Cubs return, 33,854 days later

Among those in attendance at Fenway Park on Sept. 11, 1918, no one could have foreseen the anguish in the years ahead.

The Boston Red Sox wrapped up the World Series title when the Cubs' Les Mann grounded out to Dave Shean at second base to end a 2-1 game. It was their third championship in four years, spoiling a fan base that no doubt envisioned several more around the corner.

A mere 33,854 days later, the Chicago Cubs will return to Fenway Park on Friday for the first time since.

Of course, 1918 took on a legendary status in Red Sox lore. Until 2004, it stood as the beginning of an era defined by almost, could be and maybe next year -- inevitably ending in heartbreak or disappointment.

For all that time, 1918 was more than a year. It became a derisive chant from tormenters in the Bronx. It became a point of demarcation, separating a dwindling generation of Red Sox fans who knew what victory felt like. Though Babe Ruth actually stuck around for another season, it's commonly seen as the start of the curse.

For Cubs fans, 1918 goes down as just another missed opportunity, the second of seven straight World Series appearances in which they've fallen short since last winning in 1908.

Recent allegations of impropriety aside, the series stands out in one regard for Chicago. Cubs pitchers were historically effective in defeat. They finished with a 1.04 ERA, the lowest ever for a losing World Series team. The Red Sox won, despite scoring a total of nine runs in six games and hitting just .186.

Were it not for Boston's ensuing drought, the 1918 series' legacy would have been far different. Amidst the patriotic fervor of World War I, a band performed "The Star-Spangled Banner" during the seventh-inning stretch of the series opener. Players and fans spontaneously stood and joined in song. The New York Times described the ensuing applause as "the highest point of today's enthusiasm." A tradition was born, as the anthem became a staple at season openers and World Series games.

Much has transpired in the intervening 92 years, 251 days since the Cubs last took the field at Fenway. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it will be the fourth-longest span between visiting a team in MLB history.

It's also the second-longest a team has ever gone between appearances at a stadium. When the San Francisco Giants visited Fenway in 2007, it was their first visit since 1912, the first season of the park's existence. Because the Cubs will be the final NL team to visit Fenway in interleague play, that mark may never be broken.

For years, Red Sox and Cubs fans were kindred spirits. Both endured their own unique jinxes and curses. From Buckner and Bambino to Bartman and the Billy Goat, the resulting paranoia, pessimism and heartbreak was worthy of a psychology textbook.

Red Sox fans suffered through feelings of inferiority, playing the role of jealous sibling to the Yankees' dynasty. Boston had several close calls, inevitably ending in traumatic defeat. There are more stories of disappointment that could be told by the mere mention of a year: 1967, 2003, 1975, 1978 and, of course, 1986, to name a few.

For Cubs fans, it's been hopelessness. After falling short in seven straight World Series appearances, opportunities soon vanished. The Cubs haven't made a World Series since 1945. For 20 years, beginning in 1947, they didn't finish higher than fifth. Throughout the decade of the 1950s, the Cubs never led the division by more than one game. Ron Santo and Ernie Banks never once reached the postseason.

The two fan bases formed a support group for the tormented. White Sox fans, titleless since 1917, were never quite invited. Their agony never seemed on the same level. Red Sox and Cubs fans could more easily feel empathy for the other's plight.

But like any support group, the ultimate hope is that you won't need it anymore.

After 2004, Red Sox fans stopped attending. The following year, Cubs fans could only watch as the White Sox ended their own 87-year drought. Even the Giants won a title, ending their comparatively insignificant 55-year cold streak last season.

Now the Cubs are the only ones left waiting, 102 years and counting. The next-longest active streak without a title belongs to the Cleveland Indians, who last brought one home in 1948.

Of course, more unites the Cubs and Red Sox than just anguish.

The two franchises are the lone holdouts clinging to old stadiums. Wrigley Field, born in 1914, opened two years after Fenway. Unlike this weekend's series, the Red Sox's 2005 interleague set at Wrigley was not a return trip. The Cubs used Comiskey Park as their home field in the 1918 series to take advantage of a larger capacity. After Fenway and Wrigley, the next-oldest current venue is Dodger Stadium. That opened in 1962, 50 years after Fenway.

There are also those who donned both uniforms. Ranging from Jimmie Foxx to Rich Hill, there are 167 players in all. That doesn't include Terry Francona, who played 86 games for the Cubs in 1986.

One of those names stands above all the rest in terms of significance: Bill Buckner.

In May 1984, having lost his starting job to Leon Durham, Buckner was shipped to Boston for Dennis Eckersley and minor leaguer Mike Brumley.

"It's a very tough moment for me," Buckner said, voice cracking from emotion, following the end to over seven seasons with the Cubs. He's still the only player with at least 200 games for each team, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

Chicago won the NL East that year, making the postseason for the first time in 39 years. But in the deciding Game 5 of the NLCS against the Padres, something happened that can now be viewed as a supremely ironic prequel. With a 3-2 lead in the seventh inning, the Cubs were eight outs away from a return to the World Series. That's when a grounder rolled through the legs of Durham, the man who took Buckner's job. That tied the game. You can guess what happened next.

Like Buckner, Eckersley has unmatched experience with both franchises, as the only pitcher with 500 innings or 25 wins for each team. The Red Sox were looking to open up rotation spots for Oil Can Boyd and Roger Clemens in early 1984, making Eckersley expendable.

But not everyone was pleased with a trade that sent away Eckersley, still just 29 and a two-time All-Star. Digging through the archives at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, ESPN researcher Mark Simon uncovered one such Red Sox player, who didn't mince words.

"Nothing against Bill Buckner, but [this trade] stinks," he said to the local media.

The player? Bob Stanley.

Two years later, he'd enter Game 6 of the World Series in the 10th inning to face Mookie Wilson. The calamity that followed would forever link Stanley and Buckner.

The Red Sox made more trades with the Cubs in the coming years, most notably acquiring Rod Beck in 1999. But it wasn't until 2004 that another deal changed history.

The Cubs acquired Nomar Garciaparra in the four-team trade that netted Doug Mientkiewicz and Orlando Cabrera for Boston.
Three months later, Mientkiewicz gripped an underhanded toss from Keith Foulke. With that, 1918 finally became just another year in Boston.

For Cubs fans, the wait continues.

Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.