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What Progressives Can Learn from the Cubs Winning the World Series

Tony Wikrent's picture

Cross-posted from Real Economics. I hope Correntians find this a good diversion from this sad spectacle of an election.

There was a baseball game last [week].



There are three stories to tell about it, and they’re stacked on top of each other, tottering, each bigger than the last and relying on the one below it to make sense. The first story: the Cubs took a 6-3 lead into the eighth inning of Game 7 of the World Series, and Aroldis Chapman blew it. Then he won the game.



That's the beginning of the article by Jonathan Bernhardt of the London Guardian, which I consider far and away the best article on the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series of USA major league baseball after 108 years. It is the only article of the many I've read which captures the cultural iconography of the Chicago Cubs and their century-long absence from the greatest achievement of professional baseball.


Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant smiles while fielding the ball for the final out of the World Series.



This was not supposed to happen: "The Cubs are lovable losers" had become the most powerful cultural myth in American sports, The title of Bernhardt's article is the perfect summary: How the Chicago Cubs faced down history and killed a century-old curse. Yet, Bernhardt does not really discuss how the Cubs did it. He does not discuss how the Ricketts, heirs of the Ameritrade fortune, bought the Cubs from Sam Zell and the Tribune Co., who had treated the team not as a franchise in professional sports, but as an entry on the balance sheet of a corporate conglomerate. He does not discuss how co-owner and Cubs president Tom Ricketts — as diehard a Cubs fan as any: he met his wife in the bleachers at Wrigley Field while he was a student at the University of Chicago — snatched Theo Epstein from the Boston Red Sox and made him President of Baseball Operations for a repeat performance of curse-crushing pennant winning.



Nor does Bernhardt relate how Epstein immediately began to hire people who had been with him on the Red Sox's epic ride to a World Series championship, including Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer. Or how Epstein and Hoyer sorted through 140 players acquired in 37 trades, 80 signings and 5 major draft picks, to assemble the 40 man team roster than finally won it all. So, there are many more than the three stories Bernhardt says there are. And every story offers lessons that progressives in USA can learn to help them break their own curse and begin to win again.



It's the management, stupid

The story of Theo Epstein coming to Chicago to transform the Cubs is an obvious lesson. The people at the top make a huge difference. This is a lesson progressives and Democrats desperately need to learn. First, the reality must be faced that President Obama squandered an epic opportunity to transform the American economy by failing to destroy Wall Street, which is a net drain on the rest of the economy, and the major reason why the United States continues to suffer poor economic performance for the bottom ninety percent of Americans.


Remember the outpouring of public opposition to the Wall Street bailout in 2007, with calls to Congress running a reported 100 to one against? Rather than use this tidal wave of public sentiment to impose structural changes on the financial system and begin eliminating, or at least limiting, its usury, speculation, and rent-seeking, Obama listened to his golf buddy, Robert Wolf of UBS (former Union Bank of Switzerland), and decided the top priority was to save Wall Street from the consequences of its own unbridled greed. Obama even publicly declared that James Dimon of Morgan Chase and Lloyd
Blankfein of Goldman Sachs were “savvy businessmen.”


Obama did have the power of his bully pulpit to force changes on Wall Street: Richard Wagoner was forced out as chairman of General Motors simply because of Obama’s disapproval. But that is the lowly auto industry, not the superstar and obscenely rich banking and financial sector. Obama chose not to apply similar pressure to any executives on Wall Street. Ron Suskind does an
excellent job of recounting and contrasting these two different approaches in his 2011 book, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President.


Rather than picking top people who would help him bring real change to the system, Obama instead chose to accept the list of people hand-picked for him by Wall Street. And we didn't have to wait until Hillary Clinton's emails were leaked a month ago to know Obama was making a giant mistake: as early as December 2009, people were writing warnings that Obama's personnel picks signaled a capitulation to Wall Street. So, while there was a widespread public expectation that Obama had been given a historic opportunity to do what Franklin Roosevelt had done, and put Wall Street and the banksters back in the box, Obama refused to act. Obama had a mandate, and he ignored it.



By contrast, Epstein was given a mandate to build a championship baseball team, and he threw himself into the task with manic fervor. So, two lessons here:



Lesson 1: The people at the top make a huge difference.

Lesson 2: When you are given a mandate, use it. Ruthlessly.



Team effort is just as important

The Republicans and conservatives in general believe in and promote a socio-economic philosophy of individual freedom so constrained and so extreme that it denounces any attempt at socio-economic cooperation as tyrannical socialism. They ignore entirely how business companies actually function. And how sports teams function. Both require team effort.


