It is possible that the most famous NFL team of the last 40 years and the most famous baseball team of the last 40 years both are from Chicago. The 1985 Bears … well, the 1985 Bears are so famous that just typing their name right there got you humming the “Super Bowl Shuffle,” or thinking about your old G.I. Joe Refrigerator Perry figurine, or both. They were recently selected as the greatest NFL team of all time. They’re as large a part of Chicago as the skyline. They’re Da Bears.
But the 2016 Cubs may live on just as long. No franchise and its fanbase in American sports had suffered for as long or for as brutally as the Cubs had, from the Billy Goat to the ball through Leon Durham’s legs to poor Steve Bartman to Sammy Sosa’s bat to all of it. The Cubs winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years felt like an impossible cosmic event, like a wormhole opening in time, or someone inventing cold fusion. And yet it happened, and it happened in the most dramatic way imaginable, in the rain, in Cleveland, in extra innings, after Jason Heyward’s big speech, giving generations of Cubs fans a joyous release they never thought would come. Even this lifelong Cardinals fan cannot deny how moving it was to see Cubs fans writing the names on the Waveland Avenue wall of loved ones who never lived to see the day. It was the biggest story in sports this whole decade. It’s still amazing that it happened.
But if there’s another thing that both those teams’ championships had in common, it’s that each was supposed to only be the beginning. The Bears were heavy favorites to win again in 1986, and the Cubs, famously, were thought to be building a dynasty. The 1985 and 2016 seasons were the launching pads, not the culminations. But those 1985 Bears never did win (or reach) another Super Bowl, something Bears players at the time still argue about. (Dan Hampton says the Bears would have won multiple titles with Jay Cutler as quarterback, which seems unlikely considering he was three years old at the time), and it has always felt like a disappointment: That team was too good not to have won more.
And if they’re not careful: Those 2016 Cubs might just suffer the same fate.
There is considerable turmoil on the North Side these days, perhaps more turmoil than a team currently holding a Wild Card spot and still well in the division race might deserve. But in context, you can understand why it all feels so perilous in Cubs land these days. Ever since they won that 2016 World Series, a title that was supposed to foretell so many more, it has gotten a little bit worse every single year:
2017 -- The Cubs won 11 fewer games than they did in their championship season but still advanced to their third consecutive National League Championship Series, where they fell to the Dodgers, the team that appears to have usurped their NL dynasty label, in five games.
2018 -- Despite leading the division for most of the season, the Cubs fell apart late and were caught from behind by the upstart Brewers, who tied them for the division lead on the final day of the season. The Cubs then lost a tiebreaker game for the division at home and then lost a heartbreaker in extra innings (again at home) in the Wild Card Game to Colorado.
2019 -- The Cubs bounced around the division lead for most of the year – they were up 3 1/2 as recently as Aug. 8 -- before falling off right as the hated Cardinals were getting hot. If the season ended today, the Cubs' winning percentage would be their lowest since 2014, and they're in danger of not just not catching the Cardinals, but being caught from behind by the Brewers, D-backs, Phillies or even the Mets.
All is certainly not lost for this season. Even with the four-game deficit with the Cardinals, they have seven games left with St. Louis, including three at Busch Stadium on the season’s final weekend, and, conveniently, those Cardinals are the only team left on the Cubs’ schedule that has a winning record: They have two more games against the Padres this week, and then six with the Pirates and three with the Reds. If the Cubs are going to come back, they have a tailor-made schedule to do so.
But they’ll have to do it without Javier Baez and with a hobbled Kris Bryant, who hasn’t been the same since injuring his knee on a slide in Cincinnati in late June. And they’ll have to do it under unrelenting pressure from a fanbase that is beginning to wonder if, in fact, 2016 was the peak: If the team, as manager Joe Maddon put it in 2017, has had a “hangover” ever since then. Is this really all there is for the Cubs?
Concerns that the Cubs might blow it all up if they don’t catch the Cardinals -- or if, god forbid, they lose the Wild Card spot all together -- seem somewhat overblown. First off, there are still the playoffs to consider, if they’re to sneak in: It has only been five years since both Wild Card winners made the World Series after all. But even if they do fall short, it is not like the cupboard is bare. Javier Baez is going to be here for several years, as are Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Hendricks and Willson Contreras and all sorts of other young stars who have provided the foundation of these winning teams. The Cubs' farm system has been thinned, but they still have Nico Hoerner (who has already made a striking debut with the team) and a smart baseball operations team that revived this whole organization by finding and nurturing young talent. They also have a deeply loyal fanbase and an ownership group with deep pockets, whether or not they’re always willing to reach into them. The Cubs aren’t going anywhere.
But this run? With this crew? It’s reasonable to think this is certainly the end of something. Maddon’s contract famously runs out at the end of this season, and even if the Cubs go on some sort of October run, the rumors that he won't return still persist. Speaking of rumors, the idea that the Cubs might consider trading Bryant before he hits free agency after the 2021 season has gained more and more steam in recent weeks. And when you look at what the Red Sox just did, the notion of a signature MLB franchise taking a step back and reorganizing the way it’s structured as it faces potential luxury tax concerns doesn’t seem like the craziest thing in the world. Maybe it’s Maddon, maybe it’s Bryant, maybe it’s even Theo Epstein and company, but it sure feels like something is going to change in Chicago this offseason.
Which means these last couple of weeks could be the end of it. Either they catch the Cardinals -- which is anything but impossible, and shouldn’t be treated as such -- or they sneak into the Wild Card or they fall out of the playoffs entirely. This is the final chapter, one way or another, in one of the greatest baseball stories of all time. These Cubs have already secured their place in Chicago’s history, and baseball’s history. Like the 1985 Bears, we’ll never forget them. The question is whether that will ultimately be all we remember them for. The next three weeks will tell us for certain.