Monday, September 15, 2008


Okay, people, ‘fess up. Did you think this season would be easy for the Cubs?

I mean as recently as late August, when they were 35 games over .500 and the media mouths were lavishing praise on them and talking about a “dream season.” Did you think they’d float to baseball supremacy after all their years of also-running?

If you said “yes,” you’re not a real Cubs’ fan. Real Cubs fans expect only catastrophe; it’s all we’ve ever experienced. If God had wanted our lives to be happy, He (or She) would have made us Yankees’ fans. Or, at least, Cardinals’ fans.

September brought the cold wind of reality, or should have. The team ended August and began this month by losing eight of nine games, and only the Brewers’ equal ineptitude prevented their divisional lead from evaporating. Cub bats went cold, fielders developed the muffs, pitchers couldn’t hold leads. Just like in the old days.

The boys have strung together a few wins since, and seem sure to make the playoffs, but their recent form indicates that their post-season prospects might not be brilliant. Despite his no-hitter last night, a sore-shoulder cloud hangs over Carlos “Big Baby” Zambrano, their top starting pitcher. Rich “Handle With Care” Harden, starter No. 3, has been as fragile as advertised. He can’t go past six innings and seems to require a couple of weeks’ rest between starts. “Closer” Kerry Wood? Kyra Sedgwick has been better lately.

Derrek Lee, their putative Big Bopper, no longer can get around on good fastballs; he’s been hitting into so many double plays his uniform number should be 643. Kosuke Fukudome, the early-season hitting hero, can’t get around on anything; his batting style would shame a Little Leaguer. Aramis Ramirez takes week-long naps. Any pitcher who gives Alfonzo Soriano anything but an eye-high fastball or slider in the dirt should lose his job.

I knew this was coming because I’m a real Cubs’ fan, which is to say that I always think the glass is totally empty. It’s a defense mechanism, of course; if you expect nothing you’re not disappointed when that’s what you get. Cubs’ fans are said to “live and die” with their team, but that’s nonsense because our shells are so hard armadillos envy us. If I’d have died every time the Cubbies did I never would have made it to my Bar Mitzvah.

I know people who do live and die with the Cubs, albeit figuratively. Eddie Cohen, my classmate at Roosevelt High, got so frustrated with the team that some years ago he started Cubs Anonymous, a 12-step program to rid ones' self of Cubs’ addiction. He’s got a website and would be glad to sell you a t-shirt and membership card if you ask.

Chuck Brusso, my pal in Scottsdale, so despairs of the team’s day-to-day prospects that he can’t bring himself to watch it play, following its progress (or lack of it) on Sports Center or in the newspapers. He says the last time he peeked at a Cubs’ game on TV-- inadvertently, in a restaurant-- he saw someone named Bartman reach out of the stands and snatch a foul fly from Moises Alou. He still blames himself for that.

But to my mind the ultimate Cubs’ fan was someone much younger than Cohen, Brusso or, even, I. He was Steve Goodman, a skinny North Side kid who played the guitar and sang—mostly his own compositions—in Chicago’s Old Town and Lincoln Avenue folk bars in the 1970s. He was very good at what he did, and although he died young (at age 36, of leukemia, in 1984) made a mark that still remains. If you’ve never heard Willie Nelson’s recording of Steve’s “The City of New Orleans,” about the Illinois Central train, you’re missing a treat.

Steve often performed wearing a Cubs’ cap. He wrote several songs about the team. One of them was the upbeat “Go, Cubs, Go” which is played at Wrigley Field after each Cub victory these days, although it was written to be played before games.

But Steve was clear-eyed about the object of his affections. The chorus of his song “A Dying Cubs’ Fan’s Last Request,” says it all about the team:

“Do they still play the blues in Chicago,
When the baseball season rolls around?
When the snow melts away, do the Cubbies still play,
In their ivy-covered burial ground?
When I was a boy they were my pride and joy,
But now they only bring fatigue
To the home of the brave,
The land of the free
And the doormat of the National League.”

Even so, Go Cubs!

Monday, September 1, 2008


The National Football League starts for real this week but I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. That’s because I’m a Chicago Bears fan, and watching those guys play vies with having one’s fingernails pulled as a painful experience.

