On the John
They shoot baseball teams, don’t they?
Originally posted October 15, 2012
When Marlon Byrd struck out way back on April 5th to wrap the Cubs’ third straight opening day loss, I was at a doctor’s office four blocks from Wrigley Field dealing with an inflated bill for an STD test now 18 months old. I had suggested to my new lover that we get tested, but due to an insurance snafu committed by my doctor known as a “miscoding,” I was not covered for the test and was saddled with a bill that was probably 10 times my expected co-pay.
But why? I couldn’t figure out the beating I was taking. I’d been responsible, for god’s sake. I held no concern that I would fail the test – it was a formality in the name of safely enjoying sex and love. I aced the test as I knew I would and as I always have whenever I get tested. The only difference this time was that I was being financially ransacked by bureaucratic hustlers through a bookkeeping error of their own creation.
So that’s what I was doing when the Cubs were busy losing their first of 101 games of 2012. The doctor was the third in a series of afternoon errands, and I was following the game on my phone with, I suspect, the same hopeful reluctance my parents used to employ when watching me stride to the plate in little league. Maybe he won’t get hit by a pitch this time. Maybe he’ll draw a walk. Maybe he’ll ground into a run-scoring fielder’s choice. He’s still my son. Athletic excellence isn’t everything.
That was me with the Cubs. Maybe they’ll salvage their dignity. Maybe they’ll play entertaining baseball for eight innings. Maybe they’ll… gulp… win.
Instead of winning, they called upon Kerry Wood and Carlos Marmol, who promptly gave the game away.
This was a sickening twist – the Cubs were ahead 1-0 when I got off the train and went to a Vienna stand for a hot dog. When I stepped into the doctor’s office and began speaking with the woman at the desk, I heard Len & Bob on the waiting room television, but it wasn’t until I turned around to call billing that I saw the scoreboard 2-1 in favor of the Nationals.
Fucking Cubs, I mumbled as I dialed. It’s been four years since I last followed the team on a daily basis, and watching this opening day go-from-ahead loss felt a lot like running into your ex-girlfriend – you know, the one who’d recklessly bulldozed your heart despite your friends’ warning that she was “not the safest bet.”
And she wasn’t. But now you’re free! Sure, it took being cheated on and ignored and publicly embarrassed, but at long last you’d escaped! You removed yourself from the cancerous relationship. You rehabbed your emotions and healed your soul. “I am better without her,” you tell yourself. “I am stronger without her. Good riddance.”
Then you run into her, right there in the doctor’s office, and she’s beautiful and alluring as ever. Still, you’ve been there. You remain cautious. But she creeps in. She smiled, so I guess I can smile back. And I suppose a hug won’t hurt.
A few weeks later you’re crying over your beer and your buddies are rubbing your back, and even though they’re supportive you know they’re pulling away. They’re staring right through you, restraining themselves from looking you in the eye and saying without mercy, Yes, I am your friend, but you brought this on yourself.
So you can imagine my chagrin when, a few weeks after opening day, I learned my ex was now dating my dear friend Alex Heldman.
“What??” I asked in disbelief. It was no dream. My thoughtful, careful friend Alex, from Cincinnati, for god sakes, with no familial influences to blame was, at the age of 27, willingly becoming a Cubs fan.
No, strike that: it was done. He had become a Cubs fan. I was too late. It was accomplished.
“What can I say?” he told me. “I’m in love.” I heard his smile on the phone. It put a chill down my spine. Good god – he was babbling like a 12-year-old on Valentine’s Day! “And guess what!” he told me. “I’m going to Wrigley tomorrow!”
Great. Just what we need. We’ll never get him back! “But why?” was all I could muster.
“It’s Wrigley Field!” he shouted. “Everyone should see a game at Wrigley Field before they die.”
“Sure,” I said. “The problem is that it’s a Cubs game. I’d love to go to Wrigley and see the Dodgers and the Giants.”
“Jack, hush. I know the Cubs have broken you, but so what? I love this team. I’m wearing my Cubs hat as we speak.” That I did not need to hear. It’s those visuals that really knock you out. “Don’t worry Jack. Tomorrow is going to be beautiful.”
And it was. The Cubs pummeled the visiting Brewers, shutting them out 8-0 for their second win of the season. Sure enough, I got a text from Alex shortly after the game reading “Go Cubs Go.”
“Oy vey,” I responded. “Get out now! Get out while you can!!”
“Explain to me why and perhaps,” he said.
With pleasure, I thought…
…but as soon as I started thinking, I was stalled. What arguments can I make to someone who has never been there? What can a bitter, broken-hearted, been-around-the-block man tell a young pup of 15 who has finally gotten a date with his first crush? “I’ve been there kid. It ain’t good. It seems fun at the start, but it wears you down.”
“Ah, you’re just an old man who messed with the wrong gal. That’s not going to be me. This girl loves me! I know she does!”
