Last summer Major League Baseball polled fans on the most memorable moment in baseball history. It provided a ballot full of suggestions, such as Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, Cal Ripken snapping Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game record (the eventual winner), and Carlton Fisk's game-winning World Series homer in 1975. But none of my own most memorable baseball moments was listed. The Dybzinski Fuckhead Catastrophe came quickly to mind, the ever-clear image of Jerry Dybzinski, hung up between second and third and looking abjectly to the sky, caught in the baserunning boner that killed a seventh-inning rally and left the White Sox scoreless in the fourth game of the 1983 American League championship series, a game they'd lose 3-0 after gallant starter Britt Burns surrendered the leadoff home run to Tito Landrum in the tenth inning that sent the Baltimore Orioles and not the Sox to the World Series. In turn, the picture of Burns trudging to the dugout triggered memories of Steve Garvey pounding a double off the wall against Lee Smith in the fourth game of the following year's National League championship series, a clout that scored the winning run and kept the San Diego Padres alive for the deciding fifth game, which they won with the help of a ball scooting between Leon Durham's legs. This memory was quickly overwhelmed by several images from 1969: Don Young letting a fly ball drop, a black cat running in front of the Cubs' dugout at Shea Stadium, Randy Hundley making a swipe tag at home plate and leaping into the air when the Mets runner was called safe. Who decided that memorable baseball moments had to be triumphant? Ask any Chicago fan, and his or her clearest baseball memory is apt to be an image of defeat. For 85 years, what else have we had?
But I can't remember a year that was more difficult or more disappointing across the board for Chicago fans. To be sure, there have been years when every Chicago franchise was awful or at best mediocre. This year was something else. In true tragedy, greatness is dangled like a sugar drop above a child's mouth and snatched away, and that seemed to be the motif of every sports season. There have been years when the teams were worse, but never when the teams were more deserving of high expectations and more disappointing in failing to meet them.
Go back to New Year's Day. One didn't have to be a University of Illinois alum or even a Fighting Illini fan to feel the frustration of their 47-34 loss to Louisiana State in the Sugar Bowl--though it sure helped if one was. (The only consolation was that the Illini, the surprise Big Ten champs, were spared the humiliation of losing in the Rose Bowl thanks to the shuffling of bowl assignments by the body that sets them up in order to crown a single national champion.) The Bears followed quickly upon that embarrassment. After making the playoffs and clinching home-field advantage and even a bye week with a 13-3 record, they were overmatched against a tougher, hungrier Philadelphia Eagles team that had been tested in battle in the previous week's wild-card win and was armed with a quarterback far more talented than any the Bears have ever had--Donovan McNabb, a Chicago product and Mount Carmel grad to boot.
The Blackhawks made the National Hockey League playoffs for the first time in five years, but after shocking the Blues by winning the first game in Saint Louis, they suffered through a goal drought that went three full games. (The Daily Herald summed up the frustration with the headline "Blankety blank blank.") They finally scored again in the fifth game, and even briefly pulled ahead, before folding up for a season-ending 5-3 loss.
If Chicago fans were irritated by teams that made the playoffs only to humiliate themselves, they didn't know how good they were having it. The Cubs and Sox both embarked on the baseball season with legitimate playoff hopes. The Cubs had a terrific pitching rotation that would soon be bolstered by heralded phenom Mark Prior, their top draft pick out of college the previous year. And they'd added Moises Alou to a lineup that already boasted Sammy Sosa and Fred McGriff. The Sox, meanwhile, had plucked leadoff man Kenny Lofton off the scrap heap and inserted him in center field, while sturdy starter Todd Ritchie had arrived from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
But all Chicago had in store was a season of aggravation. The threatened players strike was narrowly averted when both sides came to their senses at the deadline (a million-to-one shot that somehow came through), but the settlement merely extended the misery of Chicago fans, some of whom had displayed banners pleading with the players to go ahead and strike. There was no single moment on either side of town that signaled the end; it turned out that both teams were flawed in concept from the season's beginning.
Cubs fans hoped the lack of a leadoff man and a dominant closer wouldn't matter to a team with five live arms in the rotation and Sosa, McGriff, and Alou at the heart of the order. They were wrong. Without a proper leadoff man--a hole manager Don Baylor and general manager Andy MacPhail seemed oblivious to--there was no one on base for Sosa to drive in. The image of the Cubs' season was Sosa making that little gesture of salute toward the pitcher with his bat, hunkering down, turning on a pitch and crushing it to deep left center, punctuating the blow with his distinctive hop, arms outstretched, as if to flutter off in pursuit, then rounding the bases, head down, concentrating on touching each bag with those tippy-toe stutter steps, and arriving at home--to be greeted by no one but the batboy and the on-deck hitter. When Sosa wasn't swatting solo home runs, the team struggled to score at all. The defense was porous, and the bullpen blew the few leads the starters handed over to it. (For the season, the Cubs amassed more blown saves than saves.) They were 2-6 before the season was two weeks old, and they bottomed out with a nine-game losing streak that left them 13-27 in mid-May. Baylor, hired for his intensity, went suddenly docile and seemed powerless to alter the team's fortunes. After telling a reporter he couldn't care less whether he was replaced, he was fired in early July. Bruce Kimm was more avid but equally clueless, and he was also sent on his way at the end of the season.
