"The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse" by Rich Cohen; Farrar, Straus and Giroux (288 pages, $26)
Back in 2000, Rich Cohen went on a mission.
The magazine writer, put on the literary map two years earlier with the book "Tough Jews," flew to Chicago to chronicle the legendary losing of his favorite baseball team for the esteemed pages of Harper's. It was such an unlikely assignment that the Cubs' hitting coach, Hall of Fame slugger Billy Williams, was convinced there was no such magazine as Harper's; Cohen must have made it up to get free tickets.
But there was indeed a magazine called Harper's, and it gave the Cubs' fabled culture of ineptitude the narrative literary treatment in a classic piece called "Down and Out at Wrigley Field."
Cohen's observations included Mark Grace's smoking habits (a cigarette at his locker before and after every game), Joe Girardi's naked body ("old-fashioned, a body from the Great Depression: thick torso and heavy arms, social realism, a WPA poster"), and Sammy Sosa's daily boombox battles with his teammates. They liked loud Pearl Jam. He liked even louder salsa music. Cohen wrote: "Today, and each day, it ended with the Pearl Jam turned down and turned off. It was not hard to tell how Sosa's teammates felt about this."
The Cubs lost seven straight games while Cohen was on their trail, reinforcing everything he was there to see: misery, piled up for generations. The piece is essential reading for any Cubs fan, precisely because Cohen is one of us, trying to make sense of it all: "For every Cub fan, there is a season, an inning, an at bat, when all hope is lost, when, at long last, he becomes disillusioned and realizes with dread certainty that no matter how good its prospects the team will never win."
It was true, of course – until Nov. 2, 2016. The curse was over! After 108 years, the Cubs won the World Series!
Now, at last, Cohen gets to update the story.
We know the happy ending of "The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse" before the first page is turned. Yes, finally, hallelujah – the Cubs won a World Series.
But how did we get here? Why did such futility endure? What scars were wrought across generations of the fan base? These are the questions Cohen takes up, and he hints at his own scars as early as the dedication. It is to his four sons, who "will grow up with the nonsensical idea that the Chicago Cubs are a great baseball team."
To those of us who suffered long enough – Cohen, me, probably you (any White Sox fan stumbling onto this presumably bailed paragraphs ago) – it still sometimes doesn't quite seem possible. That shared sentiment is part of the book's power. Cohen tells a story that is all of ours: "When I was 13, I began going to Cubs games on my own. This was my first taste of adulthood. I've associated Wrigley Field with freedom ever since."
I've known countless people who embody that sentiment. I embody that sentiment.
Weaving between history lesson, memoir and fairly faithful sports reporting, "The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse" is a brisk and engaging read. It's hard to say much new or novel about the Cubs – probably no team has had more words spent in a bid to understand it – but Cohen does his best and employs an advantage even beyond his skilled storytelling: He has lived a life of good fortune.
Not only has he been on the front lines for Harper's, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker, but also we learn that Cohen's father, legendary negotiation expert Herb Cohen, was friendly with former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda (we get an amusing personal anecdote from it) and Ernie Banks (an even better personal anecdote).
The narrative thread is pulled through the decades, starting with the founding of the team in 1870s as the Chicago White Stockings, and then onward: early-20th-century success, decades of futility, the disaster of 1969. The book kicks into gear with Cohen's telling of the 1970s; that, not coincidentally, is when his own story also begins.
It's the era where he addresses the overarching question for the book – and indeed for every longtime Cubs fan: "As I got older, I became fixated on a single question: Why can't the Cubs win?" That passage, leading off Chapter 9, is a springboard into the book's essential final third.
Along the way, Cohen grapples with the hiccups – '84, '89, '03, '07 and '08 – along with the question of why the Cubs could never pull it out. The answer, of course, is not a literal curse. There may be no single answer, but Cohen sifts through a handful of compelling options. The "schizo" ballpark, which offered no true home field advantage. Bad ownership (meaning, in part, the Tribune Company – sorry everyone!). Bad organizational culture. It's not a new insight, but it's a fascinating one: In Chapter 11, current Cubs owner Tom Ricketts says winning the World Series is a fluke. Once you're in the playoffs, he says, any team can win it: "The fact is, when you go back and look, you'll see there's little correlation between how many games you win during a season and how far you go in the postseason. Almost zero." Simply, all the Cubs needed to do all these years was build a core of talent to consistently reach the playoffs. Then a World Series would inevitably have happened. Instead, the franchise was doomed by a lack of vision.
Both Ricketts and team President Theo Epstein offer reflection and candor that makes Cohen's book hum. Ricketts details his pursuit of Epstein, and Epstein spills a fascinating secret: "We're studying players' brains." As part of its evaluation process, the Cubs judge how fast players can process information by asking them to play a baseball simulation video game. Cohen digs into the process that led to the construction of the World Series-winning roster and parses one of the ongoing mysteries to many Cubs fans: Why did the front office draft so many position players ahead of pitchers? (It comes down to Epstein shunning the cliche that the game is 90 percent pitching; he pegs it at 65 percent position players and 35 percent pitching. Also, he says, "pitchers get hurt.")
Cohen picks at a few thorny issues, such as the Cubs' decision to acquire hard-throwing relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman in the middle of the 2016 season, despite allegations the previous year of domestic abuse. (No criminal charges were filed, though Chapman was suspended 30 games.) "And trust me," Epstein says, "my life would have been easier if we didn't make (the trade)." Cohen writes that he is "almost certain" Epstein refers to the domestic abuse allegations. I wish he would have asked for clarification, then dug even deeper into how that decision was made. For that matter, I wish he had taken up a few other festering questions while he had Epstein's attention. How did the team handle the profound struggles of Jason Heyward after signing him to a $184 million contract? What backroom machinations led to the key free agent signings of Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist? Or Dexter Fowler's surprise last-minute return to the Cubs after he failed to lock down a bigger contract elsewhere? A few more of those details would have served "The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse" well.
But there's plenty enough illumination to wow casual baseball fans and engage even the hardest-core Cubs fan. Cohen's painstaking and deliberate tone turns a bit rushed in the last chapters, most likely because he was writing in real time. The 2016 playoff run becomes fairly straightforward sports writing of things we mostly already know, though Cohen does happen into one small, fresh anecdote: His Vanity Fair editor orders him to board a plane to Los Angeles to interview actor Chris Pratt in the middle of the World Series. Cohen was forced to miss Games 4 and 5. Unfortunate, yes, but Cohen winds up drinking tequila with Pratt and watching the World Series on the actor's giant TV. Pratt, a devout Christian, even offers a tender prayer for the Cubs on Cohen's behalf.
Cohen was back in the stadium for Games 6 and 7, in Cleveland, and sees the story through to what strikes me as the only authentic conclusion: thrilled, but weary and spent, not quite able to make sense of this new reality.
I suggest that anyone who felt nothing but joy at the Cubs finally – finally – winning the World Series in 2016 wasn't truly along for the ride all these years. The ride was long, and it was tortured – too tortured for everything to simply be OK after the evening of Nov. 2, 2016. Something profound had changed. It needed time to settle into place. Cohen reflects this in the book's surprisingly melancholy last paragraph.
But that long-awaited World Series win was undoubtedly a gift, and Cohen did with it what the best writers do: He turned it into something lasting.