This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 2003 Chicago Cubs season. Fans have mixed emotions remembering that year, as it brought many moments of joy, but ultimately ended in gut-wrenching heartbreak. Luckily, the pain of that NLCS collapse has subsided with the passing of time and the triumph of 2016. With all of that said, the 2003 season made a lasting impact that arguably still stands today.
While the team collapsed in "Typical Cubs" fashion, and it took them another 13 years to reach the top, that season helped change fan expectations in a given year.
To put things in perspective, since 2003 the Cubs have made the postseason seven times, winning seven postseason rounds/series, a pennant, and a World Series. From 1945-2002 (57 years) the team made the postseason a grand total of four times (including the 1945 World Series) and did not win a single postseason series. Those 57 years defined Cubs' futility, with mostly losing seasons and an occasional September or October heartbreaker. That stretch is what infamously made the Cubs "The Lovable Losers".
The 1984 season gave Cubs fans a taste of winning and helped make the franchise relevant again, but they soon slipped back into futility. After the 2003 season, despite the ending, expectations for the team were as high as ever. The fans actually got to experience what winning a postseason series was like, and the 2003 team coming within five outs of the World Series was at the time the closest they got to a pennant since 1945. Any Cubs fan who lived it remembers how high the stakes were going into 2004. "Lovable Losers" was no longer accepted and it helped set a better standard.
As former Cubs play-by-play man Chip Carey said on the broadcast after the final game of 2004, "There is a new attitude, there is a new tradition of baseball here in Chicago, and it is centered around winning. The 'Lovable Loser' days of this franchise are over."
One could call the 2003 season the beginning of an era. Sure, not every season since then has been great, but these last two decades have seen more success than the Cubs saw over the nearly 60 years prior. Even with the few-year stretches of brutal baseball over the past 20 years, they would be followed up by successful seasons. There has been fear that the post-World Series core era is regressing back to the "Lovable Loser" days, but the 2023 team has to prove that is not the case.
Remembering 2003 goes beyond just remembering the dominance of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood on the mound or the postseason run they made. It puts a lot in perspective on how the franchise changed. One of the most revered seasons for the longest time was 1969, a team that did not even make the postseason! That was one of the few things fans had for a while though because winning was rarely part of the culture, even if they tried to make it so.