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Photograph: CC/Flickr/Terren

Cubs fans anticipate the NLCS with anxiety and excitement

Written by
Jay Rand
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It’s the morning after Game 4 of the NLDS, and as I nestle in to a work space two blocks from Wrigley, the rain falls steadily outside the second floor window. It’s dark, it’s stormy and it’s beautiful. 

That’s because the North Siders triumphed in Game 4. But consider the juxtaposition. What if Javy Baez—the human Gumby, seemingly void of any skeletal system while smothering scalding grounders headed to the outfield—hadn’t delivered the RBI single in the ninth to complete the improbable comeback from a last-at-bat three-run deficit?

RECOMMENDED: More postseason Chicago Cubs coverage

One can only imagine the anxiety spewing from Cubs fans had they squandered a 2-0 game lead in San Francisco to necessitate a Game 5. And so this rain that fell all throughout Chicago on Wednesday would have provided the fitting lubrication for that 'here we go again' anxiety: “The sky is falling, and it’s raining Bartmans!”

Game 5, though, never did happen. Because Javy. And Kris. And Anthony. And Ben. And Willson. (Doesn’t this just feel like a first-name-basis team?). And even Aroldis, with his (non-literal) guns a-blazin’ in the bottom of the ninth to send home Giants fans crushed by their “But only we can win in an even-numbered year” logic-slash-arrogance. (The best sign I saw during the two-game NLDS set at Wrigley: “Hey, Giants: 1908 is an even year, too.”)

Instead it’s off to Game 1 of the NLCS Saturday night at Wrigley against the Kershaw-closing Dodgers. So this makes it back-to-back appearances in the NLCS for the Cubs. But this year feels different because last year’s playoff run came a year early; the Cubs were supposed to be competitive in 2015 but not contending in October. It was akin to your favorite watering hole unexpectedly ringing the happy hour bell at, like, 2 pm.

And so Chicagoans relished in the moment, allowing themselves to believe before the Mets steamrolled the team en route to a 4-0 NLCS sweep. That exit was issued with all the subtlety of that same tavern killing your surprise early happy hour equally as unexpectedly: “It’s 4 pm, you’ve had your two hours of discounted beers—go home, sloth.”

But this year is different because the Cubs entered 2016 with HUGE expectations—so big that Maddon began T-shirting “Embrace the target” mantras all the way back in Mesa. The result: a regular-season MLB-high 103 wins; a 17.5-game route of the Cardinals for the NL Central crown; and then a 3-1 defeat of the self-ordained Giants.

And while we know where Maddon stands on the expectations front—“Never let the pressure exceed the pleasure”—it begs the question: Are Cubs fans embracing the target? Or is it 'suicide watch as usual' for the legions that have seen postseason acts fall short in 1984, ’89, ’98, 2003, ’07, ’08 and ’15? Oh, and 1945, for all of you septuagenarians still sippin’ the Old Styles.

Anxiety or anticipation? Cowardice or confidence? A stroll through Wrigleyville watering holes last night provided some insight:

Brad Rosen, Partner at Sports World souvenir shop outside Wrigley Field:

“After Monday night [the Cubs only NLDS loss], the mood turned sour real quick. The news trucks didn’t come out until 3, 4, 5 o’clock in the afternoon as opposed to 6am [had the Cubs won]. Even though they were up 2-0, it just seemed like the air came out a lot. But then when they won [NLDS Game 4], now expectations are unbelievable.”

Freddy Fagenholz, GM at Murphy’s Bleachers tavern:

“I think there’s more anxiety. An example is [NLDS Game 4]. If they had lost that game and were playing [last night], who knows what would have happened? God, if they lose, and then come home and lose [NLDS Game 5], all the fans are going to say, ‘It’s the same ol’ Cubs.’ I still think [Cubs fans] are a nervous bunch.” 

Fred Costello, Fire-Fighter at Engine Company 78 across from Wrigley Field:

“I definitely feel like [fans this year] are more confident. There’s a lot less people leaving after the 7th-inning stretch this year. People are definitely taking it all in. It’s not just the ‘world’s largest beer garden.’ Now, everybody wants to really remember it and engage in that experience.”

Lloyd Anderson, Manager/Bartender at Bernie’s Tavern:

“On Tuesday night, up until [they won NLDS Game 4 in the ninth], it was miserable. It’s not the Bartman thing or a curse—it’s just that it’s a considerable amount of time of being disappointed year-in, year-out. I mean, my life is going to go on if they don’t make the World Series. But for other people, like, this is it. And to watch that realization come to their faces is kind of sad….that’s what it’s like being a Cubs fan.” 

Shannon Huizenga Cubs fan (from downstate Illinois) at Deuces Burger & Beer

“I’m definitely more confident. Because I think with Maddon it’s not as much anxiety as it is excitement. It’s different from last year—just the strengths of making the core stronger than what they had last year. It’s just so exciting.”

Monica Kron, Cubs fan (Chicago native now living in Tucson, Arizona) at Deuces Burger & Beer:

“Last year they were still a brand new team, so if they would’ve made the World Series I think that would’ve been amazing—we were just happy with what we got. [This year] I’ve always said, ‘When I come back for a World Series.’ I didn’t say it last year or in 2003. It’s about this year and this team….they have so much heart and so much talent, that I think they’re going to go all the way.”

Spoken like a tried-and-true Cubs fan. Or Eddie Vedder.

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