One thing remarkable about the Cubs is the sheer number of star players around the entire lineup. Sports pundits remark upon this repeatedly. The last game of the World Series exemplified this: each of the Cubs' eight runs were driven in by a different player. Eight players, eight RBIs. If that's not team effort, what is?


Progressives and Democrats in USA appear to want to elect the one person as President who will change everything and make America a good and decent and caring country again. You saw that blind unipolar faith early in the Obama presidency, when it was common to come across discussion threads in blogs where someone had posted a picture of Obama with the caption "Chill. I've got this."



The plain fact is that a small number of very wealthy elites have achieved a chokehold on economic policy making in the United States. We can no longer delude ourselves that the United States is a government
of, for, and by the people. The harsh truth is that the American polity is no longer a republic; it has degenerated into a plutocratic oligarchy, with political power based on the ability to finance political campaigns. In simpler words: political power in America is based on wealth. USA has become a plutocracy.



Hoping to elevate one good progressive to the White House is a dangerous diversion from the job we need to do: build a winning team that can beat this plutocracy. The federal structure of government designed by the Founders – with political power diffused at the local, state, and national levels, overlaid with an institutional superstructure of three branches of government intended to check and balance each other – offers fissures and pressure points in the political system in which dominance by the rich is not complete and total. This reality is what progressives need to understand thoroughly, and use ruthlessly, to leverage political power where it can do the most good. This has been demonstrated repeatedly in American political history.


The Cubs have a system of farm teams that other clubs envy. There is a rich stream of bright prospects. But look at the Democratic Party today, and you see the exact opposite. Obama has utterly failed to build a system that recruits, trains, advances, and promotes young talent. One example was the presidential primaries: in comparison to the clown car of the Republican primary campaign, with 17 different candidates, the Democrats had only Hillary Clinton. The situation at the state and local level is just as grim. Not only has the Democratic Party been electorally neutered under Obama, but Obama has focused on his personal legacy rather than on strengthening the Democratic Party at the state and local levels. This is clearly indicated by his decision to retain the capabilities and lists of Organizing for America to create a new 501(c)4 organization, Organizing for Action, rather than share them with the Democratic Party.


This has to change under Hillary Clinton, but there are no encouraging signs. Rather, as Thomas Franks writes in his recent article in the London Guardian about the Podesta emails, Democratic Party elites around Clinton are hopelessly insular and completely out of touch with working Americans.


Lesson 3: Focusing only on the White House race is a huge waste of time, money and effort for progressives.  We need to build a team.



The future is what you plan it to be

The roles of Epstein and Hoyer provide yet another story. This story is best seen in Ben Reiter's article in Sports Illustrated relating how the Cubs recruited veteran Rod Sox pitching ace Jon Lester, and why Lester responded favorably to their overtures. As another Sports Illustrated article at the time Lester decided to sign with the Cubs, in December 2014, put it:

Lester turned down a chance to pitch for two teams that have won four of the past five World Series—including one that would have paid him more money—to join one that hasn't won the Fall Classic since 1908 and has been the worst team in the National League over the past five years.

"The lure of bringing the World Series to this town and this team really interested me and my family," Lester said last Saturday while in Chicago to sign his six-year, $155 million contract. Ten years ago he
was a 20-year-old lefthanded pitcher in Boston's minor league system when the Red Sox won their first championship since 1918. "You go back to the '04 Sox and think about the free agents they brought in and the players they traded for. Those guys are legends for the rest of their lives. You bring that here, and that's an exciting time to be part of. I'm really interested in breaking that curse. I know what breaking a
curse can do for a city and an organization. Hopefully I can be part of that."



What Epstein and Hoyer offered that convinced Lester to sign for less money with one of the worst teams in baseball at the time, was a plan to transform that team and take it to the World Series. Originally, the plan envisioned 2017, but they are now one year ahead of schedule. As Reiter wrote in his article last week:

On Wednesday night in Cleveland, the Cubs beat the Indians, 8–7, in a 10-inning Game 7 thriller, and in the process, they not only put an end to 108 years of misery but also made good on their promise to Lester.


“That was my favorite hug on the field,” a champagne-drenched Hoyer said of his embrace with Lester, who, on two days' rest, pitched three innings in relief of starter Kyle Hendricks, allowing one earned run. “He believed in us first. That was really important. This was literally the exact plan we presented to him, and that doesn’t happen very often. Here are all the young guys, here’s what we’re going to do, here’s how we’re going to spend money. Be the first on board, and we’ll make it worth your while. We begged him to come for this reason. It’s easy to hear a sales pitch, but it’s a lot harder to go in that direction. He signed with a 73-win team. Give that guy credit.”



