It’s no secret that I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to any sport that doesn’t involve two people trying to beat, squeeze or crank one another into submission; my latent obsession with fight sports accounts for roughly 65 percent of my internet activity — the other 35 percent being a combination of Wikipedia holes, Nicki Minaj pictures and asking Google how to remove an ingrown hair — and roughly 130 percent of my delusional daydreams. If I kicked as much ass as the nine-year-old yellow belt inside me thinks I do, my shower curtain would be charged with concealing a deadly weapon.
But let’s talk baseball. You guys may not know this, since you stopped paying attention right around the time it became obvious that the Braves decided to conduct choreography to the Benny Hill theme this year instead of actually playing, but there’s some pretty exciting stuff happening right now in the Major League playoffs. For one thing, the Royals are right in the thick of it, which is a shock to me, since I didn’t know the Royals even existed after 1988. More importantly, however, the Cubs are gonna win the whole thing.
Now look, I know that just by typing this, I’m dooming them to drop the next two games to the Cardinals by about 12 runs apiece, but hear me out. There’s a set of circumstances at work here, not to mention just a general, electric feeling in the air, that could potentially hint at the first Cubs World Series win since we still burned witches. In both these things, and in the scope of sheer improbability, it mirrors perhaps the greatest season of baseball I’ve ever seen: the Braves’ 1991 worst-to-first run. Bear with me:
1. They Are Not Supposed to be Here
Everyone knows this, but it does bear repeating: the Cubs have been a punchline for so long, no one has truly expected them to win a division, a title or, hell, even most regular season series, in years. The last time they really made a run of any kind was in 2003, but then promptly got eliminated almost immediately in the postseason. Since then, and even before then, fans and pundits have consoled themselves by referring to each subsequent year as a “rebuilding” season, thereby remaining forever trapped in the first stage of grief. And so, when they finally began to put it together this year, hardly anyone took it seriously until late in the season.
Flashback to 1991; the Braves were in a similar situation, having stunk up the joint for most of the ‘80s, save a single playoff appearance where they immediately lost the series 3-0. When they went on their now-famed 1991 tear, barely anyone would believe it at first. Sure, there were signs: the early sweep of defending champions Cincinnati, the rise of Tom Glavine and Steve Avery, but early on it seemed like an anomaly. And we all know how that turned out.
2. They’re Beating the Best Team in Baseball
This is sort of an extension of the first point. Right now, the Cubs are leading the St. Louis Cardinals 2-1 in this initial five-game series, and that’s insane. The Cardinals are statistically the best team in baseball, having won an even 100 games this season, a group of cerebral, confident, power-hitting badasses that, all things being equal, should be running roughshod over the Cubs and everyone else.
Only, that’s not what’s happening. After dropping the opening game, the Cubs have won the last two by scores of 6-3 and 7-4. Their pitching has been outstanding, their hitting remarkable — they hit a new-record six home runs in Monday’s game — and they just seem to have generally come into their own.
The 1991 Braves knew that feeling. After being put through the ringer in catching and surpassing the Dodgers to win the NL West, they found themselves staring down the barrel of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the best team in baseball. It was an absolute murderers’ row, featuring a pre-Macy’s Day Parade float-head Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Andy van Slyke, Jay Bell and 20-game winner John Smiley. But, though it took them all seven games, the Braves pulled it out, a thrilling 1-0 win in Game Six all but clenching it.
3. They’re Playing Confidently
I’m no psychologist, much less a sports psychologist, but this Cubs team is playing with a sense of calm and confidence that we haven’t seen before. And really, the two most prescient examples are their two wins in this series so far. See, it’s worth noting that neither of these wins for the Cubs were blowouts, nor were they skin-of-their-teeth squeakers. In both games, they were behind at one point; they gave up home runs; they made errors; Starlin Castro, in one at-bat, whiffed so hard on a pitch that the centrifugal force caused his helmet to spin off his head like one of those zip-tie helicopter toys.
But guess what? He hit a home run in his very next at-bat, and that’s sort of indicative of the way the Cubs have handled adversity in this series. They are calm, cool, and mature, more clinical in their approach to the game than ever before. This is not an arrogant team; it’s a confident one, and they’ve realized that confidence almost in spite of themselves.
There’s one game I’ll always remember from the Braves’ regular season in ’91. They were playing the Reds, a team out of contention at that point, but still dangerous. They had Atlanta down 6-1 going into the later innings, but the Braves clawed back: a run here, a run there and all of a sudden they were within just one. Then David Justice — he of the Sweetest Swing in Baseball — stepped up and cracked a two-run homer to put the Braves over the top and win. It was a great moment but, more importantly, one made possible by the calm, confident playing style of a team that finally knew what they were capable of.