Baseball is a metaphor for life for those who fall in love with it. Fall for a major league team and watch how you begin to find threads and reoccurring themes in that team that parallel the way you frame your own story. In reality, baseball is just baseball and the team you rooted for 10 years ago is totally different from the one you are rooting for now besides the uniforms and maybe the stadium. But it doesn’t feel that way to those of us who love a team. There is a storyline. There is a personality. There is a legacy. And it was fate that we found our team. Outsiders will undoubtedly see it differently or not at all. To the fan, though, your stories are bound together.
Non fans may see the Yankees as a soulless mega-spending juggernaut out to unfairly buy up or destroy anything that might draw interest away from themselves for a moment or have people believe they are not the center of the universe. But, you the fan find yourself drawn to history, to consummate professionalism, to drawing the greatest players of all time to an epicenter of history and greatness.
Non fans may see the Cardinals full of a passive-aggressive sort of pretension, a group of know-it-alls who think they invented baseball, who think supporting a winning team makes you the best fans in baseball. But, you the fan are drawn to the tradition, the scrappy players who always knew the fundamentals, the constant story of innovation when they didn’t have money to spend, the outlying team that so often found a way to battle back and win.
Non fans have seen the Cubs for years as consummate losers. a team with a fan base that cared more about drinking beer in an old ballfield than seeing them win, a team that will regularly be good, but not good enough, epic choke artists, a team that would somehow outdo it’s ability to epicly drop a series year after year. But, as
a Cubs fan I can tell you that the story I am drawn to is one of consummate hope. It is the history of players who are not revered because they brought home a title, but just because they labored for years trying.
I have read about and studied the 1906-08 teams that went to three straight World Series. I read about their dominance, their stellar baseball knowledge, the fights (literally and figuratively) they regularly started and finished. They were the first dominant baseball team of the 20th century, and I’ve seen that team as a mythic figure that may someday return, like King Arthur with the Brits or Wenceslaus with the Czechs. So many Cubs fans have spent their fandom wishing for this type of return. That Tinkers, Evers, Chance, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown would rise from the ground and redeem the Cubs. Or just that some new group of players would do that.
I think I became a Cubs fan in 1984, a year they almost made it to the World Series. I casually rooted for them the next time they got close in ’89 when I was in middle school. In ’98 I was in college. We watched Sosa and McGuire battle for the home run title, and I casually rooted again. In 2000, I went to Wrigley for the first time and it got more serious. I remember 2001. It was a good year, but they tanked at the end of the season and missed the playoffs. I went to two playoff games in 2003, and I was devastated by their infamous NLCS loss to the Marlins. I remember at one moment when I was so tired of the losses, up late one night praying to God to please let the Cubs win. That was my rock bottom moment–asking my God to influence baseball games.
I rooted in ’07 and ’08. In 2008, I believed I was seeing the best Cubs team of my lifetime. My wife Allyson and I went to Chicago several times that year. I got to see them clinch a playoff birth at Wrigley Field. At a benefit, we got Alfonso Soriano to wave at us, and Allyson got Ryan Dempster to sign my old worn out Cubs hat. I started a tradition of filling out a score card for every Cubs playoff game in 2008, because I wanted to document this team, to remember the season. They were swept in the first round by the Dodgers.
When you love a baseball team, you find more and more ways to love them. It’s easy if they are winning. Reasons to love abound. It’s those lean years where you really determine the version of their story that speaks to you. I found myself drawn to their history, to their 100 year old ballpark, to their wonderful city. I acquired every book I could find about Cubs history. I learned about great Cubs: Hack Wilson, Gabby Hartnett, Stan Hack, Grover Cleveland Alexander. I got to know the then living legends like Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, and Fergie Jenkins. I got reacquainted with the greats from my childhood like Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace, Rick Sutcliffe, and Andre Dawson. When they were terrible, I just got to go to more games and have better, cheaper seats.
I learned to cheer one game at a time and not worry about the standings. I spent years knowing the Cubs season would end around the first of October on the last day for regular season baseball. I thought about how exciting it was to be watching baseball on opening day, and I wanted to appreciate watching my team like that all the time. So, any playoff game was appreciated, even if it was part of a sweep. I was watching my Cubs a little bit longer. I had more baseball. This is not to say the losses weren’t disappointing. My heart was torn out in 2008, because that team with Lee, Ramirez, Soriano, Soto, and Fukudome were so good, so fun to watch. I listened to Pat Hughes and Ron Santo calling so many of those games that year. I got great memories of that year and that team, but no championship memories.
The Cubs would go cold for 7 years after that as they rebuilt. I was in a good state for those lean years, though. I had had my rock bottom moment, wondering about curses, crying out to the universe just to give them a break and let them win. I had decided to just love my team, to just have hope. Not the hope that guarantees good things–that’s a hollow naive kind of hope. I mean the hope that looks at terrible odds and still hopes nonetheless. The hope that says it’s ok to understand the chances are slim, but it still chooses to cheer and hang around until the last out. Because, what’s the alternative? Not caring about this team and losing something you love? How is that better? I probably got into this just wanting to see my team win. But, I eventually fell in love with much more than that, and it became a desire to experience the joy of this team that I’ve grown to see embodying part of who I am.
