Three of baseball’s major plot lines this week are the Cubs chasing Joe Girardi, the Pirates chasing a championship and Alex Rodriguez’s lawyers chasing ambulances.
We’ll save that third topic for another day.
Enough fodder exists in the Cubs-Girardi story and the Pirates-championship story, which are oddly related.
The Pirates replaced the Cubs as America’s postseason darlings, primarily because the Cubs couldn’t find the playoffs if they had a GPS on the dashboard or a Clayton Kershaw on the mound.
Most fans outside of St. Louis want the Pirates to beat the Cardinals on Wednesday to advance to the National League championship series.
Who is America’s sweetheart these days?
Meg Ryan has run her course. Sandra Bullock is a bit too mature. A good choice would be Betty White, but it’s iffy whether she could serve a full term.
So America is longing for a new sweetheart just as baseball has been longing for a new darling to replace the Cubs.
Owner Tom Ricketts and baseball president Theo Epstein are on a mission to extract all the romance out of the Cubs and make the club essentially a white-collar business proposition. The ballhawks on Waveland will be gone. Ronnie Woo-Woo and other characters who hung around Wrigley Field will be made to feel out of place.
The current Cubs regime would rather win as villains than lose as warm, fuzzy, cuddly Cubbie bears. Which is OK as they become like just about every other major-league franchise trying to win a World Series.
Something will be missing, however, for better or worse.
Pittsburgh’s darlings surfaced to fill the bill of America’s baseball darlings by qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 1992.
The Pirates are everything a baseball fan could want in an underdog: improbability, long-suffering fans, likable manager in Clint Hurdle, star-quality player in Andrew McCutchen, beautiful ballpark that was mostly empty for a couple of decades and great grinders (sandwiches and players).
In other words, the Pirates have so many of the elements that the Cubs have had whenever they advanced to the playoffs in recent decades: improbability, longer-suffering fans, generally likable manager if only because he was winning at the time, star-quality players like Ryne Sandberg or Sammy Sosa, beautiful ballpark setting and great hot dogs (on buns and the field).
Now that the Pirates have become America’s baseball darlings, they should be warned that the distinction is fleeting. Unless, of course, they proceed to go more than a century without winning the World Series.
The question now is will the Cubs ever resume being underdogs in the playoffs? The answer is probably not. Everything management is doing screams of wanting to become championship favorites.
These are hard guys playing hardball with everybody from their manager to rooftop owners. Ricketts, Epstein and their associates clearly don’t want to be lovable losers who sneak up on the rest of baseball.
They want to build a roster and rebuild a ballpark and escape the tradition that has failed for a century.
A Cubs fan’s rallying cry has been hope for the best and brace for the worst. When the worst occurred, misery loved company and there was plenty of both.
Epstein and Ricketts promised that they would win, right? They talk like their blueprint is foolproof, right? They act like they have all the answers, right?
Neither America’s darlings nor lovable losers talk like that. “Win or else” favorites like the Yankees do.
That’ll be just fine as long as the Cubs win because winning is the goal. Hardly anyone locally will miss the romance that will be missing nationally.
Except for me, that is.
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