Lesson 4: Plan what you want to achieve in the future, then spare nothing in making it happen.



You must adjust quickly to your adversary

Two of Cleveland's three wins against the Cubs in the World Series came with Corey Kluber as Cleveland's starting pitcher. Kluber throws one of the most amazing and effective breaking balls in the major leagues. In the first game, Kluber set up a shut out of Chicago, and set a new World Series record by striking out eight Cubs batters in the first three innings. Kluber added one more strike out before he was relieved near the beginning of the seventh inning


Cleveland had lost two of their three top starting pitchers to injuries during the regular season, so Cleveland manager Terry Francona scheduled Kluber to also start games 4 and 7. This would undoubtedly overwork Kluber, but this was, after all, the World Series, and the last time Kluber, or anyone else, would be pitching in 2016. In game 4, Kluber pitched six strikeouts in six innings and was given the game win. If he could also win game 7, he would become the first pitcher in 48 years to start and win three games in a single World Series. He would also give Cleveland the championship.


But just like they had with Los Angeles Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw, the Cubs batters had figured out Kluber by the time game 7 began.  Kluber was not able to strike out a single Cub; instead, his fourth pitch of the game was sent over the center-field fence by Cubs lead-off batter, Dexter Fowler. It was a small taste of what would follow the rest of the evening. The statistics tell the story of the Cubs adjusting their batting to Kluber and reliever Andrew Miller, who also throws terrifying breaking balls: in five post-season games against the Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays, the pitching duo had given up only two earned runs; in game 7 of the World Series, the Cubs scored six runs off Kluber and Miller.


Contrast the timely adjustment of the Cubs pitching to how long it took Obama to accept that there was no chance for bipartisanship cooperation with the Republicans, and you have another lesson.


Lesson 5: Do not undermine the change you need to make by compromising with your adversary. 



The Founders on the dangers of political passions arising from local interests

The left in USA has a generally deranged view of America's founders, dismissing the country's very creation as a conspiracy of rich white men to create a system of government that preserved and perpetuated their power, privilege, and wealth. Never mind that many of them, such as Alexander Hamilton, did not die rich: just an inconvenient truth.


The fact is that never in the history of humanity has a group of people so assiduously and thoroughly explored and studied the vicissitudes of human nature, and consciously designed a system of government to check our worst aspects, and give free range to our best. Not before, and not since, has anyone so carefully and painstakingly evaluated the human condition and the human spirit, and the effects they have on government.


Two and a half centuries later, there is much that the founders wrote and did, which is no longer understood, let alone appreciated. One example is how the founders feared the power of local interests. Surely, our contemporary minds think, local interests are a thing of the past; especially after the previous century of nationalist wars; and, besides, we have national telecommunications now.


If that's what you think, you should stop and consider the phenomenon of sports fans, and their allegiances to local teams, which they usually take with them when they move to an entirely different part of their country. This is true not just in USA, or especially in Chicago and its Cubs fans, but around the world. Look at the fervor and passion of fans cheering for their local soccer or rugby teams in Asia, Africa, Europe,
anywhere.


Lesson 6: The Founders got it right: we need a system of government designed to constrain human passions and guard against their worst effects.



The immense power of culture

I began this post by quoting from Bernhardt's article in the London Guardian, How the Chicago Cubs faced down history and killed a century-old curse, to which we now return:

These Chicago Cubs could not have been anyone, but they could have been many people, and they were. They are special, but they are not unique. Their roster was made the same way as rosters have been
made before it and will be made after it; theirs was better than some that have won the World Series, and it was worse than others. Theo Epstein is no god, Jed Hoyer is not his son and between them they have
no prophets. No star or sign or sigil brought the Cubs to this World Series. And to accept that now, at the ending, is to also accept that there was no star or sign or sigil that kept the Cubs away.


The third and final story sits above the second story and the first, and it is the story of a curse....This World Series, this one in particular, is so meaningful and so important because at some point, the fact that the Cubs had not won a World Series in many years became a terrifyingly powerful thing. It became the birthmark of entire generations of Midwestern sports fans; its predictive force went from theoretical to that of a cultural law of gravity. Putting a Cubs hat on a fictional character or a Cubs mug in his hand meant something, and not that the character was from Chicago....


And all it required was the passing of generations and the workings of the real world. The generations of Cubs fans that were born and then died between 1908 and last night don’t resonate the way that
they do because they didn’t get to see some sports championship. They resonate because time is running out on our dreams, too.


