Ahead of the Curve
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It's become an annual rite of springtime across America.

It's up there with packing away the sweaters, starting up the John Deere and digging out the neatsfoot oil for Mr. Rawlings.

When the early baseball chatter hits the national airwaves, topic will eventually turn to those loveable losers on Chicago's north side and their infamous streak, the longest title-drought in professional sport (1908).

Though the absurdity of most streaks is easily exposed upon close inspection, they're nonetheless a big deal in rounders (Ripken / Gehrig / DiMaggio / Hershiser).  And this one's a beaut.

Two caveats on the Cubs' dry-spell:

1) The Bruins run-of-futility gives false impression it's never been any different for this cuddly club.  But that 1906-08 squad is arguably MLB's best ever: the back-to-back titles, winning % (topping the As ('29-31), Yanks ('26-28) & Reds ('74-76)), near un-hittable arms, fielding legends (Steinfeldt to Tinker to Evers to Chance) and all of 'em tough as nails.

I know what you're thinking.  Dropping a team as old as that into the discussion is about as tired as debating the gold standard (1896).

Just remember, today's greats (Jordan / Belichick / Ali / Woods / Pujols) will one day become as faded as those champion Cubs.  And when they do, those few who still remember will point to the ancient past.

2) The loveable losers may be fan favorites but are hardly bums.  Besides having the most wins (10,311 / 1876) and fifth best percentage in history (.513), they've made the playoffs six times since their rebirth in '84 when network greed gave San Diego the decided edge.

Enter Theo Epstein.  In late 2011 the GM wunderkind took his talents, as did skipper Terry Francona before him, out of a brooding Beantown where he'd  brought bushels of bounty to the snake-bit franchise.  Theo landed in the Windy City, birthplace of MLB.

What Epstein lacks in aged wisdom he makes up for with a baseball savvy that produced results quickly at Fenway.  But his success in Boston was not your run-of-the-mill, win a World Series or two variety.  He became the jinx-buster.  That's hallowed stuff.

If "fortune is ally to the brave (Olivier)," belief in curses can only be refuge for the chucklehead.  Be that as it may, ESPN & friends are determined to persuade America that such gobbledygook exists, and so it does in the minds of many.

And that can include players.  If  Cubs rank & file believe Theo has mystique, a special ability to fashion title teams and overcome a curse, it may inspire their play.

Epstein will have the full backing of the Cubs new ownership (Ricketts) to construct a winner.  But they've had loaded line-ups before (1984 / 2003), as the previous owner (Tribune) did its part to restore grandeur to this once powerful organization.

Theo can facilitate more than compilation of player & coaching talent.  He can also help to restore a confidence to the home-dugout of the friendly-confines that's been sorely lacking since Charlie Grimm was barking out directions in 1945.

Epstein may have the Midas touch but he ain't no Zeus (Olivier).  It'll take time for Theo and new manager Dale Sveum to make their mark and make the Cubs pennant contenders once again.

They've already begun the purge process.  Former ace turned nut-job Carlos Zambrano found a taker in Miami, while age & injury made the usually productive Aramis Ramirez expendable (Milwaukee) for a club embarking on a new era.

But with a slimmed-down NL Central (Fielder / Pujols), expanded playoffs and a post season trend where any participant can get hot and grab the pennant, even the 2012 Cubs can dream of playing in October and resurrecting past glory. 

Steven Keys

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