In the history of the Chicago Cubs franchise, there are a number of dates that carry special importance.
October 12th, 1907, and October 14th, 1908.
These dates represent the only two times when the lovable losers claimed World Series titles. As hard as it is to believe, the Cubs were baseball’s first ever dynasty, and their back-to-back championships seemed to signal future glory for the franchise. But, as we all know too well, their glory was fleeting, and has yet to return.
October 7th, 1945.
The “Curse of the Billy Goat” was born when Cubs fan, Billy Sianis, was unceremoniously asked to leave game 4 of the World Series due to the odor of his pet goat, Murphy. There have been many attempts to break this curse, involving more goats, relatives of Sianis, and the baseball gods -- but all have failed.
October 14th, 2003.
On this day, a lifelong Cubs fan by the name of Steve Bartman became the franchise’s biggest pariah. He deflected a ball that Moises Alou might have been able to secure, but instead, he caught hell, and another terrifying collapse by the Cubs followed. Bartman was eventually forced to leave Chicago to get away from the vitriol directed at himself and his family.
Perhaps more than any other franchise in baseball, dates seem to carry more significance to the Cubs. And until now, their dates have all come to be banners of futility and failure. That will not change until they win the final game of the season; and at long last, Chicago may finally be on the cusp of exorcising their demons of the past, and defining their franchise by success.
After their victory over the San Francisco Giants, and a game one triumph over the Dodgers, the Cubs find themselves just three wins away from reaching the World Series for the first time since Sianis and his goat became a central focus in Cubs’ lore. Capturing a third World Series title won’t be a significant event just for Chicago, or for baseball, but for the entire sporting world. It would be a moment that an entire generation's worth of fans was never able to witness.
But before looking too far ahead, it’s important to look back on the events that have made the Cubs’ success a possibility. There are three, not yet commemorated dates in recent history that have been essential to the dramatic rebuild of their franchise. Without these events, Chicago would still likely be wallowing helplessly in their inglorious past.
December 6th, 2010.
It was on this day that Theo Epstein acquired Adrian Gonzalez, the man who was supposed to become the Red Sox’s long term first baseman. In exchange for Gonzalez, Boston surrendered a package of Casey Kelly, Reymond Fuentes, Eric Patterson, and Anthony Rizzo.
While Patterson represented nothing more than organization filler, Kelly, Fuentes, and Rizzo were all top 10 prospects in Boston’s system, according to Baseball America. The trade was a classic “blockbuster” exchange, but this deal between the Padres and Red Sox had more intrigue than most, as Jed Hoyer, the GM of the Padres, had played an integral role in Boston’s success, beginning in 2002.
Hoyer had been part of the “Gang of Four” that kept Boston up and running during Theo Epstein’s 10-week absence in 2005, and had clearly been a member of their innermost circle. Hoyer enjoyed unlimited access to the organization, and knew exactly who to ask for when it came time to make a trade with his former boss.
In Rizzo’s minor league career with the Red Sox, he hit .284/.354/.469, with a wRC+ of 126, and a wOBA of .368. His talent was clear, but as is true with all prospects, Rizzo’s future success in MLB wasn't guaranteed; and initially, he looked like a flop. Upon being summoned to the big leagues at the tail end of the 2011 season, Rizzo hit .141/.281/.242 with a wRC+ of 59, and was unrecognizable compared to the hitter he is now; both in production and stature.
His failure to perform, albeit in a meaningless sample size of 59 plate appearances, couldn’t have helped win over the Padres executives that weren’t already indebted to Hoyer. Rizzo simply looked overmatched and lost at the plate, which very likely affected his standing in San Diego’s organization, and made him expendable. That 2011 season was the lone year he spent with the Padres, as he was quickly dealt to Chicago.
In the five seasons since leaving San Diego, Rizzo has been named an All-Star three times, averaged a slash line of .273/.366/.494 with a wRC+ of 135, and blasted 133 home runs. He’s one of the leaders of Chicago’s 103 win-team, and is one of Major League Baseball’s biggest stars.
Had San Diego shown more patience, or before that, had the Red Sox not felt a desperate need to acquire Gonzalez (a move which they came to quickly regret, and ultimately reverse less than two years later), it’s unlikely that Rizzo would be leading Chicago’s charge to the World Series.
September 28th, 2011.
The date that many consider to be the most exciting in baseball’s long history was an unmitigated disaster for the members of the Red Sox. When September began, they held a nine game lead over the Rays, but on September 28th, Boston finished the season trailing Tampa Bay by one game, and were left to watch the playoffs from the comfort of their own homes. It was a collapse of epic proportions, and one that set off a raging fire in Boston’s organization.
Less than a week after the abrupt end to the Red Sox’s season, Terry Francona’s time as manager was over; and the fire in Boston kept burning. While Epstein’s dignity wasn’t decimated in the way that Francona’s was, it became abundantly clear that he couldn’t stay with the Red Sox.
Epstein escaped the fire that had engulfed nearly everyone who called Fenway their home, and found a safe haven in Chicago, where he was named President of Baseball Operations. Boston’s collapse, culminating on September 28th, 2011 didn’t just change the future of the Red Sox, but far more importantly, it provided the Cubs with the architect they so desperately needed. Fourteen days later, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod joined Epstein, and began to lay the groundwork that would eventually turn Chicago into a powerhouse.
June 6th, 2013.
As the MLB Draft approached, one question dominated the headlines: Would the Astros take Stanford’s Mark Appel, or the University of San Diego’s Kris Bryant? On the one hand, Appel had been projected as the number one overall pick just a year earlier, and produced an impressive senior season after failing to sign in 2012.
On the other hand, Bryant possessed eye-popping offensive numbers during a time when college players were struggling to hit for power. Bryant finished his 2013 season with 31 home runs in just 56 games, an impressive feat without any additional context; but with context, his HR total becomes extraordinary, as Bryant single-handedly out-homered 223 D1 teams.
Less than three years after the 2013 draft, Appel is no longer with the Astros, and he has yet to reach the major leagues. As for Bryant, he was called up after 201 games in the minors, and has proceeded to dominate the league. He took home Rookie of the Year honors in 2015, and barring a dramatic upset, he’ll be adding the Most Valuable Player award to his already impressive list of accomplishments. Bryant has become a transcendent talent for Chicago who, along with Rizzo, has helped the Cubs strike fear into the other 29 teams in baseball; but had Houston decided to emphasize offense over pitching, Chicago might be dealing with the consequences of drafting Appel.
We can be certain that these events are leading to a new date that must be recorded in Cubs history. Will it be the date of deliverance to the promised land, or yet another date of failure? Another certainty we can take away is that these events belie the point that a team’s destiny is largely out of management’s control; and that there is no clear path to contention. For decades, the Cubs have been subjected to the pity and ridicule of fans across the globe; but soon that will change as they become exposed to the admiration and envy of the sporting world.