Love or Hate - The 2016 World Series is a Special One
I follow the media and fan trends as much if not more than I follow players, teams or standings. I am fascinated by the lovers, the haters and the bandwagon effect and thats why I can't stop thinking about this World Series. I have been writing this blog in my head for a couple of weeks and there are two things that I keep focusing on.
First, who are fans rooting for and who SHOULD you be rooting for, the Cleveland Indians or the Chicago Cubs? Second, who are you rooting against? Social Media and the explosion of the internet has created a lot of love out here, but it has also given haters a place to express themselves and they do it with vigor and venom.
Chicago Cubs v. Cleveland Indians
As far as who to root FOR, we have ourselves a dilemma this year because fans should be rooting for both, but you have to pick one. Are you rooting for the 2016 battered and bruised underdog Cleveland Indians or are you sympathetic to the historical narrative and want the Cubs to end the drought even though they have been the presumptive World Series favorite all season?
The Cubs have the Goat, Bartman, Harry Caray and the longest World Series drought in baseball, but they are Goliath. The city of Cleveland has been a lovable loser for decades in every sport and it is easy to empathize with them for that (2015-2016 Cavaliers not withstanding). The Indians have had their own title chances end in heartbreak resulting in a World Series drought of their own and in 2016, they are David. If not for the Cubs World Series drought the Indians would be the nations favorite story, but they do have that ace in their hole. Who Ya Got? Here are the pros and cons.
Theo Epstein got aggressive starting in 2015 and went all in this offseason to bring a championship to Wrigley. He doled out big money free agent contracts to Jon Lester in 2015, and Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist while also investing more than a few nickels on Dexter Fowler and John Lackey this offseason. Then Epstein doubled down when he traded uber-prospect Gleyber Torres to the New York Yankees for the right to rent Aroldis Chapman.
Nobody blames them for that, in fact, they were praised for it. It was a smart move that they had to make, but the rich got richer is what that move says. Traditionally, fans don't like when a team tries to buy a World Series, but, the Cubs are histories underdog. They are a legendary, lovable franchise with a historic ball park and decades of Harry Caray memories intertwined in the fabric of the Cubbies legacy.
To add struggle and grit to the story, they have had heartbreaking disappointments that fans of all teams can empathize with. Its a narrative that baseball fans can feel good about rooting for, but if there is a 2016 version of the Evil Empire, the Cubs are wearing the Darth Vader helmet speaking with a raspy voice. They are the clear favorite and they invested top dollar to acquire that ring, a narrative fans aren't instinctively inclined to be drawn to.
The Cubs entered 2016 as the perennial favorite on paper and then they proved the prognosticators right by finishing the regular season with the best record (103 wins), the best Team Era (3.15), they scored the third most runs (808) and allowed the fewest runs scored in baseball (556). However, during the National League Series against the San Francisco Giants the Cubs made themselves look somewhat vulnerable, a little less Goliath, when they blew game three and it looked like they were going to lose game four.
The fact that they made a late inning comeback from three runs down makes them feel a little more miracle and a little less inevitable, but only a little. Then, they made themselves look even more beatable when they were down 2-1 to a depleted and undermanned Los Angeles Dodgers team, but that was short lived. They turned on the gas and rolled over the Dodgers in games four and five, capping it off by shaming Clayton Kershaw to punch their ticket to the World Series.
Instead of looking more beatable they reminded us how good they can be by punishing them and against the best pitcher on the planet. If you ever thought that maybe the Cubs weren't a force in these playoffs they pulled the football out from under Charlie Browns kick in dominant fashion.
The Cubs are clearly the favorite but the Indians aren't the biggest underdog we have ever seen on the national sports playoff scene. There were pundits and sports media that predicted the Indians would win the Central Division and make it to the World Series. It felt at the time more like a contrarian selection, like predicting Mookie Betts would be the AL MVP, but it was more plausible than it was a Hail Mary. There were reasons to think it "could" happen, even if it wasn't the highest percentage play in Vegas.
A pitching staff of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar along with relievers like Brian Shaw and Cody Allen stacked up well in the pitching depleted American League and they became even stronger when Andrew Miller was added at the trade deadline. With players like Francisco Lindor, power hitting Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley (who was originally expected to return in the first six weeks of the season) the offense wasn't expected to be a league leader, but it had some pieces.
They added Mike Napoli in free agency, a signing I thought was a terrible overpay that represented dead money for a low budget franchise, but I couldn't have been more wrong. They also had their secret weapon, Jose Ramirez, who might be the most under appreciated player of the 2016 season and along with Mike Napoli might be why the Indians will be playing on Halloween.
Imagine what this team could be in this series if Jonathan Lucroy didn't reject a trade to Cleveland at the deadline and if 2014/2015 Michael Brantley was healthy and producing. The Indians are the underdog and their cinderella story is enhanced by their injuries, but they dominated the Red Sox and Blue Jays to get here, making them look a lot more formidable and a lot less like a long shot. Winning Game #1 convincingly confirms this fact.
