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New Cubs, old curse

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Between the rise of unlikely contenders such as the New York Mets and the fall of preseason favorites like the Washington Nationals, the 2015 MLB season was exciting and unpredictable. Yet with all the surprises during the past year, the success of the Chicago Cubs, the MLB’s “lovable losers,” was arguably the most unexpected.

After five straight fifth-place finishes in the National League Central division, the Cubs managed to acquire a plethora of young, talented athletes through a surplus of high draft picks. Despite finishing in last place once again in 2014, it seemed GM Theo Epstein was slowly building a team capable of becoming enormously successful. Signing the highly coveted ace Jon Lester away from Boston over the winter to an enormous six­-year, $155 million contract indicated that the Cubs were confident in their future as championship contenders and willing to spend big in order to reach that goal.

The key word there is “future;” all signs pointed towards 2015 being a transition year for player development, not the culmination of five years of planning. However, the season that followed was as exciting as it was shocking; after calling up prospects in the spring, the Cubs rocketed up the win column and became baseball’s Cinderella story of 2015. Posting the third best record in all of baseball netted them a Wild Card spot and eventually an NLDS showdown against the St. Louis Cardinals. Despite the odds, the Cubs shocked the world, besting their longtime rivals in four games and winning a postseason series at Wrigley Field for the first time in franchise history.

The excitement was palpable; here was a team long considered cursed, unable to win a championship in over a century, advancing with a team of kids. Epstein had previously broken the curse for the Boston Red Sox, and “Back to the Future 2” had eerily predicted that the Cubs would become champions in 2015. The dominoes were in place; Chicago seemed destined to win the ever-elusive World Series.

Ultimately the curse had its stubborn way; despite enormous momentum and favored odds, the Cubs fell short in the NLCS against the Mets, getting swept in four games. It was nothing short of a sucker punch, as this young team simply looked lost on the big stage. To add insult to injury, the Cubs were ironically eliminated on Oct. 21, also known as “Back to the Future Day.” The curse will linger yet another season, as Cubs fans are forced to yet again shake their heads and mutter, “maybe next year.”

This phrase has been uttered in vain many times over the years, but perhaps it can be said with more confidence this time around. It’s important to keep perspective: the Cubs weren’t supposed to contend this year but they shattered that expectation. Six of their eight starters are aged 25 or under, yet they’ve already combined their efforts to produce one of the most fearsome lineups in the MLB. Imagine what they can accomplish as they grow over the next decade. They now have the experience of the playoffs and a chip on their shoulders to motivate them.

It’s fitting that Wrigley Field began the season under construction and was renovated over the course of the year, as that’s exactly what the Cubs themselves have experienced. Beginning the season as a work in progress, they are now nearing the completion of their longterm rebuilding project and already pose a threat to baseball’s finest. Though they ultimately fell short this year, the future looks brighter than ever and Cubs fans should feel more excited than disappointed. The curse may still be alive, but there’s no doubt it’s starting to fade.

seidel1@stolaf.edu