By Ed Graney
The Las Vegas Review-Journal
CHICAGO — So this is sports in the Windy City:
Just outside Wrigley Field at the corner of Addison and Clark, a short toss from the iconic red marquee over the main entrance to where the Cubs have broken hearts for the better part of 100 years, is a guy who hawks T-shirts.
It was an hour or so before first pitch Friday, and one of the items for sale had a picture of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler on the front, holding a gun to his head.
The shirt read: 20 Bucks Says He Misses.
Had the teenage daughter back home not begged for a Kris Bryant jersey — here we go with the latest celebrity crush; where have you gone Harry Styles? — I might have had enough cash to buy the thing.
Halloween and all, you know.
But while many here root for Cutler’s imminent demise as another NFL season looms, such defeatist thoughts have been replaced with ones of optimism regarding the city’s baseball team on the North Side.
Mel Douglas is retired and living in Lisle, Ill., a village in DuPage County of not more than 23,000 souls and once ranked the 20th-best place to live nationally for the rich and single. He was born here and raised on the Cubs, a purist in all things Wrigley Field and Ernie Banks.
Douglas wasn’t at the World Series game here when Babe Ruth supposedly called his shot and then hit Charlie Root’s next pitch for a home run, but he knows the legend. He understands decades of waiting until next year, of the irony that if the confines of such an historic ballpark are so damn friendly, why hasn’t it produced more positive moments for the beloved home team?
Losing isn’t lovable.
“I don’t believe in any curse,” Douglas said. “I believe in talent.”
He was smiling while departing this particular afternoon game early, the Cubs on their way to a laugher of a 14-5 victory against the Diamondbacks, another step toward what is looking more and more like a wild-card playoff berth out of the ridiculously good National League Central, where the Pirates are even more a certain wild-card bet and the Cardinals haven’t lost a game since 2010.
Or maybe it just seems that way.
Pittsburgh, in fact, would be leading every other division except the American League Central, but that’s only because the Royals clinched the title in April.
Or, well, maybe it just seems that way.
But as impressive as St. Louis and Kansas City have been, theirs are the sort of successful seasons most expected during spring training. You can’t say the same for the Cubs, but a funny thing happened on the way to yet again not being good enough.
Next year became this year.
“It’s exciting and something to look forward to every day,” said Brent Cumbee, a 29-year old Cubs fan from Indiana who made the 90-minute drive Friday to watch the rout of Arizona. “We are back and it’s awesome. I believe in the curse for the Red Sox, but not for the Cubs. I don’t think we’ve been managed well enough to be cursed.”
That’s no longer the case, not since the Cubs signed Joe Maddon seemingly five seconds after he opted out of his contract with Tampa Bay (probably even before that, wink, wink) and assured themselves of employing one of the game’s best and brightest leaders for years to come.
The Cubs are fun to watch and full of young stars like Bonanza High product Bryant at third base and Anthony Rizzo at first and Addison Russell up the middle and Jorge Soler in the outfield. All are 26 or younger.
And there is pitcher Jake Arrieta, who recently no-hit the Dodgers and has an ERA of under 1 in his last 15 starts.
It doesn’t just seem that way. It’s true.
You know things are a big deal, not to mention insanely ridiculous, when two reporters from Las Vegas are denied credentials for a Friday game against awful Arizona because the media relations folks with the Cubs cite, “There is too much going on around here.”
What, it takes more than one lackey to bring Maddon his daily hoagie?
But the Cubs are winning, and that’s all the faithful care about. They don’t want to talk curse and those who spoke Friday have long forgotten Steve Bartman and that fateful incident in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series against the Marlins in 2003. None blamed Bartman for reaching out and deflecting a foul ball Moises Alou might have caught. None had a bad word to say about the fan whose life changed for the worse in an instant.
“We had chances to win that game and Game 7 in the series,” Cumbee said. “Too much was made of one guy.”
Are you sensing a certain theme?
Wrigley Field is alive and well and partying and sparkling new in many places, with major steps in a $575 million renovation project already completed around the ivy-colored brick outfield wall and hand-turned scoreboard. Sure, the wind still howls off Lake Michigan and they still soak each other and at times opposing players with suds from the bleachers, but there is far more to this team than that fancy monster video board Bryant cracked a 495-foot homer off of Sunday, the longest in the majors this season.
There is a feeling that maybe, just maybe, Marty McFly and that 2015 trip in “Back to the Future II” might prove prophetic for a team that last won a World Series in 1908. Two years later, Samuel Clemens died.
Yeah, Mark Twain.
Yeah, that long ago.
It’s impossible to walk several feet around the concourse without seeing the back of another jersey, names past and present, today’s stars and yesterday’s heroes.
Santo. Bryant. Soto. Rizzo. Russell. Grace. Prior. Wood. Sandberg. Lilly. Smith. Zambrano. Ramos. Maddux. Lester. Ramirez. Jackson. Dawson. Lee.
And, of course, Banks.
And those were just the jerseys in line for the bathroom.
“This season,” said Christine Seagal, a lifetime Cubs fan from nearby Pullman, “has restored our faith.”
The same can’t be said for Jay Cutler.
Ed Graney can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him: @edgraney.
Ed Graney: Rising Cubs turn defeatism into optimism
By Ed Graney