Last night that third story, that century-old monster that gathered so much weight over the years that it was a wonder it didn’t crack the surface of the Earth and drag Wrigleyville with it right down into hell, ended. It ended perfectly and forever. Never again will the story of the Chicago Cubs and their 108-year long World Championship drought again hold such court in the vastness of the American cultural mind.



The American people have, like Cubs fans up until last week, been subjected to a long, long political drought of not winning. American elites — in both the Democratic and Republican Parties; in business; in finance (especially in finance); in the churches; in the media — have undermined and dismantled the New Deal and G.I. Bill policies that created the middle class and a prosperous working class as a bulwark against the tyrannies of 1930s Europe and Japan ever arising again. Now that those policies have been discarded, is it any wonder that American politics are more divisive, bitter, and angrily distorted than most anyone can recall?


The emotional catharsis of Cubs fans was stunningly evident in their faces during the final inning of game 6 of the National League Championship Series.



Even with the Cubs leading 5 to 0, and with just three outs to go, there is no joyous and exuberant expectation on their faces. It did not matter that their team was leading by five runs; it did not matter that Chapman was consistently hurling fastballs at over 100 miles an hour — a speed so fast that most professional baseball players cannot actually see the ball in time to react — it did not matter that behind Chapman stood four infielders and three outfielders who were the absolute best in the major leagues, who had punctuated and embellished almost every game of the previous seven months with dazzling defensive plays. What mattered was that there was a cultural law of gravity, encrusted by a full century of passed time, which decreed the Cubs are not a championship team. Watch the full six minutes; see for yourself the fear, the sobbing, the disbelief.


In August 1969, four million people stood on the streets of Manhattan to greet the first Apollo astronauts to land on the moon. The population of Chicago is 2.7 million; the entire metropolitan area including the city is home to 9.6 million. Last week, the World Series victory parade for the Chicago Cubs drew an estimated five million participants — the largest gathering of humans in the history of North America.


For the American people, like Cubs fans up until last week, the sheer duration of losing, politically and economically, has created a powerful mythology. It is the popular yearning to shatter this mythology that allowed Bernie Sanders to stymie Hillary Clinton's and the Democratic Party elites' hopes and plans for a quick and easy coronation. It is the popular yearning to defy this mythology that leads so many Americans to overlook the plain fact that Donald Trump is a narrow-minded, self-centered, bigoted misogynist, and support his bid for the highest office in the land.


Now the Cubs have shown that with enough money, management skill, desire, team work, and discipline, the mythology of losing can be shattered and flung away on the winds of time forever. The American people will not remain losers forever. It does not happen often, certainly less than once in every generation, but it does happen — usually when humanity totters at the edge some abyss or other —  that as much emotional energy and power as people pour into their local sports teams, are poured instead into national politics. For my sixtieth birthday, the Chicago Cubs gave me the incredible thrill of a World Series win. I now honestly believe that I will live to witness that rare instance where the American people will also win over a political system that has become mortified under its domination by the rich. Because while, as always, time is running out on their dreams, they now see, in the incredible and hardly believable championship journey of the Cubs, that anything is possible.


Including a better world.



And, now, having seen the spectacle, having experienced the extreme emotions, having witnessed The Win, I do not believe the American people will remain unmoved and quiescent, but will prefer to put in the effort, to persevere and push on, to go the distance, to win it all.


And it is delicious, entirely poetic irony that the lesson was provided through the largess of a staunch conservative whose family fortune is based in finance.

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Cujo359's picture
Submitted by Cujo359 on

Since I'm a Phillies fan (yes,even though I now live on the West Coast), I look at 1980 as being just as much of a watershed. At the time, they had never won the Series, and had only been there twice before in their long, sorry history. Unless you knew the Phils before the mid 1970s, you might not know this, but until that year they were the worst professional sports team of all time.

What changed? The 1979 Phillies were almost the same team, and they didn't even make the playoffs. What changed was the addition of Pete Rose, who was a good leadoff hitter, but probably not that much better than the one they had. What was different about Rose was that he had experienced winning with the Reds, his old team, and he didn't accept losing. The Cubs may have transcended their history by hiring players too young to remember it, but the Phillies got their veterans to play better by adding some fire to their attitude.

I think the lesson of this, in combination of the Cubs' Series win, is that youth isn't necessarily what's important. What is important is that you don't accept losing as your fate. That's a lesson we Boomers should be learning. I'm sorry to say I have no reason to believe we have. For us, I can only hope that enough of us old dogs can still learn a new trick or two. Our youth have their own reasons to win, and hopefully they'll remember them as they age.

What we need are leaders who know how to win, and need to. Whatever age, size, color, or gender they are, that's what we should be looking for.

Anyway, thanks for the essay.