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By Jonathan Alter

*This column originally appeared in Newsweek magazine and is reprinted with the author's permission.

The T shirt reads: "ANY TEAM CAN HAVE A BAD CENTURY." I liked that sentiment until I realized that it might apply to this century, too. In the 1960s, I grew up a few blocks from Wrigley Field and got badly infected. In the 1975 World Series, I was in Fenway Park when Carlton Fisk hit his famous but ultimately futile homer in Game 6 for the Red Sox, my favorite AL club. Last week both teams choked with three-run leads and only five outs to go before bringing a pennant to their famished fans. Call me a two-time loser.

Actually, call me a combined 180-season loser still plumbing the depths of masochistic superstitional narcissicism.

On Wednesday, after witnessing the excruciating eight-run eighth, I asked 500 kids at Chicago's Francis W. Parker School how many blamed themselves in some way for the collapse. Had they worn something different that day? Eaten a new snack in front of the TV? Sat on the couch instead of the chair? Nearly three quarters raised their hands. Of course, the Cub swoon wasn't their fault but mine, as always. This is the lot of all sports fans, especially in Godforsaken places like Chicago and Boston. We only destroy the ones we love.

The defining characteristic of fanaticism--in the Middle East or the Middle West--is that it turns reality on its head. We convince ourselves that we somehow influence how superstars put runs on the board. But when it comes to something in our own lives, we assume we're powerless to change the outcome. We can control Pedro Martinez's pitching but can't possibly prevent ourselves from reaching for another potato chip.

Illustration by Tim Souers (http://www.cubby-blue.com/)
This is one reason "The Fan" in Chicago took so much abuse for the sixth-game fiasco that he may have to go into the Witness Protection Program. Instead of blaming Alex Gonzalez for booting a grounder or Mark Prior for throwing a wild pitch or even the umpire for not calling interference, Chicagoans settled on 26-year-old "Steve Bartman." I don't believe that's his real name. It's too perfect a combination of Bart Simpson and Everyman.

My colleague Mark Starr suggests on his NEWSWEEK.com sports blog that the Cubs were dead when they, too, bought into fan narcissism. "It was [Moises] Alou's finger-pointing [that] helped put the Cubs in the psychic crapper," he writes. "With their heads out of the ballgame and back in the stands contemplating the baseball cosmos," they were toast.

Whether jinxed by barring a billy goat from Wrigley Field in 1945 or selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920, losers need curses. "If there's a curse, the universe has deep meaning and order," says Bill Savage, who teaches English at Northwestern. "If it's just that the [team] is bad or unlucky, it's the abyss."

Then the abyss it is. It was the Marlins, not the Billy Goats, who beat the Cubs. It was Boston manager Grady Little, not the Bambino, who inexplicably kept starter Pedro Martinez in the game when any fourth grader knew it was time to pull him. The players I interviewed last week all went to pains to nix the hex, with a Cubs corporate den master saying officially, "We're out of the goat business."

And yet "the past isn't dead, it isn't even past," as William Faulkner wrote. Sammy Sosa's denial of any extra pressure was too vehement to be believable, and Dusty Baker admitted to me that--like all baseball men--he is plenty superstitious. He never steps on the foul line on trips to the mound.

When I went late Tuesday night to the scene of the crime and inspected Seat 116, Section 102, where Bartman had evidently consumed nachos and melted cheese (American, not goat) shortly before gooing the Cubs for good, I spotted a lonely man still in his seat in the empty ballpark. He was a supervisor of the cleanup crew, a 30-year veteran of Wrigley. His words were reassuring for the fateful Game 7. But the poor man looked as if his dog had just been run over by a beer truck on Waveland Avenue. I trusted the look.

What to tell the kids about the Yankees? That overdogs with power and money deserve to win? That War Admiral should have beaten Seabiscuit? Defeat is not ennobling, but it can be instructive. The late Chicago columnist Mike Royko loved the Cubs because they reminded him that most people fail most of the time and we all end up dead. The next year he was back for extra punishment. Me too, unless they win more when I don't watch.

Jonathan Alter, Newsweek senior editor and columnist, NBC News contributing correspondent, and author of The Defining Moment, FDR's First Hundred Days and The Triumph of Hope, is a Guest Loser. Alter was a "pee-wee bleacher bum" as a kid growing up seven blocks from Wrigley Field.

Posted on Saturday, March 22, 2008 at 10:27PM by Registered CommenterLovable Losers Literary Revue in | Comments7 Comments | References2 References

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