Editor’s note: Sometimes people just appear in your inbox. Such was the case with Martin Johnson, who’s best known as a jazz critic for the Wall Street Journal and a general feature writer at The Root. He’s also written about sports here and there, most notably at The Root and at Slate. Anyway, when he asked if we’d like to run the feature below as a “one-off,” of course we said yes. We hope you enjoy.
Growing up in Chicago in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was tough for a sports fan. It seemed as if there was an invisible ceiling separating the Cubs, White Sox, Bears, Bulls and Blackhawks from the ecstasy of championship glory. Each team contended, from time to time, but the parades always ended up being held in more either more glamorous cities like New York, Miami, or Los Angeles or in places with better players like Boston, Pittsburgh and Oakland. Of course the Bears broke through in 1985, and in the three decades since, each of the other Chicago teams—except, notably, the Cubs—have mounted championship runs that iconic in their dominance (even if only the Bears made a rap video about their title designs). Which brings us to the present. The Cubs’ sizzling start to the 2016 season has won them comparisons to many of the all-time elite baseball teams. But how does their start match up against the recently iconic dominance of their fellow Chicagoans? Let’s take a look.
The 2013 Chicago Blackhawks
It’s unusual to find the peak in the middle entry of a series of three great accomplishments, but as was the case with To Pimp a Butterfly, so too was it with the Blackhawks’ 2013 title runs. The Hawks’ 2010 and 2015 Stanley Cups were deep lasting pleasures, but decades from now, when people talk about the great hockey teams of all time, it’s the 2013 unit that will likely forecheck its way into the conversation.
The 2013 Hawks ended their campaign with intense drama—two goals in 17 seconds during the final 80 seconds of Game 6, first to tie and then to win the game and the Cup—taking fans from anxiety about a possible Game 7 to ecstatic thoughts that the Blackhawks might soon belong on the same level as the New England Patriots and San Antonio Spurs as the greatest North American franchises of the early 21st Century. Nevertheless, it was the start of their season marked the 2013 Hawks as of the great teams of all time. The Hawks didn’t lose in regulation until their 25th game of the lockout-shortened season (by then, they had lost three games in overtime shoot outs), a league record. That team, as it turned out, won 80 percent of all available points (a hockey team receives two points for a win, one point for a tie or an overtime loss, and no points for a regulation loss), the sixth highest mark in league history. Those Hawks were the rare team to win the President’s Cup for best regular season and hoist the Stanley Cup.
The Hawks and Cubs have several attractive parallels. Their public face is two young all-stars, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane with other top young players (like Brandon Saad on the 2013 team and Artemi Panarin now) and in their prime veterans like Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford edging into the frame. The Cubs’ duo of Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant are at the center of a similar picture with Addison Russell (yes, I think the recent breakout is for real), Jake Arietta and Jon Lester in parallel spots. Both teams were in the top two in defense and scoring. The hot start isn’t identical, but for the fans, each Cub loss is sort of a reality check in much the same way that each Hawk regulation defeat (and it only happened seven times in the 48-game season) was a reminder that losing actually was a possible—albeit unlikely—outcome from a game.
The 2005 Chicago White Sox
Any comparison between the White Sox and the Cubs feels like a prelude to a heated argument, if not a brawl, but there are striking similarities even as the Southsider’s moment of glory begins to fade into the ranks of history (11 years later, only two players from that team, Juan Uribe and AJ Pierzynski, remain on 40 man rosters. Those White Sox, much like the ’13 Blackhawks, remain renowned for their postseason heroics rather than early season start. The White Sox won 11 of their 12 postseason games, a mark equaled in the Division Series era only by the 1999 New York Yankees. And the Sox’s starting rotation was dominant; in the American League Championship Series versus the Anaheim Angels, Chicago starters logged 44 of the possible 45 innings and four consecutive complete games, a remarkable feat not likely to be equaled anytime soon. Lost in the October glory was that the White Sox led the league from wire to wire. They never had a winning streak of more than eight games, but by August 1, they were 68-35, on a 106 win pace, and seemed to have the Central Division well in hand.