I tried to talk him down, attempting to barrage him with a list of reasons to avoid Cubdom. You’re too old to start! I told him. You wouldn’t start smoking cigarettes at this age, right?
“It’s not the same,” he said arrogantly.
But this was no time for judgment. I had to save my friend.
Here’s what I should have told Alex about the Cubs, but didn’t, because I couldn’t articulate it until I’d settled my emotions: they might never win. We take it as an article of faith that they will, but they might not.
Or they will, but we’ll be long dead, and a lot of good it will do when our grandchildren place Cubs hats upon our headstones.
A week before Opening Day, I saw a pair of 70-year-old Cubs fans walking south on Sheridan Road toward Irving Park. One wore a classic Cubs hat, the other a blue Cubs windbreaker, and they were strolling, smiling, talking merrily about whatever it is that 70-year-old Cubs fans talk about.
And I thought to myself, When they were my age, the Cubs already hadn’t won a World Series in 27 years.
That’s what makes the whole 103-years-and-counting thing so unnerving. Looked at from our 2012 perspective, “103 years without a World Series” is an abstraction. A frightening abstraction, but an abstraction none-the-less. It’s like saying you’re younger than Shakespeare.
After all, die-hard sports fans enter historical and contextual sports consciousness around the age of ten, so unless you’re a 113-year-old Cubs fan, you’ve only waited 90, 75, 50, 30, 15, or even 10 years for a World Series.
And as it happens, there are only four Americans alive who would have been at least ten on Opening Day 1909, and they were born in Tennessee, Italy, South Carolina, and Florida respectively.
But when you look at this century of futility from the perspective of someone in the past… well, that’s when Cubs fandom stirs the imagination to madness.
I know the analogy here is to love and marriage, but at least when a woman breaks your heart you get to find a new one. Because it’s not love you want to give up on. It’s her. The filthy demon-goddess who stole your innocence, ground it into a fine powder, and scattered the ashes into the outfield grass. What did Steve Goodman call it? That’s right: the ivy-colored burial ground. That’s Wrigley Field. A graveyard of broken souls.
Indeed, while there are many new women out there within the unchanging arena of “love,” there are no new Cubs teams. Oh, there is roster turnover, and if you return after a five-year abstention you might not recognize the stars, the role players, the management, or even the ownership.
But the shirts are the same. The park is the same. The demon-goddess’s sweet siren song, her alluring wink that could puncture your eye – it’s all the same.
Yes Steve, they still play the blues in Chicago. Some poor folks just think it’s rock and roll.
And yet, Wrigley Field.
There was a time when, as a rule and a pleasurable habit, I frequented Wrigley at least five times per summer. I bought tickets in advance, was invited to games, or just showed up with friends and suckled the will-call teet. No matter the reason, no matter the season – it was always worth it.
But times change, and on July 17th, I entered the park for my first Cubs game in three years.
It started when I got an email from my friend Jimmy Greenfield, a man who, as a 16-year-old in 1984, kicked a hole in his parents’ wall after the Cubs lost a game… in April.
Six months later, after the Cubs dropped three straight games to blow the NLCS, a distraught Jimmy left the house in tears to wander the neighborhood.
It’s no surprise then that today, Jimmy is the author of 100 Things Cubs Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, a collection of heroes and goats, comebacks and meltdowns, games, myths, legends, and facts.
Nor is it a surprise that he made fast friends with Ira Frost, the father of a great friend of mine and a supreme Cubs fan himself, a man who sends regular Cubs-oriented emails to friends and family. Jimmy & Ira met at a family dinner – turns out they share in-laws – and soon the three of us made a date for a trip to Wrigley, a night game against Miami in mid-July.
I called Alex on my way to the ballpark. I’d heard from him throughout the season as he toughed it out (I would wake up to messages about “Keep hope alive” and “Stay positive, Jack!”) and even as his hometown Reds ambled into first place, Alex was adamant: “Jack, I am a Cubs fan,” as if this were a state of being and not a horrific choice. “Deep down in my heart, I’ve always been a Cubs fan. I just hadn’t come out yet.”
“So it doesn’t bother you that this brilliant, beautiful, heartwarming team you’ve always loved is 14 games out of first?”
There was a pause, and some sort of shuffling. “Not at all,” he said, though his voice cracked at this next part as he crawled through the words “You win some, you lose some.”
I met up with Jimmy & Ira at John Barleycorn’s for a pregame bite, and after we left the bar and security inspected my bag, we entered the park and walked through the concourse to the steps leading to our section. The national anthem was in progress, and we waited at the base of the steps behind a throng of fans. Over their heads I could see the blue of the sky, and then the anthem ended and the applause and cheers began, a rolling coil of sound that circles the grandstand and signals both patriotic release and sporting anticipation.
And finally up those steps, and then that field, and as we hunkered down in our seats in the shade, I smiled.
Yes, the slow crawl of advertising is creeping around the park like that mirror-goop in The Matrix sliming its way up Neo’s arm. Even the “good” advertising is gone: the famous red Budweiser rooftop beyond left field is now an imposing blue UNITED sign, and the homey TORCO Oil logo over right field has been replaced by a rotating Miller Lite billboard.
I shook my head in smug self-defense. She sure sold out, I thought. How did I once LOVE her?
Still, enjoying Wrigley has always meant disregarding certain unavoidable annoyances, and I’ve never had trouble zoning in on the peace and majesty of the park. We were seated behind home plate on the 3rd base side, and as I reshaped my back into her form-fitting chairs and began filling out my scorecard, the faintest of smiles filled my cheeks. I heard her familiar siren songs – “Beer here! Buuuuuudweiser here!” – and I saw her loving wink as the doomed players in blue took their outfield posts.
It’s good to see you, she said as I shifted uneasily in my seat. You’re looking well.
I struggled to make small talk. I see you’re still packin’ ‘em in.
Oh, she said with a giggle, I do okay.
It was no use fighting it – she had me. It was good to see her? Who am I kidding, it was great to see her. All of a sudden there I was again, snuggling into the woman I loved, just like I did long ago, back before I knew any better.
I don’t have to tell you how this ends.
The Marlins broke a scoreless tie with three runs in the 4th inning, followed by a 5th inning grand slam from the old Sout’sider Carlos Lee and then a run-scoring single. 8-0 Marlins. Throughout the madness, I watched as Jimmy dug his way further and further into his chair, possessing the unhappy slouch of a boy sitting through an adult dinner party mixed with the grim countenance of a man who’s been here before.
Meanwhile, the older and unceasingly jubilant Ira was seated upright, checking his scorecard and watching the proceedings like a grandfather patiently observing his two grandsons in the backseat of his Lincoln as they slurp ice cream cones on a summer day and knowing as he watches them, There will be ice cream on the seats. But I’m going to have a great time with my grandchildren.
And that’s pretty much how it went, as the Cubs put up just enough of a fight to get our hopes up without doing anything quite so drastic to unilaterally crush them.
So now here we are, the postseason underway as the 2012 Cubs mercifully sit at home. After winning the final two games of that Marlins series, the Cubs lost 48 of their final 73, dropping over 30 games behind the first-place Reds. In that time, they had losing streaks of 8, 7, 6, 4, and 4. They lost games 12-0, 5-0, 10-1, and 15-4. They eclipsed the 100-loss barrier by losing to the equally shameful Houston Astros.
A lot of Cubs fans made a big stink out of 100 losses, but my take is simple: when you’ve lost for 100+ years, what’s another 100 games?
My pal Alex didn’t take it quite so well. I got a call from him on a Sunday in the middle of August, a few hours after his hometown Reds had polished off three wins at Wrigley. The Cincinnati faithful had produced an impressive show of numbers that weekend – everywhere you turned there were flocks of Reds fans, VOTTO 19 and PHILLIPS 4 and even DAVIS 44 on the backs of these invading strangers.
“Hey buddy!” I said when I answered the phone. “How are you feeling?”
There was a deep pause on the other end. I could hear him breathing, building to the words he couldn’t speak. “You tried to tell me,” he said softly. His voice was low and weak, without its usual bubbling confidence. “You warned me,” he said.
I stood quietly. This wasn’t an I-told-you-so moment. It was more of an everything’s-going-to-be-okay-little-buddy moment.
“Are you going back to the Reds?” I asked honestly.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “This is where I belong. But man…” he said, babbling on, “I just, I had no idea.” He paused again. “I mean, goodness. How do people do this for so long?”
That’s the question, ain’t it? My friends who still die with the Cubs tell me that this 2012 season was all about “building,” whatever that means.
“Basically it’s like this,” said my friend Ari, one third of my holy trinity of Cubs fan friends, a man who once did a naked marathon wearing nothing but Mark Grace’s jersey in body paint. “Usually the Cubs are bad because they don’t know what they’re doing. But now they’re bad because they know what they’re doing.”
Sounds like the same old song to me. Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies, right? IT’S GONNA HAPPEN, right?
Here’s the thing: I’m no longer sure you have to believe in the Cubs. But I’m also not sure that belief in the Cubs is what’s expected of us. Maybe what’s important is not that we believe, but that we forgive. Forgive the Cubs for their perpetual failure. Forgive our ancestors for their slamming-our-heads-into-an-ivy-covered-wall ways, and for passing down that unfounded dedication to us. Forgive ourselves for not giving up and never giving in, for believing in something so blatantly ridiculous and obviously impossible.
I don’t know if my last trip to Wrigley was a return to my old love, but it definitely was a day of forgiveness. It taught me two things: the Cubs will never win a World Series, and I can live with that.
Jack M Silverstein is a Chicago writer and a non-practicing Cubs fan. Say hey @readjack.