Any fan of the Chicago Cubs can recall the team’s various meltdowns and disappointments by nothing more than shorthand. Start with the curses of the Billy Goat – coinciding with a loss in the 1945 World Series, the last the team has appeared in to date – and the Black Cat, which preceded an infamous late-season collapse in 1969.
Then, too, there is Bartman, as in the surname of the hapless fan who reached for a foul ball during Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series. Many blamed the fan when the Cubs’ left-fielder missed the ball on the play, which would have been the second out of the inning.
Chicago, ahead 3-0 at the time and five outs from a pennant-clinching win, then gave up 8 runs. A day later, the Cubs lost the deciding seventh game at Wrigley Field, their beloved, cozy, but all-too-often doomed ballpark on the north side of the city.
As the late, great Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse put it, referring to the franchise’s last World Series triumph in 1908, “Any team can have a bad century.”
This fall, it’s beginning to look like Cubs’ fans long-running lament of “wait till next year” may be nearing retirement. In the final days of the season, the Cubs have the best record in baseball and recently won the National League Central division title.
And they’re not plucky upstarts. Under manager Joe Maddon, who led the team to the league championship series in 2015 during his first year on the job, the Cubs are confident winners instead of lovable losers.
Their roster includes one of the best pitching staffs, led by reigning Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta and clutch hurler Jon Lester, as well as a nucleus of All-Stars including Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Addison Russell.
To many around baseball, the surprise would be if the Cubs don’t win it all. No matter what happens, you can count on a chorus of questions about whether this is the year for Chicago fans and constant crash courses in previous Cubs miseries. Once the Boston Red Sox ended their own curse — of the Bambino, as in an ill-fated trade of future Hall of Famer Babe Ruth — by winning the 2004 World Series after 86 years without a title and the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team won the NBA finals earlier this year (the first time any major Cleveland team had come out on top in a championship since 1964), the Cubs became the symbol of relentless sports futility.
If the Cubs snap their century-plus World Series drought this year, the rewards will be many, but money won’t be anywhere near the top of that list.
“For the city, it will be spiritually uplifting,” says Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor and sports economist. “It will be as good as a visit from the maharishi.”
The Cubs could reap as much as $15 million to $20 million in additional revenue with a World Series run, Zimbalist estimates. In March, Forbes magazine estimated the Cubs’ generated revenue of $340 million last year with operating income of about $51 million. The financial magazine values the franchise at $2.2 billion, fifth-most in Major League Baseball.
Considering the Ricketts family paid $700 million in 2009 to acquire the Cubs, it’s clear the investment has already paid off, championship or not. Wrigley Field, even in the Cubs’ many lean years, packed in large crowds eager to see the throwback ballpark and celebrate the ritual of afternoon baseball. (The stadium, opened in 1914, was the last to stage night games, adding lights in 1988.)
Zimbalist says the already-popular Cubs will likely sell even more tickets in the next few years with a championship – and command higher ticket prices and advertising rates.
But these are the Cubs. Is there a downside for fans used to so much heartbreak? “Bear in mind, there’s a pleasure in waiting and a pleasure in the expectation of, will this be the year?" he says. "If the Cubs win, all of that tension will be released – it will, in certain ways, dissipate the enjoyment of the fan interest.”
That sounds like the kind of problem most Cubs fans would love to face.