Al Yellon, who started the self-explanatory website “Bleed Cubbie Blue” in 2005, is willing to buy into Theo Epstein’s long-term plan to turn the Cubs into a consistent winner.
“It’s been 104 years of patience,’’ Yellon mused in a phone interview. “What’s another couple of years?”
The Cubs’ third all-time visit to Safeco Field this weekend is guaranteed to draw out local Cubbies’ die-hards in full regalia, right down to the authenticated Ernie Banks jerseys. Much like Red Sox fans (in the pre-smug entitlement era, anyway), Cubs faithful love to revel in the brotherhood of shared misery. And besides, it’s not often the Cubs get a chance to pick on a team even more messed up than them. Let’s play three.
On the surface, fans of the Mariners and Cubs are kindred spirits. Both are enduring seemingly endless waits to get to a World Series, complete with cruel teases and near-misses. Both are in the midst of painful rebuilds, with the promise that it’s the only way to construct sustainable success. Suffer now, celebrate later.
It may indeed pay off down the road, despite the dismal makeup of both teams. For now, however, Jim Caple of ESPN.com this week ranked the Cubs and Mariners one and two on his “Misery Index, measuring the pain and despair of a fan base.
Yet there’s another way to look at this. The Cubs certainly have the Mariners out-miseried in the long-term, having gone more than a century since their last World Series title in 1908. That year that is emblazoned in the memory bank of every Cubs fan, though the number who were alive back then can now be counted on the hand of former Cubs pitcher Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown.
The Cubs have the Curse of the Billy Goat, they have the ugly 1969 collapse at the hands of the Miracle Mets, they have Steve Garvey in ’84 and Steve Bartman in ’03. But for all that, they still have a record of success the Mariners would kill for.
As Caple points out, the Mariners have finished last nearly as many times (13) as the Cubs (14) in 100 fewer seasons. And for all the hullabaloo over the century-plus that has passed since the Cubs’ last World Series title, at least they have a title. Two, in fact – 1907 and ’08.
On top of that, the Cubs have numerous pennants, another milestone that has eluded the Mariners; the only other current franchise to never make the World Series is the Washington Nationals/Montreal Expos, but at least Washington D.C. has experienced a World Series (the Senators in 1924, ’25 and ’33).
The Cubs, meanwhile, got to the World Series (and lost each time) in 1906, 1910, 1918, 1929, 1932, 1935, 1938 and 1945. The Mariners, well, they made a really nice comeback in 1995. And they won 116 games in 2001. In the 12 barren years since, the Cubs have been to the postseason three times, most recently in 2008 under Lou Piniella.
Sweet Lou is still revered in Seattle, not so much in Chicago. When I asked Yellon how Piniella is remembered by Cubs fans, he replied, “I would say he’s not really remembered much at all.”
That’s what happens when you fail to win a single playoff game in six tries. That was particularly painful in an ’08 season in which the Cubs rolled to 97 wins, and fans let themselves believe, against their better judgment, that karma was on their side. An even 100 years and all that.
But like Dusty Baker had already discovered in 2003, five outs away from a pennant before Bartman Happened, karma tends to not favor the Cubs. Piniella once told me that he wasn’t quite prepared for the passion of Cubs fans, for whom merely making the playoffs didn’t brand him a hero, as it had in Seattle. The stint in Chicago seemed to age Lou, as it had Baker. It ended badly for both.
“Neither Dusty or Lou had played in Chicago or understood the culture,’’ Yellon said. “They didn’t know what they were getting into.”
Just ask Eric Wedge, who is starting to show the stress, even with a less demanding fan base. What’s interesting is that Jack Zduriencik and Epstein — hired as Cubs president of baseball operations to much fanfare after the 2011 season — both have pretty much the same game plan: Rid themselves of cumbersome contracts while rebuilding through the farm system.
For the Cubs, it’s the latest in a long line of such blueprints, and their ever-faithful legion of fans has bought into most all of them, at least initially — from “Winning the Jim Essian Way” to “In Hendry We Trust.”
As with the Mariners, the ultimate success will depend on the quality of the rebuild, which takes more than just Baseball America love. The Cubs lost 101 games last year, and come to town on pace to lose 93 this year (one more than the Mariners’ projection). But that number could rise if the Cubs, as expected, clean house at the trade deadline.
The difference is that the Mariners are in the fifth year of Zduriencik’s plan, while the Cubs are in year two, so fans haven’t had enough time for skepticism to overtake hope. The other difference is that Epstein has the street cred of bringing the Red Sox their first World Series in 86 years, and then another one for good measure.
That said, patience is not limitless, even for – and maybe especially for – Cubs fans.
“People might be willing to give them one more year, but after 2014 if they’re still mired, there will be a lot of restless Cubs fans,’’ Yellon said.
Join the club.