World Series predictions: Don’t always believe what you read

“Hell Freezes Over: The Cubs Will Win the World Series”

So it read on the cover of the Sports Illustrated April 5, 2004 issue, right next to a photo of pitcher Kerry Wood staring down a batter.

I don’t think I’m playing spoiler here by breaking it to you that Hell remains a place of eternal torment, a place that Cubs fans know all too well.

I share this old news with you because history has a way of repeating itself. And so, in 2015, we have another elite sports publication, Sporting News, once dubbed “The Bible of Baseball,” prophesying that next year is finally here.

“The Cubs finished last in the National League Central last year, losing 89 games. They have not had a .500 record since 2009, have not been to the playoffs since 2008, have not won a playoff series (or even game) since 2003, have not won the pennant since 1945, and have not won the World Series since 1908,” wrote Jesse Spector for SN. “And, yes, Sporting News is picking them to win it all in 2015.”

New Cubs manager Joe Maddon doesn’t dissuade such talk. “Bring on the expectations,” Maddon said during last weekend’s Cubs Convention.

Chicago baseball analyst Bruce Levine calls it foolish. “I like the direction the Cubs are headed,” Levine wrote. “If you suggest they may win 80 to 85 games in 2015, I wouldn’t argue with you. But please don’t try and sell me your magazine with puffed-up fantasy pieces while using and toying with Cub fans’ emotions.”

It’s hard to argue with either side.

On the one hand, if the Cubs are going to ever become a winner, they’re going to need a bit of a swagger. As they say, confidence breeds success. So it’s refreshing to hear Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo predict that the Cubs are going to win the National League Central this year.

On the other hand, shouldn’t we be concerned about building unrealistic expectations? And while the Cubs seem to be doing a lot of the right things for the first time since the early 1900s, the odds of going from last place to the World Series seem remote at best. That’s not to say it’s not possible. It has happened – twice before. The 1991 Minnesota Twins and the 2013 Boston Red Sox achieved that unlikely reversal-of-fortune of winning the World Series a year after finishing in last place.

When Sports Illustrated picked the Cubs to reach baseball’s pinnacle in 2004, it didn’t seem too outlandish. After all, the previous season the Cubs had been just five outs away from reaching their first World Series in 59 years. That is of course when Steve Bartman entered into the picture and, well, we don’t need to relive that one again, do we?

After falling to the Marlins in seven games in the 2003 season, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry went back to work. He seemed to make all the right offseason moves. Not only did he bring veteran pitcher (and future Hall of Famer) Gregg Maddux back to bolster an already formidable pitching rotation of Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement, he also acquired slugging first baseman Derrek Lee in a decidedly one-sided trade with the Marlins (for first baseman Hee Seop-Choi and minor-leaguer Mike Nannini). Still, it wasn’t enough. The Cubs finished 89-73, third in the in the NL Central, faltering down the stretch and missing the playoffs. When fallen superstar Sammy Sosa left the last game of the season early, it seemed to encapsulate the disappointment of yet another lost year for the team.

The lesson to be learned: Don’t always believe what you read. Hell is still hell.
Photo: Kerry Wood Sports Illustrated Cover / Jason / CC BY 2.0 / Alteration: None