Their similarities to these Cubs lie less in the prospect of Kyle Hendricks pitching a postseason complete game; instead, the two teams are similar in their methods of winning. The White Sox presented themselves as a speed and defense team, an extension of the Whitey Herzog school of baseball, and it made for a good narrative. It separated them from the power heavy Winning Ugly and Southside Hitmen teams of the past and linked them to the franchise’s previous World Series qualifier, the Go Go Sox of 1959. Yet, in reality, the ’05 Sox were straight outta the Earl Weaver academy: pitching (they led the league in team ERA+) defense and power (they were fourth in HR). As of Monday the 16th, the Cubs had the exact same rankings, fourth in their league in dingers and first in ERA+. So yeah, cue the Rod Serling soundtrack if the Cubs bullpen goes quiet during the postseason.
The 1995-’96 Chicago Bulls
In-game comparisons between baseball and basketball are tricky in the first place, and even more so with the Bulls dynasty of the ‘90s. For one, baseball hasn’t had a Jordanian figure since Babe Ruth retired more than 80 years ago. For another, that Bulls overall dominance of the sport—in each of the last six seasons that Chicago had Michael Jordan on the floor on opening night, they won a title—is simply something that not even the Ruth/Gehrig Yankees accomplished. The ’95-’96 team was the best of those six title units, setting a regular season record wins record that was only recently broken.
Yet as much as the Bulls dynasty towers over other franchise accomplishments, there is one notable similarity between the ’95-‘96 in this season’s Cubs. The 72-win campaign came in both an expansion season (hello Toronto!) and a season in which several other teams mounted superb seasons. So just as those Bulls were the fastest team in a speedy field, these Cubs, in the stratified National League, may well be accomplishing the same feat (playing against tough competition) minus the benefit of expansion (no matter how bad the Braves get, they didn’t deplete the depth of other teams via an expansion draft).
From the fan experience aspect, this was more than a bounce back season. The ’94-’95 Bulls had gone 47-35 and were defeated in the Eastern Conference Semifinals by the Orlando Magic, a team led by two young superstars, Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway. The conventional wisdom was that the Magic had passed an aging Bulls team. In the offseason, the Bulls added volatile power forward Dennis Rodman in a move that had a whiff of desperation to it. Instead of a bounce-back, the 72-10 campaign was a full-fledged restoration replete with tumultuous riots and symbolic beheadings. The Bulls swept the Magic in a playoff rematch and then Orlando imploded, with O’Neal leaving for the Los Angeles Lakers in the offseason. Their arch-rival New York Knicks fired their head coach in midseason. Cubs fans can barely dream of a parallel season; it would involve a title, 120 regular season wins, and a sweep of the Cardinals and thrashing of the Mets that resulted in an implosion in St. Louis and New York.
The Super Bowl Shufflin’ Bears
Just like the 2016 Cubs, the 1985 Bears were expected to be an elite team, but there were reasons for doubts. The Bears defense, which had emerged as the NFL’s best in the 1984 season, was beset by contract holdouts during the summer, and two starters (safety Todd Bell and linebacker Al Harris) sat out the entire season (and probably fired their agents soon after); meanwhile, future Hall of Fame defensive end Richard Dent requested a trade. As was the case with the ’13 Hawks and the ’05 White Sox, the Bears final record—they are the only team with consecutive postseason shutouts in NFL history—is the lasting memory. The Bears’ defense started the season slowly. Through five games, all victories, the team had allowed 88 points; in their remaining 11 games, the D took on legendary proportions, only allowing 110 points, of which 38 came in their only loss, an infamous Monday Night game at Miami.
Given that the Bears didn’t resemble true Monsters of the Midway until nearly mid-season, there are few points of comparison between their season and the Cubs’ 2016 campaign. Each team’s ability to overcome key personnel losses (yes, I’m talking about the Schwarber injury) is their only real shared data point. On the other hand, the fan experience has much common ground. The ’84 Bears reached the NFC Championship game and had great expectations in ’85 which they ultimately more than satisfied. This year’s Cubs arrive with similar expectations and so far so good.
Baseball has greater parity than the other major North American team sports; the record setting 116-36 1906 Cubs transliterates into a 12-4 NFL record, which nice but nothing likely to crash the annals of history. But looked at in terms of early dominance, the Cubs are right there with the best Blackhawks, White Sox and Bulls teams of recent vintage and ahead of the Bears at this point of the season (yes, the Bears had yet to lose, but lots of NFL teams win their first five or six games). From an analytical perspective, of course, there isn’t much meat on the bones of this comparison, but from a fan experience outlook there might be: tasty treats, and a memorable series of OMG moments, seem to lie ahead.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports.