Secret, serious malady afflicts Atlanta Braves


The experts have spoken. The Atlanta Braves are the best of the playoff teams. The bookies have made them the favorites to get to the World Series and win it. Some sports pundits already talk of them as one of the great teams of all time.

The experts just never learn.

As always, they ignore that strange, mysterious and almost-always fatal malady known as the Ex-Cubs Factor.

Regular readers of this column know about the Ex-Cubs Factor. But bear with me as I explain it to newcomers.

Twelve years ago, a Chicago sports nut named Ron Berler

stumbled across an amazing statistic.

Since 1946, 13 teams had entered the World Series with three or more ex-Cubs on their rosters.

Twelve of these 13 teams lost.

Berler theorized that it was a virus. Three or more ex-Cubs could infect an entire team with the will to lose, no matter how skillful that team might appear.

When Berler revealed his findings, the sports experts sneered and scoffed. Stupid and meaningless, they snickered. No scientific basis, they hooted.

Then came 1990, and they were still sneering, scoffing and making their mindless predictions.

That was the year about 99 percent of the experts declared that the Oakland A's could not possibly lose the World Series.

Even before the games began, they hailed the A's as one of the greatest teams -- maybe the greatest -- in the history of the game.

As the Washington Post's resident baseball genius put it: "Let's make this short and sweet. The baseball season is over. Nobody's going to beat the Oakland A's."

As Ben Bentley, the Chicago sports savant, said: "Could the Oakland Athletics be the greatest in baseball history?"

Yes, cried the experts: the greatest, a dynasty, a team of immortals. They could win while yawning.

But out there were two lonely voices: Berler and this writer.

We warned of the Ex-Cub Factor. We pointed out that the A's had foolishly defied the terrible virus by signing a third ex-Cub. And before that World Series began, Berler publicly stated: "As good as they are, they will lose. And they can blame their own arrogance for ignoring history."

So what happened? Not only did the A's lose, but it was also world-class humiliation. Four straight defeats. One of sports' all-time flopperoos.

That made it 13 out of 14 teams with three or more ex-Cubs to collapse in the World Series since World War II.

The A's haven't been the same since. Once it struck, the ex-Cub virus burrowed into the fiber of the franchise. In only three years they have gone from a dynasty to limping mediocrity. Sources say their hot dogs don't even taste as good as they once did.

Have the experts learned anything? Of course not. As the late Mayor Richard J. Daley once said: "Duh experts -- what do dey know?"

The sports experts are now hailing the Atlanta Braves as the super-team of this era.

On Sunday, Dave Kindred, columnist for the Sporting News, wrote: ". . . Atlanta has become baseball's best team since the Yankees of Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra . . . the NL's best team since the Brooklyn Dodgers of Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and Pee Wee Reese . . ."

He may be right. They have thunderous hitters, overwhelming pitchers and a seamless defense.

But they also have the dreaded virus. Of the four teams in the playoffs, only the Braves are afflicted by the Ex-Cub Factor. Only the Braves have three former Cubs.

They are Greg Maddux, the superb pitcher, Damon Berryhill, the reliable catcher and . . .

Even a bleacher creature would be hard-pressed to name the third ex-Cub.

But Berler, the virus discoverer, knows. "I have it all in my computer," he says.

A relief pitcher named Jay Howell. Although he has been in the major leagues for 14 years, he's not a big name, not a big star, no flashy stats. A solid journeyman. Probably good to his family, a nice neighbor, a patriot and he doesn't kick little dogs.

But he is one of the three skeletons in the Atlanta closet. He has a sordid past.

For a brief time in 1981, when he was a mere lad, he was a Cub. He pitched in only 10 games, a total of 22 innings, and wasn't very good.

But as Berler says: "That is all it takes. He is a genuine, bona fide, star-crossed ex-Cub, the poor guy. He is a carrier. It always comes back to your roots. Once a Cub, always a Cub."

Berler, who is a free-lance writer and teacher, recently interviewed Maddux, who chose to become an Atlanta Braves multimillionaire, rather than a Chicago Cubs multimillionaire, because he wanted to play on a winning team.

"I told him: 'You think you're leaving a loser? Ha! You are a loser. And you're going to infect your 24 teammates.' "

He explained the ex-Cub factor to Maddux. And the star pitcher responded by shouting: "I don't believe it, I don't believe it, I don't believe it!"

So if the Braves defeat the Phillies and make it to the World Series, bet on the Braves at your own peril.

But this puts a Chicagoan such as myself, a devout Cub fan, in a difficult position.

Those who are true fans of the White Sox or Cubs loathe the other team. This cross-town rivalry takes precedence over civic pride. So if the Sox play the Braves, I must root for the Braves. It is the only decent thing a Cub fan can do. Sox fans, being dedicated haters, will understand.

It will be the first time I will be cheering for a virus.

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