The scene is Wrigley Field. The 2003 Chicago Cubs are playing the Florida Marlins in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. The Cubs, one win away from going to the World Series, have a 3-0 lead going into the eighth inning. They’re just six outs away from their first World Series berth in over half a century. Pitching for the Cubs is Mark Prior, their best pitcher, who on the season is 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA. Up until the eighth inning, Prior has pitched seven shutout innings and has only surrendered three hits. Then, with one out and one on in the eighth inning, Marlins’ second baseman Luis Castillo lifts a fly ball down the left field line that Cubs’ left fielder Moises Alou is unable to catch because a fan interfered with him. The rest, as they say, is history.
Fans of other teams, baseball historians, and the entire city of Chicago still wonder to this day what happened to the 2003 Chicago Cubs after Moises Alou was interfered with by the famous Cubs fan Steve Bartman, who certainly does not need another person to tell the world his story. Many, including myself for quite some time, point to the Curse of the Billy Goat. As the legend goes, during Game Four of the 1945 World Series between the Cubs and Tigers, then Cubs owner Billy Sianis was asked to leave the game because the smell of his pet goat was bothering other fans. Sianis, unhappy that he was asked to leave, allegedly proceeded to proclaim “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more”. As we know, Sianis’ haunting words have proven to be prophetic. The Cubs went 71 years without making a World Series.
For the longest time, I wanted to believe that teams were cursed. I wanted to believe that the ‘ghosts’ played a role in why these supposedly ‘cursed’ teams were not able to win. I wanted to believe the Red Sox lost Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS to the Yankees because of the Curse of the Bambino. I wanted to believe that the Cubs blew their 3-0 lead to the Marlins and ultimately lost the series because of the Curse of the Billy Goat. However, I finally realized after much thought and analysis that proclaiming a team as “cursed” is taking the easy way out. Saying a team is “cursed” is just another way of proclaiming “we just were not good enough”.
Let’s look back for a moment at the 2003 Cubs, whose collapse confirmed for most that the Cubs franchise is under an unbreakable spell. Despite winning the NL Central, they only finished the regular season with a record of 88-74. Their 88 wins were the lowest win total of any team in the National League playoffs, including their eventual kryptonite, the Florida Marlins. They also didn’t exactly have All-Star caliber talent all over the field. In fact, the ’03 Cubs did not have one position player make the All Star Game.
And in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the NLCS, after Steve Bartman interfered with Moises Alou and shortstop Alex Gonzalez botched a possible double play ball, a play that most fans obsessed with the Curse do not even remember, the Cubs simply did not have the dominant force in the bullpen behind Prior to nail the victory down. After Prior was removed with one out in the eighth, he was relieved by the trio of Kyle Farnsworth, Todd Hollandsworth, and Mike Remlinger. While all three of these relievers had good years, no one is about to compare any of them to some of the forces that we have seen in years past dominate the late innings in postseason baseball.
So I say again, the 2003 Cubs weren’t cursed. They were just not good enough.
How about the 2003 Boston Red Sox. Were they cursed? I have heard the narrative countless times. There had to be something else at work, right? How could the Red Sox blow a three-run lead with just five outs to go with their best pitcher on the mound? While Pedro Martinez’s collapse and Aaron Boone’s walk off were unexplainable, one must take into account what happened the very next year. In 2004, the Red Sox completed one of the greatest comebacks in sports history and beat the Yankees four straight games in the ALCS to advance to the Fall Classic. What happened? Did the ‘ghosts’ all of a sudden disappear?
Or is it possibly that the Red Sox just got better? Keith Foulke, who was acquired by the Red Sox in the 2003 offseason, saved 32 games on the year and was a dominant reliever for a bullpen who did not have a dominant closer in 2003. Had Foulke been on the 2003 team, manager Grady Little may have been more comfortable pulling Pedro for the reliable Foulke. Of course we will never know for sure. But what we do know, is that Little did not trust anyone in his bullpen in that spot and it ended up costing his team a shot at the World Series. What we also know, is that Foulke was an integral part of the 2004 Red Sox and ended up closing out their first title in 86 years.
So yet again, the 2003 Red Sox weren’t cursed. They just were not good enough.
This current version of the Chicago Cubs is living proof that saying a franchise is cursed is a myth. Did the ghosts all of a sudden take a vacation during Game 6 this weekend? No, the ghosts, if any, were still there. However, this time around the Cubs were just too good to let any outside influences affect them. When the Cubs brought in Aroldis Chapman and his 100+ mph heat to relieve Kyle Hendricks in the eighth inning there was little the Los Angeles Dodgers could do to combat the inevitable. Let alone the ghosts and demons of Wrigley Field’s past. The Cubs proved that when you are as good as they are, history and past failures are meaningless.
Luckily for Cubs fans, the 2016 version doesn’t believe in such a curse. As Theo Epstein said, their youth is a major reason why history does not weigh on this team. While that may be true, these Cubs also know just how talented they are. Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and company are not talking about a curse. In fact, their mantra is simple. “Four more wins.”