St. Louis Cardinals

Cubs were baseball’s best in 2016 — and it means absolutely nothing

Will this be the year the Cubs put to rest those 1908 references?
Will this be the year the Cubs put to rest those 1908 references? AP

Psst. You want to tell the Chicago Cubs and their fans, or should I?

Oh, all right, I’ll do it.

Since the big leagues expanded the playoffs to include a wild card round in 1995, no National League team with the best record in baseball has won the World Series.

Let me repeat that: In the last two decades, no National League team with the best record in baseball has won the World Series.

That ought to give the 103-58 Cubs something to think about Friday night as they open their National League Division Series with San Francisco.

Forget that the Cubs won 16 more games in the regular season than the 87-75 Giants. Both teams will be 0-0 when the first pitch is thrown in anger at Wrigley Field, and the Baby Bears will find just how hard it is to win 11 games the next three weeks.

Not that they can’t do it. Or won’t do it. But it won’t be a walk in the park.

Ask the 2013 Cardinals, who tied with the Boston Red Sox for the best record in baseball, at 97-65. It wasn’t that close in the World Series, which the Red Sox won in six games while outscoring the Redbirds 27-14.

Ask the 2004 Cardinals, who were baseball’s best with 105 regular-season wins. They were swept in the World Series by the Red Sox, who won 98 games in the regular season but rode the emotion of coming back from being down 0-3 against the New York Yankees in the ALCS before rudely dispatching the Cardinals.

Ask the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who tied the major-league record with 116 wins in the regular season; with 46 losses, they finished exactly 70 games over .500. In the ALCS, though, they fell in five games to the 95-win Yankees.

And yes, ask the 1906 Cubs, who had set the record with 116 wins in an even shorter season; with 36 losses, they finished exactly 80 games over .500. In the World Series, alas, they lost in six games to their crosstown rival, 93-win Chicago White Sox.

Again, this is not to say the Cubs won’t win it all. But they’ll have to battle history if and when they do.

Besides which, there’s that 1908 thing. Frankly, part of me wants the Cubs to win so we can quit hearing about it. After all, it’s been kinda nice not having to hear “1918” and “Red Sox” in the same sentence in recent years, even if the Cardinals played a large role in the end of all that 12 years ago.

A personal side: It occurred to me last week that my father, Al, who died 46 years ago at the age of 61, was born in February 1909, some four months after the Cubs last won the World Series. I am no youngster myself – I was born the last summer the St. Louis Browns played here before they moved to Baltimore as the rechristened Orioles in 1954 – and I’m not sure I’ve ever talked to anyone who was alive at the time the Cubs won in 1908.

Oh, I guess there was my grandmother Maggie, born in the wilds of western Wisconsin in the 1870s, who in her 90s told tales of her parents worrying about Indian raids by the likes of someone named Geronimo.

With stories like that – rightly so – Grandma didn’t talk much about the Cubs’ Series win.

If she had, she might have noted that Teddy Roosevelt was president at the time, that the country was 132 years old – now it’s 240 – and that a couple bicycle-making brothers named Wright, just five years earlier, had gotten a flying machine to work.

I wonder: Will Maggie’s great-grandchildren – and a great-great grandchild on the way – live to see the Cubs win a World Series?

For every reason that ought to count, it should happen this year: Joe Maddon’s pitchers led the majors with a 3.15 ERA, even as they played half their games in the bandbox called Wrigley. They were third in the majors in runs scored, averaging 4.99 runs a game – or nearly two earned runs more than their pitchers allowed.

But funny things happen in the playoffs – when last seen, Jeff Suppan was still standing on third base at old Busch Stadium, his baserunning gaffe leading to the unlikeliest of double plays and costing the Cardinals dearly in a 4-1 loss to the Red Sox in Game 3 of the Series in 2004. And the Texas Rangers are still wondering what happened to that two-run lead with two outs and two strikes against David Freese in the ninth inning of Game 6 in the 2011 Series.

Which is the long way around to saying this: For all the success the Cubs have enjoyed for six months, their season will be defined by the next three weeks.

Yes, the curse could well end, whomever they might play if they get past the Giants, and whichever AL club they might play if Chicago wins its first the National League pennant since 1945.

But history tells us it won’t just happen automatically. And much remains to be done before the Cubs can scare away the ghosts of 108 years ago.

Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has written about baseball for the News-Democrat since 1985. He can be reached at 618-239-2512 or on Twitter @JoeOstermeier

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