By JOHN FINERAN
As if fans of the Chicago Cubs don’t need another reminder of their team’s postseason futility, they got one from Major League Baseball and FOX Sports earlier this week.
First pitch in Saturday’s National League Championship Series opener at Wrigley Field against the Los Angeles Dodgers will come at 7:08 p.m. Central time.
Big deal, you say? Most televised sporting events start eight minutes or so after the hour or half hour. It gives the talking heads a chance to look into their crystal balls to predict a final outcome that oftentimes doesn’t happen. It gives networks the opportunity to make a few million bucks with a bunch of commercials that oftentimes will be repeated ad nauseam.
Really, a 7:08 p.m. first pitch? That’s just plain cruel for Cubs fans. In military hours, 7:08 p.m. translates to 1908 hours – 1908 being the year the Cubs, who will be attempting to qualify for the Fall Classic for the first time since 1945, last won a World Series.
Yes, it’s been a long century and eight years of wandering in the baseball desert for Cubs fans searching for any oasis and seeing only mirages. Their team has been to the craps table seven times in autumn and ended up rolling snake eyes every time.
Most believe the Cubs have been jinxed from the moment team owner Philip T. Wrigley swallowed his gum at the smell and sight of Billy Goat Tavern owner Billy Sianis sitting with his pet goat Murphy in box seats before Game 4 of the 1945 World Series against the Detroit Tigers. Wrigley had the goateed pair expelled, Sianis took offense and “The Curse of the Billy Goat” was born.
In reality, the Cubs may have become their own worst enemy during the 1918 World Series that they lost in six games to the Boston Red Sox, who were led by portly pitcher/slugger Babe Ruth. Rumor has it that some Cubs players, upset by ownership’s payroll stinginess, threw the World Series to the delight of gamblers, an example some South Side Chicago players may have used the following October in the baseball’s infamous “Black Sox Scandal.”
Ruth, of course, is part of another storied baseball jinx – “The Curse of the Bambino.” In early 1920, fed up with his player’s demands and undisciplined ways, Boston owner Harry Frazee sold “The Babe” to the New York Yankees for $125,000. The franchise eventually ended an 86-year drought by winning the 2004 World Series, the same dry duration endured by the White Sox, who ended their World Series skid in 2005.
Proving once again, fans, that if you look hard enough, all sports droughts happen for a reason.
And so this brings us to the misery currently being endured by fans of the University of Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish football team. The storied program – with 11 consensus national championships under legendary coaches Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz – hasn’t won any since 1988 when Holtz’s team went 12-0 and beat West Virginia 34-21 in the Fiesta Bowl.
That’s 28 seasons and currently counting with Brian Kelly’s 2016 Irish showing little fight in a season that had all sorts of preseason promise with a No. 10 ranking. Notre Dame is currently 2-4 – the wins coming against welterweights Nevada and Syracuse and the losses coming against traditional football heavyweights Texas and Michigan State, both enduring Chuck Wepner-like seasons, and ACC gridiron lightweights Duke and North Carolina State.
The last one, a 10-3 setback against the Wolfpack last Saturday, was played in monsoon conditions produced by Hurricane Matthew that the you wondered if the stumbling and fumbling Irish needed Noah’s Biblical ark to extract themselves from Raleigh.
Kelly already has fired his defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder after his team surrendered 50, 36 and 38, respectively, in losses to Texas, Michigan State and Duke and last Saturday managed just 58 yards on 38 carries, fumbled the ball away twice and gave up a blocked punt return for a touchdown in the muck at N.C. State.
Football teams that can’t play defense, can’t run the football and can’t protect it are their own worst enemies, and while Kelly has been busy circling the wagons against the outside invaders, he’s also had to wonder about those inside the circle with him. George Armstrong Custer certainly knew how he felt.
But then Kelly is the fifth coach to have been asked to return the Irish to their old prominence since Holtz left under mystical circumstances after the 1996 season. Notre Dame chose his last defensive coordinator Bob Davie, whose tenure started with a little NCAA cleanup – the only one ever experienced by Notre Dame but one necessitated by Holtz’s lack of control over players accepting gifts from a female booster.
