For Cubs, Red Sox, it’s 1918 again

If civilization as we know it is about to end, naturally it would happen smack in the middle of a series between the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs at Fenway Park.

The teams have not met in Boston since the 1918 World Series, won by the Red Sox. For generations after that, the franchises were linked by fate, futility or some combination thereof.

They churned toward an astronomic October reunion in 2003, when their respective title droughts totaled an angst-ridden 178 years. Instead, both lost excruciating (of course) Game 7s in their respective League Championship Series.

What happened next is a well-known tale: The 2004 Red Sox staged one of the more miraculous postseason runs in any era of any sport. They ended 86 years of suffering with a stirring comeback against the New York Yankees and sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. For good measure, Boston added another title three years later.

And the Cubs, you ask? They have not won another postseason game, let alone a postseason series, since Steve Bartman, Alex Gonzalez and 2003.

Tonight is not Game 1 of the World Series. It is Game 1 of interleague play. Yet, for the two fan bases, this isn’t an ordinary regular-season weekend. It’s a certifiable baseball event, a moment so significant that 80-year-old Don Zimmer, a former manager of both teams, said Thursday that he wishes he could attend all three games.

In Boston, it’s another occasion to celebrate the vanquishing of Babe Ruth’s ghost – the end of the Curse, if you believed in it. For Cubs fans, it’s one more reminder that championship salvation has been painfully elusive. And with the Cubs running fifth in the National League Central, right behind the Pittsburgh Pirates, the drought doesn’t figure to end anytime soon.

“Red Sox fans will be crushing the Cubs fans about the fact that they haven’t won one,” predicted Todd Walker, the Boston second baseman in ’03 who spent the following three seasons with the Cubs. “They got that curse off their backs. The Cubs haven’t. That adds a lot of intrigue to the whole series.”

The present Cubs-Red Sox dynamic hinges on the fact that they used to be in the miserable-fan-thing together. Now, the Boston fans are self-satisfied (more than before), while the Chicago fans are self-loathing (more than before).

How do I know this? I asked the people who are perhaps most adept at sensing the emotional swings of our society.

You know, comedians.

T.J. Shanoff is a Chicago native, lifelong Cubs fan and Second City performer. A number of his friends are Red Sox fans. In fact, he adopted the Red Sox as his American League team while he earned his undergraduate degree at Boston’s Emerson College.

It’s not that New Englanders have wished ill on the North Siders since 2004. It’s just that . . . well . . . I’ll let Shanoff explain.

“It became very patronizing – Dr. Phil, punch-you-in-the-face condescending — like, ‘Don’t worry, the Cubs are going to do it, too, little guy.’ ” Shanoff said. “It came from a good place, but it came off as so patronizing. If one bad team wins, it doesn’t mean another bad team has to win. Somehow because Tampa Bay made it, now the Cubs are going to the World Series, too? No, because to do that the organization would need to have some idea of how to win important baseball games, and they’ve never been able to do that since 1908.

“My friends say, ‘Don’t worry, T.J. It’ll happen.’ Guess what? They’re wrong. They’re idiots. The Cubs won’t win. I say all of this out of love. The Cubs are like the ex-girlfriend that I get drunk and call way too often.”

Like I said: Best to hear it from the man himself, don’t you agree?

And here’s the thing: I can’t blame him for feeling that way. Nor can I criticize Bostonians for delving only toe-deep into the Chicagoans’ pity pool. If you were a Red Sox fan, why would you spend time reliving a near-century of championship starvation – all those nights when your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents turned away from their televisions, radios and evening newspapers in disgust?

At the moment, New England sports fans are too busy reflecting on how awesome they are. Consider the past 10 years: World Series titles in ’04 and ’07; Super Bowl wins in ’02, ’04 and ’05; an NBA championship in ’08; and now the Bruins are two wins away from their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance since 1990.

Indeed, Massachusetts is an altruistic commonwealth. But you can’t donate championships. In lieu of that, maybe the Red Sox should adorn the Green Monster with a few ivy vines this weekend as a gesture of goodwill.

“There was a point in time where there was a kinship,” said Seth Weitberg, a Second City writer and performer who grew up in Boston and has worked in Chicago. “Then as soon as we won it . . . I don’t know if I want to say Red Sox fans became ‘entitled,’ because that’s probably too strong of a word. But it didn’t feel the same. With all the success over the last decade, we have completely lived up to what people dislike about Boston fans – the expectation that we should win.

“It’s amazing how quickly it flipped – it switched from empathy to sympathy (for the Cubs fans). There was a time when we were all in it together, Red Sox fans drunk at Fenway, Cubs fans drunk at Wrigley. Now, I just feel bad for them.

“It’s like running into your cousin’s basement and finding your uncle there, unkempt and drunk. He doesn’t feel like a member of the family anymore. That’s the feeling I have about the Cubs right now. They’re hopeless at this point.”

Which begs the question: Is hopelessness part of the essential Cubs experience? Or have they simply suffered from some combination of bad performance and bad planning for, oh, more than a century?

“Do I empathize? To some extent, yes,” said Sandy Weissent, a Red Sox fan who works in Chicago as a corporate turnaround consultant. “But I also think they’re a victim of their own mistakes. In the back of their minds is, ‘We don’t have to win. We’re pumping out the profits no matter what.’ When I start seeing the burning desire to win, and if they still can’t win, then I’ll feel really sad for them.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, whose Congressional district includes Wrigley Field, said, “After a while, the ‘lovable losers’ label gets old. But I do recognize that being a Cubs fan prepared me for life. Growing up a Yankees fan does not prepare you for life, because there is the inevitable expectation of winning every year. When you grow up as a Cubs fan, it’s like growing up Charlie Brown – you’re never going to kick that football.”

Quigley joked that “The Audacity of Hope” described Cubs’ fans collective state of mind, long before President Obama used it as the title of his memoir. Quigley added that his Congressional colleagues from New England “aren’t the gloating type” when it comes to baseball and “wouldn’t mind seeing the Cubs do it.” So, it appears the bond between the fan bases hasn’t totally disappeared.

With the Ricketts family, the Cubs have stable ownership for the first time in years – just as the Red Sox did prior to their ’04 title. Shanoff, the comedian and Cubs fan, said he reserves the right to jump back on the Cubs’ bandwagon at any time – reasoning that all the heartbreak (’84, ’89, ’03) has earned him that right.

What if the Cubs were to win it all?

“You know,” he said, “if the Cubs won, Wrigley Field would be empty. We’d hang up our Cubs hats and (Ryne) Sandberg jerseys. We’d put away our Mark Grace rookie cards. We would retire. It would be the emptiest stadium in baseball. I would get the cricket package on DirecTV. All the Cubs fans would just say, ‘I’m done. I’m out.’ ”

And you wonder why it’s been so complicated. As the Red Sox and their fans can attest, the emotions are so much simpler when you win.