While Budweiser’s attempt to make opening day a national holiday seems to be more a money grab akin to Hallmark holidays, I do try to make special preparations every year when the first pitches are thrown out across the country. Thankfully, my normal work hours at my new job began today with a 5am start, so I am off work with plenty of time to catch day baseball. And so, I’ll sit down and get into that familiar rhythm of pitch, swing, pitch swing, only to be interrupted by hits and steals and strike-outs. Ah, baseball. I’m a sucker for history, and baseball has a longer history than the other big sports here. People say it’s boring and takes too long, but I think it’s the perfect speed. It gives you time to breathe, time to ponder, time to write what’s happening on a score card.
And, baseball begins today with my favorite team in all of sports, the Chicago Cubs, who travel to Pittsburgh to face the Pirates at noon today (CDT). Growing up in West Tennessee and now living in Western Kentucky, I’m often questioned (usually by arrogant Cardinal fans) about why on Earth I would like the Cubs. Regionally, I’m just far enough from Chicago, that there are about 5 other teams closer. I have no elder family member who passed it down to me. And, as so many people are so happy to bring up, the Cubs are not a very successful team (as if one of the qualities of a true fan has to do with you liking them when they are good). Well, here’s the story:
I grew up most exposed to baseball. I was enrolled in tee-ball as a 5-year-old. My dad and I would watch baseball at night on this tiny television in his bedroom. Then, we watched the Braves. My dad doesn’t have any die-hard baseball affiliations. Truth-be-told, he’s probably a bigger Cardinals fan than Braves fan. But, the Braves had TBS while the Cardinals, at best, might have a game of the week a couple times in a month. So, we watched Braves games at night. This was the mid-80s, the powder blue, Dale Murphy, Bob Horner years with the Braves. And, beyond those awesome uniforms and those few notable names, the Braves were nothing to write home about. In about 5 or so years, the Braves would begin winning pennants, but this was not that time.
As a young child, I grew tired of seeing the Braves lose night after night. I felt the need to dump these zeros and get with a hero. So, I went on a private search to find a new baseball team, with a limited amount of baseball knowledge and resources. I did not ask my Dad, the most knowledgeable person on baseball in my life, because I was dumping the team we watched together. So, it was all on me. So, I found another team that seemed to be on television all the time (WGN), and that was winning games (this was 1984). The planets somehow aligned for me to encounter the Cubs in one of the rare years they went to the post season. I knew nothing of the woeful history, the ’69 collapse, the ’45 World Series Curse, and all the years in between and after with losing season after losing season. For me at that point in my life, this team was exciting, it was blue (my favorite color), and a little bear seemed much cooler than a brave (I don’t think I even understood what a brave was at the time). So, the Cubs it was.
I’m ashamed to say that I drifted. I became less consumed with baseball, even spent time not liking it. I flirted with other teams. In the early 90s when every rapper had a White Sox hat, I claimed them. When Houston had those awesomely hideous brown and orange jerseys, I like them. But, I always came back to the Cubs, and by the time I was old enough to understand you gotta pick a team and stay with it, the Cubs were my team. In 2000, I went to Wrigley Field for the first time, and the love went to a new level. This is when I really became a serious Cubs fan. I fell in love with every bit of it, even the whole city of Chicago. I didn’t realize it, but I chose a team that fits my sensibilities almost perfectly. I’ve always loved an underdog story, always wanted to root for the team who isn’t expected to win. I have a very nerdy obsession with history, and the Cubs are arguably the oldest team in the majors (depending on where you read, the Reds might also be oldest). I love old buildings, and the Cubs play in one of the oldest of all the teams.
It was in 2003 that I really felt what it means to be a Cubs fan for real. There had been promising teams in the years leading up, but they always seemed to come up short. This team was different. They turned something on in the final month that I hadn’t seen before. They were mowing people down. They were in control. I went to see one of the first round playoff games in Chicago with my good friend David. We drove to Chicago, listening to how Mark Prior was dominating the Braves as we made our way to the Windy City for the game tomorrow, where we might see them clinch the next round of the playoffs. On our way to the game the next day, people honked and waved to us to see us in Cubs gear. That 100 year old stadium shook that night, and even though they didn’t win that night, we just had a feeling the would. And they did. And they kept winning. They won so much, it seemed like it was a guarantee. Then it wasn’t. I remember when it all turned on the infamous Bartman play. When Alou missed the foul ball due to fan interference, I joked with my friend Steven, “they better not lose because of this.” In that moment I didn’t understand what it meant to be a Cubs fan. I was way too confident. In the next moments I would understand though. All hell broke loose on the field, and before I knew it, my boys had blown a lead. The next night, I was sure we’d bounce back–Wood was pitching. We did not, though.
This was a big lesson for me, because it taught me that nothing is a sure thing. It taught me that even when you are good enough, even the best, you can lose it, not because you don’t care or because you aren’t as good as you thought–but because there are sometimes heavy burdens to carry that we don’t even know we carry until they are on us. The Cubs have that burden of knowing the pressure every year. And, ever since 1908 they have buckled at some point under that pressure. There’s plenty of blame that can be thrown around, depending on what year you look at, but in the end the stat that always comes back (that Cardinals fans wet their pants to remind you of) is that when it came time to win they couldn’t.
And, for all the ways the Cubs seem perfectly fitted to be my team, that may be thing that holds me there most. I am an optimist–not a starry eyed optimist, but still an optimist. I’m often cynical and sarcastic, I’m quick to tell you we don’t have much of a chance in the 2014 season. But, even knowing that, I’ll be somewhere near a TV in a few hours watching my boys. Because I believe that just because something’s seemed to always happen some way that things can change. I believe that people who’ve been told their whole life they don’t matter, do matter. And I believe one of the greatest times to celebrate is when someone you believe in makes their dreams come true and proves the doubters wrong. I know it’s just baseball, but I believe. And when it happens (yeah, I said when, not if), I will tear up and hug people and jump around over a stupid baseball team. Or, if I’m dead (god forbid), someone who loves me will put a hat on my grave. Because I want to believe in something as special as that. I know that losing isn’t that bad, I’ve seen it over and over. And, I know too that most winners lose a lot to get there. That’s at least what I’ll tell myself today if Samardzija gets hammered in the first and leaves the game. Love is not about winning. Love is being there.