While the Sox' Jerry Manuel survived, he was every bit as ineffectual. If the Cubs sank like a stone, the Sox seemed to drift off like an inattentive swimmer on an air mattress, and Manuel never raised an alarm. They enjoyed a terrific early home stand and went on the road in late April at 12-6, behind only the fast-starting Cleveland Indians (whose early success would prove even more evanescent). The Sox lost the first of four games in Cleveland, then swept the last three, pounding the ball while Ritchie, Dan Wright, and Jon Garland all won. They strayed a bit in May. Ballyhooed 6-foot-10 rookie starter Jon Rauch was hammered by the Seattle Mariners, returned dazed to the bench, and was exiled to the minors immediately afterward. The Sox went on to be swept in Anaheim by the Angels, and when closer Keith Foulke blew a save in the finale he looked equally stunned. (That dazed expression captured the essence of the Sox' season.) Even so, between the descent of the Indians and the ascent of the Minnesota Twins, the Sox were in first place all alone as late as May 25. But then they lost seven straight, including a three-game sweep in Cleveland, and that stretch was followed by a three-game skid, a four-game skid, two more three-game skids, and a final four-game skid--think of a semi, out of control, jackknifing back and forth--that left them 45-54 and 13 games out. Their season was over, and Lofton and Ray Durham were on their way out of town, dealt for prospects.
But the team caught fire with the arrival of rookie third baseman Joe Crede, who hit .285 with 12 homers and 35 runs batted in over the last third of the season as the Sox pulled themselves back to a .500 finish by going 36-27. In hindsight, general manager Kenny Williams's decision to leave Crede in the minors and start the season with Royce Clayton was almost as inexcusable as his dealing promising hurlers Kip Wells and Josh Fogg, who won 24 games between them for the lowly Pirates, to get Ritchie, who wound up exiled to the Sox pen. Maybe Manuel couldn't steer the raft, but it was Williams who pushed it away from shore.
If the flops of the Cubs and Sox left Chicago fans bitter and angry, they in no way prepared anyone for the Bears' downfall. The Bears picked up where they left off last year with a couple of lucky wins, the second one thanks to a missed field goal in the final seconds, then opened a 20-0 lead against the New Orleans Saints. At that point they collapsed, blowing the lead and losing 29-23; it was as if, like Wile E. Coyote, they ran off a cliff and suddenly noticed nothing beneath them but air. They lost close games when the breaks that had gone their way last year didn't; they lost convincingly--as in a Monday-night debacle against the Green Bay Packers in which every play Brett Favre called seemed to produce a huge hole in the line or a wide-open receiver; and they lost another crusher when they blew a big lead against the defending Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots. All this after the Bears had tantalized their fans by moving their summer training camp to nearby Bourbonnais--the gift shop there was like Field's on the weekend before Christmas--only to play their home games in Champaign, two hours down the highway, while Soldier Field was being rebuilt. Through it all, coach Dick Jauron wore an expression that reflected the look of many a Bears fan caught in traffic: calm yet confused, grim and befuddled, accepting misery as if it were simply a return to the normal state of affairs.
Which it somehow was. After all, even the Bears' triumph in Super Bowl XX in 1986 was followed by bitter playoff losses to the Washington Redskins the next two seasons. Though the Bulls and Michael Jordan threatened to change things for good with their run of six championships in eight years in the 90s, Jordan is now in another town and defeat is again a regular companion of the Bulls, who barely merit a mention here because their ineptitude has been no surprise.
I won't waste anyone's time with panegyrics about the Wolves, who won their minor-league hockey championship, or Sosa or Kerry Wood or Magglio Ordonez, who established himself as just maybe the best all-around baseball player in town with a .320 batting average, 38 homers, and 135 RBI. Better to think about Mark Buehrle, who won when the Sox were losing only to stall when the Sox got hot, finishing the year a win shy of his goal of 20 victories.
The thought of turning away never enters a Chicago fan's mind. There's something enduring and somehow life affirming about that--or maybe warped but all too human. Whether we've found a healthy relationship to sustain us from day to day, it's the lost loves, the ones who got away--the defeats--that obsess us in idle moments. Triumph is fun but fleeting; tragedy is a much more compelling aesthetic experience, more memorable and more deeply involving. In Chicago we learn from our losses, savoring every flaw that leads to the loss we know is coming but refuse to acknowledge until its force is fully upon us. The sound of beer cups being popped at Wrigley Field as the "L" flag is raised in the bleachers echoes through the year and from one season to the next, from century to century and millennium to millennium. But it has never been quite as piercing as it was in 2002.