There are two ways to regard the Cubs during September:
They’re a decent team in a mediocre division.
They’re in the playoff hunt!
The percentage of Cubs fans that regularly dresses in blue and unconsciously hums “Go, Cubs, Go’’ in the shower cares about drama, not reality. And rightly so. Over the past decade, they’ve been asked to go through not one, but two rebuilds. If the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is a possible spot in the postseason, they should make a mad dash for it.
This year’s team might not be great, but it’s entertaining. Especially now that the calendar has flipped. Every day, one eye is locked on how the Cubs are doing as they toil in the heat of the National League Central race, and one eye is locked on what the first-place Brewers are doing. A third eye is paying attention to the wild-card race, conventional anatomy be damned.
It’s fun. That’s all that you Cubs fans have ever asked from your team. You’re familiar with the weaknesses of this year’s version. You worry about their 19-18 record in one-run games. You still wake up happy about their 18-9 record in August. You revel in the idea of a whole month of games that mean something.
This isn’t the NBA, which knows how to create playoff fever even when many of the teams can’t register a temperature. You don’t know faux suspense until you’ve witnessed a below-.500 squad go into the last month of the regular season with a real chance at “earning’ a playoff berth. And NBA fans fall for it every time.
At 40-42, the Bulls won a play-in berth last season but didn’t advance to the postseason. It was God’s way of saying, “I’m a nice guy, but even I have limits.’’
What the Cubs are doing isn’t that, isn’t a carnival barker’s grift. Is there some exaggerated excitement over a team that happens to reside in the so-so NL Central? Probably, but no apologies are necessary. When the Cubs needed to score back in the day, Jack Brickhouse would say, “Any old kind of run will do.’’ Right now, any old kind of excitement will do in Chicago.
The Sox are a complete mess, which I guess is amusement the way somebody else’s bankruptcy proceedings is amusement.
The Bears, a mystery no matter how many hosannas are sent Justin Fields’ way, play the Packers in the season opener Sunday.
The Blackhawks and rookie phenom Connor Bedard are about a month away from the start of the season.
The Bulls are the Bulls, ever stuck in the middle.
So, the Cubs. It’s September, and every game they play now has heft to it. Every Cody Bellinger at-bat is an operetta. Every Justin Steele pitch is a perch on the edge of a seat. A postseason race in baseball has something that other sports normally can’t match. Other than the new pitch clock, there is no such thing as making a long story short in major-league baseball. It’s a meaty, stretched-out denouement. The heat of late summer only adds spice to the recipe. (The state bird of Illinois is neither the cardinal nor the mosquito. It’s humidity.)
A playoff race is engrossing. And excruciating.
After winning two of three last week from the Brewers, who came into the series with an eight-game winning streak, the Cubs proceeded to split a double-header with Cincinnati, then blow a 1-0, ninth-inning lead in a 2-1 loss to the Reds on Saturday.
On Sunday, the Cubs blew out the Reds 15-7 and the Brewers lost 4-2 to the Phillies, shrinking Milwaukee’s division lead to 3½ games. The Cubs’ victory put them three games ahead for the second wild-card spot. Happiness among the faithful was restored. At least until Monday.
Outsiders might think Cubs fans would be immune to emotional swings, given the feelings of contentment that the 2016 World Series title brought. But jaundiced worldliness never had a chance to permanently set in. Yes, the franchise has some familiarity with winning over its long history, but despite the relatively recent success, the past 12 decades mostly weren’t kind to the Cubs. You might have heard, but before they won the Series seven years ago, the franchise went through a dry period as it related to championship titles. So anything that had the whiff of success was greeted with euphoria. It’s starting to feel like that again.
In 1998, the Cubs and the Giants both finished with 89-73 records, necessitating a wild-card tiebreaker game to determine who would advance. On a Monday night at Wrigley Field, the Cubs won 5-3. Afterward, Sammy Sosa ran around the ballpark and sprayed champagne on fans in the stands. You would have thought World War II had just ended.
The Braves swept the Cubs in an ensuing best-of-five series.
That’s how it was. That’s how it is. The second rebuild, the one following the 2016 title, has almost brought Cubs fans back to Square One. And that’s OK.
The best part of being hungry again is that there’s finally something to chew on.