The Chicago Cubs' 2012 season came to a merciful end Wednesday. While the arrival last winter of new team president Theo Epstein -- who previously won two World Series rings as general manager of the Boston Red Sox -- raised hopes for a better future, fans of this most star-crossed of sports teams knew it would take some time to turn this threadbare franchise into a winner. Still, even by the Cubs' notorious standards, a record of 61-101 was pretty much fans' worst nightmare for this "rebuilding year."
My season of live baseball-watching ended two days earlier, with a 3-0 loss to the Houston Astros, the only major league team with a worse record (55-107) than the Cubs. This also happened to be the Cubs' 100th loss, the first time the team had bottomed out that badly since 1966. Bad news for the little bears, indeed.
The following photo shows what was, for me, the game's only highlight.
Now, unless you are a Michigan State Spartisan, as I am, you might be asking, "What the heck is this?" Well, Monday happened to be Big 10 Night at Wrigley Field, and the local Michigan State alumni club, of which I'm a board member, happened to sell more tickets to the game than any other school's club. That earned MSU the right to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, and Sparty, the team's popular mascot, made a special Chicago appearance to do the honors.
But after that, seriously, nothing good happened. The Astros got the only run they would need on a long home run leading off the 2nd inning by Fernando Martinez -- no, I'd never heard of him either -- and added single runs in the 4th and 8th. The Cubs mustered two hits in the first four innings, before the Astros' less-than-illustrious pitching staff retired the last 18 batters they faced.
This was the 12th game I attended at Wrigley this year, and it was the seventh time that the baleful blue "L" (for "loss") flag flew atop the big scoreboard after the game ended.
Now a record of 5-7 as a fan isn't much to write home about, but given the Cubs' overall record, it almost qualifies me as a good-luck charm.
At least the weather Monday night was cool but comfortable, a contrast to the hypothermic Opening Day game April 5 that the Cubs lost, 2-1, to the Washington Nationals. That matchup contained some portent, and perhaps at least a dim ray of hope, for Cubs fans.
The Nationals -- who had been a perennial doormat since the former Montreal Expos moved to Washington in 2005 -- suddenly emerged as a powerhouse, finishing in first place in the National League Eastern Division with a record of 98 wins and 64 losses. Just two years ago, in 2010, the Nationals finished last in the NL East with a record of 69-93. It takes a lot of right moves for a team to reverse its fortunes that quickly, but it can be done.
The same lesson can be taken from the Baltimore Orioles, a team for which I rooted for the 30 years I lived in the Washington, D.C. area before I moved to Chicago last year. The Orioles, once one of baseball's proudest franchises, tormented their fans with 15 consecutive futile seasons, when they suddenly emerged as this year's Cinderella team, winning 93 games, qualifying for one of the American League's two wild card slots and taking the mighty New York Yankees to the last day of the regular season in the race for first in the AL East.
My friends have taken great pleasure in teasing me about the fact that the Nationals and Orioles both qualified for the playoffs in the first full baseball season since I left DC, while the Cubs did what they did during my first full year living in Chicago. O.K., if I'd known that my departure would have such a beneficial impact on the fortunes of the Baltimore and Washington teams, I would have gladly moved sooner.
But given that this year marked the 104th season since the Cubs last won the World Series, you'll forgive me if I don't accept personal responsibility for the North Siders' downfall this year.
April will come around soon enough, and we'll chat soon about what fragments of hope Cubs fans can salvage from the wreckage of the 2012 season. In the meantime, enjoy the playoffs. I badly spent a whole lot of money watching the Nats and Orioles lose when I still lived in Washington. So I've got legacy rights, and I'm not afraid to use them.