The larger point is that it makes it easier for fans feeling obligated to root for the Cubs to feel good about it if it looks like the Cubs are going to have to earn it rather than walk over a significantly inferior opponent. That being said, the Indians are inferior on paper and they are without any doubt the clear underdog and they are a narrative that is easy to be drawn too.
All this being said, I am not sure who I am rooting for. I can't make this decision with rational thought and statistical analysis. I am going to watch and see which story I feel while it is happening. When I saw the Indians winning Game #1 in the late innings I felt myself pulling for Andrew Miller to get out of that jam, while I also felt good about rooting for the Cubs when they were walking away with Game #2. This could change game to game and moment to moment for me.
I can envision rooting for the Cubs and hoping they deliver a title to Wrigley only to feel drawn to an underdog Indians playing good baseball, overcoming the odds and giving Goliath his comeupins in the same game. I can see it. I could even see rooting for the Indians early in the series, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for them as they win a couple early games, and then all of a sudden the Cubs storm back like they did against the Giants and earning it like true champions have to. Its a gut wrenching call. Whats an easier call? Who can feel justified hating on the Cubs, not because they love the Indians or want them to win, but because they want the Cubbies to lose.
Haters love to hate, often times with more passion and intensity than lovers love. We have seen this firsthand in this years Presidential election. Here are some Fan bases that have a justifiable, or at least understandable, case for hating on the Cubs this World Series.
* Boston Red Sox Fans
Sox fans are loyal, they are vocal and sometimes they can be vengeful and this year they have an interesting brew of stew to churn their impassioned emotions. There are a lot of Ex-Red Sox participating inside and outside the lines of this World Series and that makes for an interesting crossroads for Boston fans to navigate.
Inside the lines there is Jon Lester, John Lackey, David Ross, Mike Napoli, Andrew Miller, Coco Crisp, Marlyn Bird and Anthony Rizzo who was traded by Theo Epstein to the San Diego Padres in the Adrian Gonzalez deal and then re-acquired by Epstein with the Cubs in the Andrew Cashner trade.
Outside the lines the Cubs have Ex-Red Sox management President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein, Executive Vice President, General Manager Jed Hoyer and Senior VP of Player Development and Amateur Scouting Jason McLeod. Another ex-Red Sox working outside the lines for the Cleveland Indians is Manager Terry Francona.
The feel in Boston isn't that of revenge or spite for the players or even Terry Francona, who left Boston amidst rumors and scandal. A multiple of different accusations were thrown around, dirt was dished and the sense amongst Boston media was that Red Sox ownership tried its best to tarnish Franconas reputation with leaks of inappropriate behavior. It didn't seem to damage any reputations because fans aren't rooting against the ex-players or Francona, but there is a sentiment that Red Sox fans don't want Epstein to win another World Series with another organization, especially the Cubs because of their storied history.
Fans aren't expressing negativity, criticism, hate or feelings of revenge against Epstein for leaving Boston, but there is an undercurrent of sentiment that Red Sox fans want Epstein's biography to be about his days in Boston and Boston alone. There is a narrative that if Epstein can win a World Series with two of major league baseballs storied franchises that his legacy will be epically historic and that his Red Sox days might be the foundation of that legacy, but his tenure with the Cubs will be the crowning achievement and the one he is best remembered for.
Who knows if the story of Theo Epstein will be told that way, but in Boston you can sense a hope that the Cubs don't win the World Series so that Epstein can be "all ours." You got a sense of this kind of "ownership" effect by fans when Tiger Woods mixed race was a hot topic. On Oprah Winfrey's show, if I recall correctly, an African-American woman said something to the effect of, "he's black. he's ours," even though he is of mixed race.
You also hear comments about Dan Duquette's contributions to that first Red Sox first championship. Current Baltimore Oriole and previous Boston Red Sox General Manager Dan Duquette signed Manny Ramirez and traded for Pedro Martinez as well as Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek, all significant contributors to that first World Series championship.
Comments like this are relevant, Duquette doesn't receive enough credit for the pieces he left for Epstein to build around, but to raise those issues now is a clear attempt to minimize Epsteins accomplishments in Boston and a subtle sign that Sox fans want to own Epstein's legacy all to themselves rather than share him with the Cubs and if they feel like that is slipping away then at least they can minimize Epstein's accomplishment here before he cements his legacy with what he does in Chicago.
It is understandable that Sox fans feel a sense of ownership of Epstein. It happens with players that have long careers with one organization only to finish their careers somewhere else. We see it in the Hall of Fame voting as well when fans and media debate about what hat a player will wear when he is inducted into Cooperstown. Sox fans want Theo Epstein's Hall of Fame induction ceremony to be about his legacy in Boston and its understandable that they would do some hating in this series as a result.
