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“Sports flash: Cubs win World Series, Sweep Miami.”
Three decades ago, that was part of a joke that screenwriter Bob Gale came up with for a scene in 1989’s Back to the Future Part II. In the film, Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly hops off a hoverboard and sees that “Sports Flash” projected in giant, holographic type against the side of a building. He is absolutely bewildered that there is a Major League Baseball team in Miami.
Trouble is, the joke no longer works on that level. There’s been a baseball team in Miami since 1993. The former Florida Marlins even switched their name to the Miami Marlins in 2012. (And ironically, the Cubs and Marlins, both being National League teams, couldn’t meet in the World Series.) But there is one part of Gale’s joke that still works. The Chicago Cubs, McFly is told, were a “100-to-1 shot” to win. Which, even now, in the actual year 2015, sounds about right for the so-often-hapless Cubs.
“If we picked the [Boston] Red Sox, nobody would think it is funny today,” says Gale, who wrote all three Back to the Future films along with the series’ director, Chicago native Robert Zemeckis. “In the first movie, Marty walks into the café and says, ‘Give me a Tab.’ Most people don’t get that joke today. They don’t remember [the soft drink] Tab. But the Cubs not being in the World Series has outlasted a lot of stuff.”
Stuff like two World Wars, men landing on the moon and the addition of more than a dozen teams to MLB, including that formerly fictional one in Miami. The Cubs, as was the case in 1989, haven’t won a World Series since 1908. They haven’t even appeared in a World Series since October 1945. They’ve had only five 90-win seasons — a benchmark for a top team — since then. And yet, inside the ivy-covered walls of Wrigley Field this year, the most accursed team in baseball is holding out hope that they can make life imitate Hollywood’s fiction in 2015.
“We’re not the lovable losers now,” says Theo Epstein, the Cubs president of baseball operations. “That’s clearly not who we think we are. That’s not who we want to be. We’re on a journey now to try and win one of the most meaningful championships ever.”
To accomplish that, the Cubs have invested hundreds of millions of dollars. They’re spending $575 million to renovate Wrigley Field and more than half that for new talent. That talent starts at the top with Epstein and Cubs executive vice president and general manager Jed Hoyer. Both know from experience how much it would mean to the Cubs and to their fans if they break the 107-year-old streak of championship-free seasons. Epstein and Hoyer grew up in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, respectively, as fans of another team with a long streak without a World Series win — the Red Sox. And both helped stop that streak when they joined the Red Sox front office in 2002. Two years later, the Red Sox ended 86 years of heartbreak by beating the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
The turnaround in Boston took just two years. In Chicago, this is the pair’s fourth season. So far, not so good. During the prior three seasons, the team finished a combined 84 games out of first place. But they’ve also stockpiled draft picks and collected international talent. First baseman Anthony Rizzo, whom the Cubs traded for in 2012, hit 32 homers last season, and third baseman Kris Bryant, drafted in 2013, led the minors last year with 43 home runs. On the mound, the Cubs picked up former Red Sox and Oakland Athletics ace Jon Lester this offseason, giving him a six-year, $155 million deal. Not to mention new Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who turned the Tampa Bay Rays into a winning franchise.
Epstein and Hoyer have been trying to change the Cubs culture, too, right down to getting rid of negative associations with the team’s name. Former Cubs manager Lou Piniella used the term Cubby Occurrence whenever bad luck crossed the club’s path. Epstein says young players now say they’re “being Cub” when they make a smart play.
Can all of that turn Bob Gale into a prophet? Consider: The developers of a magnetic-based hoverboard like the one Marty rode in Back to the Future Part II received a half-million dollars on Kickstarter last year and have promised to release their first products during this baseball season. Maybe that futuristic “Sports Flash” isn’t too fanciful after all.
“This is really a great opportunity to do something that hasn’t happened in a long time, that could never happen again,” Hoyer says. “This is really a quest for a city. They’ve buried a lot of grandparents who were Cubs fans that never experienced a championship. Hopefully, we can change that.”