Davie lasted until after the 2001 season when he was fired by A.D. Kevin White, who had torn up his coach’s original contract, and replaced by George O’Leary, who was let go just days after his hiring when his resume was found to have inaccuracies.
White then hired Tyrone Willingham, whose termination, supposedly because a board of trustees uprising came three years in on a five-year contract and didn’t sit well with then school president Rev. Edward Malloy.
Willingham’s successor, Charlie Weis, started 5-2 and his original contract was extended to 10 years by White, who was at Duke when current N.D. athletic director Jack Swarbrick fired Weis, who once was described thusly – “Charlie burned bridges that hadn’t been built yet at Notre Dame.”
Swarbrick, who has a tendency to look down at people who don’t agree with him, then hired Kelly, who sometimes comes across as Napoleon with his sideline antics and post-game utterances.
There have been a few non-Waterloo moments on the football field under Kelly, however. In 2012, he directed an unbeaten regular season only to see his team lose 42-14 to Alabama in the BCS Naitonal Championship Game. And just last season, Notre Dame overcame a bunch of injuries and a pair of two-point road losses and just missed qualifying for the College Football Playoff.
But too often during his tenure it has appeared that Kelly has lost his grip on the reins that he has been given by Swarbrick to ride his team into the winner’s circle.
Arrogance sometimes masks weaknesses.
If Notre Dame alumni, real and Subway, wonder why their beloved team has been without a national championship since 1988, you might point to such kind of arrogance, real or imagined, but long a point of contention for the team’s detractors.
The genesis of that arrogance might not be traceable to a specific moment, but the collective moments might be so numerous as to impede the desired reward.
To put it in a simple theological term any football zealot might understand: Why have Hail Mary’s not been answered for 28 seasons and counting at Notre Dame?
Well, here’s one. On the first Saturday in November during the 1992 season, No. 8 Notre Dame played host to No. 9 Boston College, its “Holy War” rival, and what was expected to be a close game between Holtz’s Irish and Tom Coughlin’s Eagles.
However, it was not. Notre Dame led 37-0 at halftime. Yet on his team’s first possession of the third quarter, Holtz elected, on a fourth-and-one, to run a fake punt. Kicker Craig Hentrich ended up running 16 years for a first down, Notre Dame later scored and ended up with a 54-7 victory.
The misdeed didn’t go unnoticed by members of the press, who asked Holtz about it afterward. “There’s nothing illegal about it,” he replied. “It was a matter of running the play and letting people know we have it.
“It was 37-0, but you have to remember there were 13 minutes to go in the third quarter. We scored 37 points in the first half. They could do it in the second half. I`m not one to put anybody down. Good Lord knows we felt the game was still in doubt at that time.”
If Coughlin, who would later direct two New York Giants teams to Super Bowl championships, was seething by the slight, he didn’t let on publicly. “I’m probably punch-drunk,” is what he said afterward.
But in private, Coughlin made sure his team didn’t forget Holtz’s slap in the face. He used the fake punt as yearlong motivation to drive his team. According to author Reid Oslin in “Tales from the Boston College Sideline,” Coughlin was a mad man during preseason and pre-game drills.
“’Do you remember that fake punt in the Notre Dame game? We’re never going to lose a game like that again!’ It got to the point where it really started to bother us,” recalled placekicker David Gordon, whose 41-yard field goal on the last play of the game in South Bend during the 1993 “Holy War” game beat No. 1 Notre Dame, 41-39, a week after the Irish had knocked off the previous No. 1 Florida State, which won the title.
Sometimes a little arrogance is good. Most times a lot of it is not. Eventually the spiritual well runs dry. A drought ensues.
On this, the Chicago Cubs and Notre Dame Fighting Irish can relate.
(John Fineran has covered sporting events for more than 40 years for newspapers in Michigan, Indiana, Florida and his native New Jersey. He knows a thing about sports droughts — he rooted for the New York Rangers, who won Stanley Cups before he was born in 1928, 1933 and 1940 and then finally won in 1994 after the expansion New York Islanders won four in a row in the 1980s.)