Two Chicago baseball teams have a shot to win it all this year -- the White Sox and the Cubs, the latter via one of the wildest alternate realities ever set up for baseball.
Stephen King doesn't have anything on former Cardinals/Pirates outfielder Andy Van Slyke, who with longtime St. Louis sportswriter Rob Rains has found the most unique way for the Cubs to win the World Series via his new book, "The Curse...Cubs Win! Cubs ! ... Or Do They?
I'm a big fan of alternate history/reality, particularly with a political or sci-fi angle. The most fertile mind is required for the discipline of concocting a world based on real persons, places and things, but with different outcomes and timelines. As an author of 11 full non-fiction books, it's tough enough to pull together a 100,000-word narrative based on facts. But to concoct a scenario where the 2010 Cubs go all the way could only come from either a daft writer or someone who marches to his own drummer, which is probably a deft description of Van Slyke the player.
Van Slyke and Rains formally introduced their book Monday at Harry Caray's downtown eatery. I had an advance copy, and the premise is wild, furthered by "Twilight Zone" and Hitchcockian twists. In a nutshell, the present-day alternate Cubs team is wiped out in a crash of their chartered plane in Cheyenne, Wyo. The replacement Cubs, culled from all over baseball like an expansion draft, don't figure to do much, but they win the World Series. The dovetailing of the personalities, from the new manager to the son of the longtime Cubs owner -- killed in the crash -- along with the backstory of the crash (you'll have to read it to find out just what happened -- thanks, Roger Ebert!) makes a fascinating summer read, especially for fans for whom Cubs reality is too depressing and unwatchable.
"The Curse," written by Van Slyke and Rains in six months, originally was supposed to be released in 2008 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the last Cubs World Series title. But, as with a lot of books pitched to publishers as the economy headed the way of the fictional Cubs plane, the manuscript went nowhere. I can sympathize -- my "Sweet Lou and the Cubs" book went 0-for-20 being marketed to the big boys out East before Lyons Press had the confidence to say "yes."
Always a stickler for facts even with a fantasy base, I have only one major quarrel with the book. The cold-hearted Cubs owner, Tony Vitello, had bought the team from Bill Wrigley in 1981, at the same time the real owner, Tribune Co., formally assumed control from its de facto minority owner (due to discount broadcast rights it received from the Wrigleys) position since 1948.
But the exact same fate with real events befell the Cubs -- including the Bartman Game -- befell the Cubs from 1981 to 2010. That's a hole in the plot (much like time travel creating paradoxes in sci-fi films and books). Vitello would not have run the Cubs the same way as Tribune Co., not hired the same people, who would have acquired different players, who in turn would have logically produced different outcomes. Maybe the different timeline players don't crack in San Diego in 1984 or Wrigley Field in 2003 or 2008. Maybe they win the division in different years, face different opponents in different scenarios and win several World Series in that 29-year period.
Picky, picky. I'm the guy who gets upset when actors won't cut their hair or shave mustaches or beards (hello Alan Alda and Mike Farrell in "M*A*S*H*!) when they're doing a period-piece film or movie set in the close-cropped mid-20th Century. Most fiction requires suspension of belief. But in a way, that was not the main goal of Van Slyke, who had years to think about the Cubs experience as he patrolled the Wrigley Field outfield as a visitor and used his wit to give back with interest the usual insults flowing from the bleachers.
"I think I had an idea that would help the Cubs in a positive way," said Van Slyke, who last worked as a coach with the Detroit Tigers in 2009. "As Hitchcockian as this book is -- and there are some dark parts of the book -- I wanted the book to be a reality of (positive) human nature overcoming (negative) human nature, overcoming bad relationships. I wanted it to be as real as possible. And, at the same time, show that in the midst of tragedy, triumph can supersede tragedy.
"The story helps baseball. I'll do anything I can do to help the game of baseball. This is a story how baseball can help heal tragedy in our lives."
In the Cubs reality, Van Slyke's Rx for the century-long title-less woes includes an airtight pitching staff, which would not be dependent on the debilitating change of schedule the team faces playing the majority of games during the day at home compared to the predominately night schedule -- standard for all other teams -- on the road.
He subscribes to the theory, proved over the decades, that the constant switching from day to night and back to day again, over and over for six months, wears down the Cubs' position players. The starters, working every five days, wouldn't be so affected. Cubs trainers and other front-office and field types knew this as early as the mid-1970s, but nothing was going to be done so long as the Wrigleys and their wacky day-baseball-only philosophy were in charge. Since the Cubs were such a longtime afternoon-game holdout, a strict ration of night games is now legislated by the city to protect the surrounding neighborhood from drunks peeing on the petunias and other after-dark nuisances.
No wonder the slap-dash Cubs of Van Slyke's book are so appealing, even with dark angles creeping into the plot. These guys don't get tired. Neither does the fertile mind of an outfielder-turned-author. It's exhilarating to win a World Series on the North Side, even in one-dimensional form.