Chicago Cubs: This Is The Golden AgeS

Will Leitch will be previewing/musing on every baseball team each weekday until the start of the season. You can pre-order his book and follow him on Twitter. Today: The Chicago Cubs.

Wrigley Field is one of the most beautiful places on earth, a landmark that Conan O'Brien sprinted through during "Surrender" to show he was in the Midwest, where Jim Belushi tackled Mark Grace in Taking Care of Business (before Grace joined the Village People), where Ferris Bueller took his day off. It stands for mid-America, and history, and baseball itself. Wrigley Field is immortal. The Cubs, and their stadium, are a national institution. Even if they're thinking of putting up a hideous Toyota sign in left field.

It wasn't always like this. Until 1938, Wrigley Field held 14,000 people. Upgrades throughout the years raised the capacity to 38,396 in 1938, 36,755 in 1951, 38,040 in 1986 (two years before Major League Baseball cruelly forced lights on the Cubs), 38,884 in 1997, 41,118 in 2006 and ultimately 44,250 today, a number busted out only for special occasions, like a postseason appearance, or hockey. The Cubs still have one of the smaller stadiums in Major League Baseball, but they don't draw like it: Despite a disappointing season last year (to say the least), they were sixth in the majors in attendance, one of nine teams to draw more than 3 million fans. (Three of those teams were in the National League Central, by the way.) It was the sixth consecutive season the Wrigley had more than 3 million fans; the Cubs crossed that figure in 2004 and haven't missed since. There are more people heading to Wrigley Field right now than any other time in human history.

This coincides, of course, with the most successful era in Cubs history. The Cubs' inability to win a World Series, suffice it to say, has been well-documented, but otherwise, the last decade was their best ever. They had six winning seasons in the 2000s, the most since they had 10 in the 1930s, a decade in which they lost three World Series. If every other decade had as many wins as the last one did, you'd have to think the Cubs wouldn't be known as the Lovable Losers they are today. You'd also have to think they'd have won a World Series at some point, one, anyway. The 2000s were the best baseball the Cubs have had to offer. I do hope Cubs fans enjoyed it. Because it's starting to look like that's as good as it's going to get for a while. It looks like the window is about to close.

The Cubs have new owners now, the ones responsible for the Toyota hideousness, and it's difficult to argue that they didn't buy in a couple of years late. (Imagine if someone had grabbed the Cubs in 2002, the same year John Henry bought the Red Sox.) The payroll is nearing max-out level, with aging stars entering their decline phase, and the prospects coming up are a year or two from contributing to what's looking like a final stretch run. And the Toyota debacle isn't encouraging: So far, there's not much evidence the new stewards can enhance, modernize and profitize the old ballpark without losing what makes it great, the way the Boston owners did. You turn fans against Wrigley, you've lost everything.

Cubs fans are as fervid as any fanbase in sport — they always set every Spring Training record, and I'll never forget the Diamondbacks-Cubs postseason series in which it appeared there were more Cubs fans at Chase Field than D-Backs boosters — but it has been easy (or at least easier; these are still the Cubs) to cheer during a time of hope and impending nirvana. When I went to Wrigley Field for the game in September 2008 that's featured in the upcoming book, the atmosphere at Wrigley was not one of frat boy, World's Largest Pick-Up Bar nonsense: It was focused and jubilant, true fans, confident and yearning. That year, the 100th year since the last World Series championship, that was supposed to be The One. It wasn't. Neither was last year. True Cubs fans are past the Wait Til Next Year emptiness. They've waited long enough. They've supported these guys enough. They want one now. In the wake of Milton Bradley, there's a tension among Cubs fans. There is a clear sense of opportunity squandered.

The Cubs are still a talented team, and they have enough pieces with enough juice left to conceivably make a Cardinals-in-2006 run, a team that didn't win when it should have but sneaked out a title when they shouldn't have. (They'll need what the Cardinals got that year: the rest of the division falling apart.) But as a Cardinals fan — the only type of creature in all of baseball, along with White Sox fans, who wouldn't take at least a modicum of joy in a World Series championship for the Cubs — I can't help but think we've dodged a bullet. The Cubs had everything fall their way over the last 10 years. They should have won a World Series. But they didn't. It's not a curse, it's not a hex, it's not a goat, it's not bad mojo. Sometimes the hand doesn't fall your way. The Cubs are hotter right now than they will be again for a long time. If they don't do it this year, very soon, Cubs fans will look back at the frustrations of the last 10 years and wonder if it will ever be that good again.

Photo via Nate C's flickr account