SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES THEM
St. Jude must be working overtime. First the patron of lost causes gets the Seattle Mariners into the playoff picture after nineteen seasons of rain-dampened futility and one collapsing stadium roof. Then he squeaks the M's past the big, bad New York Yankees. As if that weren't enough, our man bestows his blessings upon the Cleveland Indians for the first time in 41 years. Oh, I know. Unbelievers will say that Cleveland has been a pretty good club for a couple of seasons now and really doesn't qualify as a lost cause in the classic sense.
Try telling that to fans still shocked by the deaths of two Indians pitchers three years ago in a Florida boating accident. Besides, did the Tribe make the playoffs last year? Have they made the playoffs any year since On the Waterfront was released? Nope. Little matter that the baseball strike--an irksome little detail that appears to have been totally forgotten up Cleveland way amid the glorious accumulation of Albert Belle home runs and Kenny Lofton steals--kept everyone out of the post-season last fall.
Clearly, 1994 didn't sit very well with the Commissioner of All Things. To give everyone a lift, He's put St. Jude on double shifts as far as the American League is concerned: Who could have prophesied as recently as four or five years ago that the Seattle Mariners and the Cleveland Indians would be battling it out for the pennant?
Meanwhile, baseball's other league enjoyed its own touch of divine intervention this year. The Los Angeles Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds and Atlanta Braves are all old hands at October baseball, of course, but your own Colorado Rockies could hardly have been expected to attain their present heights in just three seasons without a little help from the heavens--that and some high-priced free agents. If there's a disconsolate baseball fan in the entire Rocky Mountain region, no one's heard about it. The Atlanta pitchers could probably strike out God, so who's complaining that they fired the dark one past Andres Galarraga and Lance Painter?
The World Series should be quite a treat--the dauntless arms of the Braves versus the mighty Indians or the upstart M's. In anyone's Baseball Encyclopedia, it stacks up as a classic: Cleveland hasn't won a World Series (not even a World Series game) since 1948; the Mariners, a "small market" team that has threatened to leave town, might stay put after a Series appearance.
That brings us to St. Jude's crowning achievement of the year, enacted not on the diamonds but on the gridiron. If the J-Man doesn't score huge points with his Boss on this one, he may as well take up Buddhism or join a death-metal band.
Evanston, Illinois, is a lovely, tree-shaded place just north of Chicago, and for as long as anyone can remember, the local college football team hasn't disturbed the quiet. The Wildcats of Northwestern University are more likely to have a couple of future Nobel laureates in their starting backfield than they are a human steamroller with a room-temperature IQ and a bad attitude. On Saturday afternoons in creaky, nearly-empty Dyche Stadium, you can usually hear the cries of the concessionaires (Want mustard on that dog?) over the murmurs of the crowd.
The Mildcats haven't had a winning season since the Nixon administration, and in 112 seasons they've appeared in exactly one bowl game. Their opponents in the tough Big Ten Conference have long seen the trip to Northwestern (alma mater mine) as a breather akin to dropping by the union for a cheeseburger and a malt.
Care to hear more? Between September 22, 1979, when Syracuse beat them, and September 25, 1982, when they slipped by lowly Northern Illinois, the Wildcats lost a record 34 straight games. From 1985 through last year, they won 24, lost 83 and tied 3. Still, SAT scores have always been high on the team, so all the players knew how to spell "league doormat."
But guess what? On September 2 of this year, the Mildcats went into forbidding Notre Dame Stadium and stunned the Irish, who were 28-point favorites, 17-15. On October 7 the Cats traveled up to Ann Arbor and whipped Number 7 Michigan, 19-13--their first win in that 104,000-seat stadium since 1959. In between, they lost to Miami of Ohio, of all outfits, then came back to beat Air Force and Indiana. This past Saturday they visited the University of Minnesota and knocked off the Gophers, 27-17.
Who wouldn't sense St. Jude's presence in these events? If there's ever been a lost cause, it's Northwestern football, and not even the team's fourth-year head coach, former Colorado assistant Gary Barnett, could have foreseen his team's current 5-1 record. Or its No. 11 ranking in the Associated Press poll--first time the Mildcats have cracked the top 25 since the invention of the forward pass. Or the understandably guarded Rose Bowl talk drifting around the Evanston campus.
Oh, yes. Northwestern went to the Rose Bowl once. In 1949. Beat California 20-14, too. But since then, every undersized linebacker and rag-armed quarterback on the club has been home for the holidays.
This year the Wildcats are one of the hottest stories in college football--a lesson in perseverance and a tribute to America's love of underdogs. Spokeswoman Lisa Juscik reports that more than 200 media requests poured into the athletic department last week, 198 more than usual: The New York Times was snooping around campus; ESPN was on its way for a Game Day segment; CNN had cameras at the ready.
When the winning team got back from Ann Arbor, more than a thousand students and alumni greeted them at the stadium: That hadn't happened in Evanston since the Punic Wars. If local football fans think the sudden and glorious eruption of the Colorado State Rams last season was a big deal--St. Jude hadn't vacationed in Fort Collins for a while, either--consider the effect on a school where sophomore running back Darnell Autry is not only the nation's fourth-leading rusher with 153.4 yards per game, but a theater major. And where one of the offensive guards, Ryan Padgett, is just as concerned with his medical school applications as he is with beating Notre Dame in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus.
"It's already been quite a ride," Coach Barnett said. "And we certainly got our wake-up call against Miami of Ohio."
Those searching for a villain in Northwestern's tale of uplift and religious awakening need look no further than the long-suffering team's formerly fragile psyche. Two weeks after the incredible upset in South Bend--brought off in large part through some complex offensive play-switching that kept the Irish "D" back on its heels--the Wildcats hosted Miami of Ohio, out of the middling Mid-America Conference. The Cats took a 28-7 lead late into the third quarter, then frittered it away with a series of blocked punts and bungled snaps. Final score: Miami 30, NU 28.
The next week, only 26,000 fans showed up in Dyche Stadium to see the Cats thrash tough Air Force 30-6, and only 29,000 materialized when they beat Indiana 31-7. Want mustard on that dog? But A.M. (After Michigan), the telephones in the ticket office are ringing off the hook, just as they did when the lowly New York Rangers threatened to win their first Stanley Cup in forty years; when the Mariners put out the call: "Refuse to Lose"; when CSU beat Brigham Young and Arizona on the road last year.
"I guess people thought we were a fluke after Miami," Barnett said. "But our team's playing with confidence now. We went to Michigan believing we could win the game, and we did."
Led by inside linebacker Pat Fitzgerald (67 tackles), the Wildcat defense, which used to reside only at the NU law school, has not allowed a touchdown in the first quarter all season long, and when powerful Wisconsin (October 21) and Penn State (November 4), the winners of the last two Rose Bowls, come calling, every seat will be filled, and you can bet the rejuvenated fans will be flinging roses onto the AstroTurf.
But hey, Jude. The work isn't done yet. Can you really get Northwestern back to the Rose Bowl? Okay, fine. How about those Boston Red Sox? Don't they deserve a World Series win one of these years? And what about the Cubs? If you wait much longer with that one, Harry Caray won't remember he was at Game Seven. And while you're at it, Jude, how about scoring an Emmy for Susan Lucci? Just once. That woman is insufferable.
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