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Cubs, Sox, kindred spirits? Not anymore

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  May 20, 2011 11:53 AM

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The Chicago Cubs visit Fenway Park this weekend for the first time since the 1918 World Series, and while the temptation may be to ask Tim Wakefield to share his favorite memories from pitching in that series, the consensus story line instead sounds far too much like a Fox Baseball promo.

Red Sox and Cubs at Fenway Park! Lovable losers! Kindred spirits! Tortured histories! Actually, that also sounds like a promo for Joe Buck's excruciating mid-game conversation with Sarah Silverman last Saturday. And it's roughly as appealing.

The brothers-in-angst angle is a wholly understandable . . . if this were October 2003 or Opening Day 2004. But the day has passed and the script outdated. I can't pinpoint the exact hour the Red Sox and Cubs ceased being kindred spirits, but I sure can give you a couple of dates.

October 20, 2004. The vanquishing in the Bronx, and the reason, should you require a reminder, why Johnny Damon should never be booed at Fenway.

October 27, 2004. Finally and at last. For those of us who lived to experience the fulfillment and joy, it really was worth enduring everything that came before.

The Red Sox overcame 86 years of torment that October -- damned if the "Faith Rewarded" video never gets old -- then made it two in four years in 2007. They are just another championship-contending franchise now, and I don't know about you, but life has been pretty good without the constant reminders that it's all gonna go wrong!

I hope the day comes when Cubs fans experience the same exhilaration, the same emancipation from the past. The franchise has not won a World Series since 1908, a drought of 102 years that stands as the longest in American professional sports. As someone who'd just as soon eighty-six the number 86, I wish didn't even have to mention that, but it gets us to the core of the point:

The Red Sox' relationship to the Cubs nowadays is not about shared experience, but mere longevity. They're old friends at the reunion who realize they don't have much in common anymore, but enjoy each others' company nonetheless.

Cubs-Sox, at Fenway. The times are good. Even though they've changed.

* * *

Thumbnail image for finnbartman.jpgThough I'll spare you the specific dates here, it's not difficult to pinpoint when the whole kindred-spirits-in-misery thing peaked: that would be October 2003, when the delicious possibility of a Red Sox-Cubs World Series was tilting toward reality.

Instead, for both franchises, it morphed into a mutual nightmare in the matter of a few dozen pitches.

You know how it went down in the Bronx. Losing that hate-fueled series to the Yankees in that manner hurt more than 1978 and '86. For me, it was the first moment I ever questioned whether it was worth committing so many hours of my life to following this franchise. My wife says she's never seen me as down as I was after that series. I still don't know if that's a good thing.

The autumn was just as cruel in Chicago. The Cubs led the Marlins, 3-2, heading into Game 6 of the NLCS. The Cubs led the Marlins, 3-0, entering the top of the eighth inning of that ballgame. When the half-inning was over, they were down, 8-3, Alex Gonzalez seemed doomed to permanent goathood, Mark Prior's golden arm was on the verge of turning into Grade D meat, and a certain fan's life was changed forever.

Lovable losers? The way Steve Bartman was treated in the aftermath -- by all the other fans who lunged for the ball but weren't damned to touch it, by Moises Alou's unforgiving overreaction, by those vicious unhinged individuals who permanently altered his life -- put heavy emphasis on the latter word. I'd like to think that had it happened here, Boston would have let him live his life. But Grady Little isn't exactly making appearances at the Baseball Tavern these days, you know?

Wrigley Field is a wonderful place to have a beverage or six, pay occasional attention to a ballgame, and to get enough sun to help a dermatologist-to-be-hired-later make enough money to purchase his second hovercraft.

Like Fenway, it occupies a permanent place in my heart; my wife and I caught a ballgame there not long after learning she was pregnant with our first child. I covertly plucked my daughter from her crib in the moments before Renteria grounded to Foulke and all heaven broke loose; it was a dad's duty that night.

But the poster of Wrigley in her bedroom is her reminder of where she first went to a ballgame even before she entered the world. Far better than remembering it as the place where your fandom died.

* * *

finntito.jpg The most interesting relative history between the Sox and Cubs has little to with 2003 or the ancient angles the networks -- Saturday's game is on Fox, Sunday's on ESPN -- will bludgeon emphasize this weekend. I'll be disappointed if there's not a "Troy O'Leary's cow" malapropism from Tim McCarver by the second inning.

Actually, in a different context, it would be quite cool to hear O'Leary's name mentioned in relation to the Red Sox and Cubs. The specific moment I'm thinking of happened amid the Cubs' dying gasps during the 2003 NLCS, his seventh-inning home run in Game 7 accounting for the final run of Chicago's season. It featured one past Red Sox postseason hero facing off against a future one. O'Leary won the battle; Josh Beckett won the game.

It's not so much the history of the teams but the players that makes this a Cubs-Sox matchup compelling. From Aardsma (David) to Yerkes (Steve), there are 167 players who have been fortunate enough to play for both the Red Sox and Cubs in their careers. That includes two in this series, Sox reliever Rich Hill and Cubs first baseman Carlos Pena.

eckfinn520.jpgThere have been Hall of Famers (Fergie Jenkins, Andre Dawson) and cult legends (El Guapo Garces, Dick Radatz). There's been a Chico (Walker) and a Tuffy (Rhodes), a Fox (Chad) and a Foxx (Jimmie), two Farrells (Doc and Duke), a Hy (Vandenberg) and a Heathcliff (Slocumb), and even a Babe (Dahlgren). Oh, and Tony Fossas, who of course pitched for everyone. Twice.

In 1984, the Red Sox and Cubs traded Dennis Eckersley for Bill Buckner, two accomplished players with awesome mustaches and agonizing World Series losses in their future.

In 1986, Terry Francona was a veteran pinch hitter on a Cubs team with three rookies who would go on to make a lasting name in the game. Greg Maddux and Jamie Moyer are remembered for the right (and left) reasons. Rafael Palmeiro and his pointing finger are not.

Todd Walker, the Red Sox' 2003 second baseman and postseason star, played for the Cubs. So too did Mark Bellhorn, the Red Sox' 2004 second baseman and postseason star. Only the latter has a ring. It never seemed right to me that Walker, such an integral part of the changed culture in '03, didn't get to stay and win one.

* * *

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Changed culture. In Sox-speak, that could be translated to The Age of The Idiots, which reminds me that there's one more date I should have mentioned in this post's leadoff spot: July 31, 2004.

Nomar Garciaparra will forever be remembered well in this nostalgic corner of the internet ballpark. Watching him from 1997-2000, when he played with the passion we recognize in Dustin Pedroia nowadays and seemed he hit a line drive every single time up, was a joy a Red Sox fan doesn't forget. He was better than Jeter, you know.

But the ending was cold and bitter, and his departure in Theo Epstein's daring trade that day was pivotal in the franchise's shedding of the lovable losers label that October.

If irony is your thing, maybe it is appropriate that it went down with the Cubs.

Just don't forget to acknowledge it as a landmark where the franchises' paths began to diverge.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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