CHICAGO — No team in professional sports lugs more baggage than the Cubs.
Included among the bleak trinkets amassed during their previous 107 years in the wilderness are a black cat, a billy goat and a Bartman. And this season, they’ve added another heavy burden that must be carried on their march to a long-coveted World Series championship.
With success has come unprecedented expectations.
“A lot of us have placed big expectations on ourselves,” said Kris Bryant, one of the brilliant young stars whom the Cubs are banking on to reverse their curse. “So I think we’re all ready for it as a team.”
Indeed, these Cubs are no lovable losers; they’re a 103-win juggernaut that outscored opponents by an impressive 252 runs during the regular season. It’s why they hoped last night’s National League Division Series opener against the Giants marked the beginning of a great transformation.
They are the handiwork of a hired gun, Theo Epstein. Half boy wonder, half mad scientist, Epstein was brought to the North Side specifically for his experience ridding another hideous curse with the Red Sox.
Not since 1935 — two years before Wrigley Field’s famed ivy took root — had the Cubs won 100 games.
A year ago, they crashed October, a precocious group that played with wads of house money. The ride ended with a thud in the NLCS against the Mets, a four-game sweep in which they were smothered by superior pitching.
“You saw what we did last year,” Bryant said. “No one expected us to make it. We did. We went pretty far. I don’t know if anybody expected that.”
Now the Cubs hope to lean on the lessons of that experience against the Giants, who won three of the previous six World Series and were fresh off their wild-card win over the Mets.
It wasn’t long ago that the Giants carried a similar stigma of failure. Theirs, too, had been an existence coated in heartbreak.
Until 2010, the beginning of their even-year domination, the Giants last won the World Series in 1954 before bolting their ancestral home in Harlem. In the next five decades, the Giants assembled rosters of Hall of Famers, only to fall short on the biggest stage.
But in only six seasons, the Giants have expunged those bitter memories, morphing themselves into the wizards of October.
“You look at their team . . . and watch how they play,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “And I don’t see one scared bone in anybody’s body. They’re just out there playing the game of baseball, trying to play it right.”
The Cubs have not won a pennant since 1945. They have not won a World Series since 1908. Their splendid season has placed the pressure squarely in their laps.
On Friday night, Mike Ditka, Eddie Vedder and the Rev. Jesse Jackson were among those who packed into Wrigley Field expecting the start of something big. On the way to the ballpark, the Cubs passed beneath a sign that reads “Embrace The Target.” Now they will learn if they can handle being the target. Now they come to a most difficult task — beating the Giants, the most battle-tested foe in the field.
“There’s a lot of rings over there in that clubhouse,” Cubs catcher David Ross said. “So they’ve been on the biggest stage and have succeeded. That’s something that they use to their advantage, just like us coming off last year, knowing that we can go into the postseason, knowing that we can play well. Having that experience is huge.”