CHICAGO | Sometime in the early 2000s, I told colorful Red Sox radio announcer Joe Castiglione he should tell his fans to knock off the whining and neurotic bleatings about being cursed, and ask them if they’d like to trade places with Cubs fans.
Castiglione nodded. I don’t think he ever broadcast that logic, but he knew. The Red Sox may not have won any championships at that point since 1918, but they had been almost an annual contender, made three World Series since 1967 and uncommonly finished under .500.
I bring that up because around the same time, Nomar Garciaparra recalled the Red Sox were “ready to win.” That meant in spite of still lacking the apparent missing pieces that wunderkind exec Theo Epstein added to snare the long-awaited World Series title in 2004, Boston possessed enough of a winning atmosphere to use as a springboard to start purging the mass neurosis.
Juxtapose the Boston experience with one Epstein is attempting to impose on the bedraggled Cubs now. He is killing the patient in order to save him. Intentionally crashing the Cubs to try to rebuild them only creates a losing atmosphere that is hard to wash away once it takes up its stubborn residence.
Being awash in mass mopery is the last thing the Cubs needed. They’ve long been branded with the term “lovable losers,” a tag that amazingly was just about cast off by the near-miss World Series quest in 2003.
Even after the Bartman Game catastrophe, a hunger for a title enveloped the Cubs and their fans, who had long defied the media stereotypes of only caring about fun in the sun in Wrigley Field. There was an expectation to win that fell flat in sheer disappointment in the hyped team of 2004 and the jittery three-and-out postseason play of the 97-win Cubs of 2008.
Feeding off a winning atmosphere is palpable. It’s not mysticism. A straight-and-narrow guy like Joe Girardi recalled how he felt the Yankees’ 80-year winning tradition practically oozing from the walls of Yankee Stadium when he first arrived as a catcher in New York in 1996. The St. Louis Cardinals have had some dry spells over the decades, but they’ve won 11 World Series, including two in the last eight years. That’s enough to further invigorate an organization many say is baseball’s best now.
Now the Red Sox have a firm, unrefundable winning atmosphere that should build up to Yankees and Cardinals levels. Three-decade voice Castiglione said it exists. So do original Red Sox Dustin Pedroia, Rangers émigré Mike Napoli and rookie Jackie Bradley, Jr. The positive vibes were cemented by the 2013 title, third in a decade, but the feeling around Fenway was strong-enough to survive the chicken-and-beer clubhouse debacle of Sept. 2011 and the Bobby Valentine disaster of 2012.
Interestingly, Epstein’s stewardship of the Red Sox in his final seasons through 2011 is now coming under increasing scrutiny by Red Sox fans and analysts. It seems after a lot of his more recent free-agent acquisitions that did not pan out, he’s not being seen as much of the golden boy as he was advertised to a suffering Cubs Nation when he pulled off his escape from Boston.
Moral of the story is you must win first, and then somehow do it again, to create the winning vibe that nourishes for decades to come. The White Sox just missed, failing to repeat after 2005 with a second-half waffling in 2006 and only one postseason appearance since.
The Cubs? If you’ve fallen in baseball, there’s no assurance you can then get up again. And thus you can get stuck this time as an unlovable loser.