By Burt Constable
A year ago today, the Chicago Cubs swept the San Diego Padres behind a nice pitching performance from Kyle Hendricks and offensive power from Ben Zobrist (a triple) and Willson Contreras (homer) to maintain a 13½-game division lead over the St. Louis Cardinals.
Confident that the Cubs would win the division, some fans began searching for cheap flights to cities where the Cubs might play 2016 postseason games. The true-believer Cubs fans reserved hotel rooms for potential World Series games in Cleveland, Boston, Toronto (after making sure their passports were up to date) and Arlington, Texas.
This year, the Cubs led the division by a measly 2½ games going into Wednesday night's game against the Cincinnati Reds, and postseason planning isn't quite so urgent.
"Most years we'd be ecstatic," says April Morganegg, owner of Oswego Travel, who notes that "the Cubs won the World Series in Game 7 on my birthday and my wedding anniversary."
Hailing from a family of devoted Cubs fans, Morganegg remembers the age of Lovable Losers, when fans used to be thrilled if the Cubs were above .500 after the All-Star break.
The travel agency owner, who bused Cubs fans to a game in Milwaukee last season, says fans are a bit spoiled now that the Cubs are the reigning World Series champions and have buried a century of curses.
I don't believe in curses or jinxes, but I still feel a little guilty about my travel-planning behavior during the 2003 playoffs.
The Cubs were one victory away from the World Series and had just taken a 3-0 lead against the Florida Marlins at Wrigley Field when a rumor spread through the auxiliary press box that only a few rooms remained in hotels close to the ballparks in New York and Boston, whose teams were battling to be the American League team in the World Series.
I got on the phone during the seventh-inning stretch and booked rooms in both cities, just to cover all my bases.
No sooner had I reserved my spot in Cubs' history than a foul ball drifted toward a fan down the left-field line. Cubs left-fielder Moises Alou lost his temper. Cubs pitcher Mark Prior lost his edge. Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez lost the handle on a routine ground ball. And the Cubs lost the game and went on to lose the series.
My reserving hotel rooms didn't jinx the Cubs, no matter how you feel about superstitions and curses. Or, as Society for American Baseball Research member Bill Savage (a Northwestern University associate professor who teaches classes on baseball literature and film, and writes ESPN.com's "The View from Section 416" column) puts it, "I don't have any superstitions, because superstitions are bad luck."
So there is nothing to stop Cubs fans from getting a jump on 2017 postseason travel plans. Except ...
"The NL Central is still wide open," Savage cautions. "St. Louis and Milwaukee are still well within striking distance, and we have to play them a lot of games down the road. This is not in the bag yet by any means. In other words, I'm not spending any of my frequent flyer miles or hotel loyalty points on any nonrefundable flights or rooms in D.C. or L.A., much less Houston, Boston or Cleveland."
But Cubs fans will show up wherever the Cubs play in the postseason for however long they play.
Last year, Savage wrote an ESPN story headlined, "Cubs fans taking over MLB's ballparks," noting that every ballpark except San Francisco experienced significant attendance boosts when the Cubs arrived in town.
Of course, after the Cubs staged a miraculous rally to win the 2016 National League division series in San Francisco, a gaggle of Cubs fans in blue stuck around to cheer the victory.
"That was cool," Cubs President Theo Epstein said at the time. "It's wonderful to have that kind of support and passion."
It is. And it's OK to make plans. But most Cubs fans aren't quite ready.
"Not yet," Morganegg says. "But there's still time."