So, I hoped last year in 2015, when they beat the two teams in baseball better than them, then were swept again steps away from their first World Series in 2015 by the Mets–a team that in 1969 went on a miracle run as the Cubs tanked and missed the playoffs. I hoped again in 2016, when the Cubs dominated the regular season. They took down the Giants, who had won the World Series in every even numbered year this decade. In the next round, they took the Dodgers out after going down 2-1, beating the best pitcher in baseball, and they made it to the World Series. I had never seen this in my life.
I didn’t start this post to recount the whole Series. I have thought for a long time now that I would take a Cubs World Series victory however it comes, but there is a way I would prefer it, especially this first one in so long. I would want the Cubs to be the best in the league, none of this 85 win season, sneak into the wild card and get hot at the right time nonsense. This team was definitely the former. I would want them to come back from some sort of adversity, something to prove they were done with curses, that they were not chokers. They were down in two series. In the World Series, they were down 3-1. I needed a chance like this to stand by them, to see them through when it would be easy to count them out based on prior experience.
And Game 7 is about as epic as they come. I didn’t want a boring World Series. I wanted something that would be as epic as the idea of a team winning their first title in 108 years. This game had leads and blown leads. It had amazing plays. It had a rain delay, extra innings. Every stop would be pulled out. The Cubs would be tested in every possible way. My ability to remain hopeful would be tested. I remember at moments in the game feeling assured they were winning, then beginning to ask myself how to take a loss like this.
I’ve been down that road of something seeming perfect and that not being enough. In 2008, it was exactly 100 years since their last title. How’s that for destiny? Didn’t happen. This one was set up the same way. So many storylines, so many beautiful moments that would just add on more and more to the idea of a title. Surely this would be the year. You gotta be careful not to hope based on stuff like that, though. That makes disappointment much worse.
When your team is in the playoffs, you can’t put aside a whole month of nights to watch baseball, and I ended up scheduled to be away at a Camping Conference on the night of Game 7 of the World Series where my beloved Cubs might win their first World Series in my lifetime. The Camp was wonderful and let me use their projector and sound system. I watched the game in a big meeting room with about 4 other people, all of whom were only casual baseball fans. So, I held my emotions in, and as my stomach turned over, I kept my cool in front of these people I barely knew. But as the game transpired, I felt this euphoria, even before the game was over. Just watching this team come together, to see them not giving up, not beaten by the pressure, to see a team confident and dominant, then overjoyed as they won. To see Kris Bryant’s face as he recognizes he will be able to field the ground ball third out in time gives me this boyish joy. I’ve replayed it over and over.
This year has been a hard year for me. I’ve talked about this frequently, and I probably won’t be mentioning it too many more times in these blogposts. It has been one of the hardest of my life, though, and I am still recovering from it. I’ve watched this Cubs team this year, the way they carry themselves, the way they bounce back, the way they approach their work joyfully. I see their coach Joe Madden, how he’s instilled this culture, this trust, this possibility that any crazy thing they try may just be crazy enough to work. The Cubs have been a great escape for me in some of my darker days. I’ve felt on many days that I would look at 2016 as a difficult, painful year. But, the Cubs have complicated that, because as a Cubs fan, 2016 is the greatest year in a long, long time.
This team has motivated me to trust hope. They have motivated me to search for joy, to not let the pressure exceed the pleasure. It will sound hokie, but this team makes me want to be better. This team has taught me that hope can be rewarded. On that night last week, I watched these guys fulfill something many have hoped for their entire lives. As I thought about the people thinking of their parents, grandparents who they shared this love with. I thought of every time I was saddened by a loss, every time I punched a couch cushion because this would not be the year. I thought about how Ron Santo, Jack Brickhouse, Harry Caray, Ernie Banks didn’t get to see it, and for some reason I did. As I watched, I also realized that the narrative would have to change now. The story was beginning to take a new path. One we’ve been wishing for as long as we’ve been Cubs fans, but one we hardly know what to do with now.
Reports say the parade for the Cubs in Chicago was the 7th largest gathering of humans in the history of mankind. That’s hard for me to get my head around. But, the Cubs winning the World Series is a hard thing for me to get my head around too. I saw the Cubs on Saturday Night Live this weekend. The whole country is celebrating this win. Something about this is bigger than baseball, bigger than sports. I knew this would be big for me. I am amazed by how big it is for the world, though.
So, what if the hope I have for the piece of the world I’m moving in will someday come to fruition like that? I am coming out of some low times, and there are days now that feel promising and great, then there are some that feel discouraging and scary. But, I also remember 2012, when the Cubs lost 100 games. That was just 4 years ago. And now 5 million people spilled out onto the streets of downtown Chicago to celebrate the greatest set of baseball games I’ll probably see in my life. Man, I wish for that kind of return on the hopefulness I’m trying to bring each day in my own life.
I see you Cubs. I am watching now, just like I did in the lean years. There is so much joy welling up in me, thinking about this season, those playoff games, and even all those preceding teams that didn’t quite make it. I want to triumph like you did. I want to rally. I want to keep the faith, build the confidence, master my skills. I want to bring people together over something big and beautiful, something long in the making. I want greatness to return and for many, many people to flock just to be able to be some part of it. I want to continue to see myself in what I love about this team. I imagine some equivalent to riding in the top of double-decker bus through the streets full of confetti, knowing now is the time for celebration. The work, for now, is over. The last out has been recorded. Your hard work, your unwavering hope has been rewarding. Now it’s time to enjoy. You continue to teach me not to stop hoping for that in every part of my life.