As spring nears, it's time to talk baseball rather than injustice, though the two are intertwined when it comes to the Chicago Cubs. But I'm not going to use this space to whine about predictable Cubs issues, such as 104 years and counting or the latest rebuilding project.
No, today's subject is more deeply philosophical, even existential: The Ex-Cub Factor and the nature of Cubness.
Thirty-one years ago, freelance journalist and Cubs fan Ron Berler began a noble quest to determine why playing for Chicago's National League ball club not only affected its fortunes, but potentially the future success or failure of every other major league team. Those were the days before instant statistics, so Berler had to methodically comb through team rosters going back to 1946, the year after the Cubs last played in the World Series (losing, of course.)
What he found was astonishing. "It is utterly impossible for a team with three or more ex-Cubs to win the Series," Berler wrote. The stats back him up. For 54 consecutive seasons, no team in either league won baseball's holy grail if it had at least three former Cubs on its World Series roster. A possible exception was the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, but one of its three ex-Cubs was Dick Groat, an oft-traded veteran who played only briefly with the boys in blue.
Dubbing his discovery the Ex-Cub Factor, Berler sought to explain it by interviewing former players. "Cubness is a term one encounters again and again," he reported. "It is synonymous with the rankest sort of abject failure, and is a condition chronic among all Cubs."
Jim Brosnan, a Cubs pitcher in the 1950s, put it this way: "You have to have a certain dullness of mind and spirit to play here. I went through psychoanalysis, and that helped me deal with my Cubness." First baseman Pete LaCock, who escaped the Cubs in 1976, told Berler that "I had to be de-Cubbed. When you play with the Cubs, it's like playing with heavy shoes on."
But how could Cubness possibly afflict players on a different team? Legendary columnist Mike Royko, who popularized Berler's findings, offered a theory. When a team has three ex-Cubs, a "horrible virus comes together and multiplies and becomes so powerful it makes the other players weak, nearsighted, addle-brained, slow-footed and lacking in hand-eye coordination," Royko wrote.
Is there a cure? Apparently, the passage of time may help. Despite the eerie reliability of the Ex-Cub Factor between the end of World War II and the turn of the 21st century, the streak ended dramatically in 2001. That's when the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team with four ex-Cubs (Mark Grace, Miguel Batista, Mike Morgan and Luis Gonzalez), beat the New York Yankees on a Game 7 walk-off single by Gonzalez. After the game, Grace gushed to reporters about something even bigger than defeating the mighty Yanks, winning the championship and going to Disney World: "We beat the ex-Cub Factor!" he declared.
In 2008, the Ex-Cub Factor failed again when the Philadelphia Phillies (with ex-Cubs Scott Eyre, Jamie Moyer and Matt Stairs) thrashed the Tampa Bay Rays. And last year's champs, the San Francisco Giants, swept the series -- despite playing with fire by adding ex-Cub Ryan Theriot to a roster that already included former Cubs Xavier Nady and Angel Pagan.
What's going on, I wondered? Is Newton's Law of Gravity next to fall?
To find out, I caught up with Ron Berler in the midst of a tour to promote his new book, Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America's 45,000 Failing Public Schools. It's a compelling read, filled with insights and inspiration, the best book of its kind since Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here.
Berler didn't mind the interruption, always game for a chat about the Cubbies. "Hmmm," he replies when asked what's up with his theory. "These last few ex-Cub debacles have pretty much killed it off," he finally says. But Berler will not abandon the notion of Cubness, and in fact he believes it may have paradoxically undermined the Ex-Cub Factor.
"Beginning in 2001, the weight of Cubness got to be too much, even for ex-Cubs, to the point where they are now powerless to affect the outcome of World Series games," he speculates. "This leaves future world championships to be determined by merit, a most unlikely outcome for patronage-first Chicago."
Asked if he still roots for the Cubs, Berler replies, "I'm still a Cubs fan, but like many of us, I can't tell you why." He adds, "The current Cub I root for most is the closer, Carlos Marmol. I root for him to be traded."
But even if Marmol goes, Berler does not hold much hope for the team's future. "Mike Royko once told me after the Tribune Company purchased the team, 'They're going to win now. You watch. These guys won't put up with failure,'" Berler recalls. "Well, how did that work out? And why would anyone expect [Cubs President] Theo Epstein to have any more clout than the Trib?"
Before wishing Berler well on the book tour, I point out that he's now writing about a failing school after writing about a failing baseball franchise. Any connection?
"Nope," he says. "The primary difference between a failing Cubs team and a failing school is there's actually a reason to pull for the failing school."