ’03 NLCS. Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant were 11. Kyle Schwarber was 10.

Even when the Cubs lost 197 games between 2012 and ’13 as the “rock bottom” in Theo Epstein’s rebuilding process, very few current players had to actually live through it. How many holdovers are there from those teams? Four: Rizzo, infielder Starlin Castro, and middle relievers Travis Wood and James Russell. That’s it.

I wrote a column in December touting Epstein’s decision to blend blue-chip prospects with hardened veterans and tying it all together with the hire of Joe Maddon, one of the best minds in the game. It’s a formula that has a strong, under-the-radar track record in Major League Baseball: mixing young talent before they hit it big financially with older players who have been around the block, then leaning on the leadership of a patient, grizzled manager. In the end, for different reasons, they all have something to prove. And that can be a beautiful thing to watch.

These Cubs are supposed to be too young and not quite ready for the pressures of playoff baseball. But maybe the glaring weaknesses are actually their biggest strengths. They have no ties to the past, and no promises for the future. Only each other, in this moment.

It is impossible to predict what will happen in the National League Championship Series, or even – dare I say – beyond. We do know this group will continue to be wildly entertaining, and they’re either going to hoist the trophy or go down swinging for the fences in the weeks to come.

The Cubs are playing free and easy, having fun and giving their all for the city of Chicago in the here and now. The goal isn’t to exorcise demons or erase generations of frustration and misfortune, but rather, write their own story moving forward. A new story. Free of lingering insecurities and haunting hangups.

Clear your mind and enjoy the ride with them.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net