Is 2016 richer in intriguing potential playoff series than previous years have been? It certainly seems like it, even without intriguing, now-impossible series like Nationals-Orioles or Cubs-Mets (the 1969 pennant race redux). Already, with Rangers-Blue Jays, we have a rematch of a highly charged playoff from last year, with bad blood spilling into the current season. A Giants-Dodgers NLCS would finally give the National League its equivalent of Yankees-Red Sox. Cubs-Red Sox would have a couple interesting storylines (the Cursed vs. the Ex-Cursed; Current Theo vs. Past Theo). And, for many, the crown jewel of them all: an Indians-Cubs World Series, which would put baseball’s two longest championship droughts against each other, guaranteeing that one or the other flagship franchises would be taking a trophy home for the first time in 68 or 108 years, respectively.
The NLDS that we’re all here to talk about today, Cubs-Giants, lacks anything quite so overt (unless anyone’s still jazzed up about the 1989 NLCS). And yet it’s one of the matchups that interests me most, because these are two teams whose fortunes are about as opposite as it’s possible for the fortunes of two playoff teams to be. That’s true in the immediate context, as the Giants played miserably through the whole second half of the season and barely limped into a Wild Card spot, while the Cubs clinched their division around Valentine’s Day and have been waiting for October for most of the season. And it’s true in the broader context, as the Giants have won three World Series in six years while the Cubs… you know about the Cubs. So it’s a story of two fanbases, one which has just endured three months of maddening losses but is playing with house money in the playoffs, and the other which never had a single doubt about reaching October but can hardly bear to watch what actually happens there.
As it happens, I’m a fan of the Giants rather than the Cubs. And the Giants have only once in my lifetime been in the position the Cubs are in, a stacked team heavily favored to finally end a long drought: 2003, when they lost the NLDS to the Marlins in four games. Yet I feel like I can feel what the Cubs fans among you are going through, because, being from the Bay Area, I’m also a Warriors fan. And when the Warriors won the NBA Finals in 2015, it was their first championship since 1975. (Obviously 40 years isn’t the same as 108, but to this 35-year-old it might as well have been.) So I know what it’s like to be going into the playoffs heavily favored to see something you weren’t sure you’d ever get to see.
Of course, I also know what comes next, after the dread and panic give way to elation, after you’ve celebrated in the street and bought your ugly gray official “CHAMPIONS” t-shirt: the whole rest of the sports world hates your guts.
I say this as a lifelong Giants fan: the outcome every neutral party should root for is SF blowing a 3-1 WS lead to Cleveland.
— Reuben Poling (@liesandperfidy) October 4, 2016
If the Cubs knock off the Giants, thousands of fans will be deeply grateful to them for finally vanquishing Even Year Bullshit. But if they go on to win the World Series, and then get back to the dance anytime in the next two or three seasons, a huge number of fans will root for them to fail. The fact is, today’s sports world, compared to that of years past, is ruled by parity, and in that world winning consistently is an unpardonable sin. For most of my youth, the Yankees were the only widely-loathed franchise in baseball; now, the Giants, Cardinals, and Red Sox—all teams that have won multiple World Series this century—are the most hated franchises, while Yankees hate lies relatively dormant outside of New England. Outside baseball, you’ve got the Patriots, the Heat, and now, of course, the Warriors. (If the Cavaliers are up against anyone other than the Warriors in the 2017 Finals, they will probably get this same treatment.) It doesn’t even matter how you win: if you’re the consensus best team like the Cubs are now, you’ll be hated as a Yankeesesque juggernaut; if you’re a scrappy, flawed team like the Giants have been all three times, you’ll be hated as a lucky fluke. You get exactly one win as the feel-good story in the playoffs. Once you get it, everyone wants you off the stage.
All of this may sound like complaining, like I’m mad that no one wants to tell us how cool it is that the Giants win every time a congressional election rolls around or celebrate Kevin Durant going to Golden State. It’s actually the opposite: I’m not mad, I find it all funny. Because what’s amazing about winning a championship is how little you care about other fans’ opinions. Before 2010, I cared a lot about what other fans thought: were they being unfair to Barry Bonds? Did they truly appreciate Mays’s catch in 1954? Why did everyone think the Phillies would crush the Giants? When other fans did see the Giants as some kind of lovable underdog (not very common until Bonds left), I cherished it as my due. But as soon as the champagne was flowing, I no longer cared at all. Of course you hate me—I’d hate me too! I’m still sick over the Warriors blowing the Finals this year, and if the Giants get bounced in this series I won’t be happy about that either (though if we have to lose I hope it’s to the Cubs). But I do love the jokes about the Warriors losing, or about Even Year BS, because they show that my teams are on everyone’s mind for the best of reasons. It’s a constant reminder of the happiest days of my sports life.
So, Cubs fans, here’s to being hated. Hope that you reach that promised land where every win is greeted with revulsion by all right-thinking people. Hey, you’ll finally have something in common with the Cardinals.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports.