It’s funny how times change so quickly.
At this time last year, and the year before that, the Chicago Cubs were America’s darlings. Or at least that’s the way Major League Baseball and its broadcast partners would have you believe it.
The poor, downtrodden Cubs, our favorite lovable losers, were trying to shake off 108 years of futility to win their first World Series since the advent of powered flight. National sports broadcasters and the media at-large blatantly rooted for the Cubs to win just once.
When they finally did win, the army of trolls who dress in Cubbie blue and descend on major-league ballparks outside of Chicago, whether or not their home team happens to be playing a game there at the time, went into overdrive.
Twelve months later, it seems like a whole lot fewer people are geeked up about the potential of the Cubs getting another trophy. And not just people in St. Louis who are chapped about missing out on October baseball for a second year in a row.
Theo Epstein, the architect of this edition of the Cubs (and also of the Boston Red Sox teams before that which overcame an 86-year-old World Series championship drought in 2004) is one big thing the two franchises have in common. And his way of doing business is what caused the popularity of both teams to rise, and then fall, outside of their television viewing area.
Like the Red Sox management and supporters, the Cubs and their fans like to think of themselves as the universally beloved underdogs, the little teams that defiantly tore themselves down to the stud walls to rebuild a perfect team from scratch with home-grown, scrappy ballplayers. But like the Red Sox before them, the Cubs have become the evil empire, big-budget bullies who will spend whatever it takes to beat their rivals into submission.
Just like it’s difficult to think of the BoSox as overachievers long on gumption when they announce that they will best any offer for starting pitcher David Price by $10 million, it’s hard to think of the Cubs as the homegrown kids that could when they dole out a couple hundred million for Jayson Heyward to hit .260 with 15 home runs a year.
Here in St. Louis we’re wringing our hands trying to speculate what the hometown Cardinals will do to get back on track through the free-agent market after two years without a playoff berth. You can bet that the Cubs and the Red Sox will be there to drive up the prices of every semi-decent player with the way they pass out mega-contracts like Halloween candy.
Boston, which gave ridiculous contracts to Carl Crawford, Pablo Sandoval and Henley Ramirez in recent years in addition to blowing up a deal in which the Birds thought they’d landed Price at the last minute, is already rumored to be interested in slugging outfielder and first baseman J.D. Martinez because their opening day payroll was only $200 million last year.
The Cubs are eighth in baseball with a $183-million payroll. But that number will go up with ace Jake Arrieta headed toward free agency. Some folks think the Cubs can’t wait to hand more than $100 million to middle-of-the-rotation starter Lance Lynn. And of course, both Boston and the Cubs are central figures in the speculation about where Washington Nationals slugging outfielder Bryce Harper will end up after next season.
The Cubs got their rings. So it seems more people think it would be preferable for just about any other playoff team to get theirs this year. There’s Cleveland, the reigning World Series drought record-holder. The Houston Astros are 55 years old and never won a crown. People think of the Nationals as a new franchise because the changed their name when they relocated. But they’re pushing 50 as an organization with no titles — and the city of Washington DC hasn’t had a champion since Walter Johnson toed the rubber. Even the long-hated big spenders the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees seem to have lost their edge as people rapidly grow tired of the Cubs.
I still haven’t figured out who I am rooting for. But I have to admit that it might not be a bad thing to see history repeat itself. The Cubs won back-to-back titles in 1907 and 1908 before going away for 108 years. I wouldn’t complain if they won a second crown this year as long as it didn’t happen again for another century after that.