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Chicat
07-22-2004, 10:30 AM
Cubs & Red Sox:
A tale of two pities

Weight of expectations keeps curses alive and well
Starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano's recent blow up and ejection against the Cardinals is just one example of the Cubs succumbing to the weight of expectations.
COMMENTARY By Michael Wilbon


Updated: 12:41 a.m. ET July 22, 2004We should have enough evidence by now that they're both cursed, the Cubs and the Red Sox. It's just that this year the curse didn't wait until October. It didn't wait until both of 'em were five outs from reaching the World Series to show up. This year the curse showed up in July, which means we won't have the Cubs and Red Sox to kick around in October.

We won't have all that angst emanating from New England, and we won't have tens of thousands of people milling around outside Wrigley Field like it's baseball's Vatican.

I don't want to be a killjoy because I love the Cubs, I've loved them all of my life and I'll happily root for them even though I'm certain to go to my grave without them ever winning a World Series. And while wallowing in Cubbiness last fall, I somehow became a closet Red Sox fan, which is the quintessential loser's doubleheader. Even so, they're both dead. Okay, the Red Sox are on life support because while they have no chance of making up seven games on the Yankees, they do have a legit shot to make the playoffs as a wild card team. The Cubs, however, were buried at Wrigley Field on Tuesday afternoon, after blowing an 8-2 lead to the hated Cardinals, putting them 9 1/2 games behind St. Louis.

We almost had yet another piece of Cubs-Red Sox irony, something nearly as delicious as both of them coming five outs from meeting each other in the World Series last October. Just hours after the Cubs had blown their 8-2 lead, the Red Sox took an 8-1 lead over sorry, no-account Seattle and nearly blew that game before winning, 9-7. But this came the day after what some in Boston are calling the worst loss of the season, a game that saw Boston's 4-2 lead in the bottom of the ninth disappear when closer Keith Foulke gave up two home runs, leading to Bret "Bleepin' " Boone's game-winning grand slam in the 11th. It was so much to handle that the mother of Red Sox President Larry Lucchino called from Pittsburgh and left her son a voice-mail asking, "What's wrong with that team?"

I know what's wrong with the Sox. I know what's wrong with the Cubs.

They're cursed. They're both cursed, but not by a goat (in the Cubs' case) and not by the trading of the Bambino (in the Sox's case) but by the weight of expectation.

We should have known back in the spring, when the Red Sox put together the second-most expensive roster in Major League Baseball and when the Cubs were toasted on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the team to beat in the National League, that both franchises were headed for doom. It's too much for either to handle, the sell-out crowds night after night, the opening-night atmosphere that surrounds every home game. The Cubs and the Sox aren't just ballclubs anymore; they're cultural phenomena in which people all across America are emotionally invested.

And while the players are hardly ever from Chicago or Boston, they can't help but feel the weight of those desperate expectations when they drive to the ballpark every day -- or for that matter when they go to the dry cleaners or to dinner. It's heavy. Hall of fame ballplayers have been crushed by the weight of these burdens for decades and counting.

It's going to take some supernatural star surrounded by an exceptional cast of players to break through the culture of losing in both places. And neither team has that now. The bat-throwing incident involving Boston's David Ortiz and the back-to-back ejections of Cubs pitchers Carlos Zambrano and LaTroy Hawkins demonstrate exactly how ill-equipped the two teams are to handle huge expectations.

Manager Dusty Baker says the Cubs aren't melting down, that the ejections prove how passionate the Cubs are. Another interpretation would be that anger, in this case, doesn't equal passion. What it really illustrates is understandable frustration bordering on rage. Ortiz, Zambrano and Hawkins can see their seasons slipping away. Oh, they care. They can't leave their homes without being told how much people in Chicago and in New England care, and they take on the same sense of desperateness to win.

Yes, they've been hit by injuries. Not many teams can hang in there very long without their No. 1 and No. 2 pitchers, which is what Mark Prior and Kerry Wood are to Chicago. Sosa missed a chunk of games when he hurt his back on a sneeze. (That never seems to happen to Yankees, does it?) Both Chicago middle infielders have been injured. The Red Sox, meantime, were without Nomar Garciaparra for nearly three months and also suffered injuries to right fielder Trot Nixon and Bill Mueller.

But blaming their position on injury is way too easy. For both teams, there have been too many games where nice pitching is undermined by mindless hitting and base-running.

What we've got now in the case of the Cubs is players wearing their raw desperation on their sleeves. Why else would Zambrano, after getting lit up for a home run, follow Jim Edmonds around the bases wagging his finger and screaming at him? What ails the Cubs is more than a trade for Garciaparra can fix, and what ails the Red Sox is more than Randy Johnson can fix if the trade winds blow. Don't tell me Theo Epstein is a genius in February; he's not the first Red Sox executive to put together a lineup of mashers and great pitching. The only way he'll earn that status is for his Red Sox to win in October.

The Cubs, meanwhile, pose no threat, not physically, emotionally or psychologically, to the Cardinals, who -- and God do I hate to admit this -- are everything the Cubs aren't. The Red Sox appear to have more fight in them than the Cubs, but not enough to overcome both great expectations and the Yankees.

That's why it was so stupid for people to lose their minds in April when the Sox beat the Yankees six of seven. See, the key words of that sentence are, "in April." One month into the season we didn't know that by the end of July the Red Sox would have allowed more unearned runs than any team in baseball, or that starter Derek Lowe would struggle so desperately. It was stupid to make the Cubs prohibitive favorites when we knew Wood had arm troubles just two years ago and that the acquisition of Greg Maddux and first baseman Derrek Lee did nothing to give the Cubs what they most desperately needed, which was a closer.

For the sake of our own sanity, a whole lot of Cub fans simply declared the season over on Tuesday afternoon after blowing that lead to the Cardinals. That loss was nearly as painful as the loss in Game 6 -- the Bartman game -- in the NLCS to the Marlins in October. See, the thing we so ill-advisedly did this year was hope early. Usually, we enter a season expecting nothing, like last year, and if the Cubs reach .500 we celebrate. If they reach the playoffs, we hyperventilate.

But now that we've shut down hope for the season -- at least I have -- the little things in life can make me happy again. After the crushing loss to the Cardinals, the Cubs came back yesterday from down 2-0, then down 4-2, went ahead, 5-4, on Sosa's home run and finished the game with Hawkins retiring the Reds in the ninth. Several Cubs did their little dance and body bump in the outfield at Wrigley.

Maybe I should tell you who threw out the first pitch. A man who spent a dozen seasons toiling for these two cursed franchises: Bill Buckner.

2004 The Washington Post Company