* Chicago White Sox Fans
Imagine if the Black Sox never were the Black Sox. Imagine that Eddie Cicotte refused to lose for money and instead, the White Sox went on a historic run of World Series dominance, establishing a dynasty something like what we now have with the New York Yankees. Would the current Chicago White Sox be second fiddle in the Windy City? The White Sox won a World Series in 1906, 1917, they lost on purpose in 1919, won 96 games and finished second in 1920, lost the World Series in 1959 to the Dodgers and from 1952-1965 finished third or better in the standings twelve times. In more recent times, they won the Western division in 1993, the Central division in 2000, 2008 and in 2005 when they won the World Series.
The Cubs, on the other hand, have been less competitive for the most part, but what makes their story so easy to empathize with is that they have tied or lost 10 world series and haven't even been to one since 1945. This year is the eighth time the Cubs have been to the playoffs, without a World Series appearance, since 1945.
An argument can be made that the White Sox are the more successful franchise and if they had a White Sox dynasty to be proud of instead of a Black Sox legacy to live down maybe they would be the pride of the City instead of "that other" Chicago team. Chicago is a tough town to be the White Sox. The Bulls and the Blackhawks have multiple championships and legacies of success that will never be forgotten and the Cubbies are the sentimental, lovable losers.
Its understandable for White Sox fans to feel slighted, disrespected and certainly under appreciated. Anyone in that position would be hard pressed to turn the cheek and root with gusto for the success of the team that receives the attention that they crave and feel they deserve. Greek tragedies are based on this relationship. I can see White Sox fans hating on the Cubs and rooting for Francona and his Indians, especially since their story is such a compelling one. Their fans can feel more justified and less guilty than Red Sox fans for hating on the team that almost everyone else is rooting for.
* Chicago Cubs Fans
This is a nuanced argument to make and one where I need to wrap you up like a pretzel and contort you in such a way to have it make any sense and even then I need you to travel in a time machine to truly feel it, even if you can sort of understand the point. But, I am going to give it a whirl and see where we come out.
As a Red Sox fan I was hurt when they blew their chance against the New York Mets in '86, but I wasn't crushed. The Larry Bird led Boston Celtics loss to the Lakers in those same 80's hurt more and I don't even like the NBA. Then, after years of desperation and disappointment, I almost came to tears when Aaron "Bleepin" Boone hit that horrific extra inning home run off Tim Wakefield in 2003. I pounded my car steering wheel and yelled at how much I hated the Red Sox for doing this to us. My point; I cared a lot - more than anyone should over the win or loss of a sporting event.
Then we won in 2004 and it was glorious. I was ecstatic and had a grin from ear to ear for a week. I yelled out my front door "WOOHOOO" when we won the final World Series game and were the World Champions. The following year I thought we had a chance to go back-to-back and instead we were swept by the Chicago White Sox and I didn't really care. In 2007 and 2013 I knew we would beat the Colorado Rockies and St. Louis Cardinals.
We weren't the better team in 2013 and if not for David Ortiz's historic series and the Detroit Tigers horrific bullpen we probably wouldn't have been in the World Series, never mind win it 4-2. But, in both of those World Series victories I had no real fear or nerves. I knew we were going to win only because I wasn't emotionally invested in the same, intense way I was in '86, 2003 or 2004.
We had won and now winning wasn't such a big a deal. I was desensitized by finally winning something I had wanted for so long. The Red Sox had become a team I cared for, but the bond wasn't as tight and the emotions weren't as raw. Thats what will happen to Cubs fans if they win this World Series.
The Cubs have a great management team led by Theo Epstein, they have a strong farm system, they are an extremely young and talented team at the major league level and they have the resources to add to that core if they need to. This team not only should win this World Series, they should win two or three, just like my Red Sox did. I can understand how Cubs fans are starving for that ultimate victory and if I could go back I would still, gladly and without hesitation, take that 2004 championship, but it won't be the same once you win.
The Cubs are your team and you want them to win every year, but you don't NEED it as much and you won't care anywhere near as much if you fall short after you finally get what you have wanted for what feels like forever. I am not suggesting that Cubs fan should or will be rooting for their team to lose this World Series, but I have to say that ten years from now, after you have finally won one, you will miss the intensity of the emotions you felt when Bartman cost you the title. I still hate Aaron "Bleepin" Boone, but I miss how much I cared for my Red Sox that year. The Indians swept us this year and instead of anger over not winning the World Series I was more disappointed in the poor the Sox effort. Losing wasn't what mattered, how we lost did. Its not the same after you win.
I expect this series to be a really good one and what is truly great about this years World Series is that both stories are positive and both are great narratives. The underdog Indians overcoming the odds to win a championship under the management of a guy as well liked as Terry Francona or the Chicago Cubs finally winning the big one. You can't go wrong with whatever narrative we ultimately see unfold.
Even better, its visceral. Fathers and sons and hopefully daughters too, will sit in front of their televisions debating the bullpens and the big at bats and they will feel themselves pulling for one side or the other. We won't be rooting for one team because we hate the other like America is in our presidential election, we will be sincerely cheering for a great story. Supporting one side rather than rooting against the other is so much better than what we often get and this World Series that is what we have. Enjoy this Series - we deserve it this way a lot more often than we get it.