It’s not just that the Bears are bad, although they certainly promise to be that in the weeks ahead. It’s also that they are dull, and have been as long as I can remember. A good offense—or, more specifically, a smooth-working passing game—is by me what makes football entertaining, and the Bears have no prospect of presenting one.

Indeed, the failure to move the ball in the easiest way—via the air—is so woven into the team’s ethos that it qualifies as a tradition. Some years ago a klutzy edition of the baseball White Sox made a motto of “Winning Ugly.” The Bears always win that way (when they win), and lose that way, too. A typical Bears’ outcome is a score of 16-13, either way. Wake me when it’s over. And never—ever—give the points.

It’s hard to believe but the team’s last great quarterback was Sid Luckman, who retired in 1950. Saint Sid played so long ago that he’s a legend, back there with Jim Thorpe and King Arthur, but he still holds the team records for most passing yards (14,686), touchdowns (137) and yards per reception (8.42). Fifty eight years have passed, along with entire eras of offensive evolution, but they’ve bypassed the Bears’ passing game entirely.

Yes, the team has had a few okay QBs in that span. Johnny Lujack, Ed Brown, Rudy Bukich and Erik Kramer all enjoyed a decent year or two. Billy Wade handed off ably for a 1963 championship team that ran on defense, and Jim McMahon did all right in 1985 when football’s maybe-best defensive unit ever won the team’s only Super Bowl.

Mostly, though, we’ve had to put up with the likes of Bob Williams, Bobby Douglas, Steve Walsh, Dave Krieg, Shane Matthews, Cade McNown, Mike Tomczak, Steve Fuller, Vince Evans, Mike Phipps, Bob Avellini, Gary Huff, Jack Concannon, Jim Miller, Kent Nix, Jim Harbaugh, Rick Mirer, Greg Landry, Virgil Carter and Rusty Lisch. I could go on but I think the point is made.

The Bears’ current quarterbacks, Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman, fit comfortably into the above list. Orton took the Bears to the playoffs in 2004, but mostly by doing little harm; so limited are his aspirations that the Soldier Field crowd cheers every time he throws a pass beyond the line of scrimmage. Grossman can sling the ball, but not always off the right foot or to the right person. His signature play is the fumbled center snap. The Bears got to the Super Bowl with him two years ago, but people still can’t figure out how they did it.

The usual reason given for the Bears’ eternal failure to muster a consistent passing attack is the weather: Solider Field’s often cold and blustery conditions don’t lend themselves to the aerial game, many say. To that I say, “Phooey!” Fran Tarkenton rewrote the NFL’s passing records in colder and blusterier Minneapolis (the Vikings played outdoors in his day) and Brett Favre blew on his fingers, wiped the snow off his faceguard and topped Fran’s marks up in Green Bay. The Bears were a frequent patsy for both.

A better reason is that Bear execs through the years have bought into the team’s rough-tough “Monsters of the Midway” image and eschewed the pass in favor of “D” and the run. While it’s okay if fans spout “real men don’t pass” nonsense, it’s inexcusable from the guys who call the shots.

Another reason, I think, may be the “Curse of Bobby Layne.” If you’re old enough you’ll vividly recall Layne, a quarterback who was short on style but long on results. It was said of him that he never lost a game, time just ran out a few times before he could correct the scoreboard.

Layne originally was a Bear, a first-round draft choice out of the U of Texas who joined Luckman and fellow-rookie Lujack on the 1948 club. Luckman was in his athletic dotage and team owner George Halas, a noted nickel nurser, saw no sense in paying two top prospects to replace him, so after that season he dubbed the handsome ex-Notre Dame hero and traded away Layne. Lujack played three more years, then married a car-dealer’s daughter and quit football to go into his father-in-law’s business. Layne led the Detroit Lions to multiple championships during the 1950s, titles that rightly belonged to the Bears.

The combative Layne never was one to hide his feelings. When the Lions traded him to the woebegone Pittsburgh Steelers in 1958 he cursed them, saying they'd never win again. Lo and behold, they haven’t. He was just a kid when the Bears dumped him, so no one was much concerned with his mutterings, but I’ll bet he said the same thing about their quarterbacking future.