Feature photo credit to Ben Grey.
Fill in the blank: What team best fits in the title of the 2006 TV movie, “Wait ‘Til Next Year: The Saga of the _____?” Here’s a hint: It shouldn’t take you 107 years to figure out the answer.
The phrase that serves as the namesake of that film doubles as a credo for fans of the Chicago Cubs. No team in sports is as familiar with losing, or at least with failing to win it all. “Wait ‘til next year” is a century-old method of coming to terms with the end of another season. It’s disappointment coupled with the comfort of familiarity; it’s optimism at its most timid.
And all of a sudden, it’s something completely different. “Wait ‘til next year” has undergone a fundamental shift in tone. It’s a promise of inevitable glory.
As in, “You think 2015 was good? Wait ‘til next year.” Or perhaps, “The Mets may have gotten past us this time, but just you wait ‘til next year.”
Don’t just take the word of those imaginary Cubs fans, though. Take a glance anywhere around the sports media landscape and you’ll see what I mean.
- “For once, the ‘next year’ the front office is pushing isn’t empty rhetoric. It’s real, and it is spectacular.”–Matt Lindner, Redeye Chicago
- “There will be more terrific seasons to follow, and that’s what’s different about this playoff appearance. This wasn’t a desperate situation. This wasn’t a matter of win now or blow it up or fire the manager. This wasn’t 2003 and ’08. No, this is sustainable. Clip & save: same time, next year, different result.”–Steve Rosenbloom, Chicago Tribune
- “And if history holds, they have a good chance of letting the fans wait ’til next year with some confidence.”–Whet Moser, Chicago Magazine
- “The feeling around the team wasn’t about an ending to a season but about a beginning of something special…The Cubs accomplished a lot, just not everything. That’s what 2016 is for.”–Jesse Rogers, ESPN
- “Next season can’t come soon enough for the Cubs executive after Chicago wrapped up a year he described Thursday as ‘magical.’”–Andrew Seligman, Associated Press
Even the shrinking fatalistic subset of the fanbase, the long-time supporters so adapted to losing they’ve forgotten what it’s like to dream of a better tomorrow, has a faint sprinkle of optimism in their words:
- “It has been 107 years. Frustrating. Cruel. Sad. There’s no happiness. But – even down in the gallows – we’re left with some hope.”–Steve Greenberg, Rolling Stone
No matter how many times the Cubs were described as being “a year ahead of schedule,” it didn’t begin to describe what it felt like to be a fan this season. This near-perfect video comes close:
It has all of Chicago’s important and memorable moments from the regular season. Kris Bryant’s walk-off home run against the Rockies, which jumpstarted the Cubs from the doldrums to 16 wins in its next 18 games. Hector Rondon closing out a four-game sweep of the Giants, giving the Cubs control of the second wild card spot. Anthony Rizzo’s balancing act on the tarp and leap into the seats to snag a would-be foul ball. Addison Russell’s dive and lunging flip to secure a late-season win over the Cardinals. The “Schwarber Game,” when the rookie Kyle Schwarber, trying to stick after making his way back to the majors, hit homers in the ninth to tie and 13th to beat the Reds, making him a fixture in the lineup. And of course, Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter against the Dodgers.
The way the video opens might be the most important shots of all. The sun sets on the 66-96 2013 Cubs, the most unappealing in my decade of fandom, and on the 73-89 2014 team, an underwhelming one notable only for its shift in momentum in the rebuilding movement.
With those years serving as a backdrop, a 97-win 2015 should never have happened, not in the wildest scenarios played out by the preseason projection machines. People looked at me funny every time I predicted Chicago would compete for the second wild card spot, assuming I was viewing the league through Cubs-colored glasses. Maybe so, but I was only eyeballing 86 wins through those lenses.
Thus the bliss that ensued over the next six months. In April, I was genuinely surprised when I would check the score to find the Cubs ahead. The bullpen blew plenty of games that month as they adjusted to competing in later innings, but the mere notion of holding a lead at some point was exciting, as it was a concept forgotten since at least 2009.
The Cubs hovered around five games above .500 for the next couple months. After five straight fifth-place finishes, this was perfectly acceptable. With those low standards, you can only imagine what August through the end of the regular season felt like.
19-9 in August. 19-9 in September. 4-0 in October. It was dizzying, delirium-inducing. Like nothing experienced on the North Side in a long time.
It’s not over either. 2015 may be, thanks to the Herculean efforts of Daniel Murphy and the Mets’ young pitchers, but the after effects are still rippling through the city. The NLCS was a brief interruption of the overwhelmingly positive vibes the Cubs are transmitting. This is the beginning.
Bryant has put dents in the new scoreboard in left field on multiple occasions, and will certainly take the NL Rookie of the Year award. Rizzo, 25, is entering his prime after cranking 31 home runs in 2015, 102 total now under his belt. Russell is rare in that he’s a 21-year-old starting shortstop. He’s even more unique for his mix of stellar defense and surprising power. No one anticipated 13 home runs from Russell, or his two-homer game in September against the Diamondbacks, probably not even Russell.
Schwarber is thoroughly entertaining because of his absurd power, which made him the first Cubs player in history with 16 home runs in his first 52 games. In a 2015 full of fun, jaw-dropping numbers, mostly compiled by Arrieta’s second-half, this one is the most symbolic: Schwarber broke the Cubs’ career record for postseason home runs this year with five bombs. Not home runs in one postseason, mind you; whole career numbers. Again, Schwarber is a rookie. It says a lot about the Cubs’ past and about what’s to come.
Winter is normally a reprieve, a much needed rest from months of endless defeat. This one will be an agonizingly slow crawl to spring training before the Cubs can begin their encore.
Eventually, when April mercifully arrives, there will be more fireworks in store from the Cubs. Everyone will see. Just wait ‘til next year.