Don't expect the Cubs to win just because they're really good

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Fans in the bleachers hold W flags after the Cubs beat the Cincinnati Reds Wednesday. - JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGES
  • Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
  • Fans in the bleachers hold W flags after the Cubs beat the Cincinnati Reds Wednesday.

If and when the Cubs are eliminated from world championship contention this autumn by an inferior team, their heartsick fans need to keep something in mind: the defeat will have nothing to do with karma, or a curse, or the gods amusing themselves at Chicago's expense.

No, injustice will reign because Major League Baseball wants it that way.


Faced with the task of defeating three slightly inferior teams in short series, the Cubs are likely to be upset by one of them. In an earlier era, a pennant rewarded endurance; the pennant winner might not be the strongest team in the league on the last day of the season—recent injuries might have decimated it—but over the long season it had been the best, and nobody begrudged it the trip to the World Series.

But MLB wanted divisions and it wanted wild cards. It wanted fan interest kept at a boil. The price was paid by justice—but isn't it always?

Today's pennant winners might not have been best over the duration, and they might not even have been best when the season came to a close. But they got got hot—and lucky—in the playoffs and survived them. There probably were better teams, but those did not.

I write as a Saint Louis fan. Over my time in Chicago, it has never been enough for the Cardinals to win—the Cubs had to lose. Schadenfreude made me whole, if contemptible. But at this late point in the 2016 season I must own up: these Cardinals are a deeply flawed, dysfunctional team and have been since the first days of spring training, when reporters covering them wondered what the problem was. It's a team that needs to get something out of its system, but that'll be the general manager's job over the winter. It's not going to happen this month.

The Cubs, by contrast, not only have more talent in the clubhouse than the Cardinals do but seem a lot happier and more united. I've never found Chicago's lovable losers to be lovable in the slightest. But this team is something better—it's likable. It reminds me of a ship whose crew swears by its captain and proudly runs up the colors and heads to sea. If these Cubs wind up winning the World Series—well, I won't be as happy as my daughters and my friends and all the neighbors who have taken to putting big Ws in their windows whenever the Cubs win a game. But I'll be happy enough. I'll be fine.

Chances are, though, it won't come to that. Life has always been unfair, That's why sport, though pretty capricious itself, has long been regarded as a meritocracy. But the owners of big-league franchises would rather gin up interest in the product than worry about merit. Merit got the Cubs to where they are this year, but don't count on it to get them the rest of the way.

I speak from experience. The Cardinals have had a pretty terrific century so far, with four pennants and two world championships to show for it. That's about right, given the consistent quality of the team year in and year out. But let's take a closer look.

The 2016 Cubs will wind up with more than 100 wins and the best record in baseball. Last year's Cardinals won 100 games and, as everyone in Chicago remembers, didn't survive their first round of the playoffs. The 2005 Cardinals won 100 games and didn't reach the World Series.

By traditional standards, the two Saint Louis teams that won World Series since the turn of the century had no business being in them. The 2006 Cardinals won 83 games and had only the fifth-best record in the National League, but the Central Division was terrible and they led it. The 2011 Cardinals won 90 games and snagged a wild-card berth on the last day of the season.

At the end of this season, nine other teams will stand between the Cubs and a world championship. One of them might even be the Cardinals. They wouldn't belong in the playoffs, but that's where they'd be, and if they are they could knock off the Cubs as blithely as the Astros knocked off the Cardinals in six games in 2005. Houston finished that season 11 games behind Saint Louis in the NL Central. 

The team with the best record in major league baseball has won that season's World Series twice in this century (the Yankees in 2009 and Red Sox in 2007, when they tied for most wins). Hands down, the 21st century's top regular season record was Seattle's 116-46 mark in 2001. The Yankees knocked out Seattle in five games in the AL Championship Series.

On the other hand, five wild card teams have won World Series since 2000 and another four have lost them. The Cubs' first playoff series will be against a wild card team. Gimmicks can be lethal.

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