Monday, July 29, 2013
For most of us in the workforce, getting home after a day on the job isn't the last second of our day. Even in my work as an overnight radio board op, I usually stay up for an hour or two after my shift to "cool down" before going to sleep. Most times, I'll glare at the previous night's highlights on ESPN.
Saturday morning, I ended up flipping the TV to "Catching Hell," the ESPN movie chronicling the Steve Bartman saga. Although I had seen the flick before, I couldn't help but stay up to marvel at the circumstances surrounding Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS between the Chicago Cubs and Florida Marlins. But as I sit typing this column nearly 24 hours later, another offshoot of the story came to mind.
There's something to the otherworldly. Whether it's carrying a rabbit's foot in your pocket for a job interview, using a favored coin as a card protector during a game of poker, or avoiding every crack of sidewalk concrete you can, we find luck in our own ... special ... ways. And across the entire sports landscape, I can't think of any other one that celebrates this more than baseball.
For about a century and a half, no other athletic endeavor has had more voodoo spread on animate and inanimate objects than the "Grand Old Pastime." Where do you think we got the rally cap? How many pregame chickens did Wade Boggs consume over his 18-year career? And I wonder what percentage of players refuse to step on the baselines heading to and from the dugout.
Superstitions are a part of the romance that accompanies the game. Its dark side, however, can lead to the curses that did plague the Boston Red Sox and still plague the Cubs. The curses of the billy goat and the black cat live on next to Lake Michigan. It has been more than a century since the country's lovable losers have even made it to a World Series.
Meanwhile, the curse of the Bambino finally gave way to 2004's self-proclaimed "Idiots." Those Red Sox found a way through the pressure to play with a freedom that helped them overcome a 3-0 deficit in the ALCS and 86 years of New England misery.
Maybe that's the ticket for the front office, players, and fan base of the historic franchise on Chicago's north side. They need to find a rallying cry that goes beyond the "normal" peculiar or weird quirks. They need to focus on something that's just plain silly. I could introduce such an example.
I'm a native of Kansas City and, thus, a long-suffering fan of the Royals. Even though the franchise has won a championship in my lifetime, it hasn't sniffed the playoffs since. And the last 20 years? Don't even get me started. This organization hasn't really been talked about because, well, there's been nothing of note to talk about.
The Royals were going through their customary early-season swoon. After winning the first three games of May for a 17-10 start to the season, they stumbled through the rest of the month to the tune of a 5-20 stretch. The hope that had slowly swelled was deeply deflated. However, by the end of the month, two things happened. First, they brought the franchise's most famous face, George Brett, on to the bench to help the young players find their swing.
The second (and more innocuous) change was that they began to rally around a certain object. The item in question ... a bottle of barbecue sauce. It was something so confounding, so dumb, and so under the radar that I don't believe it's ever been looked at as an inspiration. But it was so perfect for the situation. It was so hokey and "Kansas City" that it just fit.
The mood of the dugout changed drastically. Player after player after player wanted to get that key hit or score that lead run, all to get a chance to mug for the camera with a condiment. Heck, Eric Hosmer got doused with it after delivering a walk-off single against Detroit. The players acted as if it was the 26th man on the roster. And it worked.
Brett has now returned to his front office spot. The sauce looks to have been shelved for the moment. But even though the Royals likely aren't going to win the AL Central or a Wild Card spot, they are playing with more fire and better execution than they did a couple of months ago. If this puts the franchise on the path to future postseasons (an optimistic, OPTIMISTIC view), fans on each side of the Kansas/Missouri state line should look no further than their plate of ribs for the initiation point.
And that, Cubs, is what I propose for you. It may be time to find that one rallying cry that's so absurd that it could only bring people together in the name of silliness. It doesn't have to be edible (although a deep dish pizza or hot beef sandwich would be interesting). It could be a simple teddy bear or a EL-like procession after each win. The point to all this ... find that spark to play free, beyond the pressure 100-plus years of angst can put upon a franchise.
The Red Sox won a title with a bunch of idiots. The White Sox ended their drought with a soundbite friendly manager. Tampa Bay turned their fortunes after dropping the "Devil" from their team name. If they say "every little detail counts," it can't hurt to try and turn something's silliness into your luck ... your rallying cry.