So this is where I normally have the first half of a Top Ten, but I may just have a Top Five tomorrow...
Instead, we're going to look at the Chicago Cubs and the San Jose Sharks today and ask- is the same psychology going on with both of these clubs?
While the title may sound harsh, these are my two favorite teams in their respective sports. Admittedly, I'm not the most knowledgeable hockey fan, so bear with me (pun not intended.)
The Cubs futility has been well documented. Back to back World Series championships in 1907 and 1908 and nothing since. The curse of the Billy Goat Tavern was put in place during the 1945 World Series against the Yankees when Wrigley Field staff refused to let in the owner of the Tavern because he had his goat with him (the goat also had a ticket.) Fans blame a black cat running on the field in 1969 (at Shea Stadium), Leon Durham's error during the 1984 NLCS, and Will Clark's over .600 batting average in the 1989 NLCS. I even was getting heckled as recently as the Oakland A's home opener this year about Steve Bartman from A's fans as I walked through the parking lot with a Cubs shirt on (side note: Calling a Cubs fan "Bartman" is about as good of heckling as telling a player "You suck!" Bring something more original, please.)
Anyway, excuses aside, the Cubs absolutely tanked in the playoffs the last two years going a combined 0-6. It's really weird, but as a fan of the Cubs I know this feeling that I get when the weight of the playoff task gets too heavy for the players in the game. In 2003, I didn't feel it at all when they were facing the Braves. I didn't feel it until the Marlins made the series 3-2. At that point the Cubs were throwing aces Mark Prior and Kerry Wood in games 6 and 7, respectively. I had this weird feeling that the Cubs had to win game 6 or they would be sent home. I tried to talk myself out of it knowing Kerry Wood was having a great year, but there was no way around it. Going into game 7, it was almost like my mindset was one with the players at the time- wanting the victory so bad that it slips away because the team is trying too hard. If you're reading at this point and saying "Tony, you don't make any sense," well- you might be right. This is a very difficult feeling to explain and an even more difficult thing to shake. When a team has been branded "Cursed," "Chokers," or any of the other fantastic monikers a team can earn, the pressure to succeed becomes that much more intense. Enter the San Jose Sharks...
As an avid KNBR listener, I noticed that there was a lot more chatter about the Sharks choking in the playoffs again that is very remenecent of some of the Cubs' failures. After Game 1 against the Anaheim Ducks, it felt like Sharks fans were trying to console themselves in a similar manner to Cubs fans during their recent playoff collapse. You see, the Sharks also have a history of not getting it done in the playoffs and fans and media alike are latching on that (possibly deserved) sendimet.
Game 2 mounted even more pressure on the players, and while the Sharks played better, they once again fell short prompting even more questions about whether they are the kind of team that folds up under pressure.
So what's the cure? Look no further than the 2004 Boston Red Sox. I hate to say it (I have come to dislike the Sox because it feels like the Cubs and Sox used to be on a sinking ship together, while the Sox jumped off and saved themselves while taunting Cubs fans on the way to the life-raft) but the Red Sox put everything in perspective soon enough to trick themselves into believing that there was no hope, so that created hope. The self proclaimed "idiots" didn't really care that they were down 3-0 to the talented Yankees. They tricked themselves into playing free and easy instead of feeling the weight of any curses or fan expectations. I truly believe teams like the Cubs and Sharks that have been branded as "chokers" try too hard and ultimately end up getting beat by teams that allow their game to "come to them." Why have the Marlins won two World Series championships? Well, besides the fact that those teams were quite talented, it was because no one expected anything out of them. Clearly at this point it is Championship or Bust for the Cubs and Sharks players and fans, and that puts too much mental strain on the players. Don't look now, but that psychological way of thinking may even be seeping into the current Yankees clubhouse.
I really hope the Sharks can figure this out and realize they are better than the Ducks before it is too late. They are a better team, and just need to find a comfortable mental spot to get the job done. I have no idea how to better explain this, but just know that it feels awful when you're in the middle of it.