Dennis Eckersley . . . had just been traded to the Cubs and seemed dumbfounded by the intensity and the atmosphere. Sandberg said he had a pretty funny moment with Eckersley.
“He just sat there and watched,” Sandberg said, “and after the game I remember him saying, ‘Wow, Ryne, is every game like this in Wrigley Field?’ He just couldn’t believe what he saw, the excitement of the crowd and everything happening.”
Cub fans love to hear that we provide a special playing environment enjoyed by our team and envied by visiting ballclubs. Even when wins are scarce, Cub fans somehow create a playoff atmosphere on a Tuesday against the Pirates. We need no jumbotron to incite an uproar when one of our pitchers gets a two-strike count on a batter. We autonomously rise to our feet when the Cubs get the chance to take the lead, even if it is the second inning. Well . . . sometimes. Other times we do the wave when the game is on the line.
The point is, Cubs fans have a reputation for being the most unconditionally supportive and vociferously optimistic cheerleaders in all of sports. When players come to Wrigley, they know they’ll be taking part in a game where everyone in the building cares to the utmost of their very souls. And that’s in June. When September and (with any luck not ruined by our jinx-happy fan base) October roll around, forget it. Wrigley Field is a pressure cooker.
And maybe that’s the problem. Every game. Every at-bat. Every pitch carries the weight of 10 million hopes and dreams. Maybe it is every player’s dream to play in front of a raucous, wildly cheering crowd, but the pressure of living up to our expectations just may be too much for any team.
The obvious point of rebuttal plays in the Bronx. Yankee fans have higher expectations than Cubs fans, and they outnumber us, too. But Yankee fans merely ask their teams to live up to history. We’re asking the Cubs to erase it.
NPR recently ran a story on the American Psychoanalytic Association’s views on the mentality of baseball among fans and players. One quote in particular stands out, from Dr. Robert Pyles, who stands to be the APA’s next president: “I never thought of baseball as a sport. I thought of it as a mythic struggle between heroes and bad guys.” That’s all well and good in the mind of a fan, but a player elevated to hero status has to feel enormous pressure from a teeming throng of blue-clad worshipers expects him to slay a 102-year-old dragon.
You can see it in the eyes of Mark Prior in the 8th inning of Game 6 or in Alex Gonzales’s nervous hands or in Moises Alou’s irate gesticulation. Leon Durham in ’84. The offensive impotence of the 2007 playoffs or the complete defensive meltdown of ’08. In all these instances, the pressure imposed by Cubs fans appeared to be simply too much for talented mortals to bear.
And that’s just the positive pressure. Now that Cub fans have had a taste of near-glory, they’ve grown embittered to anything but perfection. The journalists in this town have turn to sadists. Bloggers are out of patients. The paying customers resorted to booing the youngest player in baseball on his Wrigley debut. Fan pressure turns a playoff team into a nervous mess, and it has turned an underperforming June swooning club into a steaming pile of mediocre.
The calls for Jim Hendry’s head are on Cub-fan speed-dial. Lou Piniella is only half as old and tired as the fire-Lou meme. The Ricketts clan is so occupied by the team sponsor image reclamation campaign that they really can’t be bothered with fan complaints. But if the fans really wanted to make a positive impact on this team both now and in the future, we’d cool the heck down, take a deep breath and enjoy the game.
Keep this pressure up, and the entire Cubs organization will need the number for Milton’s therapist.
And don’t worry if you disagree with everything I said here. I’ll make the exact opposite argument tomorrow.