CHICAGO—As Steve Fenster watched Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta hit a three-run homer off Giants ace Madison Bumgarner in the top of the second inning of Game 3 of the NLDS on Oct. 10 to give Chicago a 3–0 lead, he cheered for only a fraction of a second. The lifelong Cubs fan had visions of a sweep of San Francisco—until he remembered and froze. The last time a Chicago starting pitcher hit a postseason home run, he knew, was Kerry Wood’s two-run blast in Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS. The Cubs lost that game and the series to the Florida Marlins, and they haven’t been that close to the World Series since.
Chicago did indeed blow that Game 3 against the Giants last week, but it put together a ninth-inning comeback to clinch the NLDS the next night. Two days later, Amanda Greska spent much of the day texting her husband the lyrics to Eddie Vedder’s Cubs tribute “All the Way.” A Chicago native now living in Cleveland, Greska endures coworkers’ glares at the photo of Kris Bryant she has posted on her desk. When she finished with the lyrics that day, she told her husband she wouldn’t be able to handle her favorite team losing.
For Game 1 of the NLCS against the Dodgers at Wrigley Field last Saturday, Ashvin Lad arrived later than usual. The longtime season-ticket holder had a friend’s wedding the same night, but he managed to squeeze the game in between the ceremony and the end of the reception. He wore a jersey over his suit, and because the Cubs won, he resolved he’d have to wear a suit again to his seats in Section 527 for Game 2 on Sunday.
The long-suffering Cubs are hardly the first baseball team to incite superstitions and angst among their fans. From gestures as simple and ingrained as the rally cap to bizarre postseason occurrences that have sparked fad followings—remember the Angels' rally monkey in 2002, or the Cardinals' rally squirrel in '11?—baseball is rife with behavior that, in a vacuum, would seem downright mental. But among all the curse-afflicted fan bases, it’s the victims of the Curse of the Billy Goat who take nerves and ritual to a new level, spending this postseason gnawing fingernails, looking for patterns and wondering what it’ll mean if even this team can’t win the big one.
Of course there are exceptions, but to be both totally sane and a Cubs fan this October has become increasingly rare. Still, 29-year-old Kurt Anders looks at the numbers and the roster and feels that loyalty and common sense should trump nerves. "The curses, and the history, you really have to throw it all out,” he says. “You can not turn your back on this team."
But for many Chicagoans, curses and bad luck go hand-in-hand with love for their favorite team. Jon Zaghloul, a junior at Victor J. Andrew High in Tinley Park, a southwest suburb of Chicago, started his own sports website and has been a Cubs fan his entire life. He may be young, but he still knows that sense of foreboding. "You have to be excited for this year's team, but you always have to keep in the back of your mind that this is the Chicago Cubs,” he says. “This is a team that hasn't won a World Series in 108 years. It's give and take."
But even if all fans can’t agree on how to treat their team’s past, most agree on one thing: They didn’t think the Cubs would be this good, this fast. The first season of the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer regime, in 2012, Chicago lost 101 games. Three years later, a reconstructed roster led by new manager Joe Maddon won 97 games and beat the rival Cardinals in the Division Series to reach the NLCS. This year, the Cubs led the majors with 103 wins, won the NL Central by 17 1/2 games and are three wins away from the franchise's first World Series berth since 1945. Last season felt like a bonus, Fenster says; when his team was swept by the Mets in the NLCS, he recovered quickly. "One of the hidden benefits,” he says, “was there was no point where they really came close."
This season has brought none of those comforts of cheering for the upstart—and with supremacy has come a new batch of nerves. The Cubs' victory total this year was the most by the franchise since 1910, the most in the majors this decade and eight more than the next-closest team this year. They tossed the Giants in four games in the NLDS, displaying impressive poise that suggests this team is not burdened by the franchise's past. Still, the idea of failure nags at fans, playoff randomness be damned. "When you have 103 wins and you play great defense and have great pitching and know you're so much better than every other team, you can't be that team that doesn't win it all now,” Lad says. “We'd hear it from Cardinals fans. We'd hear it from White Sox fans. I don't think we can deal with that."
There’s another strain of worry creeping up on the North Side, too: the dreaded window. Fans wonder what will happen to closer Aroldis Chapman, a rental from the Yankees for whom the Cubs gave up four young players, and to starting pitcher John Lackey, who turns 38 this month. Chicago may never again have a pitching staff like this one, and Al Yellon, a lifelong Cubs fan who’s now the managing editor of bleedcubbieblue.com, says his team has to take the next step now. That’s where his nerves originate: not from curses or from the nightmare of a Steve Bartman 2.0, but from the simple logistics of roster construction. "They have to win now, because they have raised expectations so high,” Yellon says. “It's hard to say this, but I think if they don't at least get to the World Series, this season is a failure. They've gotten so far."
This century, only one 100-win team—the 2009 Yankees—has won a World Series, and only three times in that span has the team with baseball’s best record come out on top. These are statistics best not shared with the Cubs fans in your life. Let them dwell on the number 108 and its mystical properties. (No, really: It’s been 108 years since the team won a World Series; there are 108 stitches on a baseball; Javy Baez’s home run that provided the only run of Chicago's postseason opener in NLDS Game 1 came on the game’s 108th pitch. This is Illuminati-level stuff.) Urge them to enjoy this. Because yes, there are windows, and yes, there is randomness, but a loss to the best pitcher on the planet (see Kershaw, Clayton, NLCS Game 2) doesn’t need to induce panic, and no one should have to be all bound up in a suit-jersey straitjacket of sorts.
The Cubs’ first loss this postseason was gut-wrenching—a 6–5, 13-inning affair in San Francisco in which they were five outs away from clinching the series only to blow a one-run lead. When they entered the top of the ninth inning of Game 4 trailing 3–0, leaving the Giants three outs from tying the series, the city of Chicago nearly slid off its foundation into Lake Michigan. When the Dodgers tied the first game of the NLCS in the eighth inning, Joe Buck could have held a conversation with Bryant from the press box and heard him just fine in the nervous silence.Now that that series has shifted to Los Angeles tied at one game apiece—in effect a best-of-five in which the Dodgers have home field advantage—there are more nervous moments ahead.
The lows can come without warning, and they run deep. But with every hit, every stolen base, every diving play and every comeback, the city has combusted. Wrigley shakes. It’s almost like they can’t believe it, these hundreds of thousands of Cubs fans—almost. Because this year, no matter the history and the nerves gone haywire, they believe.