On the horns of a dilemma

Most of the experts at Sports Illustrated pick the Cubs to beat the Cardinals in the NLDS. Which I just don't see.

Look. I've been a Cub fan in principle all my life, and in practice since 1957. I take a back seat to nobody in my loyalty to my team. Gabby Hartnett was my distant cousin by marriage, for crying out loud. My dad lived across the street from the old Cubs Park on the West Side when they won the 1908 World Series. I can still recite the starting lineup from my first Cubs team: Walt "Moose" Moryn in left, Bobby Thompson in center, Lee Walls in right, Alvin Dark at third, Ernie Banks at short, Tony Taylor at second, Dale Long at first, Cal Neeman and Sammy Taylor splitting the catching chores.

But I remember too well when baseball was still baseball. Baseball is unique in that there's no such thing as an upset. Nobody even notices if, on any given day, the worst team in the major leagues beats the best. That's why the season is so long. You need 162 games (or 154, in the old days) to really prove anything.

Back then, every team played every other team in their league the same number of times. There was no interleague play. There were eight teams in each league, and at the end of the season one team in each league emerged as the best. There was no debate. There was no question. The playing field was totally level, and the result was an empirical fact. And every year, for one magic week in October, the nation held its breath while the two proven champions faced off in a best-of-seven series that was the number one sporting event of the year. The NFL Championship Game (there was no Super Bowl back then), the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the NBA Playoffs, the NCAA Basketball Tournament- they all took a back seat to the World Series. The Series- and baseball itself- reigned supreme.

It didn't matter, in one sense, if your team didn't win the pennant. With two leagues and no interleague play, league loyalty meant that everybody's team was represented in the Series. As a South Side Cub fan, I still remember the depth of the emotion when, for example, in 1957 and 1958 I rooted for the Milwaukee Braves, and my Sox fan friends rooted for the Yankees.

There were only sixteen teams, but everybody had one- and thus, everybody had a league. If you came from a smaller city or even a rural area, everybody had a regional team based in a big city somewhere more or less nearby. In every high school in America, kids took razor blades and hollowed out books in which to smuggle transistor radios into study hall. It was an event everybody shared, a dramatic high point everybody lived together year after year.

And then came greed, and expansion- and divisional play. League loyalties weakened. Worse, best-of-three series- which in a game like baseball, which needs the long haul to prove anything, might as well have been a coin toss- meant that the second or third best team in each league often got lucky and made it to the Series. I don't think it's a coincidence that it was at that point that the World Series started to lose popularity, and other championship games and series in other sports started to displace it as the highlight of America's year in sports.

But the Wild Card was he final insult. Now a team that had been tried and failed in the one test that really mattered- the regular season- was given a chance to get lucky and make it to the World Series. I'm sorry, but it remains a conviction I hold with every ounce of my strength that no team that wasn't able to achieve the best record of those teams playing (approximately) the same schedule- that was unable to win its own division- has any business claiming the right to compete for the championship of the league or of baseball itself.

Divisional play- and even more, the Wild Card- has cheapened the World Series, devalued it into something much, much less than it was before. Fans who have grown up watching baseball since the 'Sixties will never know the thrill of a real pennant race, in which finishing first was all that mattered; when it meant not only that you had earned the right to advance to the Series, but that you had proven your right to be there. They will never experience that magical week every year in which two teams who had established their credentials beyond any doubt met in mortal combat. Instead, the process is spread out over several weeks of nonsense- a one-game Wild Card playoff, for crying out loud, in which (as happened this year with the Cubs) a team which had proven to be inferior over the long haul can displace a better second-rate team as the second-rate team with a chance of getting lucky and winning an almost as meaningless best-of-five series and displace a team with better credentials as the team that gets to play a best-of-seven series against a similarly arbitrarily- qualifying team for the right to play in what is almost blasphemously called the "World Series."

Does anybody really care, by that point? I usually don't. I generally lose interest somewhere along the long, weary, meaningless road to that meaningless, arbitrary, and ultimately boring abomination that bears the same name as what was once the highlight of the sporting year.

And so, I'm torn. I can't do anything but root for my Cubs, especially since they're playing the hated Cardinals in the NLDS.

But as a matter of principle, I always root against the Wild Card team. The fact of the matter is that the Cardinals should win their series with the Cubs. It is right that the Cardinals win. They are the only team with the moral right to represent the National League in the World Series, and the only National League team with any moral right to be called World Champions if they win it.

Hence my dilemma. I'll root for the Cubs, but not feel right about it. And if they lose, at least I'll be able to comfort myself with the knowledge that the team that rightfully should have won actually did.

And if they win? If they go on to fulfill the prophecy of "Back to the Future 2," and win what is inappropriately called "the World Series?"

I won't lie. I'll enjoy it. I just won't claim that they deserve the title. And I'll also feel a little bit cheated.

I've waited all my life for the Cubs to win the World Series. But I'd always assumed that when they did, it would be because they deserved it.

If the Cubs do win, it would support my premise that the system is broken. They shouldn't.

But I can't help myself. I hope that they do.

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